There’s no such thing as an amateur historian. That’s because history requires no credentials to access or chronicle besides good faith. If you’re fascinated by an old object or an old place near you, a self-directed investigation into its origins is just as valid as any inquiry done on campus. Sometimes it’s more consequential, too. Brett Miller (IG: @brettofgreenvillejc) became intrigued by the World War I memorial monument in Ferris Triangle Park (247 Old Bergen Rd., IG: @ferris_triangle_park) in his home neighborhood of Greenville. Miller hasn’t just researched the names of fallen Jersey City soldiers cast in metal. He’s also been moved to organize an event at the site and commemorate the century-old monument, and the day, all over again.

At 2PM on Sunday, May 26, Miller will give the opening remarks at the Memorial Day Observation at Ferris Triangle Park. Then he’ll turn the podium over to a series of speakers and readers, including Benedicto Figueroa of SMUSH Gallery, Father Martin Malzahn, the thoughtful Episcopal clergyman who leads the services at St. Paul and Incarnation Church on Duncan Ave., and the celebrated local poet Rashad Wright, fresh from a heartfelt performance at the MANA Contemporary Open House that foregrounded his experience in the National Guard. In 2024, the world is a much more confrontational place than we’d like it to be. An afternoon of quiet reflection — and a reminder of the price of belligerence — certainly can’t hurt.

We caught up with Brett Miller for a chat about Memorial Day commemorations, Triangle Park, local history, and Greenville’s relationship to Downtown Jersey City.

Tris McCall/Montreal Olympics: What does Memorial Day mean to you? Was it important to you as a young person?

Brett Miller: Growing up, I never knew anyone who was killed in war, so Memorial Day never meant much to me. Memorial Day would waft over my local cemetery like a fog, it seemed. The next morning, I’d see a few tiny flags next to gravestones — 1864, 1918, 1944 — but I never participated.

TMC/JCT: How is it different in 2024?

BM: This year, more than ever, it feels personal and sad as I’ve looked into the names on this monument. I’ve always known about the number of dead in wars — I think I’ve read quadruple about World War II than the average person has — but I’ve never focused on the individual names.

To quote something often attributed to Stalin (unfortunately, because it’s a powerful quote), a million casualties is a statistic but an individual casualty is a tragedy. As I started learning about these men, that’s how I felt. I felt like I was witnessing a tragedy again and again and again.

TMC/JCT: Did something prompt you to pay closer attention to the monument?

BM: I mean, in our park, we’ve always done nature events, gardening, and amazing art. The monument just sits at the end of the park. I never paid it much attention. But the more I looked at it, the more interesting I found it.

Originally, I just wanted to decorate it for Memorial Day. But the event grew from there.

TMC/JCT: How did you research the names on the monument?

BM: I sent email to the New Jersey Room at Van Vorst Library. The librarians were an incredible help — Amanda [Dominguez] especially. Just yesterday, the Jersey City Landmarks Commission had a Zoom meeting with me and found even more information.

Honestly, I wish I had months to prepare. I’m trying to tie together a narrative with the information I have. But anyone who knows me or my wife knows that we just make an event with limited time and budget and do the best we can!

TMC/JCT: I imagine that it’s difficult recovering anything from the life stories of people who lived and died a hundred years ago. What sort of records still exist?

BM: I have loved looking at draft cards — the card you were required to fill out once you turned 17/18. Now it’s called Selective Service, I believe. Some men seem to have filled it out in a hurry. They gave the info, and that was that. But then there were men who, if you look between the lines, seem to plea for an exemption. Owen Leibold twice wrote that he had a widowed mother who he cared for. He was killed in battle. His mother visited his grave in France in 1930.

One family I want to highlight is the Treacys of Greenville. One brother lost his wife and baby months before the war and decided to enlist in the army. The other brother wanted an exception because he was married and had a young daughter. They both ended up going to war, and they both died.

TMC/JCT: Were they representative of the kind of Jersey City residents who fought in World War I? Was there are culture of long-time military families here? Or was it mostly poor people and immigrants?

BM: It seems like the majority were laborers and sons of immigrants. Laborer is the most common profession I find on the draft cards. Married men were also drafted.

This is not to say that all the men were dragged into the war. Part of the complexity of Memorial Day is that the dead are a combination of volunteers, draftees, and those who simply joined to avoid trouble. Or those who thought they just had do. To quote my grandpa: “everyone went, that’s just what it was.”

I started off focused on how these men died. But the larger question is why. What drove them into battle? Or maybe nothing did — and they just tried to hold on.

TMC/JCT: The tone of early Memorial Day commemorations is pretty mournful. Do you think the way we talk about war has changed?

BM: Upon reading about the unveiling of the monument in 1921, the speakers don’t seem to follow the “died for us” logic that Memorial Day does now. I think after World War I, and especially after the Great Influenza, most of the world was disturbed by what had happened, but had to bottle it up and regurgitate it via monuments, statues, and dedications to justify all the deaths. There are more monuments to World War I than there are to World War II.

When the men who fought came back, we had no concept of PTSD or anything like that. They returned to a rapidly urbanizing and changing part of the country. I don’t want to generalize, but I think they felt they had to just keep it moving.

Yet 5,000 people attended the original dedication. There was a lot of lasting grief.

TMC/JCT: The first speaker reminded us that immigrants were Americans — which was probably just as necessary for us to hear in 1921 as it is a hundred years later.

BM: Yes, that was Judge James McCarthy’s opening line. “The foreigner who becomes an American is as good as a natural-born American, and there must be a spirit of toleration.” I want to think he was referring to Giovanni Belvito, who was a naturalized American who died in battle.

The fact that he needed to say it first is very important. These statements don’t come out of a vacuum. He was speaking to anti-immigrant sentiment at the time.

TMC/JCT: How did you pick your speakers?

BM: I wanted the event to be centered around poetry. I think that speaks to people in different ways. I don’t think Memorial Day should tell you how to feel. It should be something you decide internally.

I knew Benedicto Figueroa through the amazing Text-for-Poem program. He chose Ferris Triangle Park to represent Greenville. I know Father Martin Malzahn through Episcopal Jersey City, which offers support of the Friends of Ferris Triangle, although we remain a secular organization. He always seems to have a poem to fit an occasion. When my wife [Natasha Arbelo] died last year, he sent me the perfect poem.

I knew closing speaker Calvin Palmer though his 4H work. I had no idea he was a Vietnam vet and a drill instructor.

TMC/JCT: So many people have military backgrounds that, for one reason or another, they don’t talk about very much. I’ve seen Rashad Wright read and perform many times, but I didn’t know he was part of the National Guard. After his performance at MANA, I now realize that’s an important part of his story. Did you know that about him?

BM: I did, actually. Not that one needs to be a veteran to speak at a Memorial Day event — I’m not, Ben isn’t, Father Martin isn’t — but I think that history adds gravitas to his work.

TMC/JCT: When did you start organizing activities at Triangle Park?

BM: Back in 2021. My wife was originally the most involved. She’d put on events and I’d just help her out. When she became very ill, I started putting things together by myself. That was tough at first. She was much more personable than I am. People just opened up to her.

In September 2023, we had her first event since she passed. We’ve done three since.

TMC/JCT: When I first moved to Jersey City in 2003, there wasn’t much crosstalk between Greenville and the Downtown neighborhoods. They almost felt like two different cities. I’d like to think that’s changing. Do you think we’re making progress toward unity?

BM: That’s tough to answer, because personally, I don’t go Downtown very much. They definitely feel like two different cities. We rarely get visitors to our events from Downtown. Our target audience really is local families. Triangle is one of only two Greenville parks that are part of the Parks Coalition.

TMC/JCT: When did you move to Greenville, and where were you before this?

BM: We moved here in 2018 — right after my daughter was born. My wife was from Union City, and we were living there. But we couldn’t afford Union City anymore, nor could we afford the rest of Jersey City.

When we first came to Greenville, we were pretty unhappy. It was a big change, and we were in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. But after a few years, we said “We live here now. Our daughter goes to school here. We need to get involved.” We did. And we ended up loving it.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...