Jersey City: America in one place (unedited)

Tribune published this on their website yesterday.  I’m grateful, but their edit changed the meaning of at least one point I was trying to make, so here’s the original.  I wrote the article before Trump went on his latest racist rampage.  It’s good to see there’s a growing consensus seeing his comments for what they are, even if neither of the UK’s next potential prime ministers are able to.  But it’s the social and political dynamic of places like Jersey City that sets the scene for the racist resurgence.

Jersey City: America in one place

Next year’s presidential election has implications way beyond America.  Another four years of Trump would signal reactionary forces tightening their global grip, with the prospect of continued environmental damage, heightened tension in the Middle East and beyond, legitimised racism, sexism and homophobia and – for a possibly post-Brexit UK – a closer relationship with US predatory capitalism.  American voters will determine some of these fates in November 2020.  18 months from the election, I re-visited a place that encapsulates the domestic issues that will decide the outcome.

Jersey City is on the west bank of the Hudson River, across from downtown Manhattan.  I first went there in 1992.  When I arrived at Newark airport, the customs officer asked me “Why would you want to go there?”  Back then, Jersey City was seen as the epitome of post-industrial America.  It had declined from being one of the 10 biggest cities in the US, to a place with a semi-derelict waterfront, abandoned factories and deep poverty.  It was the setting for Richard Price’s novel “Clockers”, published the same year I first visited.  Price described the population of Jersey City as “three hundred thousand mostly angry blue collar and welfare families”: prophetic words that, to some extent, have defined American politics ever since, culminating in 2016.  Jersey City reflects the deep cleavages and tensions in US society which produced President Trump.

The clearest evidence of this is the meteoric, unchecked rise of the property industry of which Trump is the figurehead.  In the last 20 years, the Jersey City waterfront has been transformed beyond recognition by high-rise apartment blocks, offices and hotels, among them the 55-storey Trump Plaza.  This Manhattan overspill led the property consultants CBRE to say in 2015 “The hottest place for New York City money is in Jersey City”.  The downtown area around Grove Street, which used to be a slightly sleepy collection of brownstones and “mom and pop” stores, is now festooned with expensive bars, restaurants and yoga studios.  Their customers are mostly young, white, professionals working in the nearby corporate towers, or taking the PATH train to Manhattan.  But as in America as a whole, this influx of affluence hasn’t spread evenly across Jersey City.

During my fist visit, I stayed at the clergy house of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, not far from Grove Street.  It used to be the centrepiece of a predominantly Hispanic, working class community, but the demographic shifts in downtown Jersey City have put paid to that.  When I looked through the church windows a few weeks ago, the pews, pulpit and confession boxes had all gone.  St Bridget’s is a shell, due to be redeveloped as apartments.  Five minutes-walk away, I came to Montgomery Gardens, a former public housing development.  It too, was deserted, the doors and windows shuttered, awaiting government-sponsored demolition by a private developer.  In 1992 (when I worked there), it was home to 1,300 people, among the 10,000 public housing tenants in Jersey City.  Now it’s victim to the nationwide attack on public housing that has led to a net reduction of social rented homes, displacement and the destruction of working class communities.

The signs of this are evident around Journal Square, once Jersey City’s commercial and transport hub, featuring some magnificent architecture.  Today it’s a scene of dilapidation and faded grandeur, a bit like an English seaside town without the beach.  During the day, scores of the homeless and dispossessed (almost all of them black) gather to beg change and share each other’s company in a place that has turned its back on them.  Next to where they sit is a vacant two-acre site that’s been due for redevelopment for six years, by a company headed by none other than Jared Kushner.  Montgomery Gardens has been moth-balled for a similar period.  The juxtaposition of homeless people, with a site being hoarded by the son-in-law of the US President, not far from hundreds of habitable social rented homes should raise fundamental questions about allowing property developers to be in control of our urban and housing policy.

This corporate urbanism is inscribed with racism.  Jersey City has long been a centre of immigration and is sometimes described as having the most ethnically diverse population of any US city.  But as in the country as a whole, the demographic pattern reflects deep-seated economic inequality and social isolation.  In common with other US cities, fewer black and brown people are living in the urban core and are being replaced by white people who are more likely to be able to compete in the over-heated housing market.  They aren’t necessarily Trump supporters, but they are beneficiaries of the policies and worldview he represents.  A residential map of Jersey City shows very few African-American or Hispanic households in the downtown area along the waterfront, a picture that has changed dramatically since my first visit in 1992.  By contrast, there are swathes of the city where there are very few white households.  This was also true 27 years ago, but the steady erosion of genuinely affordable homes in high property value neighbourhoods has reduced housing options for people with low-income.

This deepening ghettoising must be put in the wider context of the hostile, racist environment cultivated and exploited by Trump, but with much longer historic strands in US history.  The Hispanic people struggling to survive in Jersey City are related to those the president doesn’t want coming to America at all.  Although there haven’t yet been high-profile shootings of black people by Jersey City police, there are repeated complaints of brutality.  Deadly street-violence is common.  At an anecdotal level, I have spoken to many people whose coded references to certain parts of Jersey City suggest the fear and paranoia of the other that has been the underpinning of Trump’s political message.  During my last visit, I asked one person if there was a local bar in the Communipaw area where I was staying.  He immediately said I should get an Uber and go downtown.  He didn’t add “it’s safer and whiter”, but that’s what he meant.  Instead, I walked round the corner and found The Junction Lounge, a very friendly place, where all the staff and customers were black.

Jersey City reflects the nation in another way.  Despite the wealth on display downtown, there’s a poverty rate of 19% that almost equally afflicts households of different ethnicities.  Although wealth distribution in the US is still grossly skewed against African-Americans and blacks are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty, Jersey City illustrates that in post-industrial areas, the misery, for some, is shared.  Despite Trump’s crude, divisive appeals to nativism, the working class suffers together.

Jersey City is America in microcosm, a deeply divided landscape of abandoned places and people, with a thin layer of glossy super-privilege on top.  The civic infrastructure is visibly crumbling.  Roads are rutted, public transport creaks and services, particularly those relied on by the poor, have been severely cut.  The Jersey City public housing authority’s website prominently informs prospective applicants that its waiting list is closed.

The future for Jersey City – and all of us – will be shaped, if not determined, by next year’s election.  It’s already been remodelled with Trump-like brutality and indifference.  As a local resident, Devyn Manibo puts it “When Jersey City becomes a commodity, it’s no longer a home”.  But like the US as a whole, Jersey City has a deep-rooted resilience and humanity that will endure beyond 2020, a spirit symbolised by its most famous resident.  According to local legend, 1 Communipaw Avenue is the official address of a “mighty woman with a torch” and a message of “world-wide welcome…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”.  The week after my trip, we saw the photo of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez lying dead in the Rio Grande.  No image could more starkly illustrate the choice before us.

Homeless in Journal Square



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