The Daniel Boone of Jersey City

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01/11/2001

Jersey City, nj

Neighborhood: Across the River, Letter From Abroad

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When I left the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1996, the stores on either side of my building included a bodega that sold heroin out the back and an empty, bombed-out hole. Today, a "funky" bridal shop and a tattoo parlor stand in their places. When a tattoo parlor is a sign of urban renewal, you know the neighborhood was bad before. The rent for my apartment, a single room with a bathtub about a foot away from the oven, was $575 a month, and after the slashing of rent control protections and the boom of the downtown economy, is probably quite near $1000 today.

The invisible hand of the marketplace helped me across the river, to Jersey City. Several years later, the big boys of finance capital have caught wind of this smallish city on the wrong side of the river and like Daniel Boone spotting chimney smoke on the horizon, it may be time for me to move on.

Jersey City isn’t the Kentucky backwoods, it is the single most diverse city in America, even beating out New York City and Los Angeles in the number of ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups represented in force in the town. In the early 1990s, Jersey City and the surrounding area was home to the racist "dot buster" gangs of youths who attacked immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, but few traces of that antagonism remain. Blacks, Latinos, the remnants of the Polish, Italian and Irish ethnic communities have been joined by newcomers from Egypt, India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa, and in the streets, peace reigns for the most part. In the boardrooms and ward offices though, a different set of relationships is brewing, relationships which may transform this city beyond all recognition and push the working class families and new immigrants out of yet another city. And I may be part of that plan.

THE RUST COMPANY OF NEW JERSEY in huge red neon greeted me when I moved to the Journal Square area at the beginning of last year. The sign is atop an office building and inexplicably dominates the local skyline.

"Why is it there?" asked my roommate Chris one day, of the sign, which has never managed to spell out the actual name of the company, The Trust Company Of New Jersey, since we moved. "It can’t really help for branding and marketing, can it?"

"Oh, well it is strategically positioned. You see, back before the Hindenburg, this used to be part of the old Akron to New York dirigible route. Everyone coming into town would see the sign while sitting at little aluminum tables and drinking Singapore Slings. The trust company was King Shit back then."

"Wow, that really does make sense," he said.

"Yeah, well I made it up," I said.

The sign is our only entertainment is this part of town. There are no little cafes, no funky bars, no clubs, no bookstores. The sign, also, thanks to poor upkeep, comments on the neighborhood like a Greek chorus with its occasional shuttering and its blinked-out letters. In this part of Jersey, only abandoned light bulbs tell the truth. I had been living in downtown Jersey City since 1997, eking out a living as a freelance writer. It was only a dollar to get to Manhattan, and the prices for everything were much lower in this town, which has been called the Left Bank, the West Borough, and even the "afterbirth" of New York City. For $700 a month, I got a basement apartment where I could stretch my arms without touching both walls. I paid my rent in cash to the landlord who lived upstairs. The city had already begun to revitalize the area; a former dumping ground for tires and rusted cars had been transformed into the Newport Mall, with an attendant hotel and huge Shop Rite. A high rise was built on another old dump. The area was an Enterprise Zone, so sales taxes were only 3%. Some friends of mine heard about the town and found cheap apartments as well. Brownstones could be had for under $400,000, so the inevitable happened. White people showed up. They had cars and some of them had little freedom flags ever-so-discretely on the bumper. Not enough to make a political statement or even register as "out" but just enough to serve as a band-aid for social consciousness and perhaps pick up a date in the mall parking lot. My rent also went up to over $1000. I had to move. "Here comes the neighborhood," I told my landlord, and I headed west, deeper into the city.

I bought a house across town in the run-down Journal Square area. It was the center of the city once, but not much is there now except for the community college, a Jesuit college, a few cheap restaurants, a strip of 99 cent stores and a huge prescient sign with a burnt out T. If there really was a Rust Company Of Jersey City, it would be doing a booming business on this side of town. Only fifteen minutes away from Manhattan, a two-family home can be had for less than $150,000. Downtown, young white people with punk outfits and cups of coffee would stop me on the street. "Thank God," they say, "you’re white. You look cool. I’m so lonely here. Can we be friends?"

No. We can’t.

Whiteness in downtown then, and in Journal Square now, is a mark, not the default. Some people think it means you are in their special little club. The We Don’t Really Live In Jersey City, We Just Ended Up Here Club. Won’t you join the club and do the things white folk do, like scurry past the Black kids on the corner, while wondering where the police are?

I won’t. So I moved across town, where grocers renting Egyptian musicals outnumbered video stores, and where flyers promising to get-rich-quick schemes took the place of poetry reading announcements. I moved in Jersey’s own rust belt, because I could afford to buy there, and my dark hair and skin allowed me to pass for Egyptian or Latino. I wasn’t accosted by white people in the street for nearly a month.

Then someone fixed the T on the Trust Company sign. The Y burnt out instead. THE TRST COMPANY OF NEW JERSEY, or "The Tryst Company Of New Jersey." Jersey City is engaged in a tryst of sorts, with some of the top Wall Street firms. Goldman Sachs, PaineWebber, Salomon Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch, Deloitte & Touche, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Lehman Bros., and most recently, Chase Manhattan Bank have all moved or are planning to move some of their operations to Jersey City. Even in this booming economy, large capital is looking to cut costs, and as I found out four years before Chase Manhattan did, rent is cheap in Jersey City, nearly half the price.

And for big business, the city is even cheaper than that.

Jersey City homeowners pay some of the highest property taxes in the country, but in order to attract finance capital, the city limits property taxes large businesses have to pay. Many residents – even the homeowners -- are in the lowest income bracket (less than $36,000), and yet their total tax bill amounts to 15.6 percent of income compared to only 6.2 percent of those people in the top income bracket ($404,000 or more). In Jersey City, 34.2% of property in tax exempt, and much of it is on the "Gold Coast" of the city, where high-rise residences, brokerage firms and banks squeeze in, and where 85% of over-the-counter stock trades in this country take place.

From the high rise condos near Exchange Place, a well-heeled resident may be able to catch a glimpse of a parking lot with a few rickety trailers. It isn’t another high rise going up, it is an annex for a local public school, part of a system so bad and so underfunded that the state of New Jersey had to take it over in 1989. Republican Mayor Bret Schundler’s remedies are typical of his ilk: vouchers and charter schools. Even with vouchers, the low-income families of Jersey City aren’t often able to afford private school, and there simply aren’t enough seats for all children who need them in the charter schools. The vouchers tend to go to the new residents, the high-rise dwellers who can’t imagine sending their kids to learn in a leaking tractor trailer, whether the trailer houses a public school or a charter school.

Property taxes, in essence, constitute a transfer payment from the working-class homeowners of the city to the big businesses on the Gold Coast. While nearly $1 billion has been invested in the Gold Coast region of Jersey City, much of the rest of the town is still suffering from high property taxes and poor schools. New Jersey will be spending $200 million more this year to attract companies. Chase Manhattan is moving thanks to the corporate tax credits, the low rents, the employee training funds and the limited sales tax it will have to pay. Meanwhile, the city is offering no tax relief for most of its residents. The day I received my quarterly tax bill for over $1000 dollars (only three more to pay this year!), the O on the Trust Company sign expired bitterly. THE TRST COMPANY F NEW JERSEY. Fuck New Jersey.

In 1999, Mayor Schundler announced massive lay-offs for city workers, citing budget shortfalls, in spite of crushing property taxes for most of the city’s residents. The state of New Jersey was compelled by the judiciary to up the amount it spent on urban school districts, and in order to keep the state budget solvent, cut its aid to the rest of Jersey City, which found itself preparing to lay off 1,271 Jersey City employees, representing 58% of the City's total civilian workforce, 175 police officers, and 137 firefighters. The city blamed the state, then raised property taxes again. The subsidies for the Gold Coast continue unabated. F’ New Jersey indeed. Jersey City seems to be finding itself. In the Winter 2000 semester, I taught two courses for Hudson County Community College in Jersey City. The wage: $400 per credit, or 50% of what an adjunct instructor makes at a City University of New York community college ten minutes away.»

The orientation: a listing of the buildings the college was going to buy. The training: one hour with a coordinator, to explain to me that attendance must be taken. Nobody mentioned that half of my students had never read a book. Concentrate on teaching them how to use Microsoft Word to type up papers, and how to use the World Wide Web to research instead of talking about rhetoric, I was told. Use the computer labs; major companies had provided some of the money for them. I couldn’t even do that properly, thanks to Jersey City.

Instead of school-based email accounts (which are federally funded and have been available at most colleges since the mid-1980s), students were directed to make free hotmail accounts. The web-based hotmail isn't used in workplaces, except to surreptitiously shuttle porn past server firewalls. What are we training these students to do anyway? And of course, security guards closed the computer labs at 4PM, because nobody could possibly need a computer to type up a paper after 4PM. The vending machines and tv lounge remained open till 9PM.

One of my students was learning disabled. I didn't find this out until five weeks into the course. A professional tutor for my English 101 class had "accidentally" gone to the wrong class section for the first seven weeks of the term. Six of my students had been in the United States for less than a year and pushed out of Basic English courses due to overcrowding. They simply had no chance to pass a college-level English course. And one student was legally blind. Unable to use a keyboard or monitor, barely able to write at age 40 and still waiting for assistance from someone in the city, or someone in the school, to help her simply adjust her computer monitor so that it could display REALLY BIG LETTERS. None came, in direct violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She failed the course too.

At one point late in the term, I asked the students to write about their favorite book. Nearly half my class had never read one. The college library literally contained fewer works of literature than my own home does. The city was doing about as much to fund learning in this college as it was doing to save its public schools: not much.

Unlike most colleges, where English 101 is sufficient, the HCCC 101 is considered so poorly designed that most four-year colleges won't even accept it as a transfer credit. Instead of repairing the 101 curriculum, the college simply made students take 102 as well, thus doubling the English and Humanities Division's income for basic writing courses. Additionally, students have to take the useless 'College Survival Skills' course, which does little more than remind them to go to class on time.

For students whose main problem with coming to class is taking care of their own children or attempting to hold onto their job while juggling school, the money spent on College Survival Skills could have been spent on pretty much anything else with better results. Daycare? Scholarships? Tuition reduction? Night courses? And then of course, there was attendance. I was never observed teaching (though the Assistant Dean made and broke two appointments to do so, violating college rules) but I damn sure had to take attendance every day, as if I was teaching high school or warehousing mental patients.

Examined as part of a greater Gold Coast strategy, the local community college and its poor funding and administration makes perfect sense. Jersey City, in order to defend its massive subsidies of wealthy corporations, needs to demonstrate that these companies provide jobs. My students, most of whom were computer science or accounting majors, and all of whom were convinced that they were going to "get a good job" and "be well-off" can work on Exchange Place. They weren’t well-versed in literature, or even in developing simple English sentences, but most of them had basic computer skills and finally learned to show up on time.

They weren’t going to be CPAs or software engineers, but an HCCC education prepared them to be the next generation of data entry clerks, security guards and janitors. The public will be satisfied when their kids start clinging to the bottom of the corporate ladder, and capital will have an array of faces of color for their brochures and corporate videos. The white kids of Jersey City, of course, skip HCCC and attend New Jersey City University (recently upgraded from a mere college with a new sign and some departmental juggling) or Saint Peter’s College, a few blocks away from HCCC.

By concentrating urban renewal on a small sliver of the city, the rest of Jersey City becomes all the more desperate. Most of my students lived in homes owned by their families (often three or more generations were squeezed in) and they wanted out. If two more years in a poorly funded school promised a way out, who was I to tell them that they had better get used to the low wages and zero security of temp work? They could see the skyscrapers rising across town; if I was so smart, why was I in the slum with them, and not out there with the other white people? I quit after one semester, and raised the rents on the friends I was renting to to make up the lost income. So much for my f’ing principles. Then they fixed the O, but the F on the Trust Company sign burnt out.

THE TRUST COMPANY OF EW JERSEY.

Even with Chase Manhattan Bank moving into town, my Manhattan friends still stare at me when I mention my address in "Ew, Jersey!" Avenue B in Manhattan, where we used to loiter and litter with impunity while digging through garbage cans for soda bottles to return, has been redone into a strip of fancy stores. Alphabet City, once the home of squats and poor families, is now where my hipster friends took over. And they took over, thanks to jobs with bankrupt dot coms and family trust funds. They aren’t pioneers like me, ready to explore bold new vistas of large apartments and inexpensive rents.

Since moving to Jersey City in 1997, I have lured 15 other people across the river, most of them white and all of them college educated. I was helping friends find nice places to live, I thought, but now I see that I too am simply part of the Gold Coast strategy. While I lived on handshake deals, the apartments I found for my friends were in apartment complexes. They talked to realtors, they found jobs with Paine Webber and Chase. After remaining stagnant for years, the ripples from my crossing the Hudson are beginning to spell higher rents. I bought to avoid paying $1400 for a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment (so what if it would have cost $5000 in Manhattan?). I raised the rents I collect now, to make up for tax increases. This will push my friends away from Journal Square and towards the Gold Coast, where they can walk (or be driven by corporate shuttles) to work and spend their money in swanky bistros and little boutiques. They can’t handle the bodegas here, or the fact that the only supermarket is across town, next to the only major mall. They want air conditioning. They want doormen. And thanks to the money flowing into the Gold Coast, they can get it.

In the summer, I leave the front door to my building unlocked and ajar to let the draft in. We have never even heard of a crime occurring on this block. Yet, one tenant reports being told to get off the porch by a cop who was worried about her. It isn’t safe after sundown he said, gangs will attack you right on your stoop. In the months we’ve been living here, we never saw any evidence of gang attacks or dangerous stoops, but the message was received.

Chris, who works for Chase Manhattan Bank, left for Manhattan one evening, but then came back home two minutes later. He couldn’t cross the street to get to the PATH train, because there were "a whole mob of homeboys on the corner." They weren’t violent, or threatening towards him, and there were only two of them, "but still…" he said, as if I could finish the sentence myself. A week later he admitted that it was just too sultry to walk the seven blocks to the train, and he didn’t feel like hanging out with his friends in the Upper West Side that night anyway. The homies were just a convenient excuse. He joined the White Guy’s club. It never occurred to him that since it was 95 degrees and since most of the apartments on the corner don’t have air conditioning, that people may stay outside to socialize and cool off. Or maybe he did know this, "but still…"

Then there is the upstairs tenant, who keeps a pistol-grip shotgun (a gift from his grandfather, a former steel-mill Pinkerton who was issued the gun to blow away union men in the case of a sit-down strike) under his bed, in case of "home invasion." He is a law student at New York University, and told the neighbors that he was going to fight "for the people" after graduation, to make sure he was liked and admired on the block. He’s going into corporate law next year. And these are the most progressive of my friends, the ones with working class backgrounds and a distrust of the system. I cleared the path with them, and on the horizon, we can see corporate chimneys rising, with the threat of gentrification looming. They’re ready to turn back, and take their rightful places as conquering heroes in the upper middle class. Me, I’m looking West. I hear that there are abandoned paint factories in Harrison, and that the rents there are very cheap. Ew, Jersey, I can hear them all say, but they’ll follow me eventually, and I’ll have played my part in the destruction of another working class neighborhood.

January, 2001

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