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Historical Absence of Identity Politics in Hudson County

PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2009 3:21 pm
by GETNJ
Historical Absence of Identity Politics in Hudson County

By Anthony Olszewski

Hague’s Machine is often thought of as an Irish organization. This was not true.

“Irish-ism” – as seen in New York City, Boston, and Chicago never existed in Hudson County. Under the Hague regime, there was no Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Jersey City. Patriotic rallies, not ethnic festivals, were what was important.

One old timer told a story about serving in the military in Europe during WWII. When the Nazi Reich collapsed, this soldier from Jersey City received a leave. But, as his tour of duty was almost up, he was not allowed to return to the States for vacation. This soldier remarked to his friends that it was a cruel trick to be given time off only to be forced to remain in a war zone. There seemed no place to go. Everywhere in Europe seemed to range from bad to worse. One of the other soldiers said that the man from Jersey City should go to Ireland. The War had never touched down there. And, with an Irish last name, that was yet another reason to go. Checking with the superiors, he got permission to travel on a military plane to Ireland. The visitor went from pub to pub. Everyone was extremely friendly. Except in one strange place. There, all were very quiet, just smoking their pipes, seemingly staring at him. The soldier thought that he was just imagining things, that perhaps one of the locals was ill or had recently died.

Finally, the bartender asked, “That’s not a medal of the Blessed Virgin that y’er wearin’, is it?”

“Of course it is!”

“Y’er not Catholic, are you?”

“Of course I am!”

The lights went out.

The soldier woke up in an alley. Stumbling out, he happened upon a Bobby and told the story.

“Do you know where you are!?!”

“I’m in Ireland!”

“You’re in the PROTESTANT section of Londonderry in NORTHERN IRELAND. It’s only because of that uniform that you’re still alive. Follow me. I’ll take you back to the Catholic section.”

The point of the story is that most of the Jersey City residents of Irish descent were completely ignorant of the island’s political and religious strife.
As an aside, Frmr. Governor McGreevey’s trip to Ireland and his officially greeting Gerry Adams was pointless in terms of New Jersey politics. McGreevey was focusing on New York, Boston, and Chicago.

In Jersey City, there once was a Catholic church every couple of blocks, each serving a different community. But, this was not based on any sort of national pride or nostalgia for a revered homeland. The concerns were strictly practical. The residents of each neighborhood spoke a different language. Though the services were always in Latin, the priest had to be able to communicate with the members of the congregation. With no formal social safety net, the local priests and Hague’s Committee people worked together to serve the immigrants.

Initially, the Irish ruled, but not through any clannishness. Again, the matter was strictly practical. The Irish spoke English. When a factory owner sent a chief of staff down to the ferries coming from Ellis Island to hire a crew, the laborers only needed strong backs. The crew bosses had to speak English.

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, the Catholic Church and being an American were always most important. When an old timer did something crude, the common insult was “Where do you think you are, back on the potato farm?” The taunt might be aimed at a Slavic or an Irish immigrant.

No less an “ethnic leader” than Anthony Provenzano (a capo in the Genovese Crime Family), didn’t take state-of-being all that seriously. Tony Pro once asked my father if he was Italian. When the answer was negative, Mr. Provenzano replied, “That’s OK. You look Italian.”

Other nationalities, other races, and other religions were not just tolerated. All social interaction took place in a context of courtesy and respect. The ultimate compliment was to call someone a “real politician.” This didn’t necessarily mean that the individual was involved in politics. What it meant was that someone was well-groomed, polite, and articulate.

The Germans did have a somewhat separate role in the Jersey City Heights and North Hudson. At the turn of the century, these areas were solidly German. German language was as pervasive as Spanish is in North Hudson today. This changed when America entered WWI. My grandmother told me how quite literally overnight the store signs changed from German family names to variations on Liberty and Independence. Germania Avenue on the Western Slope of the Heights became Liberty Avenue. Assembly was limited at St. Nicholas’s Church. Something of a German community remained in North Hudson even into the ‘60s. During Hague’s time, there was a German mayor of North Bergen.