Political races statewide and locally have taken on a significance of their own, tied to a reversal of national trends.
Baby Boomers – that generation born between 1946 and 1966 – were part of one of the most dramatic geographic population shifts in history.
Some called it White Flight, suggesting the white Americans living in urban areas fled when cities saw a large increase of Latinos and African Americans.
Many city planners, however, painted the change – which saw the large shift in population from city to suburban settings – as a product of a flush economy and overcrowding in cities with the return of soldiers from World War II.
The change also occurred because of technological innovations from the war that allowed large land tracts—previously inaccessible to construction of homes – to be leveled and built on, creating whole new communities.
A whole suburban culture emerged as new communities cropped up like mushrooms. Even the well-to-do got into the act and began to relocate in what became mockingly called McMansions to describe the noveau riche.
Cities abandoned by wealth and by industry soon struggled to reinvent themselves, and for a large part of the 1970s and 1980s suffered with a rise in crime as their economic bases dwindled.
Although not exclusively, “urban” and “suburban” became code words to describe ethnic and race populations with poor whites, blacks, and other people of color struggling in urban areas.
Few but a handful of foresighted urban planners ever expected to see a reversal in this trend. But by the turn of this century, many were returning to urban areas – young people seeking to be closer to city careers and an attractive urban lifestyle, while aging baby boomers began to see the disadvantages associated with long-distance travel and mall shopping. This trend, of course, started in the 1980s as crime declined in the cities, and public transportation networks such as the Hudson Bergen Light Rail and PATH systems improved.
The pushback into the cities figures very prominently in both the Hoboken municipal election and the special election to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who passed away earlier this year.
With Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker running against Tea Party Republican former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, this issue comes to the forefront.
Lonegan has been running on the theory that New Jersey residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation because of complex and unfair system of aid to urban districts – particularly the way urban school districts are funded. This concept largely ignores the fact that when wealthy and middle class people moved out of the cities, they left behind aging schools and often took with them many of the jobs that were formally located in urban areas – so that poorest of the poor in the state had bad schools, few jobs, and deteriorating homes and almost no tax base with which to do anything about these problems.
Meanwhile new communities cropping up throughout the state required the construction of new schools, new roads, new highways, the establishing of new fire departments, police departments, and other infrastructure to accommodate the needs of the new population.
These institutions were new and often attracted young talented people who sought safe and well-paid jobs outside crime-ridden cities. This, of course, created inequity in opportunity for kids growing up in the cities, which the state Supreme Court ruled needed to be rectified and has been a political issue ever since.
Ironically, the reverse trend of young and old moving back to the cities creates new challenges that may frustrate the outdated Lonegan model even more, since rich and poor will once more be sharing the same turf, creating not only funding challenges, but also racial turmoil.
This is partly what lies behind the recent plans in Hoboken to rebuild the public housing. In the 1950s, to partly curb racial tensions associated with poor people living in substandard housing, the federal government poured billions of dollars into creating vertical housing that would provide new apartment dwellings. Called Urban Renewal, the concept largely replaced decaying tenement housing with what some called vertical ghettos, high crime public housing that seemed little better than prisons to many urban planners.
Since the 1980s, a new concept for lower housing and lower density has become the catch phrase for project development. This is what lies behind Hoboken’s Vision 20/20, similar in concept to successful projects in Jersey City, Newark, and even the very troubled Paterson.
The problem in a city like Hoboken, which is only a mile square, is that lowering the height of exiting projects and still accommodating the same number of people means expansion. This pits the needs of the wealthy against the poor, and since more people are flocking to the Gold Coast, increasing the demand for luxury accommodations, and the poor are pushing to have more livable arrangements, a conflict of interests immerges.
The conflict that seems to hover over the reelection hopes of Mayor Dawn Zimmer is how an administration can opposed the concept on practical grounds and not seem as if they are opposing housing for minorities.
Proponents of Vision 20/20 see this as wealthy people trying to deny poor people of color livable facilities, while the Zimmer administration seems to question how the project is to be accomplished and still allow for the city to maintain or increase its tax base – by which the city can maintain essential services.
Market value development generally results in increased taxes for the city, while public housing is generally constructed and maintained using federal money without added revenue.
Just as Lonegan’s model of rich being burdened with poor seems out of touch with what historically transpired and is inadequate when used to look at the new trend toward returning to the city, proponents of Vision 20/20 seem to be living two decades in the past when race and development were key factors in the development Hoboken. In claiming the Zimmer Administration is engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” Hoboken Housing Authority Executive Director Carmelo Garcia, the main proponent of Vision 20/20, is using a model from 1970s that no longer applies.
People are not being burned out of their homes to make way for redevelopment. The issue is increased population and decreasing density; in other words, how does Hoboken successfully accommodate existing public housing residents and a whole new population moving in from the suburbs, and how does the city balance paying for the costs of services with its obligation to provide livable accommodations for its poorest citizens? This is not a race issue, or even a class issue – it is an issue of space and proper planning.