Its two nicknames, "Embroidery Capital of the United States" and "Havana on the Hudson", reflect important aspects of that history. Thousands make a pilgrimage to Union City each year to see the nation's longest-running passion play and the annual Cuban Day Parade of New Jersey.
The area that would one day be Union City, however, remained sparsely populated until the early 19th century. The British granted Bergen a new town charter in 1668. In 1682 they created Bergen County, which was named to honor their Dutch predecessors. That county comprised all of present day Hudson, Bergen and Passaic counties.
Sparsely inhabited during the 17th and 18th centuries, the southeast section of Bergen County had grown by the early 19th century to the point where it was deemed necessary to designate it a separate county.
Union City was incorporated on June 1, 1925, by merging the two towns of West Hoboken and Union Hill. The name of one of the city's schools, Union Hill Middle School, recalls the former town.
In the 18th century, Dutch and English merchants first settled the area. Later, German immigrants immigrated from Manhattan. Irish, Polish, Armenians, Syrians, Eastern European Jews and Italians followed. In 1851, Germans moved across the Hudson River from New York City in search of affordable land and open space. During the Civil War a military installation, Camp Yates, covered an area now bounded by Bergenline and Palisade Avenues from 22nd to 32nd Street. Germans began to settle what would become Union Hill in 1851, and some descendants of the immigrants of this period live in the city today. Although the area's diversity was represented by the more than 19 nationalities that made their home in the Dardanelles (a five-block area of Central Avenue from 23rd Street to 27th Street) from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, German Americans and Dutch dominated the area.
Along with Swiss and Austrian immigrants, they founded the European-style lace making industries for which they were famous. The introduction of Schiffli lace machines in Hudson County made Union City the "embroidery capital of the United States". The trademark of that industry is on the Union City Seal, though foreign competition and austere prevailing fashions led to the decline of embroidery and other industries in the area by the late 1990s.
As immigration to the area progressed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Chinese, Jews and Russians found a home in the area, though its domination by Germans by the turn of the 20th century was reflected in the fact that the minutes of town meetings were recorded in German.
By this time, the area was witnessing a period of urbanization, as an extensive trolley system was developed by the North Hudson County Railway, spurred by both electrification in 1890 and the arrival of Irish and Italian immigrants, which dominated the city until the late 1960s. Successive waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Near East and Latin America contributed to the embroidery industry in subsequent years. "The Cultural Thread"/"El Hilo", an exhibit highlighting this industry, is on display at Union City's Park Performing Arts Center.
The town was famous for being the home of the rowdy Hudson Burlesque. Vaudeville and burlesque were theatre staples in Union City, with performers such as Harry Houdini and Fred Astaire making appearances locally. Union City was also for a time the home to the headquarters of sports publisher Joe Weider.
The first Cubans immigrated to Union City from New York City in the 1940s, having been attracted to the city in search of work after hearing of its famed embroidery factories. A majority of these Cubans hailed from small towns or cities, particularly Villa Clara Province in central Cuba.
After World War II, veterans relocated to Bergen County, causing a short-lived decline in the population. By the late 1960s when the city was predominantly Italian, it was settled by a large migration of Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro's regime, making Union City for many years the city with the largest Cuban population in the U.S. after Miami, hence its nickname, "Havana on the Hudson."
Following the Mariel boatlift in 1980, 10,000 Cubans settled in New Jersey, leading to a second wave of Cubans to Union City, which totaled 15,000 by 1994. The city, as well as neighboring towns such as West New York, has experienced a profound cultural impact as a result of this, as seen in such aspects of local culture as its cuisine, fashion, music, entertainment and cigar-making.
Since its inception in 2000 the Cuban Day Parade of New Jersey has become a major annual event in North Hudson, beginning in North Bergen and traveling south to its end in Union City.
Union City has historically been a family-oriented city predominantly made up of brownstones, two-family homes and locally owned businesses. Beginning approximately in 2003, it underwent a period of development of modestly-sized residences, spurred by similar development in neighboring Hoboken, and the city's attempt to attract developers to what had historically been a town unfriendly to them, according to Mayor Brian P. Stack.
Through approval of varied construction projects to address the needs of residents of different incomes, improved rent control laws and community input on such issues, this "Hobokenization" resulted in positive comparisons with the redeveloped Hoboken of the mid-to-late 1990s, with new restaurants, bars and art galleries cited as evidence of renewal. The city recorded $192 million in new construction in 2007, and 600 certificates of occupancy, with 500-700 projected for 2008–2009, compared with previous years, in which 50 certificates was considered a high amount.
This development continued for several years, reaching a milestone in 2008 with the completion of Union City's first high-rise condominium tower, The Thread, whose name evokes the city's historical association with the embroidery industry. Other such towers have followed, such as the Altessa and Park City Grand.
One of Hudson County's three homeless shelters, Palisades Emergency Residence Corp. (PERC), is located in Union City. The PERC facility, which includes a soup kitchen, food pantry and 40-bed shelter on 37th Street, lost $100,000 in federal funding in 2011, and in January and August 2012, aided a record-breaking number of guests.
The population density was 52,977.8 inhabitants per square mile (20,395.9/km²) in 2000, approximately twice as high as New York City as a whole, but less than Manhattan alone. Union City is the most densely populated city in the United States, though neighboring Guttenberg (legally incorporated as a town) was more densely populated.
Hispanics remain the dominant ethnic group in the city, and their percentage of the population has increased from 82.3% in the 2000 Census to 84.7% in the 2010 Census. Non-Hispanic whites made up 15.3% of the city's population in 2010; up from 13.3% in the 2000 Census. Blacks made up 5.2% of the city's population in 2010; up from 3.3% in the 2000 Census.
The rest of the racial makeup of the city was 0.70% Native American, 2.15% Asian, 0.08% Pacific Islander, 28.19% from other races, and 6.87% from two or more races. Though Native Americans comprise less than 1% of the city's population, they doubled between the 2000 and 2010 Census, and combined with West New York's Native Americans, comprise 38% of the county's Native American population.
In the early days of the post-Revolution era, Union City boasted the nation's largest Cuban population, second only to Miami, Florida, leading to the nickname "Havana on the Hudson". Aspects of the enclave are explored in the 2009 publication The Cubans of Union City: Immigrants and Exiles in a New Jersey Community.
In the ensuing decades, Cuban residents have spread out to other communities of North Hudson County. West New York, at 19.64%, now has the highest percentage of Cubans in New Jersey, with Union City in second place, with 15.35%. These two municipalities have the highest Cuban population percentage in the United States outside of Florida.
It also has a very diversified Hispanic population with Cubans, Dominicans, and the more recent groups, who primarily came from South America and Central America. As of the 2000 census, 5.94% of Union City's residents identified themselves as being of Ecuadorian ancestry, which was the third highest of any municipality in New Jersey and the seventh highest percentage of Ecuadorian people in any place in the United States with 1,000 or more residents identifying their ancestry.
About 18.6% of families and 21.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 28.3% of those under age 18 and 19.3% of those age 65 or over.
The Brookings Institute studies ranked Union City among the 92 most economically depressed localities in the United States, with 18.1% of the population and 27.5% of the children falling below the poverty line. In 1997, the New Jersey Municipal Distress Index, which is based on social, economic, fiscal and physical indicators, ranked Union City as the third most distressed community in the state.
Historically, Union City schools have ranked among the highest in Hudson County in reported incidents of violence compared to the size of the student population more than once, most recently in a November 2009 report by the New Jersey Department of Education, which annually records incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons and substance abuse or possession.
According to the report, such incidents declined statewide between the 2006–07 and the 2007–08 school years, but rose slightly in Hudson County, with Union City schools having the second-highest number of reported incidents behind the Jersey City Public Schools.
University of California, Berkeley Professor David L. Kirp, in his 2011 book, Kids First, and his 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, praised Union City's education system for bringing poor, mostly immigrant kids (three quarters of whom live in homes where only Spanish is spoken and a quarter of which are thought to be undocumented and fearful of deportation) into the educational mainstream. Kirp, who spent a year in Union City examining its schools, notes that while in the late 1970s, Union City schools faced the threat of state takeover, they now boast achievement scores that approximate the statewide average.
Kirp also observes that in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average, and that in 2012, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivy League.
Kirp singles out the city's practice of enrolling almost every 3- and 4-year-old in kindergarten, and the leadership of Union City High School principal John Bennetti for the positive educational atmosphere in that school.
Its outstanding feature is the Park Theater which seats 1,400. Incorporated in 1983 the non-profit arts center presents works of local, national, and international artists, as well as permanent and rotating exhibitions.
Union City High School and Athletic Complex opened in September 2009 on the site of the former Roosevelt Stadium, demolished in 2005 to make way for it. The sports field is located on the second floor roof of the building, which also houses the Union City Performing Arts Center and a community health center.
Emerson Middle School, was opened in April 1915 as West Hoboken High School, and was home to the Bulldogs. It was renamed Emerson High School for the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, when the two towns merged. Located on New York Avenue at 18th Street, the original building is connected with the gym building, built in the 1980s, by a second story enclosed bridge that runs over New York Avenue.
The school became the South campus of Union City High School in September 2008, before converting to a middle school in September 2009, with the opening of the new Union City High School proper. The mascot of Union City was also changed to the Soaring Eagles. Alumni of the school include DJ and music producer Erick Morillo and former Green Bay Packers center Frank Winters.
Union City is home to two Carnegie Libraries funded by the donations of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Both are considered historically and architecturally significant by the city. The first was built in 1903 by the Cranwell family builders, who were active in the construction of many of the city's buildings, with a $25,000 donation by Carnegie in what was once West Hoboken on 15th Street between Bergenline Avenue and New York Avenue. The second was built in 1905 at the corner of 43rd Street and New York Avenue in what was once Union Hill, and is the main branch.
The 15th Street library retains its original stained glass, but was closed in 2004 upon the completion of a new library on the corner of Summit Avenue and 18th Street, housed in the same building as José Martí Middle School. It was converted into the William V. Musto Cultural Center, which opened in June 2011. It houses the Union City Museum of Art, the Union City Police Museum, the Union City Art Gallery & Concert Hall, the Union City Museum of History, and a senior citizen center.
On June 4, 2004, nearly a year after the death of Cuban-American salsa singer Celia Cruz (who lived in nearby Fort Lee), Union City heralded its annual Cuban Day Parade by dedicating its new Celia Cruz Park (also known as Celia Cruz Plaza) at 31st Street and Bergenline Avenue, with Cruz's widower, Pedro Knight, present.
The park featured a sidewalk star in Cruz's honor, and an 8' x 10' mural by Union City's Edgardo Davila, a collage of Cruz's career throughout the decades. There are four other similar dedications to Cruz around the world. The Latin American Kiwanis Club refurbished the park in early June 2006, replacing the mural with a backlit photograph of Cruz. Cruz's star has expanded into Union City's "Walk of Fame", as new marble stars are added each spring to honor Latin entertainment and media personalities.
September 11 memorials The city's first memorial to honor the five Union City citizens who died in the September 11 attacks was a sculpture placed in Doric Park, in whose courtyard citizens gathered on September 11, 2001 to view the attacks' aftereffects. On September 11, 2007, the city dedicated its Liberty Plaza to commemorate the event. The Plaza, which serves as a transit hub through which commuters pass on their way to and from Manhattan, includes two memorial markers.
Doric Park was later rebuilt as Firefighters Memorial Park, which opened in August 2009. The park includes a public swimming pool, and a new memorial to local fallen firefighters that stands at the entrance. Its popularity has attracted visitors from Manhattan and Staten Island.
The Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary, known as the The Blue Chapel, was constructed between 1912 and 1914, as the first monastery dedicated to the recitation of the Perpetual Rosary in the United States. Although the monastery was well maintained for many decades, after the number of resident nuns and finances dwindled, the chapel deteriorated and was vacated in summer of 2009. Plans were announced later that year to renovate and expand the monastery in order to create housing units and underground parking, but negative public reaction squelched those plans.
In 2010, the Chapel was included on Preservation New Jersey's annual 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites list, which is intended to draw attention to historical sites in need of preservation. The site's caretakers have previously indicated that it will likely be abandoned or sold, but the city Board of Commissioners passed a November 3, 2010 resolution designating it as a historic site as part of efforts to protect it.
Since 2009, Union City has erected historical markers to commemorate the lives of its noteworthy natives. The first marker was dedicated to the memory of boxer Joe Jeanette on April 17, 2009, and placed at the corner of Summit Avenue and 27th Street on April 17, 2009, where Jeanette's former residence and gym once stood. The marker lies two blocks from a street, located between Summit Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard, that was named Jeanette Street in his honor. Present at the dedication ceremony was Jeanette's grandniece, Sabrina Jennette.
The city's second historical marker was dedicated September 26, 2009 to Peter George Urban, a 10th degree karategrandmaster, writer and teacher who founded an American karate system, American Goju Do. Present at the dedication ceremony was Ubran's daughter, Julia Urban-Kimmerly.
The city's third historical marker was dedicated on May 22, 2010 to novelist and screenwriter Pietro di Donato, and placed at Bergenline Avenue and 31st Street, where di Donato once lived, and which was named Pietro di Donato Plaza in his honor. Present at the dedication ceremony was di Donato's son, Richard.
The first segment of the April 12, 2013 episode of the American version of the reality television series Undercover Boss was filmed in Union City. In the segment, Tony Wells, the CMO for the home security provider ADT, visits Union City to pose as a new employee being trained by a local ADT dealer.
The Union City/West New York area in particular is a major training ground for actors in the county. In September 2008, Union City held its first annual month-long Art Month, which originated with the September 2006 "Celebrate Art" show at St. John's Episcopal Church. Art Month includes events such as the Union City Arts and Crafts Festival, held the second week of every September.
Group shows are also arranged by organizations such as La Ola, a group formed to help unite local artists, and Federación Mercantil, which provides support to artists in the form of bank loan assistance and help avoiding foreclosure, and puts on an annual show of work by Spanish-American painters. Another is the Union City Artists Collective, founded in 2007 by a group of artists and public officials that includes Amado Mora, a sculptor, painter and curator of the Union City Art Gallery at City Hall.
Locations in which artists reside or have put on tours or shows include the Yardley Building, a former Yardley of London soap factory on Palisade Avenue that overlooks Hoboken, and the old R.H. Simon Silk Mill on 39th Street, which has been dubbed the "Union Hill Arts Building". The Park Performing Arts Center is also a popular arts venue in the city, as it houses Hudson Theatre Works, a theatre company founded in 2011.
It was also the first venue for the Park Players, an acting troupe founded in the early 1980s by local teacher Joseph Conklin, and formerly hosted the NoHu Visions show, and the annual two-day Multi-Arts Festival until 2010, when the latter moved to Union City High School, which houses the Union City Performing Arts Center.
The 2010 independent gothic horror art film, Vampire in Union City, was filmed entirely in Union City, and was directed by entertainer and Union City Commissioner Lucio Fernandez. Produced by MeLu Films, it premiered on September 3, 2010 at the Summit Theater, marking the city's first movie premiere, and the 2010 Celebrate Art Month, which included art exhibits, jazz, dance and opera performances, a film festival, and the public release of Francisco Rivadeneira's book, Los Amos del Planeta, Tomo II.
The Multi-Arts Festival is an exhibition of artwork, musical performances and workshops held every May since 1981. Students and alumni of the various schools of Union City display their artwork, put on musical performances in the Park Theater, and put on free demonstrations of sculpture, portrait and caricature for attendees. It was created by Agnes Dauerman, a Union Hill High School art teacher, who coordinated the program for 25 years before she retired in 2005.
The Union City Museum of Art, the Union City Police Museum, the Union City Art Gallery and Concert Hall and the Union City Museum of History are housed in the William V. Musto Cultural Center, formerly the 15th Street library. The Musto Center hosts a number of events, including various concerts and theatrical performances. Specific events it has hosted include the Union City Artist Awards, the NoHu International Film Festival, and Artists Assemble!, a comics festival first held in February 2013.
The first annual Union City International Film Festival began in December 2010, with the short film "X", which was written and directed by Josh Brolin, as the opening film. Later that month Union City unveiled the Union City Plaza of the Arts on Bergenline Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets, as a venue for artists to congregate and showcase their work. The location, which sees copious traffic to and from Midtown Manhattan, was chosen in order to showcase the city in a positive light to commuters, and so that the plaza could represent fine arts alongside the adjacent Pietro Di Donato Plaza and Celia Cruz Plaza, which represent literature and music, respectively.
Income & Housing Costs Numbers:
Estimated median household income in 2011: $36,597 (it was $30,642 in 2000)
Estimated median house or condo value in 2011: $301,400 (it was $159,600 in 2000)
Mean prices in 2011: All housing units: $403,505; Detached houses: $481,938; Townhouses or other attached units: $394,935; In 2-unit structures: $440,703; In 3-to-4-unit structures: $453,566; In 5-or-more-unit structures: $292,886
Median gross rent in 2011: $1,021.
March 2012 cost of living index in Union City: 127.5 (high, U.S. average is 100)
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