JERSEY CITY, NJ - Street kids in Jersey City had two names they regularly called Detective Calvin Hart: Uncle Calvin” and “Creepers.” Both were signs of respect he earned as a tough but fair cop in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Jersey City.
They recognized the Chevy he drove around town when he kept tabs on kids in places like Currie’s Woods and other housing projects. They knew that he always kept a pair of binoculars so he could see what was going down and put a stop to it.
Hart, who passed away earlier this month, is being fondly remembered for the work he did with young people. “Hart serviced the community well,” said Freeholder Anthony Romano, who served as a captain in the Hoboken police department and knew him well. “He was very law enforcement-minded, but he also cared about people. He was an icon in the African-American community.”
The iconic figure became the model for a character in the novel, “Sea of Love” which was later adapted by Spike Lee into the film “Clockers.” The author, Richard Price, traveled with Hart on his beat in Jersey City before publishing the book in 1986. Clockers made Hart a superstar, but never changed his mission.
“He was a supporter of advocate awareness and treatment long before it became popular,” said former-Gov. Jim McGreevey, who operates a state-wide drug awareness program, headquartered in Kearny. “He had tremendous insight that treatment was essential to address the drug story. He saw how the scourge of addiction in every community and understood that awareness and early intervention and drug treatments were essential battling this.”
Yet as a full time juvenile cop who spent his on duty, and often off duty, hours looking out for kids in a part of the city where he grew up, he earned the respect of the neighborhood – even at times the people he put into jail.
He would arrest drug dealers, but also get them into drug treatment programs. He visited the kids in jail he busted, and helped get them jobs when they got out. At 6 foot 3 inches tall, he loomed large in their lives, often playing basketball with neighborhood kids.
If he saw a kid getting into trouble, he was known to take him home and talk to the parents. He knew how hard the street was, and had seen a few kids die violently.
While he didn’t fall into a life of crime, he had a troubled youth from which he eventually recovered. He was born and raised in Jersey City. His parents and grandparents lived there.
Hart was raised by his mother, although he was in frequent contact with his father, also a Jersey City cop. He joined the U.S Marines after graduating high school and was wounded three times in combat in Vietnam.
When he returned, he took up various jobs, got married, and then started drinking, which broke up his marriage. He later remarried his wife after he overcame his addiction.
Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis worked with Hart when they were both homicide detectives in their respective towns. “We were good friends,” Davis said. “He made me laugh. We worked homicide together from 1993 to 1996.
Davis said Hart knew what it was like to grow up with addiction. “He was an alcoholic,” Davis said. “And he was the first to admit it.”
“I went through it all – sleeping in abandoned buildings, standing in the soup lines and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy” Hart said in a 1997 magazine interview. Davis said Hart – with the help of a Jersey City police officer – reinvented himself. That same cop encouraged Hart to become a cop.
Hart later bragged about being the oldest rookie on the Jersey City police force, where he quickly became a narcotics detective and later went on to work for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.
He was a frequent lecturer at schools in Jersey City and Bayonne, and often said he was “the real deal”, there to tell kids things their friends and drug dealers wouldn’t tell them. “People using alcohol and drugs are not thinking of ways to better themselves because they are not thinking at all,” he said in a newspaper interview in February 2000.
He said the pattern of abuse dates back to the days of slavery when masters would give slaves alcohol to keep them from thinking. “It’s not so different now,” he would say.
Commercial television contributes to the problem because it keeps giving out the message that if someone feels bad, they should take something, Hart offered,, adding that “the truth is that you don’t have to take anything but air to feel good,” he said.
When “Clockers” was shown in Jersey City theaters for the first time, local kids chanted, “Calvin! Calvin!” when he did a cameo in the film. He later said he was disappointed by the fact that Spike Lee had cut out all of his speaking parts, but took solace in the fact that main character was based on his career as a cop in Jersey City – and by the fact that he has had a huge impact on the youth of the city.
Hart was an early believer in the concept of “tough love,” and frequently tried to shock the kids he worked with into understanding the consequences of drugs. He showed pictures of deformed babies, drug addicts shooting themselves in various places and swollen arms from needle overuse. He even took kids to witness autopsies.
“This is not like TV,” he said in another interview. “This is the real thing.”
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