Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Matters of Time

The two downtown public clocks, on Newark & Jersey and Newark & Grove haven’t had the right time in a while, must be months. Maybe years ago, the clocks had a real purpose in the public space. Everybody could set their watch or timepiece to the same central, agreed upon, authority. More importantly back then, one imagines that not everybody could afford a time piece. They depended on the clock towers on Newark.

In our modern era, most everybody has a watch, usually more than one time piece—I hate wearing a watch, I rely on my cell-phone for the time. But during my near daily walk down Newark, like my fellow citizens and pedestrians, I experience a moment of unsettled confusion when I see the wrong time on the clock towers. More often than not, I immediately check my cell-phone to verify my current when. The Clock Tower time is not just an hour off, it’s several hours and minutes off. I can’t synchronize in my mind the correct time like I do with my Alarm Clock which I’ve always set 35 minutes ahead. It wouldn’t be so bad if the clocks were stopped—then at least they’d be right twice a day. The pictures I took here were about five after nine one chilly morning and as you can see, the clock says twelve seventeen. The clock towers disrupt our pedestrian synchronicity.
“You feel very uneasy when you see the wrong time,” said Robert Armstrong, Lawyer/Actor and long time Jersey City resident. “What does it say about a city when even its clocks can’t run on time.”

The clocks have run on time but I can’t remember when they last were correct. Seems like a very long time ago. Nobody notices when the clocks tell the right time. When they work, all appears normal with the public square. Correct time is taken for granted. But when the clocks are off, constantly, for weeks and months, you always feel unsettled. How can we be sure of the right time? Is anarchy looming in the horizon? Is that recession you read about in the newspaper affecting time? How come our city can afford fancy new double street lamps but not fix the clocks?

Actually, the downtown clock tower story seems interesting and still has some mystery. I did some investigating—I called the Verdin Company, who manufactured the clocks. On the clock is a metal emblem with their name and 800-number. They’ve been making public clocks and similar public objects since 1842. If you look at old pictures of Newark Avenue, you see the familiar clock towers. Have these clocks been in downtown since the 1890s. Well, yes and... no.In the Jersey Historic Room at the Main Branch of the Jersey City, the oldest evidence of clocks actually dates to a post card from what is believed to be 1910. But the clocks are on either side of Newark Avenue at the corners of Grove, not in the places they now are at Newark & Erie, and Newark & Grove—on the east side of Grove.

If you look very closely on the right, squint and follow the sidewalk, you will see the original, pre-1997 Erie Street clock.

According to the person I spoke with at Verdin—the clocks date back to 1997, and are Howard Replicas—Howard was another public clock manufacturer from the 19th century. The clock was ordered by the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation and there is paper work at Verdin dating back to 1993. They wanted to copy the existing clocks. I found pictures that included the clock from the 1950s and what I’m guessing is the 1930s. More recent images of Newark Avenue I couldn’t track down in the Historic Room. If you look at these pictures, on the right hand side, you will see the clock at Erie Street. The clocks on corners of Newark & Grove are obviously gone, I couldn’t find pictures of the spot on Grove where the clock is currently located—which means I can’t verify when that clock was first there.

The clocks are serviced by the Public Works Department of Jersey City, and it appears the towers were recently painted. For some reason make-shift barriers have been erected around the clock towers. I haven’t contacted the PWD or the JCEDC—because, well life is short and I don’t have the time. Was there ever a time the clocks were not there? I don’t know. I can’t remember. Neither can Armstrong. Time is a mystery I’ve learned to endure. I hope you can do likewise.

What we do remember is that the time is always wrong—our now and the clock’s now are not the same present. Will we always be uncertain as to when is the right now?

Help is on the way. “The City can do routine and preventative maintenance, but for major work one of our regional technicians have to go onsite,” said the Verdin spokesperson. “You’re in luck, it looks like there is a work order from Jersey City for a major refurbishment of the clock. It will probably take two to four days, but we don’t send techs out in the cold weather. After the winter, the clock will be back on time.”

The spokesperson believed this would be the first time major maintenance will be conducted on the J.C. downtown clock towers since their 1997 installation.

All Bob-free images used in this blog post are courtesy of the Jersey City Free Public Library, the New Jersey Room.


  1. Nice post, Tim, nothing annoys me more (and LOTS of stuff annoys me) than when I see clocks on buildings or on street corners that have the wrong time. The clocks were running but with the weong time since around Sept. when there was a mini-blackout on Newark. Now since they replaced the light poles they arent working at all. Irks me.

  2. I think that blackout was in october, but I don't think the clocks were right then either. It is irksome!

    I believe I blogged about it in cover

  3. i mean, october