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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Hung Out to Dry: 1939

Hung Out to Dry: 1939

April 1939. "Jersey City and Manhattan skyline." 35mm nitrate negative by Arthur Rothstein for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.

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Jersey City

The intersection at the far left right above the trains is Jersey Avenue & 10th Street. The park is Hamilton Park. The building with the columns is not there any longer. Nor is the building with the kind of cupola adjacent to the park. But you can make out Harborside Financial Center in the distance, that was the key. Most the other industrial buildings in the distance are gone. Photo probably taken from the roof of the Erie warehouse bounded by Coles, 11th, Monmouth, and 12th.

"The muggers are mugging the muggers"

Jersey City has always been a dense, gritty city with its share of slums. However, it was a pretty safe city until the 1960s, when things started to deteriorate. My grandfather, who lived in the Greenville section, used to say "Jersey City is getting so bad, the muggers are mugging the muggers." He wasn't far off. While it's a little safer today, there are still many parts of the city where you don't want to be walking at night. And the majority of the buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th century. Fortunately, the misguided highrise public housing projects are coming down (Currie's Woods, Montgomery Gardens), and the JC waterfront is being built up to the point where its skyline has overtaken Newark's as the best in the state. The spillover from Manhattan that started in the '80s to escape the high cost & taxes continues today.

That's where the well-to-do now live

In this era, that part of Jersey City is making a comeback as the heir-apparent to well-to-do apartment living. Many of the old factories have been converted to condos, including the former Hague-built Jersey City Medical Center (too far to the west to be in this photo). Most of the buildings in the foreground - the ones that survive - have been converted to apartments, much in the manner of the better areas of Brooklyn that were of the same vintage. Part of the distant area in the photo is now know as Newport Center, and several of the old blocky warehouses are now tony condos for commuters via the nearby PATH into Manhattan. No where near as sooty as it was even in my childhood in the 1950's. I'm trying to find out what that greek-columned building was/is - it looks familiar to me, but I am not sure of the exact location and haven't had any luck finding it on Google - I think it's on Marin Drive or Grove Street, north of the Holland tunnel, just on the JC side before Hoboken. I'll just have to keep looking.

Clothesline pulleys

I'll bet if you went to the back windows of those tenements today, you'd still find the pulleys attached to the windows. You can still find the poles in the back yards, and the pulleys on the windows in Brooklyn. All they need are new ropes. A very earth friendly way to dry your clothes!

Erie Railroad

As mentioned previously the passenger cars, which were dark brown like the old U.S. Mail boxes and mail trucks, belonged to the Erie Railroad, whose eastern terminal was there in Jersey City. NJ-NYC commuters, like my father, would take the ferry across the Hudson River, weather permitting, and the "Hudson Tubes" subway (now PATH) under the river when the weather was bad. In 1960, the Erie Railroad merged with the Lackawanna Railroad to form the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, at which time they switched their terminal to the Lackawanna facility in nearby Hoboken. One of the most interesting characters in U.S. political history was Frank "I am the law" Hague, who reigned supreme as Jersey City Mayor from 1907 to 1947.

Jersey Sooty

With all that smoke in the air, I'll bet their clothes were gray by day's end. Makes you wonder what the difference was between air quality then and now.

You may find yourself living in a railroad flat

... right next to the Erie Lackawanna tracks. Those trains cars were still in service until the 1980s, and durable old warhorses they were.

What is most striking - and horrifying - to me is the amount of particulates and soot in the air. I sometimes forget how densely covered with coal soot, diesel exhaust and oil-furnace smog cities would be on an overcast or air-inversion day. It sure didn't help the tubercular. Tuberculosis was still a scourge, and would be until the invention of Streptomycin 5 years later (also in New Jersey, at Rutgers.)

You'd think that with that view of the skyline (when the day was clear), Jersey City would have been a bunch of Manhattan strivers. But it was mainly port guys, Irish longshoreman who would defend their territory with fists and bats. It was as gritty as it looks.

Poor Quality

The shots of '39 Jersey City are interesting in that it appears Arthur Rothstein was 1) using an inferior camera; 2) an inferior lens on a good camera; 3)poor quality film; 4) poor quality development. Be interesting to know which.

There are other photographs by Rothstein using a 35mm camera that are quite up to standard; and his medium and 4x5 works are masterpieces.

[His 35mm camera was a Leica. - Dave]

White Sale

People certainly wore a lot of white clothes.

Any Bets?

It is a good chance this picture was taken on a Monday. Back in the day that was the day to do the washing, mending, and ironing.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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