Early 20th century postcard showing the Curries Woods area
Courtesy, C. Harris
Curries Woods Housing Project circa 1960
housing units under construction at Curries Woods.
View looking west from Kennedy Boulevard.
Photo: P. Shalhoub, 2001
Currie's Woods is the place name for the southernmost part of Jersey City's Greenville section just north of the City Line between Bayonne and Jersey City. It was named for James Currie (1800-1870), a prominent citizen who served on the first Township Committee of Greenville in 1863 and owned about 100 acres in the vicinity that continues to bear his name. It included the western stretch of the Currie Estate from Old Bergen Road over to Newark Bay.
This parcel of land remained unimproved for many years because of the uneven topography and the numerous rocky outcrops which made it unsuitable for agriculture. The Currie homestead, where Currie and his family lived, and its surrounding farmlands were actually situated further east on the shores of the Upper New York Bay along Greenville's eastern waterfront.
During the mid-1860's, the Central Railroad of New Jersey extended its line from Elizabeth to its new ferry terminal on the Hudson River opposite lower Manhattan. The company built a number of new railway stations along the new route which passed through Bayonne and Greenville. The tracks, which ran parallel to the Morris Canal close to the line of what is today Princeton Avenue. The part of the property east of Old Bergen Road became known as Currie's Woods. The Fiddler's Elbow was located just to the east of the site of today's New Jersey Turnpike toll plaza for Exit 14A Bayonne.
During the late nineteenth
century, local residents came to a new appreciation of the Currie's Woods
location as they admired its unspoiled natural beauty. Curries Woods was
well noted for its scenic combination of woodland, rocky shore and sand
dunes which provided a pleasant backdrop for picnicking, swimming, walking,
or ice skating.
With such natural assets, it was no surprise that in 1908 the Greenville-Bayonne County Park Association requested the formation of a new (Hudson) county park at Currie's Woods.
Bayonne and Greenville residents alike supported the transformation of the Curries Woods property into a new county park at the City Line since the location was easily accessible to the rapidly growing urban populations of both municipalities. In the end, the proposed Currie's Woods County Park lost county approval in deference to a Hudson County Park in Bayonne (February 1, 1909) along Newark Bay.
Mercer Park at Currie's Woods was developed during the Depression. Mayor Frank Hague (1917-1947) obtained funds from the Works Progress Administration under the New Deal to employ local residents for the development of the park. The original intent for the park's reserved 6.4 acres was to preserve the exceptional woodlands from the larger property. Gradually many of the trees were felled, however, and the concept of the park's use for recreation as well as leisure time took precedent. The park is named for General Hugh Mercer who lost his life at the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War.
In 1959, the Currie's Woods property became the site of Jersey City's largest Housing Authority project. Residents voted in 1957 on the $10 million project. It had originally caused controversy among the City Commissioners and Mayor Charles S. Witkowski (1957-1961) who eventually supported the construction of the housing complex. The new development followed the architectural scheme of “towers in the park” or high-rise buildings arranged in a park like setting that was popular at the time. A total of 712 new housing units were created in the seven brick high-rise apartment buildings; five thirteen-story brick apartment buildings were erected along Heckman Drive, while two twelve-story buildings were built on Merritt Street. There were approximately eight families living on each floor.
The adjacent Mercer Park (City of Bayonne), the smallest in the Hudson County Park Commission system, was the recreational facility for the Currie's woods residents and was renovated in 1988.
By the 1980s public housing was gradually being phased out nationally. Currie's Woods, in particular, came under scrutiny for poor management, poverty, crime and drugs. Conditions there formed the basis for two novels by Richard Price, Clockers (1992) and Freedomland (1998). Price frequently visited Hudson County to gather material for these novels. He also befriended a homicide investigator Calvin E. Hart of the Jersey City Police Department assigned to the Currie's Woods projects. Referred to as the “guardian angel among people in the projects,” Hart loosely forms the characterization of the main figure in both novels. The novels tell the tale of two fictional working class cities, one named Dempsy with its Armstrong Housing Project and other named Gannon, the neighboring white community; they are sometimes compared to Jersey City and Bayonne respectively. The screen play of Clockers was filmed by Spike Lee in 1994. Freedomland, directed by Joe Roth, was also adapted for a movie in 2006.
In 1997 a Housing and Urban Development grant allowed for the beginning of the demolition of six of the seven high-rise apartment buildings. The federal government no longer sponsors high-rise public housing, now regarded as “a symbol of failed housing” (Garrabine, New York Times 6 July 1997). The construction of 238 new townhouses, between Old Bergen Road and Kennedy Boulevard facing Merritt Street, was partly funded by a $42 million grant from the Federal Hope VI program to the Jersey City Public Housing Authority and completed in 2004. The remaining high-rise building was renovated for the elderly, people with disabilities and small families. The new approach in the housing program is “to create public housing that blends in with the cityscape around it, and to reduce problems of crime at the housing sites by reducing the number of people who live in the complex” (Morgan, New York Times 3 November 2003).
The renovation at Currie's Woods also coincided with the Dwight Street Homes development for fifty two-family houses in a three-block area of Greenville. Under this housing plan, individuals are given an opportunity to purchase the houses with a thirty-year mortgage below market rate and zero down payment for qualified buyers.
| By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub