Despite the warning of the Bard of Barking (I dare not speak his name) that nostalgia is the opium of our age, every time I go down Brick Lane I see a new retro shop. With a few pints and the right music, I can get as sentimental about the past as the next person and I’ve been down memory lane today. But looking backwards shouldn’t be an industry – and can lead to you bumping into things that are in front of you.
When I first came to Jersey City in 1992 it had a reputation for grim. What used to be the fourth biggest city in the US had seen the economic tide go out with the traditional dockside and manufacturing industries of many places on the waterfront. The film of that name was shot just up river from Jersey City in Hoboken and if you see it (as everyone should), you’ll get an idea of the teeming activity of New York harbour in the 1950s.
When I pitched up to work as an intern for the public housing authority twenty years ago, I knew nothing about the place. When I came out of the train station, I literally had no idea where I was and was surprised to find myself so close to Manhattan. And its this proximity to the capital of capital that has wrought such dramatic changes to Jersey City in the intervening two decades.
From being a place that nobody wanted to go to, or wanted to get away from, Jersey City has become a dormitory of the financial district across the Hudson River, with the usual explosion of glass office blocks and ‘luxury’ riverside apartments.
It’s a story familiar to many other places and I feel it quite personally because of my own family history in the docking industry. I’m getting over what’s happened in London’s ‘docklands’, but I still get angry when I hear attempts to justify such spatial colonialism with the ‘trickle down’ theory, so in the year of the London Olympics, I’m angry quite a lot of the time.
Walking around Jersey City today provided yet more evidence that the rising tide does not lift all boats. I visited some of the housing estates (‘projects’) I used to know and found them, at least at a superficial level, in a worse state than in the early 90s. Perhaps the people who live there have all bought ‘condos’ overlooking the river, but I doubt it. The man who used to run the housing authority (Bob Rigby) and helped rescue it from oblivion used to refer to the time ‘when the lights went out’, by which he meant the financial crisis of the 70s and 80s when US cities were literally bankrupt, leading to a downward spiral of poorly maintained housing, unemployment, drugs and violence. The lights have gone out again.