A magical childhood in an unlikely city

I am a New Jersey expatriate – I left the state 25 years ago for greener pastures to the north. And I do mean greener. Whenever I cross the Piscataqua River ridge into Maine, where I now live, I am presented with an endless carpet of rolling forest. Such sights are what the word "ah" was created for.

But despite the peace, natural beauty, and small-town way of life I have found up here in northern New England, I have a warm spot in my heart for my origins. And whenever I visit my birth state, I have that sweet sense of going home. Yes, I'm aware that New Jersey is the butt of jokes that could fill volumes. But growing up there in the 1960s and '70s provided its own kind of magic, and I look back with something resembling gratitude, compassion, and understanding.

I have no illusions about Jersey City, where I grew up. It is directly across New York Bay from Manhattan and is a decidedly poorer cousin to the Big Apple. New York had the glitz, Jersey City, the grit. My town was brutally industrial – a congeries of chemical plants, warehouses, trucking concerns, rotting waterfront barges, and, just down the road from me, a place where they made detonators for atomic bombs. I can still remember them exploding in the night, and my father coming into my room to comfort me with the words, "Don't worry – they're only testing."

Where New York was multiclass, Jersey City was thoroughly working class. On my block, the fathers worked at the following trades: shoemaker, macaroni salesman, taxi driver, TV repairman, door-to-door carpet rep, electrician, meter reader. My own dad was on the road day in, day out, selling printing plates for corrugated boxes. If there were rich people, we didn't know who they were or where they lived. (Oh yeah, maybe over in "the city.")

But we had no way of verifying this, because Jersey City folks hardly ever went into Manhattan, despite its proximity. I still remember my grandmother, sitting contentedly on the front porch in her lawn chair, commenting with a wave of her hand, "New Yawk? What's over dere?" Everyone I knew concurred. They were all utterly ensconced in New Jersey, content to experience New York from the comfortable remove of the Daily News ("New York's Picture Newspaper").

For us kids, Jersey City was the world. Whatever existed beyond our boundaries was somehow inferior. We believed we had the best television (the Three Stooges every day at 3 p.m.), the best stores, the best parades, the best block, the best pizza, the best everything. Our playgrounds were numerous and vast: the rail yards, the dumpsters of the Tip Top paintbrush company, garage roofs, backyards, front porches, and the street's gutter, which provided a narrow venue for stickball, dodge ball, stoopball, and touch football.

When the spirit moved us to get on our bikes, we headed down to the bay, that place of gutted factory buildings, dead-end railroads, and collapsing piers – all within beautiful close-up view of the flip side of the Statue of Liberty (which prompted this quip by a New Jersey pol: "Even though she has her back to us, we're behind her all the way!").

To think of Jersey City is to think of politics. After all, it's the place that gave us the infamous Mayor Frank Hague – "Boss" Hague, who once declared, "I am the law!" I recall would-be mayor Thomas Gangemi, who won the election and then was deported because it was discovered he wasn't a US citizen. His successor was indicted for extortion and conspiracy. A subsequent mayor was removed from office for corruption. Were people indignant? Did they think they had been betrayed? In New York these would have been normal reactions, but in Jersey City folks just shrugged, as if to say, "What else did you expect?" It was all part of the Jersey City experience.

I lived in Jersey City when it was golden, and my family persisted through its precipitous urban collapse, when whole neighborhoods erupted in riots and conflagrations. I choose not to dwell on the decay, the boarded-up storefronts, and the general breakdown of civility because there is always hope. When I return to visit family these days, I see this hope being borne out. I am heartened and even enthusiastic about the improvements that have been made. Jersey City is now part of what has been dubbed the "Gold Coast." The waterfront is now a truly stunning state park, neighborhoods have been rejuvenated, the ethnic mix is richer than ever, and they've even built a light-rail trolleythat passes down city streets and, most wondrously, uses the honor system for payment of fares – in New Jersey!

Having savored the sweetness of life in Maine for so long – the easy manner of the people here and all the elbowroom I have in this beautiful state – I know I couldn't live in Jersey City again. But growing up there gave me a gratifying sense of community and a rugged survival instinct.

Not a bad start at all.

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