North Bergen, N.J.: Reasonably Priced and Minutes From Manhattan

The Four Percent


In 1975, Calvin Trillin wrote in The New Yorker magazine about “the half-dozen cities in northern Hudson County that are, except for some arbitrary and invisible lines drawn every mile or so, one mass of blue-collar sprawl running along the Hudson, just across from midtown Manhattan.”

North Bergen, N.J., sits at the top of that urban cluster, but times have changed. Today, Mr. Trillin’s “sprawl” is better known as the New Jersey Gold Coast: the riverfront communities that extend from Bayonne north to the George Washington Bridge, sprouting expensive luxury buildings that eat the Manhattan views with a spoon.

North Bergen could be accused of lacking definition. The five-square-mile township with about 62,000 residents has irregular boundaries that bend around neighbors; it is sometimes hard to know exactly when you are there. But its supporters single it out as a reasonably priced community minutes from Manhattan, with an increasingly young, culturally diverse population.

Lakshay Bhatia, 38, a technology consultant, discovered North Bergen eight years ago when he and his wife, Neetika, set off from their Englewood, N.J., rental on the Fourth of July to see the fireworks in Hoboken. The roads were blocked, and the couple found themselves on John F. Kennedy Boulevard East, known locally as Boulevard East, with startling views of the New York skyline.

“Oh, wow,” Mr. Bhatia recalled thinking.

The Bhatias, who are from India, decided that Boulevard East was their future. They eventually paid $470,000 for a two-family house three blocks away and live with their 3-year-old daughter on the lower floor, renting the upstairs duplex.

Commuting to Manhattan before the pandemic, Ms. Bhatia, 38, a textile designer, boarded the buses that streamed down Boulevard East each morning. Now the Bhatias work from home and de-stress in their backyard, or in James J. Braddock Park, a 167-acre sward three blocks away with a 16-acre lake and 45 athletic facilities (tracks, courts, swings, et cetera).

“Affordability is a key for North Bergen,” said Frances Rosado, a real estate agent with Keller Williams, who grew up in Hudson County. Born in Cuba, she was part of the diaspora that turned the area into what was once described as “Havana on the Hudson.” The Hispanic population, which makes up 71 percent of North Bergen, has since diversified.

If you’re priced out of Jersey City, Hoboken or Weehawken, you can still buy something in the township, Ms. Rosado said. Single-family houses start in the low $300,000s.

There are luxury options, too, like the Duchess, a three-year-old apartment complex near the Hudson with 320 units in a trio of interconnected 12-story towers. The amenities include a heated outdoor pool that was recently reopened, a fitness area and a dog park.

Narcis Versteeg, 30, an Afghani-born lactation nurse, and her husband, Erik Versteeg, 33, a Dutch-born investment banker, moved to the Duchess in September. They chose it, Ms. Versteeg said, because the units are much bigger than their previous residence in Long Island City (before that, they lived in Amsterdam), “and there is more nature around.”

Their rental costs $4,500 a month for two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, two walk-in closets and Manhattan views. Outdoor parking for the couple’s new car is $125 a month, and the pet fee for their bernedoodle puppy, Ola, is $50 a month. Michael Pestronk, the Duchess’s developer, said the building stakes out a middle ground between urban convenience and suburban expansiveness, and is close to 90 percent occupied. The website currently offers two free months’ rent for new leases on select apartments.

North Bergen is the northernmost municipality in Hudson County. Shaped like a letter “L” that has been turned upside down, it has a proportionally short section of riverfront, much of it taken up by the Hackensack Meridian Health Palisades medical complex. (It also shares a 1.5-acre waterfront park with neighboring Guttenberg.) The stem of the “L” is sandwiched between Guttenberg, West New York and Union City to the east, and the Meadowlands, Secaucus and Kearny to the west. Bergen County is north and Jersey City south.

What North Bergen lacks in shoreline it makes up for in dramatic topography. Built on the Palisades clifftops, it has many east-west streets with precarious slopes and single-family houses tightly packed along the sides.

North-south arteries — principally Tonnelle Avenue, John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Bergenline Avenue and River Road — bind North Bergen to its neighbors and broadcast the region’s ethnic character.

Bergenline Avenue, the main commercial stretch, is dominated by businesses run by Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Peruvians, Hondurans, Cubans and their progeny. Recent reconfigurations have provided more room on the avenue for parking.

But pizzerias, a vestige of the decades when North Bergen was largely Italian, give taquerias a run for their money here. Popular examples include Roma on John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Gandolfo on Bergenline.

Neighborhoods are as diverse as the landscape. In addition to the high- and low-rise condos and apartment buildings near the waterfront, there is the Racetrack district, between Bergenline Avenue and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, named for a notorious 19th-century gambling attraction that evolved into an amusement park. This area borders the west side of Braddock Park and takes in the high school, the public library and the vintage White Castle on Kennedy Boulevard.

Woodcliff, on the south side of the park, between Boulevard East and Bergenline, is prized for its access to recreation and public transportation.

Bergenwood lies between John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Tonnelle Avenue and has especially steep grades.

Real estate agents say the housing supply is tight for home buyers but abundant for renters, who compose about 60 percent of the market. Ricardo Garcia, an agent with Re/Max Villa in North Bergen, said that many commuters who rent but have no certain timeline for returning to their offices are moving to less dense regions to work from home. (As of July 27, Hudson County had 2,647 reported Covid-19 cases and 1,502 deaths.) According to Zillow, the median rent in North Bergen is $1,990.

Data from the real estate brokerage Redfin shows that the average home sale price in June declined 15.3 percent over the previous year, to $360,000. The average time on the market was 94 days.

As of July 28, 159 residential properties were listed for sale, ranging from a 435-square-foot studio co-op on Boulevard East for $115,000, with a monthly homeowner’s fee of $694, including taxes, to a four-family building on Grand Avenue for $1.2 million, with taxes of $14,286.

Steven Barrera, 40, a chauffeur-relations manager at EmpireCLS, has been living in North Bergen since he was 7. What makes the township special, he said, is its diversity and sense of community.

Oh yes, and the setting. “We’re on Boulevard East, facing New York City,” he said of his two-bedroom apartment, for which he pays $2,200 a month. “The view that I have, I wish I could show you.”

The North Bergen School District has six elementary schools that extend from prekindergarten, kindergarten or first grade through eighth grade, and one high school. Together, they enroll about 7,660 students.

On 2019 state tests, 24 percent of the students met standards in math, versus 41 percent statewide; 44 percent met standards in English language arts, versus 53 percent statewide.

The average 2019 SAT scores at North Bergen High School, which serves about 2,260 students, were 482 in math and 495 in reading and writing.

In 2018, High Tech High School, a magnet school in North Bergen, moved to Secaucus, N.J. There are plans to develop the old campus into a middle school for seventh through ninth grades and to renovate North Bergen High School’s overcrowded building for grades 10 through 12. As of February, the $65 million project was scheduled to be completed in September 2022.


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