Friday, October 25, 2013

Jersey City Future: the Twilight Zone

I’ve been feeling that there’s something afoot in Jersey City, but I don’t know quite what. For example, here’s an empty block in Lafayette as it was two years ago (August 10, 2011):


Here’s the same block earlier this year (September 14, 2013):


Quite a difference.

Two years ago the block was deserted and derelict. This year it’s blooming with plants, art, and people.

What’s Going On?

In the small, that’s easy. Liz Perry and UMMI (Unified Mothers & Men Initiative) got the lot into Jersey City’s Adopt A Lot program in 2012. That summer a few people put plots into the lot and grew some stuff. The lot looked a bit better, but still rather thin.

This summer, UMMI’s Living Village Community Garden really took off. The City fenced it off, more people took plots, and the artists, poets, musicians, and other creatives moved in, the children, too. The garden won a prize for Seed Sowing, and the seeds are just plant seeds. We’re talking about life and friendship and getting along and getting up in the neighborhood.


That’s one neighborhood, and I could name a lot more people here.

But I’ve got the impression that this sort of thing is jumping off all over the city. The most obvious indicator is all the street art. Some of that is City funded, but most is not. There seem to be a lot of Liz Perrys in Jersey City, a lot of UMMIs, and they’re building neighborhoods.

What’s driving that?

My first theory is that it’s the recent election. A young upstart, Steve Fulop, defeated a two-term incumbent, Jerramiah Healy. It’s not simply that Healy was a two-termer, but he was a member of the Democratic machine that’s run Jersey City for a half to three-quarters of a century.

So, the machine loses, and people begin to loosen up. Fulop started out by cleaning shop at the top of the police department and running a bunch of crime sweeps. He hired a bunch of kids to summer jobs picking up trash. That’s a little thing, but it’s also a very noticeable thing. Streets are beginning to look better. Things are changing in Jersey City. At the neighborhood level this change is visible in things like the UMMI garden.

That’s one theory. But this morning, while soaking in the bathtub, I had another idea: Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy! But that was last year.

I know. Bear with me.

Yes, last year. And what happened? The lights went out and the power went off in large parts of the city. A disaster. No one knew nothing about anything.

So we starting hanging out with people we’d barely even talked to before. Meeting new people, making friends.

Three women, Dana Schilling, Candice Osborne, and Tiby Kantrowitz sparked the formation of Jersey City Sandy Recovery. Before you knew she’d sparked a whole self-organized movement of people helping other people get through this disaster. I’m guessing it was Tiby who planned the group’s digital strategy, which stretched through Facebook and Twitter. Osborne is now on the City Council; I don’t know about Schilling. And you know what? Not only is Tiby Kantrowitz a social activist, she’s been working on a homebrew project “dedicated towards building a cubesat that will map the surface of an asteroid as part of NASA's Asteroid Initiative.”

From Jersey City and Sandy to NASA and asteroids in one person! How many more Tiby Kantrowitz’s are there in Jersey City? 10? 35? 268? 1001? Who knows?

But I digress.

Sandy. Disaster. Recovery.

So Jersey City’s recovering from this disaster. People meeting people. Making friends.

Maybe THAT’s responsible for the new life we’re seeing in good old Jersey City. And that’s very different from an election. In elections politicians make speeches, reporters write articles, and bunch of people make phone calls and canvas neighborhoods, and then we vote. There’s a lot of action in the neighborhoods, but it’s all controlled at the Top.

Disasters are different. The Top’s been disabled. We’re on our own. No one’s funding this. No ones’ making phone calls, because the phones are dead.

Yeah, I figure the Sandy recovery – which, BTW, is still ongoing – has as much to do with the new life in Jersey City as Fulop winning the election.


So, put on your science fiction alternative history thinking cap. You know, the one Philip K. Dick was wearing when he wrote The Man in the High Castle, in which the Germans and Japanese won World War II. But we’re not going to think about World War II.

We’re going to think about Jersey City. If Sandy hadn’t rolled through, what would the consequences have been? Would it have had any effect on this year’s mayoral race? Lots of people gave the Healy administration bad marks for their performance during the recovery. Without Sandy, Healy wouldn’t have gotten those back marks. But was that enough to influence their vote and swing the election?

I don’t know how to answer the question. But I can imagine writing a story in which Sandy didn’t happen and Healy won the election. In that story this summer would have been much the same as last summer. The UMMI Living Community Garden would be there, it would be a bit richer than it had been last year. But not so rich as it in fact is. Basically, the same old same old.

But, while we’re playing around with the past, I can also imagine a story in which Sandy didn’t happen, but Fulop won and election, and the grass-roots vitality we’re now seeing in the city just isn’t there. So this story is, in effect, arguing that Sandy and the recovering is what’s driving the current florescence in JC spirit, not the change of political scenery.

Why not a third story: Sandy happens, Healy wins, vibrant summer. That story is also arguing that what happened after Sandy is an important aspect of what’s happening NOW in Jersey City.

So, we’ve got four stories:
  • Reality: Sandy & recovery, Fulop wins, vibrant neighborhoods.
  • Alternative 1: No Sandy, Healy wins, same old neighborhoods.
  • Alternative 2: No Sandy, Fulop wins, same old neighborhoods.
  • Alternative 3: Sandy & recovery, Healy wins, vibrant neighborhoods.
You get the idea.

Alternative Futures

But it’s not the past that interests me. It’s the future. What can Jersey City become?

No one knows.

Let me throw this out there: the Bergen Arches, aka the Erie Cut. We’ve all heard about it; some of us know a bit about the Arches; some of us have even been down there. It’s a mile-long trench cut though Bergen Hill next to Route 139. Back in the day it brought four rail lines between 10th and 12th streets down to the banks of the Hudson. Half a century ago three of the four lines were ripped out and the eastern end of the cut was filled in.

Now, except for graffiti writers, homeless people, and construction crews, the Bergen Arches are deserted. The question: What’s going to happen?

Transportation officials want to run a light rail line through the cut (Urban Enterprise Zone Strategic Plan 2010, PDF, p. 67, emphasis mine):
The HBLR system provides direct access to many Jersey City employment hubs, retail areas, schools, medical facilities, and recreation areas. There is a need, however, to expand the system to service additional areas. Mobility 2050 recommends extending HBLR on the Sixth Street Embankment, through Bergen Arches to Secaucus Junction and Westside Avenue to the Bayfront Redevelopment area west of Route 440. This would improve connectivity between existing neighborhoods, to other transportation systems, and to remote intercept parking locations.
The Bergen Arches and Erie Cut are threatened by various proposals to alter the historic cut and create a highway for automobile traffic, a proposal that has been met with overwhelming community opposition. Preservation New Jersey has recognized the threats to this landmark by listing it in 2001 as one of New Jersey's ten most endangered landmarks.

The Conservancy supports adaptive reuse of the Bergen Arches and Erie Cut as open space, connecting with the Sixth Street Embankment as a connector for the East Coast Greenway.
However, “The Conservancy is also willing to consider use of the landmark as a corridor for light rail, so long as appropriate care is taken not to damage the historic arches and cut and space is set aside for a pedestrian and bicycle trail.”

As many of you know, I’ve got a different idea. I’d like to put gardens down in the cut, make graffiti legal there, and even create a plant conservatory in one section so that tropical plants can be grown. I’ve explained this a report, Jersey City: From a Skate Park to the World, in which I argue for a set of linked developments that could bring $90+ million in tourism to the City annually. (I’ve appended the executive summary to the end of this post.)

So, now we’ve got three proposals for the Bergen Arches:
  • light rail
  • open space park
  • graffiti park
Which will it be? That is, imagine alternative futures for Jersey City in which the disposition of the Bergen Arches is a critical variable.

Note that the three possibilities are by no means exclusive. The Conservancy is willing to consider a light rail line as long as certain conditions are met. And, while I’d prefer to keep the light rail out of the arches (and off the Sixth Street Embankment), my proposal might be compatible with a light rail line.

If I had to guess what will happen, I’d guess that Jersey City will get a light rail line on terms that are marginally acceptable to the Conservancy. Because my proposal centers on graffiti, it is unlikely to happen.

But then, who knew that the Soviet Union would fall apart? Some people knew, but by no means everyone. Who knew that the New York City area would be laid low by a hurricane last year? Even in the wake of Irene the year before, who knew that Sandy would be so devastating?

Political inertia is on the side of a light rail line, and a park is also possible. But getting graffiti legalized in that area, that’s a bit of a stretch. And so is glassing over the Erie Cut between roughly Summit Ave. and Bevan Ave. so as to create a conservatory with a footprint roughly the size of a football field. While that isn’t troublesome in the way that graffiti is, it would be expensive. It could also be spectacular.

That’s the point of my proposal, it would be spectacular and it WOULD draw tourists to the city. Mana Contemporary is only five or six blocks away from the west end of the Arches, and they’re planning a hotel. If the Arches were transformed into a graffiti garden, that would double the traffic to that hotel. Given what Mana Contemporary already has planned, the combination would be, well, spectacular – but I’ve already indulged in that word, haven’t I? That combination would give Jersey City a major presence in the international art world.

What would have to change in order for that, or something like it, to happen? Business as usual will bring a light rail line. But then, business as usual left the City flatfooted and unprepared for Hurricane Sandy. What will it take for Jersey City to break free of business as usual?

What exercise of collective political will and collective imagination would transform Jersey City in that way? Forget about actually bringing it about for the moment. Work it out in your imagination. Make up a story. Play around a bit.

We go with business as usual because we’re comfortable with it. We think we know what it will bring. Sandy gave the lie to that thought. Business as usual may be easy, but it is perhaps the riskiest way to face the future in this, the 21st Century.

Dream. The future depends on it.

* * * * *

Jersey City has an unparalleled opportunity for developing park space and cultural amenities in a two-mile corridor running from the Powerhouse Arts District in the East, along the Sixth Street Embankment to the Palisades, then along the East face the Bergen Hill to the Bergen Tunnel, and west through the Erie Cut-Bergen Arches to JFK Boulevard. What is unique about this strategy is that it builds on both abandoned railroad properties and on Jersey City’s status as a center for graffiti art of the highest caliber. By capitalizing on its graffiti heritage, Jersey City can attract tourists from around the world and establish itself as an international center of cutting-edge art.

This development strategy includes three park-garden areas: 1) Sixth Street Embankment, 2) Bergen Hill Walk, and 3) Erie Cut. At full development the Erie Cut would have a series of small gardens in various national styles – Indian, Chinese, Spanish, etc. – and a conservatory linking the bottom of the cut to the street-level surface (Route 139). There would also be two modest museum complexes: 1) a graffiti museum at 12th and Monmouth, and 2) a railroad museum nearby at the Bergen Tunnel. These complexes would include restaurants and shops.

A thumbnail calculation indicates that these developments could bring new tourist revenue to the city in the amount $36 to $90 million (or more) annually. Other benefits include increased property values along the corridor and new businesses.


  1. just keep JC from becoming another over crowded Hoboken...leave some open space.