Journal Square and the Old Loew’s Theatre: Grassroots Resistance in a City Center

By Eric M. Friedman

Communitas breaks in through the intersices of structure, in liminality; at the edge of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority.
- Victor Turner

Journal Square in Jersey City, New Jersey, is the name of a busy public square as well as the diverse neighborhood that surrounds the square, a major transportation hub, a revitalizing retail center, a public plaza that was once a cultural capitol for the New York city region, and importantly, the name of a human community and an enduring idea. This idea travels through the daily life and thoughts of all of the informants that I interviewed during my research for a long paper, “Journal Square Through an Ethnographic Lens: A Case of a Suspended Space.”

With the possible exception of Jackson Heights, in Queens, New York, the square is arguably at the center of the most diverse urban community in the country. But since its glory days from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, the area fell into a long period of decline. It sits one block north of the smaller Bergen Square, an historic site originally settled by the colonizing Dutch in the 17th century. It is a place with a long and storied history of conflict. Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Netherland, had a wooden fort built at Bergen in the shape of a square to protect the first generation of colonizing Dutch inhabitants from threatening natives. Centuries later, in 1911, in a bid to draw the daily newspaper (the Jersey Journal) to the current location, the site received its enduring name, Journal Square. After a feud with the Jersey Journal, Mayor Frank Hague, an infamous machine politician, retaliated and pressured the city commission to rename the square as Veterans Square. Powerful as he was, he could not get the public to call it by its new name and the people have continued to call it Journal Square. At the time of this writing, in the Spring of 2009, the people and the Jersey City Council remained deadlocked over plans to redevelop Journal Square as a New Urbanist city center; hence, my designation of the square as what I call a suspended space. Unlike the Jersey City waterfront area that has seen two decades of new construction, the square at the center of New Jersey’s second largest city remains embroiled in strife. “There’s a tale of two cities here,” says Dan Altilio, the Director of the Hudson County United Way, “there are two very different cities in one.”i

For almost 50 years, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, Journal Square was well known throughout New Jersey and New York for its upscale retail and entertainment district. A local dentist, Barbara Piccolo, whose office is just off the square, remembers fondly how,

The men used to line up in their cars; they would drop off their wives for the beauty parlor. The big hair was in back in those days. They would wait double-parked for their wives. There were nice clothing stores and shoe stores, even into the 80’s, that attracted customers who could afford those things, you know, the shoe stores were better than Tom McCann’s. It was really the place to be.

Nick Micucci, who works in the square and grew up there, also recalls how “Frank Sinatra used to come to perform here. Oh yeah, the movie houses were like palaces and the shopping was all first-class.” Brett Harwood, a local real estate developer, recalled fondly, “When I was a kid I saw Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons in the theatre here.” Bob Leach, a local historian and the Director of The Jersey City Historical Project at Jersey City’s public library, passionately recounted for me:

Every neighborhood had a movie, the Rialto was one. And every movie had a nickname. The Rialto was the ‘rat hole.’ You graduated as you got older; it was a rite of passage to start going to Journal Square. Journal Square had these gorgeous movie palaces like the Loew’s.

Those movie houses, as Bob tells it, “made Journal Square a hub…[they] established Journal Square as a prestige place.”

I have spent extensive time during this qualitative study looking into the old Loew’s theatre that stands proudly at the center of the square. This Baroque movie palace symbolizes the glorious square from times gone by, but it also provides us with insight into how ordinary citizens in a place like Jersey City can resist the power of local government and private developers who use blight designation and eminent domain to achieve their goals. The short narrative that follows comes from an engaging chapter on local resistance to the myriad pressures of gentrification and redevelopment in Journal Square, and more generally, in Jersey City. It constitutes a micro case of a grassroots movement that saved the Loew’s theatre, a cultural icon, from slipping into oblivion from the calculated blows of the wrecking ball. The story reveals a host of insights about shared meaning, social cohesion, power, and conflict during a period of social and morphological change Journal Square.

The square exemplified the type of public space that defines the “meaning of public life” for Hannah Arendt, a place where people gather around, they are seen and heard, and “wordly reality” appears.ii Franklin Roosevelt and other subsequent presidents, including John F. Kennedy, motorcaded through a packed Journal Square to the cheers of onlookers. It is even said that Kennedy had a fling at a local hotel in the square. Throughout the middle of the twentieth century, fireworks displays lit up various holidays and celebrations, and popular parades made their way through the crowded streets into the heart of the square.

The Loew’s theatre was one of three major theatres in the square, defining and reproducing the space as a cultural entertainment center. One of the first theaters designed to show “talkies,” it opened in 1929 and attracted over a million customers a year for stage shows, civic gatherings, and movies. As Short and Ford wrote in 1987, “[The Loew’s] is one of the finest surviving theaters in the state of New Jersey”.iii Designed by Cornelius Ward Rapp and George Leslie Rapp, noted architects from Chicago who had designed the Tivoli Theater, they envisioned the grand movie palaces they designed as “shrine[s] to democracy where there are no privileged patrons. The wealthy rub elbows with the poor.”iv In the 1980’s, developers sought to tear down the theater and I listened to stories from various stakeholders who participated in the sparring that defined the late 80’s and early 90’s in Journal Square.

Christopher Lasch, in The Revolt of the Elites, argued that these sorts of democratic spaces are disappearing: “Civic life requires settings in which people meet as equals, without regards to race, class, or national origins.” “When the market preempts all the public space, and sociability has to ‘retreat’ into private clubs, people are in danger of losing the capacity to amuse and even to govern themselves.”v Losing the Loew’s meant losing something important and central to the social, political, and cultural life at the center of a great city. In a sense, the Loew’s holds the city together – it stands in for Jersey City. It is a marvelous built form, an old-fashioned theater with a ticket booth out front, mirrored walls, exquisite details and marble columns, that is struggling to hold on in a changing world. It is part of collective memory and the old-timers’ memories of their first dates and exciting Saturday night excursions. It is also a symbol for the community of grassroots political power.

Colin Egan is the current manager of the theater and he also oversees the farmers market and other community events held in the square. He was a central actor in the events that led to saving the Loew’s from impending demolition. Listening to his cautionary tale provides us with sociological insight into power, the type of power Foucault once described:

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.vi

Foucault argued that claiming power, however fleetingly, produces the social facts of the moment. He saw power as a fluid process, not a fixed thing. Grasping power, or letting it go, he claimed, is constitutive of the social construction of reality and the “production of truth”vii My interviews with Colin Egan and others were central to understanding the changes that have occurred in the square and how power flows in a place like Jersey City. What follows is part of Colin’s story, whose comments I condensed for this publication.

“The theaters were the biggest part of the character of the square. When they closed the Loew’s in ’86, a tremendous part of the character of Journal Square just went away. In 1974 the Loew’s corporation had closed the theater and put money into changing it into a modern triplex. It was an aging physical plant and the movie industry had no interest in a theater this size with all this ornate space and expensive upkeep. After ’86, the maintenance stopped and they let it go. It became a white elephant for the administration. At some point they approached the big developer, Hartz Mountain, and the theater got linked to the idea of building over the railroad cut and the bowl property, from Cottage Street over. Panepinto [a local developer] got designated as the builder. The idea was to tear the theater down…what they proposed was right out of the Hartz metal building book – no connection to urban planning of any sort. They were going to build the ADP building, a nineteen-story tower behind it, deck over the PATH cut, tear down the Loew’s, and put in two more office buildings.

Jersey City had to designate the PATH cut and the area where the theatre is as ‘blighted’ — the Redevelopment Agency conducts a survey and decides the area is blighted. Once blighted and approved by the City Council, it can be turned over to a redeveloper. They did that – they designated the theater, the bowl, the cut, as blighted, they designated the area for re-development and it looked like the theater was doomed. Hartz bought it in ’86. They closed it in August of ’86. While this is going on there’s an attempt to do something about it but it wasn’t catching fire. They’d have meetings, there’d be like a half dozen people. They were called the Preservation and Restoration Association of Jersey City (PARA). In the midst of all this, Jersey City had a crazy municipal election. The Harwoods [local developers who owned parking lots] didn’t like that their garage was in the redevelopment zone. They decided to underwrite Cucci’s election. They ran big ads in the paper that tearing down the Loews’s would be a national crime. Cucci won and one of the first acts of the administration was to remove the garage from the redevelopment zone. Bill O’Dea became west side councilman with Cucci. He was one of the few public people complaining about the situation at the Loew’s. Based on Bill’s prodding and some public prodding, the building department began holding up building permits. The New York Times ran a blurb and included something about the doomed Loew’s. But as of the beginning of February ’87 it looked like the theatre was heading for the dumpster.

EF: When did you get personally involved? Why did you get involved?

CE: Around that time I was driving and I found myself stopped at the traffic light on Kennedy Boulevard. I was with an architect friend of mine. The (Jersey) Journal had just run some headlines on the place. Now mind you, I hadn’t seen a film here since the 70’s. The headline was something like “Historic Walls of Loew’s to Come Tumblin’ Down.” There was a news story about Hartz’s complaints that the demo permit was held up. The whole thing annoyed me – the stupidity of throwing a place like this away without even thinking about it. I had always been into history and for me this was just cavalier. I was stopped at the light and I looked over at the building all boarded up with plywood. I went to the planning board meeting with Walter — there was a need to redesignate it as a, a redesignation of the blight area. When we went to the meeting – it was a public meeting – there were only a couple of other people there – one was a gentleman called Ted Conrad. He was an architect and he was a professional model maker. He worked on many of the significant post-war buildings. His shop was in Jersey City heights. In the 60’s and the 70’s he became involved in saving the Brennan Court House. Ted was the essence of civil activist. He was there and he was a little concerned.

So my friend Walter and I… organized a civic meeting – we decided to try. We made phone calls, we mentioned it to civic groups, we got a notice in the paper. We went around town and put signs up like “They say the Loew’s is old and obsolete. What do you say?” We went through Journal Square trying to get people to save the theater. We wanted them to sign a petition. They saw our enthusiasm. At community, neighborhood group meetings and festivals we went around and made the case. The theme was to make people stop and think about the theater again.

There was a lot of Jersey City cynicism, “you can’t get anything done here.” We impressed enough people and we began to gather signatures and support. We began to get press from the [Jersey] Journal, although reservedly, the Hudson Dispatch, and the weekly Jersey City Reporter. We even got some T.V. coverage cause we went to council meetings. We started to bring out 50, 75, maybe 100 people. In March of ’87 we got the planning board to delay; it had to do with giving the feasibility study time. The article in The Hudson Dispatch said “They carried no weapons, wore no weapons, but in the battle to save Loew’s, the marines have arrived.”

For all of Jersey City’s reputation as people not getting involved, there is a real history of people getting involved in civic efforts. Civic groups have stopped things like turning the boulevard into a major highway, they stopped the conversion of the fountain in Lincoln Park. We got people out and suddenly momentum came to our side. More people came to our meetings. There were several civic festivals and fairs in Jersey City at that time. The biggest one was the City Spirit Festival. In those years, thousands of people would troupe through the fair. Every community groups had little stands – truly that’s where you would get exposure to thousands of people. And there was something else important, people were used to small-scale means, things like posters in windows were still an important source of information… you still had long-term residents here – people were interested. I remember Morris Pesin driving around town with a speaker on his car. We tended to get our information out in this small-scale way. There’s a lot less of that now. It was how you could build a grassroots community organization that could successfully challenge a major developer and a city administration.

By the end of ’87 a couple of hundred came to a city council meeting. Bill O’Dea was pushing the City Council to adopt the plan with the theater as a cultural center. When the council voted to adopt that plan, Hartz filed a lawsuit seeking to force a demolition permit. I wrote a brief that answered their claims. They had claimed it was not architecturally/historically important. I used scholarly support to contest them. The judge put the demolition on hold. The council gave us a cultural center standing. Hartz threatened to bring it all back to court. They negotiated with the council. The 5-year plan came out of this. In those 5 years we continued to go around to festivals, we got volunteers to come in to clean and make it presentable. We patched the roof ourselves. It was the first, that and the demolition of the concession stand; it was the beginning of what became this enormous effort to make this great theater functional and livable again. We had to get the place open again – we had to get people in. It was the ability to bring people in, the ability to run small-scale shows in the lobby – it made people believe! It made them come back and remember what it was and what they could lose. We saved the Loew’s. This place is so important to the community. One guy signed the ‘want to be involved’ book. When we asked him he said: “this was my theater; this was my summer place! When I came in here it was as if it was saying ‘help me’”. The Loew’s is memory for all of these people.


Works Cited

i Private Interview. Further quotations, unless otherwise noted, were also drawn from fieldwork.

ii Arendt 1958, 56-57

iii Short and Ford 1987 “Architectural and Market Feasability Study” prepared for the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation at their request. Copy at the Jersey city Public Library, main branch.

iv This description is cited in the “Kansas City Landmarks Commission Assistant Administrator’s Report, Case #0105-D” and is part of the Jersey City library’s binder of collected documents pertaining to the Loew’s.

v Lasch 1995, 128

vi Foucault 1977, 194

vii Foucault 1984, 74

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Vintage Press.

—–, 1984. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Lasch, Christopher. 1996. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Turner, Victor. 1990. “Liminality and Community” in Culture and Society. Eds. Jeffrey Alexander and Steven Seidman. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Eric Friedman, a sociology student, is writing his dissertation on Journal Square in JerseyCity, which is a fieldwork study of an urban center in transition.  He also works at Hudson County Community College and teaches sociology courses at Drew University.  Previously, Eric authored two other ethnographic works: Back of the House, about students at a culinary school, and Men and Markets, a study about suppliers in the restaurant industry. He considers himself a ‘civic entrepreneur,’ one who creates meaningful community programs that make a difference in urban lives.  He has no dogs.