Jersey Homesteads Historic District
We here in the Bayshore know how very special this part of Monmouth County is, how overflowing it is with fascinating history and personages. We’re so proud of this section of the County that we tend to overlook there’s plenty of history of a different kind on the western side of Monmouth. The Weekend in Old Monmouth gave me the opportunity to see some of the historic sites in western Monmouth and through it, found old-fashioned sheep shearing at the Baird Homestead in Millstone together with its magnificent Greek Revival farmhouse and stable barn. And I also discovered Roosevelt, a treasure of the 20th century on its own!
Roosevelt is a town onto itself, created as one of 100 or so resettlement communities across the nation that grew up under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program in the Depression era 1930s. Simply, it was a cooperative community for New York Jewish garment workers and today the entire town is on the state and National Historic registries.
The original settlers in the 200 homes built under the program were also culturally and artistic minded, so in addition to each of the homes giving a uniform appearance with their style including flat roofs all designed by architects Alfred Kastner and Louis Kahn, they invited one of the best known and revered artists of the day, Ben Shahn, to paint a mural on the wall of the school in town. And Shahn and his wife were so captivated by both the people and the idea of the community, they settled there! Today, their son is still a resident of Roosevelt and one of the artists who has made this community stand apart. His bust of Franklin Roosevelt is on the front lawn of the pre K through 6th grade school.
But Ben Shahn’s magnificent mural is a sight to behold! Covering the entire expanse of the wall in the main entrance to the elementary school, the mural covers the history of the Jewish settlers, from the time they arrived at Ellis Island, went through the immigration process, then began their work in the garment factories of New York. The community was known as Jersey Homesteads then, (the residents changing the name after Roosevelt’s death to commemorate the president) and though designed to show the plight of the Jewish workers during the Depression, art historians also point to the sequence of paintings following the Jewish Passover Seder text of slavery, deliverance and redemption.
The mural is depicted in three panels, with the first showing the obstacles of the immigrants struggling for a new life in areas where they were not welcomed. The second depicts poor living conditions and sweatshop labor situations…long hours, hard work, little pay. Figures in this panel represent union leaders and it’s easy to identify John L Lewis, the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, and the movement to establish the international Ladies Garment Workers Union. The third panel shows the cooperative efforts of unions and government in creating a town such as Jersey Homesteads.