How Main Street America, Became our “Little Havana on the Hudson”
By Arnold Serafin
In a lot of states in America years ago, the “Main Street” or Avenue was the community’s primary commercial hub. Most of the buildings usually had several tenants — typically a ground-floor retailer and upper-floor offices or apartments; together, these tenants provided enough rent for property owners to keep their buildings in good condition. Most towns had a post office, library, Shoe stores, banks and other businesses where a steady flow of people walked. Not only was Main Street the center of the community’s commercial life, it was also an important part of its social life; people thronged the streets on Saturday nights to meet friends, see a movie and window-shop. This is exactly how I remember growing up in Union City, New Jersey back in the 1980’s. The only ironic fact, was that while this was what was going on in my hometown, most of the “Main Street” concept had disappeared around the rest of The United States.
In the past 40 years, America’s main streets have pretty much disappeared. The creation of highways and the growth of suburban communities transformed the ways in which Americans live, work and spend leisure time. With improved transportation routes, people found it easier to travel longer distances to work or shop. It seems too that the creation of shopping strips and regional malls also contributed to a disappearance of main street in America. Throughout the nation, in town after town, the story repeated itself. Many businesses closed or moved to the mall, shoppers dwindled, property values and sales tax revenues dropped. Neglected buildings, boarded-up storefronts and empty, trash-strewn streets gradually reinforced the public’s perception that nothing was happening and that nothing was worth saving there. People forgot how important their main street and its historic commercial buildings were in reflecting their community’s unique heritage, except for one thing: The Cubans came and saved the main street concept!
You are probably asking yourself, “what does he mean by this?” I will elaborate further on this in a moment. For example in my small hometown of Union City, New Jersey the main artery there has always been Bergenline Avenue, which in essence is our “Main Street” Most of the town’s businesses were located along the Avenue. Just a little bit of geography for you: Union City has a total area of 1.283 square miles all of which is land. It is Part of the New York metropolitan area and it is one of the municipalities which comprise North Hudson, New Jersey. Located atop the ridge of the lower Hudson Palisades (just south of the highest point in the county) many of its streets offer glimpses and views of the surrounding municipalities, the New York City skyline, and the New Jersey Meadowlands. Union City is also the most densely populated city in the United States
Ok, here is what I mean by “The Cubans came and saved the Main Street” Back in the late 1940’s this area started to see a steady decline in the population and in the local businesses there, this was due mostly in part to the fact that a lot of the area’s residents had gone away to World War 2 to serve their country and when they came back home many of them decided to settle in Bergen county or in the neighboring suburbs and even in other parts of the country, so the area was experiencing a bit of a decadence. Ironically, The first Cubans that immigrated to Union City in the late1940s came from small towns in Las Villas Province in Central Cuba, and more specifically from the town of Fomento. The Cubans were attracted to the city because of the many jobs available in the embroidery factories. Several of my own family members worked in the embroideries when they first arrived to Union City. After the revolution in Cuba in 1959, a large migration of Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime, made Union City their home. Neighboring towns such as West New York, also 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. Now back to Bergenline Avenue specifically: As crazy as this is to understand, while the rest of America was losing its Main Street to shopping malls, the Cubans came to New Jersey, and continued about their daily business, they walked up and down Bergenline Avenue, shopping, dining, socializing, etc…Within time, many Cubans opened their own retail stores along the avenue, opened Cuban Restaurants, Bakeries, Etc..
Some of them named their businesses after famous businesses they left behind in Cuba such as “El Waterloo”. Years passed and those same buildings that we once rented where our stores were, we bought them and renovated them, we gave them our own “Cuban touch” you could say. It is very hard to describe everything I have seen and experienced in Union City throughout the years, I always tell my friends that to really understand me, first you have to see where I was born and raised, that I am a true product of my surroundings. I like to think that we had a very special community in Union City, an extremely unique place where even though we were a hat’s throw from New York City, most people knew each other, which by today’s standards in America is simply unheard of to most people, but not to me because I am from Union City, and that is how life was there growing up. I guess timing was everything for my Cuban compatriots, because even though Main Streets were disappearing across the country, our little Main Street “Bergenline Avenue” was just beginning for us……or should I say starting where Havana left off you could say! And this my friends is how “The Cubans saved Main Street, New Jersey” Ha Ha
One last thought I wanted to mention is that it has been almost 54 years since the Cuban Revolution took place, and although the area has changed drastically, now you see a lot of South American and Central Americans walking the streets, they have their own Restaurants and businesses too, one thing comes to mind, and that is that we paved the way for other ethnic groups to come to our “Little Havana on the Hudson” and that thanks to us, they speak Spanish along the streets of Bergenline Avenue today, whether some people want to give us credit or not my dear friends…..We Did this, we overcame many struggles, and prejudices, but we accomplished this, no one can take that away from us…all this was thanks to the hardworking Cubans who came to New Jersey over 50 years ago, and remember even though sometimes they try “History cannot be erased, it is history and will always be here to stay”
Arnold Serafin Tampa, Fla Dec 21st, 2012