To many, Elizabeth, New Jersey is a pleasant, quiet town of about 130,000 between the Passaic and Raritan Rivers, just across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, home to hundreds of commuter families and the ever-popular IKEA home furnishings store. But Elizabeth is much more than that. From its start as the first permanent British settlement in New Jersey, the town has been steeped in rich history—and as a result of the community's commitment to preserving that history, Elizabeth has inherited beautiful architecture, cultural events, and a sense of itself that few suburban cities can boast.
"The City of Elizabeth is really noted for the beginnings of the state of New Jersey," says Michael Yesenko, the Union Township historian. "It was, among other things, the first state capital of New Jersey, the home of the state's first governor, and the home of the first Colonial Assembly and Council meeting."
Ye Olde Elizabethtown
Elizabeth got its start in the fall of 1664 when, at the behest of Colonel Richard Nicolls—Governor of the North American Territories at the time—a quartet of British traders calling themselves the Elizabethtown Associates purchased 500,000 acres of land west of Newark Bay from the Lenape Indians. According to local records, the purchase price of the land was "twenty fathoms of trading cloth, two 'made' coats, two guns, two kettles, ten bars of lead, 20 handsful of powder, and 400 fathoms of white wampum." By the following spring, the traders had laid official claim to their new acquisition by erecting four houses on the land and laying the groundwork for a permanent settlement.
Some confusion arose, however, when in the summer of 1665, another group of settlers showed up under the leadership of one Philip Carteret, claiming ownership of the land the Elizabethtown Associates and their families and servants had been occupying. As it turns out, unbeknownst to Governor Nicolls, mere months after he had authorized the purchase of the land from the Indians, the Duke of York had given what was to eventually become the entire state of New Jersey—including the land around Elizabeth—to Carteret's uncle and the Lord John Berkeley, who promptly named Carteret Governor of New Jersey and sent him to settle the new land posthaste.
Needless to say, the existing settlers were nonplussed by the new arrivals, but Nicolls and Carteret managed to make an uneasy peace, and the two groups united to found Elizabethtown. In the ensuing months and years, homes, shops, and a church were built, and by 1668, the settlement was named the provincial capital of New Jersey—though thanks to ongoing legal battles over the long-standing questions of ownership, the city wasn't officially chartered and incorporated until 1855.
With two rivers and a bay in such close proximity, Elizabeth quickly distinguished itself as a center for transportation and trade. Freight ships plied the waters of the Raritan and Passaic, and light industry sprang up around the growing town's natural resources.
Along with a brewery, oil refinery, and chemical factory, one of Elizabeth's most noteworthy commercial occupants was the Singer Sewing Machine Company, founded on Newark Bay in 1873 by I.M. Singer. Singer employed a workforce of more than 6,000 people—the largest in the world in its day—and established the sewing machine business as one of Elizabeth's commercial and economic mainstays. By the time the factory finally closed up shop in the 1980s, Singer had all but cornered the market on home sewing machines, and nearly every household in the country had one.
According to the Historical Society of Elizabeth, the ethnic makeup of the town stayed predominately British throughout the 18th century, but toward the end of the 19th century, the town saw another surge in immigration, primarily from Germany and Italy. Both groups settled in the part of town now known as Peterstown (one of Elizabeth's informal historic districts, along with The Port, Keighry Head, Elmora, and North End) and worked in the nearby industrial buildings, but divided themselves into distinct districts within the larger Peterstown neighborhood.
Preserving the Past
While Elizabeth is not the largely homogenous British/German town it was in its earlier days, the city still has a keen appreciation for its past, and strives to preserve its rich history. As one might expect from a town with as much history and industry, Elizabeth is home to a great deal of significant architecture and a very active Historical Society. In 1999, the town founded the Elizabeth, New Jersey Historical Society Inc., which—in the words of the society's mission statement—is "the city's first cultural organization committed to reconstruction of the entire city's history and connection of history to present and future planning."
In addition to the efforts of the Historical Society, most buildings in Elizabeth with any historic background of interest have archived and preserved that history—either on-site or in the extensive archives kept in the Elizabeth Public Library. The town's preservation and restoration efforts are regularly supplemented by grants from the Union County Cultural and Heritage Commission, and carried on personally by many devoted local history buffs, such as Mr. Yesenko.
Chief among Elizabeth's historic districts are the aforementioned neighborhoods of The Port, Peterstown, Keighry Head, Elmora, and North End. While some neighborhoods have weathered the passage of time better than others, all are home to examples of historic architecture that have been kept standing—and in most cases, kept in use—since their original construction. Some of this architecture has been restored to their original state.
Alongside preservation, however, progress has made its mark on Elizabeth, which has been a built-up community for years. The only vacant land—most of it owned by the former Central Railroad—was the meadowlands, which began to be developed industrially in the 1960s. With the opening and subsequent enlargement of Port Elizabeth, the city's industrial commission has striven with some success to attract industry there.
Within the city, new buildings rise regularly to enhance the architectural patchwork. The City Federal Savings and Loan Association, Elizabethtown Gas Company, and other corporate entities have invested in Elizabeth by basing their operations in the city and contributing their own, more modern architecture to the skyline. The nearby Newark Liberty International Airport has attracted the hospitality industry, and the city has grown significantly in recent years.
"Our city is in the midst of a real estate boom that has seen property values increase dramatically over the past decade, spurring a wave of new construction and renovation across our diverse neighborhoods," says Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage. "Our city's average home sales have grown 78 percent in only four years, and residential construction has also doubled over the past few years."
"Today," Bollwage continues, "the City of Elizabeth is a thriving urban center, with a suburban feel and plenty of greenery. We're New Jersey's fourth largest and safest city, and we provide a unique variety of distinct neighborhoods, from the mansions of Westminster to the affordable rentals near transit hubs."
"There is a very well-diversified population in the City of Elizabeth today," adds Yesenko. "It's no longer dominated by English colonialism, but instead it's a very typical, prominent American city that is a model for immigrants around the world."
The City of Elizabeth has a current population of 123,000 and the real estate market is brisk. According to Tony Weeks, a realtor with Weichert Realtors in nearby Union, "Elizabeth is a great place for jobs. It's an industrial town, and there are jobs here and in Newark and in surrounding areas, including New York City."
In addition to that, new development programs make the housing affordable to more people, thanks to government grants, abatement programs, mixed-use development, and community revitalization projects, which all add up to an ever-diversifying, dynamic city. The HOPE project, for example was established during the Clinton administration to transform drab public housing projects into more attractive, resident-friendly communities consisting of townhomes and lower-rise multi-family housing. Instead of endless expanses of concrete and asphalt, HOPE communities have gardens and community centers.
According to Weeks, studio and one-bedroom condos in Elizabeth range from $215,000 to $225,000 and two-bedroom condos generally average about $250,000. The highest priced condo on the market, at the time of this printing, was a three-bedroom condo listed at $279,000. "There aren't any co-ops in Elizabeth, but the price is right on condos and they are selling," says Weeks.
While these prices may look affordable compared to the growing real estate bubble in other metropolitan areas, realtor Manny Bastart of City Realty in Elizabeth calls the increase in Elizabeth housing prices "crazy."
"Five years ago, you could get a condo for $60,000," says Bastart. "More people are coming in from New York to this area, and the prices are going up and up and up."
More than Just Value
Elizabeth's history and diversity are reasons to visit the city, but there are many more reasons to stay. Housing prices, despite the increases of recent years, are still orders of magnitude less than in New York City, or even certain parts of Jersey City or Hoboken, making Elizabeth and its surrounding environs an especially attractive option for people looking to buy property and settle down without breaking the bank.
And even at a remove from larger, more urban areas, Elizabeth has plenty to offer in the way of entertainment, cultural opportunities, and convenience. The newly developed Marina and Waterfront Park are popular community amenities, and there are shopping districts, restaurants, and entertainment, all accessible from the Midtown train station.
"There's something here for everyone," says Bollwage. "The City of Elizabeth is truly a great place to live, work, and raise a family."
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The New Jersey Cooperator.