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Artists' Haven in Union City Turns into Ghost Town

By: Jayden Ho

At a cliff-side abode in Union City, New Jersey, Bonnie Berger used to watch the Manhattan skyline dance with lights as she huddled in her lush backyard garden. She would glance at the peace symbol painted on the fence by her artistic mother, feeling the energy of creativity that imbued their home. A turtle, their garden tenant, added a touch of whimsical charm to their little oasis. These memories, however, have grown bitter-sweet for Berger, who now resides in Chicago.

For decades, Union City – a stone's throw from the concrete jungle of New York City – was the haven for sculptors, painters, and artists, drawn to the modest prices and stunning views from Mountain Road and Manhattan Avenue. Today, this neighborhood is a haunting juxtaposition of picturesque panorama and decaying homes. Properties are left in limbo as development plans have come to a standstill. Today, the neighborhood stands, forlorn and neglected, a stark contrast to the busting and vibrant neighborhood it once was.

As the sun bathes the Manhattan skyline in gold, one might think that the dilapidated buildings on Mountain Road and Manhattan Avenue would stir from sleep and come alive once more. From the 1910s through the 1980s, this enclave attracted artists like Raffaele Menconi, Charles X. Harris, and Olive Kooken, who left their indelible mark on American culture.

In 2005, Berger was compelled to sell her house for $1.7 million due to increasing property taxes and the escalating cost of living. The house was sold to investors who made alluring promises of revitalization, refurbishment, and progress. But the promise was never fulfilled. One after another,12 properties on the cliff fell into the hands of investors with grand plans that mysteriously evaporated.

The centuries-old houses now stand weather-beaten and graffiti-stained, bearing silent testimony to the bygone era of artistic flourish.

City planner David Spatz says, "There was a vision, a dream of rebirth. But those dreams are gathering dust along with the fading paint of these homes. We haven't heard from the investors in years."

Resident Kate Sparrow speaks of her frustration, "They’re just rotting there. I don't understand why they don't just tear them down and start over."

Contrasting Sparrow's views, Joe Sivo, who’s called Union City home since 1958, clings onto hope. "What happened to the park they promised us? What happened to the restoration of these homes?"

It's an impasse. The neighborhood remains suspended between dreams of preservation and development, a specter of its former vibrant self.

Yet, despite the decay and desolation, Union City's allure remains unbroken. "There's something about this place," says Berger. "Even though my home is now little more than rubble, I can't help but remember the magic it once held."

Beyond the chain-link fences, past the crumbling vestiges of once-beautiful homes, the Manhattan skyline still stands majestic. For Berger, the word "increase" painted on her former backyard fence has transformed from a fading relic to a prophecy waiting in the wings.

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