By David Cruz
It took several generations to build the Montgomery Gardens community, families and friends and the times they lived in, all echoing through hallways and etched into the brick faces of these buildings on Montgomery Street. For 62 years – here on the site where Dempsey once fought Carpentier in the first million dollar prize fight – families have put down roots. This weekend, it was all erased in seconds.
“I have mixed feelings, but I think it’s time for change,” said Dorothy Carter, who chairs the Montgomery Gardens Tenants Council.
Carter has lived in Montgomery Gardens since 1965, and chairs the tenant’s council, which was closely involved in the plans to take these buildings down and replace them with a whole new neighborhood.
“You know it’s different if it’s coming down and you’re going to see nothing,” she said. “It’s different if it’s coming down and you’re going to see better.”
Carter saw the gardens go from a haven for the poor to a haven for crime, often originating from nearby communities, where criminals found refuge among the high-rises. Eventually gangs took control of much of the development’s daily life. “In the 60’s it was I would say a village. Everyone took care of everyone,” she remembered. “As the years grew it was hurtful to take a lot of blame for something that Montgomery had nothing to do with.”
Former Resident Eric Brown spent four decades here. “We never referred to them as the projects,” he said. “We always referred to them as the Gardens, and it’s just like anything else, over the years, things have to change. When I was nine years old I got the chance to work with a little local group in here, carrying equipment back and forth. That group happened to be Kool & the Gang. They used to pay me 50 cents and 50 cents was a lot of money for a nine-year-old kid back then. That was around 1969.”
Montgomery Gardens has been virtually empty for several years now. There are about 40 apartments still left in the remaining buildings. Those that came down this week will be replaced by 126 town home style buildings, 90 percent of them proceed to return low-income residents. A 68-unit seniors building is already being restored, and the surrounding community will also be targeted for future mixed use development.
“What we know from the 50s and 60s is that high-rise, low-income housing doesn’t work. They’re concentrations of poverty and what works the best is the same number of units but mixed in with market rate, affordable and low-income,” said Mayor Steve Fulop. “The reality is, it should be indistinguishable when you drive down the street what’s affordable, what’s market rate. It should all look pleasant to the eye, and what they were building in the 50s and 60s didn’t reflect that.”
Jersey City Housing Authority Chairman Raj Mukherji said this project will break new ground, in more ways than one.
“A public housing site is actually going to be the catalyst for actually revitalizing and transforming the entire neighborhood around it. It all starts here with Montgomery Gardens and today with this implosion,” he said.
The Montgomery Gardens site is dominated by rubble today, but more than an empty space where a neighborhood once thrived, officials see it as a blank palette onto which a new generation will hopefully paint a new, brighter picture.