JERSEY CITY, NJ — Just before you cross the Holland Tunnel from New Jersey into New York City, this stretch of residential street in downtown Jersey City is an important part of Filipino American History in the area.
For more than 50 years, Manila Avenue has been a home away from home for many Filipino immigrants.
“When we came here, nobody wanted to touch downtown Jersey City. Newport was still grasslands and there was crime over here. In fact we had to organize a block watch…we had a group of Filipino homeowners ferrying our kababayans, not even Filipinos — when they get off the Grove Street station and drive them to their homes. Because this area at the time I would say was in the pits,” said resident Cesar Sarmiento.
It was the 1970s when an influx of Filipino immigrants began moving into this city just across manhattan. Rent was cheaper than New York City and the short train ride to work was inexpensive.
Not long after, Filipino residents here formed an organization called the congress of Filipino American citizens.
Through the years, they would hold cultural and social events, and most importantly, help give new immigrants a voice.
One of the community’s goals was to rename Grove Street to Manila Avenue.
Ruffino Legaspi, Romy Postadan, Frank Yu, Ben Quizon and Dr. Gonzalo Velez spearheaded the efforts to convince local council members to make the change.
“There were only 5 Filipinos and it was all jam packed with Puerto Ricans and in fact, three of the priests were there and they were all talking about why it should not be Manila Avenue, it should be Puerto Rico Avenue,” said Gonzalvo Velez. “We would like this for the efforts of the Filipinos to rebuild Jersey City, so if you want us to stay here, help rebuild Jersey City and then you have to recognize our efforts.”
By January 1980, Grove Street — from 12th street to Newark Avenue — was renamed Manila Avenue.
Soon after, a Philippine plaza honoring Filipino soldiers was built on the corner of Second Street and Manila Avenue. And for over 40 years, Countless Sagalas and Reyna Elenas would walk along this avenue one Sunday in May during the annual Santacruzan parade.
“I think one of our biggest contributions here is Filipinos helped uplift this area of Jersey City cause we bought homes at a time when people didn’t want to touch downtown. But now downtown is booming.”
Many Filipino families have moved out and the neighborhood is once again changing. But Manila avenue is a reminder of how Filipinos helped build an American city.