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Stepping Into the Past

Most summer weekends, I like to explore neighborhoods and sites throughout the New York metro area. Although states are easing COVID-19 restrictions, I don’t foresee my explorations resuming this summer. The laissez-faire attitude toward mask-wearing by much of the public does not leave me with a sense of safety, let alone adventure.

That being said, my lifelong romance with books and libraries still allows me to wander from my home. (For the record, I have not ventured beyond my Jersey City neighborhood since early March.) Thanks to the New York Public Library Digital Collections, I recently stepped into the Jersey City of the early nineteenth century.

For those unaware, Jersey City sits across the Hudson River from Manhattan. This was its historic primary attraction. Arguably, this remains the case.


Looking to Manhattan from the shore of the Hudson River. The windmill–Isaac Edge’s–stood near today’s Exchange Place. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

Between 2018 and 2019, I presented a series of public lectures exploring the writer Washington Irving’s relationship with New Jersey. The ethnically Dutch village of Communipaw, part of present-day Jersey City, captured Irving’s imagination. Irving visited Communipaw with future President Martin Van Buren in 1833 and he mined this trip for story material on multiple occasions. (You can watch my talk on Irving and New Jersey hosted by the Apple Tree House here. My part begins near the thirty-minute mark.)


Communipaw–a bucolic fishing and farming village–near the time of Washington Irving’s visit. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

While Jersey City gazed longingly and enviously toward New York, Communipaw looked toward Jersey City for cosmopolitan fare. City lights have always held such wonder.


A boat on the Morris Canal. (Courtesy of New York Public Library)

If you’ve never visited the digital collections of the New York Public Library spend an hour some afternoon with them and allow your imagination to roam. You won’t need to worry about COVID and if the people passing you on the sidewalk are masked. Instead, you might converse with philosophers and poets, encounter ghosts and legendary beasts, and visit faraway lands and long ago ages–all from the comfort of your own home.

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