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Doc Searls Weblog 2014-01-13
Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems access to the George Washington Bridge was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here:
The spot marked “A” was the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920:
My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old.
It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables.
Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is a house-less strip, flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached.
Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights downtown were City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self.
When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — born in the late 1800s — was still going strong. One I remember well was Aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and me as a baby. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She died in 1953, when I was six, just a few days short of turning 100.
An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
None of that matters now, just like none of the current news around Bridgegate will matter in five decades. But it’s still fun to visit what little we still know. For now.
I don’t know when the neighborhood was erased