New condos, glass and steel office buildings, new transportation options, better schools, and more honest politicians animate our community conversation, in the halls of government, in bars and cafes, in the public square.
But there’s one subject that rarely sees the light of day—Jersey City’s wealth gap. The haves either don’t recognize it or prefer not to acknowledge it. The have-nots are well aware of the gulf but often don’t have the clout or the leisure to move the public debate.
Just as John Edwards’ “Two Americas” never got traction as a presidential theme, the two Jersey Cities is the talking point that never finds its voice.
One spur of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system begins in Hoboken before crossing into Jersey City, hugging the Gold Coast most of the way. As the train pulls out of the Mile Square City, Manhattan’s hallmark skyline to the east is almost mirrored by Jersey City’s, with its ever-growing glass menagerie of towers. New luxury rentals and condos like The Shore are visible from the train, sandwiched between older developments like Newport Towers.
It’s a view for which Anil Kumar paid a hefty price. A former mid-level exec with UBS, Kumar moved to The Shore last year when he still had his “comfortable six-figure” salary and companies hadn’t yet cut spending to the bone.
“My friends, they all live in the better places in Jersey City—you know, The Shore, Grove Point, 50 Columbus”—he rattles off a list of upscale properties downtown where one-bedroom units sell for $400,000 or more. “But I was the only one who had a view,” he says, smiling broadly.
Since then, he’s been laid off and has had few interviews. He’s living off his savings and admits he may have to sell his beloved home with a view.
“I’m not really panicking yet,” he says, “I have options. I may sell the condo, downsize, move someplace cheaper, like Astoria, [Queens], or Journal Square. Of course, I’d have to sell at a loss.”
Would he consider moving to one of the new developments in Bergen-Lafayette or Greenville?
THE LIGHT RAIL’S FIRST STOP in Jersey City is Pavonia Newport, next to the mall, where teens from Bergen-Lafayette and Greenville hang out with friends and—if they’re lucky—work. A few years ago, in an effort to attract more customers like Kumar who live a short walk away, mall management tried several tactics to cut down on the throngs of rowdy kids, most of them black and Hispanic, who used the mall as their after-school playground.
“They were trying to get them people from these condos to come in here, and they (management) felt like they wouldn’t come if there were a whole lot of black and Spanish kids laughing, bein’ loud. You know.” Denise Jamison, who works in retail in the mall, raises her eyebrows and shoots a knowing glance that’s meant to imply all the stereotypes about race and class she doesn’t want to say with words. “But don’t none of them want to come in here,” she says. “We made this mall, now they want to push us out for the people with money.”
Jamison, a 22 year old African American, could just as easily have been talking about Jersey City itself. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her mother and three siblings a few blocks off Garfield Avenue and takes the light rail to work.
Her family, she says, “was doing okay” financially until her mother, a Jersey City native, lost her second job working at Circuit City in New York. The electronics chain folded earlier this year and laid off all its workers. Although everyone in Jamison’s family works except her 15-year-old brother who goes to school, the family struggles to make ends meet. In December the Jamisons fell behind in their rent and Jamison’s mother was taken to court by the landlord, who wanted to evict the family.
It’s 10 days before Jamison’s court date. “If we get evicted, I’m not really sure what we’ll do or where we’ll go,” Jamison says. “It’s not like we got a lotta options.” She speculates the family would move to Bayonne or Newark.
THROUGHOUT THE 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES, downtown Jersey City was embedded with railroad tracks. Its proximity to New York and the Hudson River made it an important industrial and commercial hub. Immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy flocked to the area to work in factories, with the railroad, or in New York. Jersey City prospered until about the 1950s when the railroads and many factories closed and the region lost jobs, sliding into a long period of economic decline, high crime, and urban decay. Abandoned factories became eyesores in increasingly poor and working-class Latino communities. It wasn’t until the 1980s and ’90s that developers recast some of these factories as luxury condos like Dixon Mills.
Of Jersey City’s 242,000 residents, more than 18 percent live below the poverty line and in neighborhoods on the city’s western frontier. Wealth and the waterfront go hand in hand, with well-off newcomers living comfortingly close to New York.
Anil Kumar knows something about living in the margins. His parents immigrated from India in 1987 – the same year Jamison was born – and settled in Brooklyn before moving to Queens. Striving to forge a new life in an unfamiliar country, they were ill-prepared for their hardscrabble existence in a cramped tenement with noisy neighbors, streets that smelled of rotting food, and garbage-strewn sidewalks “It was always instilled in me that they came here for me to do better, for me to have better opportunities, especially in school,” Kumar says.
His father, who made a “modest” living as an accountant for a small import/export company, was often too tired to take his three children to the park or the zoo, but he always took an interest in their schooling. “My father talked about Princeton, Yale, and Columbia,” Kumar says, “the way other fathers talked about DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Ruth.”
Kumar never made it to Princeton, Yale, or Columbia, but he came close, attending Stanford University where he was a math and computer science major. After graduating, he worked a few years before earning an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
He then returned to New York to work as a stock analyst and was quickly earning the kind of money that allowed him to live almost anywhere he wanted. “I lived in lower Manhattan for several years and was paying almost $6,000 in rent,” he says. “It just didn’t make any sense. But I wasn’t sure where I wanted to buy. A lot of the people I worked with started moving to Jersey City and Hoboken. … After spending a lot of time here, I discovered I really liked it, so I moved too.”
For a couple of years he rented in Jersey City for a fraction of what he he’d been paying in New York, eventually buying a one-bedroom condo in Newport Towers before selling that for a newer unit at The Shore.
Much of his life, he concedes, is spent nestled in New York or along the Hoboken/ Jersey City waterfront. He admits he doesn’t know what lies beyond the Liberty Science Center, which he’s visited several times.
“I don’t know what’s out there,” he says. “Warehouses? Old rail yards? Abandoned factories? Whatever’s out there, it can’t be important. I never hear about it … unless there’s a crime. Is that where the high crime area is?”
Still, Kumar realizes he may need to learn more about Jersey City—in case he has to move to a more economical neighborhood.
DENISE JAMISON NAVIGATES THE sometimes dangerous streets of Greenville almost every night. A smart student who says she “did well” in school, Jamison is enrolled in Hudson County Community College and would like to attend Rutgers. Four nights a week after work she goes to the home of a former public school math teacher who helps her make sense of algebra.
“I don’t have money for those Kaplan classes,” she says. “Those kind of classes are expensive.”
To get to her tutor’s home, Jamison often has to negotiate Greenville’s gritty streets where there can be muggings, assaults, and the occasional gunfire. In her daily travels she traverses several sections of Jersey City and sees neighborhoods that are invisible to Kumar.
“Where I work at, it’s much cleaner than where I live,” she says. “Like, they may have trash on the street, but it’s not like they got heaps of trash on abandoned land that never gets cleaned up. If something happens [around Pavonia-Newport], like, say a tree limb comes down, someone comes and gets it up. Where I live at, that tree limb will stay right where it is for days.”
Though she says deep, dangerous potholes don’t get repaired, cops rarely patrol, and the area suffers from general neglect, improvements are being made. But Jamison is concerned that such improvements are not being made for residents who currently live there, but rather for wealthy newcomers from New York or Jersey City’s middle class who might get priced out of downtown and the waterfront area.
IN LATE FEBRUARY, Jamison and Kumar experienced a kind of reversal of fortunes. The Jamisons were still in their apartment; Kumar was out of his condo.
The Jamisons’ landlord worked out a payment arrangement with Denise’s mother. She still hasn’t found a job to replace the one at Circuit City, but a promising opportunity is in the offing and the family is hopeful it will remain in Jersey City, at least for now.
Meanwhile, Kumar put his condo up for sale. He received two offers for it in February, but both fell through. He is now living with friends and looking for a job. He estimates he has sent out more than 100 resumes and job applications but hasn’t heard back.
“My mortgage is my biggest monthly expense,” Kumar says, “and with no income, I’m depleting my savings.”
There’s another fear: “No companies I’m applying to are offering salaries that are even close to what I was earning at USB. I may have to take less just to have a job. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know where I’ll live. I mean, are there any condos for less than $400,000?”
Probably not on the water and probably not with a view.