Portions of this article have been updated.
Perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of the mammoth Ikea outlet next to Newark Liberty International Airport, Elizabeth was founded as New Jersey’s first English-speaking settlement in 1664. Now it’s the state’s fourth largest city and boasts a substantial Latino population. “We went to an Aterciopelados concert at Coco Bongo last year, and it’s a nice club with a high-tech sound system,” recalls Ewa Swirko, a Polish immigrant. “But while we were waiting in line outside, some guy was selling arepa. The juxtaposition of the hip and the traditional is really unique. I don’t know of any other city like that.” Many are also drawn here because of the affordable rents and proximity to Manhattan. “It’s cheap and a nice, quiet town,” says Phil Freeman, an editor who works in midtown.
Boundaries: The 11.69-square-mile city borders Newark and the Newark International Airport to the north, Staten Island to the east, Linden to the south, and Roselle Park to the west.
Transportation: New York Penn Station is a half-hour ride away on New Jersey Transit from the Elizabeth train station. Trains depart two to three times an hour during the day and twice an hour at night.
Main Drags: Broad Street and Elizabeth Avenue. Westfield Avenue is nicknamed Little Colombia because of its abundance of Colombian restaurants and stores.
Average Price to Rent: One-bedroom apartment, $750 ($700); two-bedroom apartment, $1,100 ($900).
Average Price to Buy: One-bedroom condo, $110,000 and up ($105,000); two-bedroom condo, $250,000 and up($152,500); single-family house, $300,000 and up ($250,000); two-family house, $400,000 and up ($485,000).
Local Shops: Locals shop at the new 1.7 million-square-foot Jersey Gardens Mall, New Jersey’s largest outlet center. For the convenience-minded, there are little bodegas everywhere.
Green Space: There are several parks in the city. As with all Latin communities, soccer is the sport of choice on weekends, but you can also find people of Indian descent playing cricket in Warinanco Park, which is bordered by St. Georges, Thompson, East Third, and Rahway avenues.
Cultural Institutions: Housed in a 150-year-old church, the Elizabeth Playhouse (1100 East Jersey Street) presents the work of modern playwrights. The Ritz Theater & Performing Arts Center (1148 East Jersey Street, 201-507-8900) routinely features Latin and hip-hop artists on weekends. The critically acclaimed Latin rock star Juanes and the legendary Celia Cruz have played there recently. The upscale Coco Bongo (429 North Broad Street, 908-527-1928) presents many popular Latin and hip-hop acts as well.
Local Landmarks: Selling stylized products, Ikea is more of a lifestyle choice for its fans than simply a shopping experience. People from all over flock to the one in Elizabeth, and they are buying in bulk—it’s not unusual to see rented vans and trucks (or even the odd NYC cab) in the lot. A word of warning: Go early if you dare make the trek on a weekend.
Famous Residents: E.Town Concrete is, as the band’s name implies, from Elizabeth (Locals call Elizabeth “E-town,” short for the city’s original name of Elizabethtown). L. Ron Hubbard’s first Scientology center was in Elizabeth. Jazz saxophonist Hank Mobley was raised here.
Best Restaurants: Madrid Restaurant (654 New Point Road, 908-289-6767) is the place to go when you want excellent Spanish food at reasonable prices. Most Latin restaurants are inexpensive family-run operations with homemade food. There’s a lot to choose from on Westfield Avenue, where the quality is remarkably high overall.
Best Bar: The hip Destino Lounge (185 Elmora Avenue, 908-994-0500) features DJs, with different styles spun each night of the week. “They serve nice drinks,” says Swirko, “and it’s more of a New York [City] type of crowd.”
Happenings: Live concerts will be held each Thursday at the new Elizabeth train station (11 West Grand Street) during the summer months.
Politicians: Mayor J. Christian Bollwage and councilmembers Manny Grova Jr., Carla Mazza, Robert M. Jaspan, Carlos Alma, William Gallman Jr., Angelo A. Paternoster, Frank Cuesta, Edward Jackus, and Patricia Perkins-Auguste. Elizabeth is part of New Jersey’s 20th District, served by State Senator Raymond Lesniak and assemblymen Neil M. Cohen and Joseph Cryan, all Democrats.
Crime Stats: The New Jersey State Police reported for Elizabeth City 10 murders, 14 rapes, 474 robberies, 202 aggravated assaults, 964 burglaries, and 1,644 motor vehicle thefts in 2004. (The New Jersey State Police reported five murders, 16 rapes, 548 robberies, 279 aggravated assaults, 912 burglaries, 3,403 larceny-thefts, and 2,001 motor-vehicle thefts for 2001).