A tale of two West New Yorks
Newer waterfront residents don’t know of political scandals affecting mayor – and do they care?
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
May 12, 2013 | 11728 views | 1 1 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DIFFERENT WORLD –West New York’s waterfront neighborhood, which sprang up with the rest of the Gold Coast in the 2000s and is dotted with luxury vehicles and fine restaurants, juxtaposes starkly with the rest of the town, poverty-stricken and densely populated. But the disconnects aren’t simply material – they’re also political.
DIFFERENT WORLD –West New York’s waterfront neighborhood, which sprang up with the rest of the Gold Coast in the 2000s and is dotted with luxury vehicles and fine restaurants, juxtaposes starkly with the rest of the town, poverty-stricken and densely populated. But the disconnects aren’t simply material – they’re also political.

You don’t have to have 20/20 vision to notice the differences between the two West New Yorks.

In the newly-constructed, luxurious riverfront West New York, breakfast means Starbucks, lunch break means a walk along the Hudson with a skyline view, and transportation translates roughly to Audi, BMW, or Mercedes Benz.

But up on Palisades Cliffs, there is a very different West New York -- the place everyone thinks of when they hear the name. It’s one of the most densely populated towns in the country, a place with the second highest percentage of Cubans next to Miami, with many residents below the poverty line. It may have some of the most delicious Latin food in all of Hudson County, but few of its neighborhood eateries would be considered for a Zagat rating.

“When I think of West New York, I think of something more urban, more ghetto, than this,” said Monika Garcia, a former resident, as she sat outside the waterfront’s Starbucks on Tuesday. “Down here it’s more upscale.”

But in a city marked by nationally reported political scandals, are both groups getting more involved?

‘No idea’

The longer-term residents from the cliffs westward to Tonnelle Avenue regularly attend public meetings where they side with one of the town’s two major political players, Mayor Felix Roque or his opponent, Commissioner Count Wiley. But when waterfront residents were asked their opinions, few had any idea who Roque and Wiley are – even though Roque was indicted last May on charges of allegedly hacking into a political opponent’s website.
“Integration of people is what this country is all about.” - Allan Yallof
“I get a lot of stuff in the mail from that one guy,” said Thomas Prince, a waterfront resident, on Tuesday. Asked if he knew anything about the town’s current political climate, Prince responded, “I really have no idea.”

Another waterfront resident, Kevin Livermore, said that he and his wife often traverse the cliffs to make use of the town’s dry cleaners, hairdressers, and bakeries, but he also couldn’t identify Roque by name. He had seen his picture in the paper, though, and commented, “He doesn’t look like the most trustworthy guy.”

Roque, ironically enough, was elected two years ago as a reformer to replace longtime politician Sal Vega, so many were shocked last year when the FBI arrested him and his son in connection with hacking charges. Recently, the state Department of Education also accused him of interfering in the hiring and firing processes of school district employees based on whether they contributed to his campaign. He has not stepped down, and Wiley, his former ally, wants to take his place.

Residents of the newer waterfront communities have panoramic views of the New York skyline. They commute to work via the ferry at the nearby Port Imperial or take the light rail south to Hoboken, where they catch the PATH Train into the city for $2.25. Many are married couples who move out of New York City once they have kids, while others are immigrants with lucrative positions across the river. But few are of Latino descent, like the majority of residents on the cliffs.

The waterfront dwellers have the money to afford the neighborhood’s luxurious apartments, and what they share with cliffs residents is that they are unhappy about the town’s astronomical property taxes.

Wiley and former Mayor Vega would likely blame the high taxes on Roque, while Roque has long complained about taxes under Vega. Others blame former mayor and current U.S. Rep. Albio Sires. At town meetings, the long-term residents from the cliffs have complained about a recent rise in taxes (2 percent under the new budget), but none of the complaints have come from the waterfront.

Action or apathy?

Herein lies the problem: while many waterfront residents are aware of the town’s political troubles (“I know there’s some bad blood, but not much more,” said one resident.), few seem interested in getting involved. Some said that they don’t plan to stay here for the long haul, while others don’t have the time between their commute and family.

Even those who are interested seem unwilling to engage in the rough-and-tumble type of politics that give Hudson County its reputation.

Allan Yallof, who sometimes styles himself as “The Mayor of Port Imperial,” because he knows so many people, said the disconnect between the waterfront and the rest of the town is “deplorable.”

“I think both parties are missing out here,” he said. “Integration of people is what this country is all about. When you have isolation it just doesn’t work.”

Yallof moved here with his wife from Saddle River, N.J., in 2005, and since has kept a watchful eye on the town’s political situation, but never dreamed of getting involved until recently. He said Wiley asked him to lunch at Lusso, a fine dining establishment on the waterfront, and attempted to lure him onto his campaign slate in his effort to recall Roque.

Yallof said he considered Wiley’s offer, but decided against it, mainly because he felt uneasy about siding with a man whose father, the head of North Bergen’s Department of Public Works, was indicted on corruption charges. (Additionally, last October, Roque and his allies alleged that North Bergen Public Works employees painted Count Wiley’s office in West New York during work hours. Wiley claimed that there was a “shared services agreement” with the neighboring town.)

Yallof added that he found Wiley’s personality “like something out of a Sopranos episode.”

“I was really displeased with his lack of professionalism,” said Yallof. “People asked me why I turned him down and I said ‘Listen, I’m not going to the slammer for these guys. I couldn’t consciously wake up a do a day’s work with these characters.’”

Wiley did, for a time, secure a running mate who is a prominent waterfront resident, civil rights attorney Doug Richards, but Richards quit within weeks of being named a candidate on Wiley’s future commissioner ticket. (In West New York’s form of government, five commissioners run for office, then choose a mayor from among themselves. Commissioner positions are paid and part-time.)

Richards wouldn’t comment on why he left, but Yallof, who said he knows Richards well and discussed Wiley’s campaign with him, took an educated guess.

“Doug did his homework, and when he found out what I knew, he pulled out,” he said.

Untapped potential

Though citizen action groups have popped up in West New York before, few have stuck around long enough to affect any real change. A group called Residents for a Better West New York, which sprang up late last year, developed into a mainly anti-Roque group aimed at changing the town’s form of government from what they called a “dictatorial” mayor/commissioner system to the more “democratic” mayor/council.

Recently, a new, unnamed group of discontent Boulevard East residents has decided to take a new approach to West New York politics, via “the high road.” They have expressed interest in reaching out to other neighborhoods in town, and said last week that the waterfront may be the best place to start.

Perhaps residents on the waterfront, most of whom are New York City transplants, simply don’t have the stomach for Hudson County politics. Or maybe they just don’t care. By the same token, some immigrant families tend to avoid town meetings as well, sometimes due to a language barrier or simply not wanting to rock the boat after coming to a new land.

One thing is certain – there is untapped potential in the town’s many new residents, and they have more political capital than they perhaps realize. But on the waterfront, the drive just doesn’t seem to be there.

“I would love to see this town flourish. It’s a great place to call home,” said Yallof. “But too many people are too disconnected.”

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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May 14, 2013
Thank you for this article outlining the disconnect between the different areas in this tiny town. Our "Coalition for the Best West New York" was established because many of the residents along Boulevard East who previously enjoyed being unaware of the politics in town, were thrown into a year long (and unsolicited) education on how the local government dysfunction is hurting our property values and simultaneously diminishing our quality of life. I have lived in this area for most of my life and never became involved - I had too much on my plate between work, commute, and friends. It usually takes a "wake-up" call to move us into action, and we had one. What we discovered about how things are run is frightening and we came to realize that we CAN do something about it. In fact, we have had some significant successes (baby steps, but they add up). The town's overdevelopment and lack of support for the Bergenline businesses; parking problems, and transportation problems have not happened by chance - no one's been keeping an eye on what our local officials are doing and "how" they are doing it. As a result we've relinquished our town's development and prosperity, along with our quality of life to these folks and we don't even inquire about how they are doing their job! It's time for a serious consideration on a variety of issues: Does our current form of government makes sense - volunteer basis Mayor and commissioners? No checks and balances? Are the numerous tax-abatements given to developers really beneficial for our town and are they necessary? Are our Planning Board, Zoning Board, Housing Authority, and Board of Education comprised of people elected by the people or appointed by the Mayor and if appointed, what is the criteria used to appoint them? I think we will do well to at least be open to learning more and taking a position on the issues, and it doesn't have to mean attending many meetings and taking a lot of time away from our home life. We simply ask that residents be receptive to learning about the issues and making a conscious choice about whether they agree with where we're headed as a town or or not. Ignoring a bad situation does not make it "not so." A united front can make a world of positive difference - NYC does it all the time in the various neighborhoods - we can too. Anyone interested in learning more about our Coalition for the Best West New York can contact us via Dean Dechiaro.