There are two pencil factories in Jersey City. One is the 150-year old Dixon Ticonderoga pencil factory that now warehouses 467 apartments instead of pencils and erasers. The other is the 120-year-old General Pencil Company that lives a block away from me on Fleet Street.
When I reminisce about my neighborhood and how, on certain days of the week, I can smell the distinct cedar aroma of fresh-out-of-the-box pencils, I am quickly corrected by other Know-Nothing Jersey City-ites that, “the pencil factory was converted to apartments.”
When I tell them there are two pencil factories in Jersey City — and one of them is still making pencils — they are always shocked to learn not only that Jersey City has a second pencil factory, but that pencils are still being manufactured today at all.
The Weissenborn family formed General Pencil in 1889 and six generations later, Katie Weissenborn is the president of the company. General Pencil’s main office is now in California, but the pencils are still made right here in Jersey City and you can buy a General Pencil anywhere in the world.
When history is rooted into the everyday life of an urban core for over a century as a working, thriving business with a global reach — but many residents of the city mistake that living success for dead apartments — one begins to ponder the meaning of community awareness and the value of perseverance and longevity in a throwaway world.
Would General Pencil be more well-known and celebrated if they’d abandoned the Jersey City Heights neighborhood for an industrial complex in Passaic? Are belonging and ownership no longer found in the organic negotiation between an embedded neighborhood business and its citizen neighbors?
Is civic pride born of the relationship between a city and its profits or is civic pride merely a dead political platitude dissolving in the ether of instant messaging and the internets?
I love smelling of pencils and when that woodsy perfume permeates my dreams and my day I know what those who lived here before me had wafting through their noses in 1889.
That complex connection to the past brings the city history of a community to life and a bright line is drawn connecting then and here and that time bending is witnessed by eraser dust and cedar shavings.