Opinion-The Bayonne Box: No Place like Home

By Sharon Adarlo

The Bayonne Box is ubiquitous in the New York City area; according to some people, most of them are cheap and ugly looking, with their off-the-shelf vinyl siding and boxy proportions. There are also the relatively small number of windows to surface area, the ground level room often serving as illegal apartment units, the ground-floor garage and driveway cutting into precious sidewalk space, and the tiny sliver of alley way between a Bayonne Box and another building that is only fit for trash cans and cat colonies. I get some people’s arguments (such as Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop) that there are better looking and more appropriate housing for cities such as tall mixed-used apartment units over retail with very little parking. These are the kind of housing that some urbanists love because they encourage walking and bicycling—important elements that make for a lively downtown community.

But I am here to extol the virtues of the Bayonne Box, not denigrate them like so many. I am biased. I have lived in one within spitting distance of the Peter Rodino Federal Building and Prudential Center in Downtown Newark since 2008. I too had a bad impression of the Bayonne Box (mostly from other people’s opinions) when I first moved into my current abode, which my mother-in-law bought in the depths of the 2007–08 financial crisis. Our house is not trendy at all. It won’t be winning any design awards anytime soon with its basic three-story configuration on top of a two-car garage, all overlooking a basic asphalt driveway. But the house has really grown on me over the years, and I think it’s a rare lucky find. Where else can you find a 2,000 square foot single family home with a spacious garage, driveway, backyard and large attic in Downtown Newark? My house and my neighbor’s home are the only Bayonne Boxes in that exact configuration while other Bayonne Boxes nearby are two or three family homes. 

Illustration by Sharon Adarlo

Inside my home, the boxy interior lends itself as a blank canvas for all the art we make for ourselves and collect, from local and international artists. We actually have plenty of light pouring into the space. I especially love the north facing windows we have in our bedroom—it’s the perfect space to read a book or daub paint on canvas in that cool north light. The south facing windows are wonderful for the 100 plus plants we keep inside. And our quirky, L-shape backyard, while small in comparison to friends’ yards in Summit and Montclair, teems with life. In our first summer, we raised what seemed like a never-ending bounty of eggplant and squash in our raised beds. In subsequent summers, we have made the backyard into a wildlife oasis by bringing in native pollinator plants such as milkweed and violets. If you go down into the yard on a nice clear morning during the summer, you will catch glimpses of darting dragonflies, bumblebees taking naps in the middle of sunflower heads, cabbage butterflies and colorful swallowtails. In the last few years, I have taken to raising Monarch butterflieds from tiny eggs we find in the underside of milkweed leaves. Last summer, I successful hatched what seemed like 30 plus Monarchs, many of them destined for migration to Mexico in the fall. 

Photo by Sharon Adarlo

What I also love about my house is we have a garage, where I have a mini woodshop corner, a mig welder, a treadmill, and ice chest. Between the garage and driveway, we have enough space for four cars. The ground floor room acts as a de facto library for our numerous books. The attic is a commodious space filled with our off-season clothes, camping gear and miscellaneous bric-a-brac.

What’s also great about the house is its location. In seasons past, we have walked to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Prudential Center for events. Schools, daycare, grocery stores, various retail, and more are just a short hop and skip away. Newark Penn Station is also a 15 to 20-minute walk from our front stoop. I feel like I have the best of both worlds, a suburbanesque house with downtown amenities at my fingertips. I feel so enormously lucky to live here that when we do contemplate moving out, my husband and I usually just end our query with us affirming that the house is wonderful and the location can’t be beat.

What I also love about the house is how its generous, boxy proportions have welcomed long term and short-term sleepers. We have been able to put up family for New York Comic Con or have a ready bed for weary visitors from New York City. Two extra bedrooms have been host to various brothers. The walls have seen rowdy parties and candle light suppers.

The house is also testament to our mother in law’s resourcefulness and foresight. We assumed the mortgage on the house from her in 2014. Without her help, we would not have been able to afford the building, which has appreciated tremendously over the years. Most of the new living dwellings in Downtown Newark are luxury apartment units you can only rent so we feel very lucky. We would not be able to afford Downtown Newark at today’s prices.

There have been a few articles published in that past saying the Bayonne Box fills the niche for the “missing middle”—affordable housing for middle class families, many of whom are immigrants.

As Roma Abousleiman in a Jersey Digs article explains, “An interesting term, coined by Daniel Parolek, accurately characterizes this type of housing: the ‘Missing Middle.’ America’s ‘Missing Middle’ is the midscale, traditional urban housing typologies that used to be what American cities were comprised of – duplexes, triplexes, flats, for instance. Parolek’s firm, Opticos, defines his term as ‘a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.’ Sounds familiar, right? (Hint: the Bayonne Box.)”

There is a reason why the Bayonne Box increased in number in the post-war era: a need for cheap, affordable housing that could accommodate a car. But their image has seen a drubbing because these buildings do not efficiently use urban lots in the way vertical apartment buildings do. And they look dated. As Abousleiman points out:

“Surprisingly, research findings actually highlighted benefits of the Box that its inhabitants have appreciated for decades. The main benefit being that inexpensive and easy construction makes these houses very affordable. Affordability is an essential point because the main community for whom they provide housing is the immigrant community, a community that is notorious for working tirelessly to establish themselves in a place that is foreign to them. The multi-unit aspect allows them to occupy one structure with their extended family members—something that rings very important to immigrants.”

We fill that profile exactly. We are a striving immigrant family that uses the house as a multi-generational nest. 

I concede the Bayonne Box could look better, and there are attempts to pretty up these boxes that I have seen in various neighborhoods in and around Newark and in city planning literature. In the future, we plan on upgrading the exterior with better finishes. We have already begun to upgrade our interior with fresh coats of paint and new fixtures. But if you go by our experience and many others like us, the Bayonne Box has been a great success in giving us suburban comfort with urban amenities and a wonderful, affordable place to live. There’s no place like home, and that’s my Bayonne Box.

For more from the author visit: www.sharonadarlo.com/

Featured image shamelessly lifted from Zillow