A Look at Fort Lee Gateway to New York and New Jersey

A Look at Fort Lee

Though it's famously said that all roads lead to Rome, the members of the Fort Lee, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce beg to differ. According to them, "There is an undisputed fact known throughout New Jersey: All roads lead to Fort Lee—The Gateway to New York and New Jersey."

The Borough of Fort Lee is located in Bergen County in northeastern New Jersey. Position yourself between Leonia and Palisades Park, and you'll find yourself on the banks of the Hudson River, one bridge (the George Washington, to be exact) away from New York City—and home to Fort Lee.

Fort Lee History 101

The first known residents of the area that eventually became known as Fort Lee were the Lenni Lenape Indians, who occupied the area's woodlands until 1609, when the British gained control of the area now known as New York and New Jersey.

The story of Fort Lee's origin as a township and later a borough is steeped in the drama and heroism of the Revolutionary War. In July of 1776, amidst the American Revolution and the penning of the Constitution, Fort Lee found its place in American history during the British campaign to capture New York City and the Hudson River. After the siege of Boston, General George Washington predicted that the British troops would soon turn their attention to New York City and the Hudson Valley. Along with the reinforcement of barricades at New York and Long Island, Washington suggested fortification along the Hudson. Washington visited the soon-to-be site of Fort Lee, and selected it as the spot from which the Hudson could best be protected. Barricades were built, and sunken ships were used as reinforcement.

The site, however, proved not to be the stronghold against the British that Washington had hoped; the fort was subsequently taken by British troops and evacuated by Washington and his Continental Army soldiers. The post itself, however, was patriotically renamed Fort Constitution for its historical importance, and months later renamed Fort Lee in honor of the Major General Charles Lee, the second in command of the Continental Army.

Hollywood On the East Coast

For the century-and-a-half after the Revolution, Fort Lee chugged along as a largely agricultural town across the river from the buzz of New York City. Then, in the early part of the 20th century, a new industry began to take root in Fort Lee, thanks in part to celebrated inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who in 1907 used the Palisades cliffs for the exterior shots in an early silent film called Rescued from an Eagle's Nest. This kicked off a filmmaking boom in the little town when pioneering film studios began scouting new locations and found that Fort Lee and its surrounding environs could serve as everything from a fort (for obvious reasons) to an Old West town. By 1915, Fort Lee was home to more than half a dozen film studios, producing everything from shoot-em-ups to war dramas to slapstick comedy shorts. According to the Fort Lee Film Commission, the Marx Brothers shot their first film, Humor Risk, in Fort Lee, and the term "cliffhanger" was coined to refer to the many thrillers set on the Palisades cliffs.

As the film industry in Fort Lee began to wane during the World Wars that followed, another avenue for growth opened up in the form of the George Washington Bridge, which connected the quiet town to the island of Manhattan across the Hudson. Designed by Swiss-American engineer Othmar H. Ammann, ground was broken for the original six-lane bridge in October of 1927, and the bridge opened to traffic in October 1931. Volume quickly dictated that two additional lanes be created towards the end of World War II, however, and as more and more commuters began using the bridge, a second level was opened. By 1962, the George Washington Bridge became one of the world's busiest bridges and the only 14-lane suspension bridge in existence. The bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1981.

Palisades Park

While the film industry was setting up shop in Fort Lee, another form of entertainment was already going strong. Founded by a trolley company in the late 1800's, Palisades Amusement Park featured dozens of carousels, Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, and a midway full of games of skill, and drew visitors from all over the region. Folks who were lucky enough to visit the park in their childhood remember not just the rides, but the food - particularly the French fries, which were prepared according to a "secret" Palisades Park recipe. (The secret was really pretty simple: raw potato wedges were stored in a mixture of water and malt vinegar, then fried twice to make them crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Do-it-yourself instructions can be found at www.palisadespark.com.)

By the mid-1960s, the park was one of the busiest amusement parks in the country, and despite the brisk business it did, the crowding and traffic problems began to wear out Palisades' welcome in Fort Lee and the neighboring town of Cliffside Park. In 1967, the towns rezoned the amusement park's land for residential development, and within a couple of years, the park had been sold. Palisades Park closed its gates in 1971, and today, high-rise co-op buildings like well-known Horizon House stand where people of a bygone era strolled and played.

Manhattan in the Distance

From its Revolutionary War and Silver Screen roots, Fort Lee evolved into its current role as an economic hub of Bergen County, and the home to now approximately 35,000 residents. But despite being within shouting distance of Manhattan, the community proudly maintains a quiet, suburban feel, according to Robyn A. See, executive director of the Greater Fort Lee Chamber of Commerce, who describes her town as, "sophisticated—it's urban living in the beauty of a suburban setting." A far cry from the rare patches of green one encounters when walking through Midtown. According to one Fort Lee realtor, "It's convenient to the city, but there's a little more green, and many of the apartment buildings have amenities like swimming pools and health clubs included in the maintenance charges. Transportation into the city is quick, and we're near major highways. There's a great diversity of population, as well. It's cosmopolitan and diverse."

The borough is home to both a large retirement community, as well as many young families with an array of cultural backgrounds: nearly 20 percent of Fort Lee's residents are of Korean heritage, and there are substantial numbers of Hispanic and Japanese residents as well.

Living in Fort Lee

According to Fran Belford, managing agent for Horizon House, a luxury high-rise, six-building co-op development that sits on 32 lush acres right across the Hudson from Manhattan, while you can still get more space for your dollar in Fort Lee than you can in New York City, property doesn't exactly come cheap.

"In New York City," says Belford, "we understand that the average co-op price is $1 million. [Other than Fort Lee], the only other place for high rise cooperative and condominium living nearby is Edgewater, and the prices there are comparable to New York. At the Century Tower and Horizon House, for example, the one-bedroom apartments begin at approximately $200,000. At Horizon House, the three-bedroom units start at $400,000, and at the Century Tower, $650,000."

According to Randy Ketive, a broker and co-owner of Classic Real Estate in Fort Lee, "There's more bang for the buck; the price per square foot here is significantly lower than the city. You're looking at $350 per [square] foot in condos here, whereas in Manhattan, it's much higher. We're as high as $400 to $500 a square foot on the waterfront, with $500 being the really high-end."

While Manhattan's ever-upward spiraling costs may discourage some young, middle-income families or retirees on fixed incomes from settling in the heart of Midtown, one broker at least feels that Fort Lee isn't really siphoning buyers away from the Big Apple. Ketive says that, "Historically, more buyers in the Fort Lee market are Bergen or Rockland County buyers. Fort Lee attracts a lot of empty-nesters to the high-rises—mostly people from the area who have sold their homes. With the recent thrust in pricing in Manhattan, we have gotten some New York buyers, but what I find we're getting is not so much the Manhattan buyer across the bridge, but more the New Jersey buyer who thought they were going to Manhattan before they saw the prices there and decided to stay in New Jersey."

Belford agrees, saying, "We attract young families, older retirees, and singles. At Century Tower, we're now attracting single working people—and empty nesters—which is different from previous years."

Along with slightly more reasonable property costs, Belford says that Fort Lee's appeal to many is that while it's removed from a lot of the noise and crowding of the city, it's close enough not to feel isolated or out of the urban loop. "Although it is not New York City, Fort Lee is literally a ride across the George Washington Bridge. There are plenty of great restaurants in the Bergen County area, and fabulous shopping in the malls and towns. The population consists of a diverse blend of nationalities, and that gives the borough a very cosmopolitan flair."

As for the direction Fort Lee seems to be heading in terms of population and migration, says Belford, "The number of residents seems to be leveling out, and real estate prices are steady at the moment. It's a seller's market."

Happy Birthday, Fort Lee!

In 2004, the Borough of Fort Lee will celebrate its centennial. To commemorate its one-hundred years of history, entertainment, and hometown living since the community's incorporation, social events, parades, and parties will take place throughout the year. Some of the activities planned include historic hikes, a salute to the women of Fort Lee, film screenings, street fairs, and a celebration of the George Washington Bridge. Event schedules can be found at www.fortleenj.org.

It would appear, as Belford says, that, "Fort Lee is on an upward spiral" and looking forward to its next hundred years as a quiet—yet dynamic—neighbor of the big city.

Rebecca Fons is a freelance contributor and recent Film Studies graduate.