Destination Union City: the Hometown Hudson Roots of Bob Menendez

Bob Menendez says many times that he grew up in a “tenement” in Union City.

This fact is meant to convey two related themes – he rose from very modest roots and has not forgotten them. In fact, one of his first TV commercials this campaign made precisely that point.

The now-senator recalls that his old building had heat and hot water, but not all the time.

The other day, I visited the tenement in question at 4607 Hudson Avenue. It’s familiar terrain for me.

In what is an odd coincidence, both Menendez and Republican candidate Bob Hugin grew up in Union City at about the same time – the late 1950’s and 1960’s.  So did I.

Late last month, Hugin accompanied me on a walking tour of his old neighborhood – he lived on 12th Street.

I offered Menendez the same opportunity, but was told his schedule would not allow it. The Senate is still in session. So, we chatted over the phone about his Union City roots.

But first, the senator’s old neighborhood.

It’s on the other side of town from where Hugin grew up. But that’s a very relative term. In small, but congested, Union City, we’re talking about probably a mile or so.

The house in which the senator was raised is a four-story building that today houses many families. That was the case 50 years ago as well.

Menendez was born in New York City, but moved across the river when he was an infant. The elementary school he attended – Roosevelt – is literally down the block from 4607 Hudson.  Young Bob Menendez could walk to school without having to cross a street.

It has been probably assumed by many over the years that Menendez’ parents fled a Castro-run Cuba. They did not. They migrated to the United States in the early 1950’s when the island was controlled by Fulgencio Batista.

The senator says his mother was the driving force behind the relocation. She did not like Batista’s rule, but as Menendez put it, his mother was also wary at “what was happening in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.” That was where Fidel Castro and his followers had established a guerrilla base before the revolution.

Looking back six decades and reflecting on his mother’s political perceptions, the senator noted a bit ruefully that a left wing dictatorship is as bad as a right wing one.

There had been some Cuban immigration to northern Hudson County during the early 1950’s, primarily from the town of Fomento. Still, the Menendez family’s arrival predated the wave of Cuban immigration that materialized after Castro’s 1959 takeover of the government.

Menendez said he learned to speak English early in life and had little trouble adjusting to school. After Roosevelt, he attended Union Hill School, which was nine blocks away at 38th Street and Hudson Avenue.

City Hall, where Menendez’ political career truly was launched, is one block west of Union Hill.

At the same time, Hugin was attending Emerson High School 20 blocks to the south.

Sport fans from Hudson County of a certain age will remember the annual Thanksgiving Day football game between Emerson and Union Hill.

The rivalry began in 1919 and continued until 2007 when the schools merged into a central Union City High School. Emerson and Union Hill are now junior highs.

Menendez did not play football at Union Hill, but he says he played a lot of “schoolyard” football. This is generally two-hand touch, but as many who played can remember, it often morphed into tackle. Bruises and scraped knees were common. As for high school sports, Menendez was on the bowling team, where he remembered his high game was a rather pedestrian 192.

The senator often has given credit to Gail Harper, a high school speech teacher, who he said encouraged him to speak publicly. He said Harper passed away a number of years ago, but that she lived long enough to see him serve in the House of Representatives.

Menendez began that service in 1993.

At this point, it’s worth wondering if Menendez’ seemingly unremarkable upbringing clashed with the reality of a changing city.

More than 100 years ago, Germans were the main ethnic group in Union City. They were followed by those of Italian descent, many of whom migrated from Hoboken. As one growing up in Union City in the 1960’s.

I can attest that many old-time residents didn’t welcome the arriving Cubans by throwing them a parade.

I asked Menendez if he experienced any ethnic backlash.

Not as a youth, he said. The senator remembered dinners with other families in his apartment building, not  all of whom were Cuban.

In school, he said everyone got along and that everyone was treated equally.

Politics, though, was different.  It is well-known that he was elected to the city school board in 1974 at the young age of 20. No need to dwell on that.

But what is instructive to the point at hand is that at a public meeting , Menendez said he referred once to Jose Marti, the 19th century Cuban fighter for independence, and was told not to do that by many in the room.

Later, when he won a seat on the Union City Board of Commissioners, Menendez said a woman addressing the elected leaders was having trouble expressing herself in English.

Menendez told her to speak in Spanish, explaining in our phone conversation that , “she was a taxpayer” and had a right to be heard.

Shouts of “Speak English, Speak English,” filled the room, he remembered.

Such stories are hardly unique, nor are they dated. Even today, demographic change is not universally accepted.

But Menendez had an ace up his sleeve, so to speak. He said he offered to take those yelling “Speak English” to the city clerk’s office for a history lesson. He wanted to show them that in the city’s early days, the German influence was so strong, meeting minutes were recorded in German. Really.

Getting back to the battle at hand, the senator says coming from Union City, a gritty place with a diverse group of people struggling to get ahead – or sometimes to move away – “enriches (my) experience.” And by extension, widens his perspective. It is one that most U.S. senators do not have. Even Cory Booker, the state’s other senator, grew up in the genteel Bergen County suburbs.

Menendez agreed that it is an “interesting coincidence” that he and Hugin were raised in the same city at the same time, Both graduated from high school in 1972.

But he said Hugin went in a different direction.

Ironically, that is precisely what Hugin says about him.

Hugin’s take is that Menendez became a career and a corrupt politician and that he (Hugin) became a Marine and a successful businessman.

The Menendez take is that Hugin became a greedy CEO and that he (Menendez) has served the people for more than four decades.

Similar to past battles between Emerson and Union Hill, this contest between two of the schools’ graduates will be settled in November.

But on Nov. 6, not Thanksgiving Day.

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