In Jersey City’s Paulus Hook, once-coveted brownstone garden apartments are mucked out, and reconsidered

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A downtown Jersey City storefront that was ravaged by Sandy. ()
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JERSEY CITY—In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, to walk down Sussex Street, a quiet, leafy stretch of brownstones and row-houses with a charm that rivals the more attractive enclaves of Brooklyn, was to feel as if you were visiting a large, multi-family sidewalk sale, except all of the bric-a-brac and furnishings were soggy, mud-stained, broken to pieces.

Sussex cuts through about half a mile of Jersey City's Paulus Hook neighborhood near the waterfront, starting at a football field used by St. Peter's Preparatory School, the local Jesuit high school, and ending at the Hudson River, whose waters rushed in Monday evening and brought ruin to the garden apartments on the western edge of the street, the base of a gentle slope that begins about three blocks from the river's banks.

These particular homes were also about three blocks outside the mandatory evacuation zone designated by city officials as Sandy was crawling up the eastern seaboard last weekend, so residents didn't expect the torrent to reach their front doors.

But by 9 p.m. Monday, according to people who live there, garbage cans were sailing down Sussex Street like small boats. Cars began to float precariously on the rising tide. The night sky was illuminated by bright blue sparks shooting out from the power lines above as the flood spread, eventually pouring over pavement as far west as the Grove Street PATH station near the heart of Jersey City's historic downtown district.

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Three days later, as the curbside trash heaps continued to swell, this small swath of Sussex Street—possibly one of the city's hardest hit—had become yet another tableau of the havoc Sandy wreaked on New York and New Jersey's coastal regions, from Atlantic City's storied boardwalk to the beachfront homes of the Rockaways.

Piled amid the detritus stacked up in front of most doorways were mattresses, sofas, dressers, sneakers, a litter box—in each case, perhaps just about everything someone had ever owned, down to the saturated edition of Great Expectations that was peeking out of a garbage can filled with paperbacks.

Outside of an apartment at the end of the block, Lauren Thebault, a 30-year-old who works for a branding firm in the city, was sifting through the wreckage with her husband, Beau Thebault, a 42-year-old self-employed consultant wearing yellow rain pants and a paint mask.

Beau works in Vermont, where he resides most of the time, and Lauren had joined him there earlier this week to escape the storm. Anticipating some light flooding, she had moved her possessions 2 feet off the ground before evacuating. When the couple returned late Wednesday night, they discovered that the water line on the apartment's walls had climbed as high as 6 feet.

"I knew it was gonna be bad," she said, "but I felt a lot better finally getting to see it."

Inside, Lauren's apartment looked like a cross between a swamp, a crime scene and a construction zone. She said the vast majority of her possessions were beyond repair, but that she was trying to salvage some clothing and glassware. Her plan is to spend some time back at Beau's cottage in Vermont and then couch surf for a few months before looking for a new place in Jersey City. The next house-hunt will come with at least one key requirement.

"I will never live in another garden-level apartment in a flood zone ever again," she said.

Some pictures of Thebault's apartment and the mess on Sussex Street and elsewhere in downtown Jersey City: