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?
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org