Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Jersey City Future 2: One Jersey City

I’m going to start with the Bergen Arches, move to Buckminster Fuller and his plan for the industrialization of Brazil, and end with a monument in Journal Square. Well, not quite. I’m going to talk about such a monument. But you’re going to have to build it.

But only if you want to.

The Bergen What?

I first heard about the Bergen Arches back in 2004 or 2005, somewhere in there, when I first started working with the Hamilton Park Neighborhood Association. Janice Monson had placed her records in the Pavonia Branch of the Jersey City Public Library and I was helping some others to sort through the documents and file them away.

One pile concerned the Bergen Arches. Though I’d been living in Jersey City for five or six years by that time, I’d never heard of these Bergen Arches, whatever they were. And since everyone else seemed to know what they were, being rather shy, I didn’t ask. To me the Bergen Arches were just some Mystery Formation of interest to a group of neighborhood activists.

It wasn’t until two or three years later, the summer of 2007, that I actually went down there on a hunt for graffiti – which I found, by the way, in abundance – and then I wondered, for awhile, if this was actually the fabled Bergen Arches. Yes, there are arches, but what’s really there is a cut, 5000 feet long through solid rock. It’s man-made – blasted through the rock in the early 20th Century – and it goes along the border between the Heights and the rest of Jersey City.

It’s the most significant geographic and geological feature of Jersey City. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: It’s the most significant geographic and geological feature of Jersey City.

And yet many people in Jersey City have never heard about the Arches, and most of those don’t know much about them/it much less having gone down there. After all, trains stopped going through there in 1959, over a half-century ago. Since then it’s been dead to the city.

How can we imagine a future if we aren’t even aware of this untapped resource? How can we plan if we don’t even know who and what we are?

In any event, just how does one plan for the future?

Envisioning the Future: A tangible objective

Obviously we’ve got to make things up. Buckminster Fuller was good at that, so let’s turn to him. What can he teach us about planning for Jersey City’s future?

Back in the early 1940s he was working for the Federal Government as an economic planner. At that time the government wanted to do an extensive survey of Brazil – something to do with war planning. Brazil agreed provided that the government would produce a long-term plan for the industrialization of Brazil. The government agreed and Fuller was given the job.

He recounts the story in Critical Path (1981) and reproduces the body of the report, dated August 13, 1943, though not the extensive appendices. On the first page Fuller says (p 294):
It was also the consensus of opinion of the interviewed engineers that: in order to plan successfully, there must be more than a singleness of purpose; there must be a dramatically tangible objective.

Determination to raise the standard of living or to “do good” in this world lends no specific design guidance, which latter is essential to effective economic planning. Obviously everyone must do a certain amount of eating and sleeping. They have been doing that for a long time and will continue to do so in some degree without any planning.

It is the conditions under which the planned-for lives are to be lived, as determined by the tangible objectives, that in turn determine the set of physical principles most expediently to be employed.

With a dramatically tangible objective or, better, a progressive series of tangible objectives to be reached and passed a milestones, any sincere planning, no matter how relatively immature, so long as it springs from an educated base, will provide successful survival in some measurable degree superior to any unplanned overall existence.
The tangible objective they choose for Brazil was “To make Brazil the leading skyport of the world.” Back in 1943 that was a rather remarkable goal for Brazil. The report was never formally presented to the Brazilian government as the leader who had commissioned it, Vargas, had just been deposed and “forwarding it to Brazil’s new political leader might well be construed as an affront” (pp. 291-292). However, the report did make its way to Brazil and Fuller reports that “from time to time in the subsequent thirty-seven years I have heard of features of my plan being manifest in Brazil’s economy” (p. 292).

But what about Jersey City? Well, our new mayor has expressed the desire to make Jersey City the best mid-sized city in the country. It sounds good, very good, but it doesn’t strike me as being a “dramatically tangible objective”. It’s not the kind of goal that leads to “specific design guidance”. Sure, cut taxes, create more jobs, improve the schools – we know that already.

What are the characteristics of the best mid-sized city? who determines that – the journalists and pundits who write the articles? What specific plans and policies follow from that objective?

What Mayor Fulop has been doing so far – reorganizing the government, more foot patrols, an anti-litter campaign, a mural program – is very specific. But it’s only the start. What about the long haul?

A Cultural Corridor

I’ve outlined a project to create a cultural corridor running along the Sixth Street Embankment, Bergen Hill, and then through the Bergen Arches. It would be a park and a work of art much like New York City’s High Line, but more interesting. Call it the Cultural Corridor Project, or simply the Cultural Corridor.

The Corridor is specific, which means we can get a purchase on it, and it’s large enough so that it will have an impact on all of Jersey City and on how the world sees Jersey City. Just what that has to do with making Jersey City the best mid-sized city in the country, that I don’t know. I think it will contribute to that goal, vague though the goal is. But I see no reason to argue for the Cultural Corridor in those terms.

Specific and large, that’s what’s important. If you want to think about an out-of-the-box idea that would have a major impact on Jersey City, think about that. If it does nothing else, it’ll put your thinking into new channels.

Having said that, I want to set the Cultural Corridor Project aside and consider a more modest but equally specific project.

One Jersey City, a Monument in Journal Square

Over the past decade and a half development efforts have focused on downtown and the waterfront. Now that city’s beginning to work on Journal Square. I propose that we place a monument in Journal Square to mark this new phase of Jersey City’s evolution.

As a working title I suggest we call it “One Jersey City.” I know that Dan Levine originally coined the phrase to use in his activism and has now used it as the name of a Facebook group, but I don’t think he’ll mind this provisional use of his term.

What should this monument look like? A tried and true conventional conception might depict a small group of people engaged in some activity or just hanging around, say, in conversation. It would be a tricky business because we’d want to include people of recognizably different races, different ages, both men and women, perhaps different occupations – that’s the point of ONE Jersey City, no? We’re different people, but one city.

But it’s not practical to put 20 or 30 people in one piece of sculpture, even a large one. A half-dozen or maybe ten at the outside is the limit, and that’s still pretty large.

But that’s not what I had in mind. I want something thoroughly contemporary. It might in fact be a simple cube, perhaps balanced on one corner to make it interesting; but just what it looks like is a secondary matter at this stage of conceptualization. What’s important is the process through which the monument is realized.

For I’m imagining that One Jersey City would contain slips of paper on which everyone has written their names. Moms, dads, and older siblings can write the names of kids too young to do so themselves. If each name is on a three-by-five card we could get 250,000 them in a cube that’s one meter on a side.

Not big at all. Maybe we could put it on a pedestal. Perhaps set if off with fountains and lights. But, as I said, all that’s secondary at this stage. The actual design can come later.


What’s important, what’s interesting, is the process of actually getting the names. One obvious possibility: the schools. Kids go to school, and if you can get to them, then they can get to their parents.

But how to you convince the schools to do this? At some level, of course, that will mean convincing the teachers. Let’s say you’ve got the school system on board. Just what do they do? It’s one thing to get the names of the kids while they’re in school, but how do you get the kids to ask their parents and, if they do that, what’s going to get the parents to sign their names? The teachers could give each child a pamphlet explaining the project and some slips of paper to write names on. That might get a few parents on board, but I wouldn’t place much confidence in it. And, by the way, how many languages are you going to have your pamphlets translated into?

If you’re going to go into the schools, you probably want to have the teachers talk about the project in class and you want to get the kids to do something more than just sign slips of paper and get their parents to do the same. This is a teaching opportunity. What are monuments, anyhow? Give some examples, from Jersey City, from the United States, how about the whole world? Some of the kids are immigrants: What about monuments in the countries they come from? How are monuments created? Why? And so forth.

Who’s going to create lesson plans for all this? Who’s going to provide the audio-visual materials? Who’s going to organize it?

What about involving New Jersey City University, St. Peters, Hudson County Community College? The churches. Civic organizations. Neighborhood associations.

Do we want to document the process? Of course we do. That documentation will be part of the memorial. It’ll be online where everyone can see it, not only in Jersey City, but all over the world. Well, who’s going to do this?

And just how many names will be sufficient? Yes, we want them all, but we probably can’t get them all. Is 50,000 enough? That would be a lot, but it’s far less than the quarter-million plus who live here. What about 100K, 150K?

How much will all of this cost? $10,000,000 seems like too much. But one million, two million, three or so, that’s more reasonable. Who’s going to organize the volunteers, because we’re going to need lots of them. Where’s the money going to come from? I don’t have it. The City doesn’t have it. The Board of Education doesn’t have their portion. Where’s it going to come from?

The questions and tasks go on and on. But not forever.

And before you come to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that it’s too difficult, too expensive, and too complicated for Jersey City, imagine what it would do for the City to accomplish this.

The people of Jersey City, if not every single one, certainly most of us, we will have thought about what it means to live in this City. We will have talked to friends and neighbors and children and parents about Jersey City, our home. We’ll have talked about where we came from and where we want to go. We’ll each one of us have signed our names of slips of cardboard.

And every time we go though Journal Square we can look at the monument and think: my signature’s in there. And my mom’s signature, my dad’s, my kid’s, my uncle’s, his sister’s, my friends, my pastor, the cop who walks the beat, the mayor, all of us, our signatures are in there.

What’s that worth?

If Jersey City can do that, what else can we do?

Could we create a Cultural Corridor running from the old Powerhouse in Downtown, across the Sixth Street Embankment, along Bergen Hill, through the Bergen Arches, and ending on the edge of the Meadowlands, not far from the new Powerhouse?

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