Which is why, wherever you are, you'll eventually run into someone wearing a T-shirt from a place like San Francisco, Aspen, or Brooklyn. Heck, even Hoboken has spawned some T-shirts. I grew up in Jersey City, but the only cool shirt I have is from my graduating class of Dickinson High School with a funky, faded ram on the front.
Unlike Hoboken, which is small and 90 percent gentrified, our town is complicated, big, sprawling, brawling, busy, and booming. Jersey City may not yet be trendy enough to spawn a T-shirt business, but we are popular. We're the second largest city in the state (after Newark), and we're still growing. When this series began last spring, some 8,000 new residential units were under construction, and the building hasn't stopped. City officials expect construction to continue well past the next decade.
But our image is still an issue.
"The great challenge for Jersey City is to transcend Hudson County," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a long-time observer of the urban condition. "The municipality very often becomes inextricably tied to the county. And frankly the reputation of Hudson County is a place of very unsavory politics-and it is interesting, because Hoboken has transcended that ... I suspect in time [Jersey City] will follow the path of Hoboken, but it's got a ways to go."
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
If there were a scale that measured reputation we'd still be stuck in the middle, somewhere between almost cool (a la New York magazine) and dirty, crime-ridden hellhole rife with corruption (our old status).
Will we ever live down the legacy of "Boss" Frank Hague, the long-time mayor of Jersey City (and Democratic head of Hudson County) who died in 1956? Change takes time, but it's worth noting that Hague's art deco masterpiece, the seven-towered, former Jersey City Medical Center is being re-made as The Beacon, a massive, super-deluxe condominium complex. We are on the map in a new way, but whether people will be proud to say they live here, or boast that they've visited, remains to be seen.
AT THE CROSSROADS?
Of course, a city's standing is a tricky, mutable thing. Some places have almost always seemed desirable and cool, like San Francisco. Some have worked hard to win back hearts and minds, like, say, Philadelphia. Jersey City's reputation is different, depending on whom you ask. And our name doesn't always help.
"In the Northeast, people think it's sort of cool, but they think of downtown and the financial district and brownstones," says Walter Parks, a musician who moved here from Williamsburg, Brooklyn (another area that's seen its fortunes rise). "In the South, they just say 'yuck.' Jersey City just sounds so industrial and unglamorous-and what can you do?"
Gritty sounding or not, we're viewed by many New Yorkers as a great escape from the city's overheated real estate prices.
IN THE NEWS
Our skyline is metamorphosing and people who haven't been here in ages can't believe it when they come. Our architecture has been critiqued in the New Yorker.
There was even a day last spring when Jersey City was featured not once, but twice, in the Metro section of the New York Times. On the front page, a stunning black and white photo celebrated the restored Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre at Journal Square, which the paper noted is experiencing a "renaissance." Inside that same Metro section, there was also an article about how an electric fire closed one set of PATH tracks. The fire knocked out service between 33rd, 23rd, 14th, Ninth, and Christopher streets at rush hour. Normally, the paper noted, some 24,000 people board trains at those stations between 4 and 7 p.m. every weekday.
"I never thought I'd be living in Jersey City and I do," says Parks. "I'm evidence, I guess, of a growing emigration of artists to the area, and I'd like to think it's a trend. At least, I hope so."
Baker argues, and many agree, that those who hold us in lowest regard are fellow residents of the Garden State. "It has the worst reputation among New Jersey people," Baker says. "People in Monmouth or Somerset [counties] look upon Jersey City as a somewhat unsavory place that has great views of Manhattan but has some very serious problems. It's going to take awhile for the influx of new people to reflect on the politics of the city."
In an online discussion last spring on City-Data.com, a young mother asked for advice about moving to Jersey City. One person warning her away cited noise, "considerable crime," and "high auto theft stats." He went on to say, "I don't like the area much," before extolling the virtues of his easy commute. Some comments were so negative, another woman sent an e-mail titled "Is there anything good about Jersey City?!"
It depends on whom you ask. A new mom I know recently bought a single-family house in the Heights, within walking distance of the light rail station on Congress Street. When other mothers complain about the lack of quality schools in the area, she is steadfastly enthusiastic about her new town.
THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES ...
But what about those schools? Less than two years ago, Shelly Skinner co-founded Jersey City Families for Better Schools and today is running for city council. "I do think that we are the tale of two cities, no doubt about it," she says. "Some people are doing really well, but a lot aren't. People forget that most of the city is still largely impoverished."
After Newark, Jersey City schools make up one of the biggest Abbot Districts in the state, which means we have a large percentage of disadvantaged students. "Sixty-nine percent of the kids in the schools qualify for free or reduced lunch," says Skinner. Despite all our real estate development, "we have been stuck at that number for many years."
For people like Skinner, the issue of reputation goes much deeper than T-shirts and tourism.
Skinner, who also works at the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City, recently went to Manhattan to meet with a prominent philanthropic organization focused on schools.
"They decided to put the money into Newark and New York," Skinner says. "So I said: 'Why not us?'" The executive she met with told her that while he travels in philanthropic circles with people like Bill Gates, he has never heard Jersey City mentioned. "That is a big problem," says Skinner. "His office is two miles away from us...and private money isn't thinking about us, it's going to Chicago, D.C. and New York City."
SAY IT LOUD, SAY IT PROUD
In fact, how we talk about ourselves and how old-timers feel about the newest arrivals are sure signs that the wealth gap has not been bridged, and class animus simmers below the surface.
"Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a considerable influx of the middle and upper classes back into cities around the country," says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit.
"You've got an interesting but very challenging situation," he says. "You are so close to New York, and [have] a lot of very upscale housing...But it has not revitalized the rest of the city. There's a wide disparity. It's a classic study in gentrification."
That light rail stop at Congress Street in the Heights? It was recently spray-painted with a nostalgic bit of graffiti. Above three black skulls, someone had written "Die Yuppie Scum."
It's no secret that some people who have lived here their entire lives resent the newcomers. I recently met a young man who grew up here but was shocked to discover he couldn't afford a studio near Grove Street downtown. He spoke with disdain about the professionals flooding the area.
"You can't throw a rock without hitting a hipster," he said, shaking his head with a mixture of disgust and bemusement.
People know there is resistance to change. "It's gonna be a little bit of a war," says Parks, who has lived here for seven years. "There are going to be people who don't want it to change. But Jersey City will be transformed-one of these days-into an actual hip place and it'll actually work."
Baker concurs. In the long run, he says, the gentrifiers will win, because of their "financial muscle...The mom-and-pop grocery stores are going to be gone, replaced by Whole Foods. The handwriting, if not the graffiti, is on the wall." JCM
Just the Facts
In 1930, there were 316,000 people living in Jersey City.
In 2000, we had 240,055 residents; as of July 2007, there were 242,389.
Between 1990 and 2000, the city grew by 5.1 percent.
The North Jersey Transportation planning authority predicts the population by 2030 will be just over 308,000.
Median household income in 1999: $37,862
Median household income in 2000: $46,813