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Homecoming weekend of wonder, fun

Originally appeared in the Jersey Journal on 10/23/00
By Jason Fink
Journal staff writer

On an unseasonably warm fall day, under high blue skies, thousands of current and former Jersey City residents filled the streets of several neighborhoods Saturday to celebrate what Mayor Bret Schundler called "Jersey City's renaissance."

From clowns and hay rides at Exchange Place to historic tours and film screenings Downtown and in Journal Square, the first Jersey City Homecoming weekend seemed to offer something for everyone.

City officials raised more than $130,000 from various corporate sponsors for dozens of events that began Friday afternoon and ended last night.

Billed as a chance for former residents to come back and see the vast changes that have been made throughout the city - particularly on the waterfront - one of the weekend's big draws was the Developers and Non profit Showcase, held in the atrium of the Harborside Financial Center.

Many of the real estate developers that have been in the middle of the construction boom of the past few years joined organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Urban League in setting up tables and passing out literature. Such firms as Mack-Cali, Lefrak, and the Applied Companies of Hoboken even displayed three-dimensional models of future building projects.

"It's really great to see the city realizing it's potential," said Kevin Crane, 53, who grew up on Lexington Avenue but moved to Saddle Brook, in Bergen County, 20 years ago. "I'm thrilled, I'm so proud. This is my home town."

Crane said he was so impressed by the revitalization of the waterfront and the increase in development throughout the city that he and his wife are considering moving back to Jersey City in the next few years.

"It's becoming a little pricey, though," he said. When Schundler, who plans to run for governor next year, addressed the crowd moments later, he echoed some of Crane's impressions of the city's changing face.

"You can't help but be tremendously excited by what's going on in our city," he said, referring to development not only along the waterfront but in the city's interior as well. Schundler cited the rehabilitation of the Curries Woods public housing complex near the Bayonne border and the redevelopment of Journal Square as examples.

Charles Kessler, president and founder of Pro Arts, an organization of about 100 professional artists, stressed the importance of the WALDO district -- where many old warehouses now act as artists' studios -- in making the city attractive to many of its newest and returning residents.

"It's a pathway for the somewhat isolated new development on the waterfront to come into the rest of the city," Kessler said of the former industrial area, where dozens of artists work.

The Jersey City Art Tour, an annual event that was combined with the Homecoming this year, also drew significant crowds.

Organizers estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 people visited the dozens of studios opened to the public yesterday and Saturday.

For some artists, it was a chance to recall the days when the waterfront was little more than a few rotting piers and stray dogs roamed the streets.

"It used to be so quiet," said John Varriano, a painter who has kept a studio in a former industrial building on First Street since 1991. "Within five years it was just transformed." But Varriano was not the only one who recalled a time when Jersey City was a different place and the idea of a Homecoming festival seemed remote.

Bob Leach, head of the Jersey City Historical Project, led storybook tours, relating various anecdotes about the city's past.

Leach, whose family has lived in Jersey City since the Civil War, looked up at the office towers at Exchange Place and noted one major difference from his youth: "There were more barrooms in the old days."

While some were enjoying modern art this weekend, others were sitting watching a re-enactment of Gen. George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette discussing Revolutionary War strategy at the historic Apple Tree House on Academy Street.

While children painted pumpkins, rode ponies and enjoyed apple cider, visiting parents watched men dressed in the traditional 1779 garb worn by Washington and Lafayette. Some were even offered tours of the home, which is currently being restored.

"The Apple Tree House does seem to be on the right path to become a real history house," said Guy Catrillo, the house's keeper and George Washington's stand-in. "This weekend's turnout was really great."


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