Union City is still the first taste of America thousands of immigrants and refugees receive. Those immigrants are left far more rudderless today than they were for most of the 20th century when they could get work in any of the abundant factories in the city or greater North Hudson area within a day or two of arriving and, along with their peers, learn the pace of American life there.
The factory is where they learned the little things about America that Americans take for granted – the ones that make so many people want to be American. They learned how working hours and unions and retirements worked. They helped each other learn English so they could follow the news and keep up with the popular culture. The younger workers helped the older mainstays fill out government paperwork or pay their bills. They made friends with American coworkers who could teach them what Americans ate for lunch and which supermarkets had the good sales.
Perhaps most critically, the embroidery factories helped preserve the historical memory of the city by allowing new residents to work alongside the old.
To understand their story, a reader needs to understand the geography of Union City. The whole thing is about one square mile laid out in a grid, spanning from Kennedy Boulevard (formerly Boulevard West) to its easternmost thoroughfare, Park Avenue (beyond Park Avenue, on the palisade that cradles the Hudson River, you will find Boulevard East). The Lincoln Tunnel divides “downtown” – what was once the town of West Hoboken – from “uptown,” old Union Hill. Downtown is grittier and uptown is more bustling, but they aren’t so different, and it’s not hard or uncommon to walk across the entire city on any given day.
Union City is not an anomaly in size compared to the rest of its native Hudson County. Tiny municipalities are the norm – driving through North Hudson? Blink and you’ll miss Guttenberg – and create microcultures an arbitrary border away. Hoboken, the “mile square city,” is the gentrified member of the family, once the area’s most dangerous. North Bergen is “suburbia” because it borders Bergen County and boasts properties with actual lawns. Weehawken is Hoboken for people who like lawns but have too much money to live in North Bergen. West New York is Union City with a Hudson River waterfront, which is to say it’s having an identity crisis at the moment.
Union City today has the reputation of being the most authentically North Jersey of the North Hudson towns: a working class immigrant town so tightly packed with Salvadoran restaurants, 99-cent stores, and police officers the locals actually like that gentrification hasn’t been able to squeeze through, despite intense efforts by New York media. It’s the poorest city in the area, the 15th poorest in one of the country’s wealthiest states. It’s not a comfortable place for New Yorkers to move to because everybody knows everybody and classic Jersey mistrust of strangers breeds rapidly here. Locals will emphasize that we look out for each other, leaving unsaid that we actively do not look out for anybody else.
Perhaps because of this, Union City is the most in keeping with the regional machine politics tradition developed by its Italian and Irish communities. Its mayor, Brian P. Stack, grew up in downtown Union City and has expressed basically no ambition to leave the service of this one little nook on the map. He is also the region’s state senator, a tradition that once ensured hometowns had the money to see through big-picture projects while making it nearly impossible for an out-of-state politician to buy his way to power. Again, we look out for each other.
Democratic Governor Jon Corzine – a millionaire former Goldman Sachs executive from Illinois – outlawed the practice in 2007.
Photos by Frances Martel