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Jersey City: America in One Place

Jersey City is a microcosm of postindustrial America – where poverty and property development go hand-in-hand. Neglected for decades, places like this could decide the 2020 election.

Next year’s presidential election has implications far beyond America. Another four years of Trump would tighten the global grip of reactionary forces, leading to the prospect of continued environmental damage, further tension in the Middle East, growing racism, sexism and homophobia. For a post-Brexit UK it would also mean a closer relationship with predatory American capitalism. 18 months from the election, I visited a place that encapsulates the domestic issues that will decide the outcome.

Jersey City is on the west bank of the Hudson River, across from downtown Manhattan. I first visited in 1992. When I arrived at Newark Airport, the customs officer asked me “why would you want to go there?” Back then, Jersey City was the epitome of post-industrial America. It had declined from one of the 10 biggest cities in the US to a place with a semi-derelict waterfront, abandoned factories and deep poverty. It was the setting for Richard Price’s novel Clockers, published the same year I first visited. Price described the population of Jersey City as “three hundred thousand mostly angry blue collar and welfare families.” Jersey City reflects the deep cleavages and tensions of a society that could produce President Trump.

The interior of a derelict apartment block in Jersey City, New Jersey.

The clearest evidence of this is the meteoric, unchecked rise of the property industry. Donald Trump himself has been a figurehead of this process. In the last 20 years, the Jersey City waterfront has been transformed beyond recognition by high-rise apartment blocks, offices and hotels, among them the 55-storey Trump Plaza. This Manhattan overspill led the property consultants CBRE to say in 2015 “the hottest place for New York City money is in Jersey City.” The downtown area around Grove Street, which used to be a slightly sleepy collection of brownstones and ‘mom and pop’ stores, is now festooned with expensive bars, restaurants and yoga studios. Their customers are mostly young, white professionals working in the nearby corporate towers, or taking the PATH train to Manhattan. But as in America as a whole, this influx of affluence hasn’t spread evenly across Jersey City.

The first time I was here I stayed at the clergy house of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, not far from Grove Street. It used to be the centrepiece of a predominantly Hispanic working-class community, but the demographic shifts in downtown Jersey City have put paid to that. When I looked through the church windows two weeks ago, the pews, pulpit and confession boxes had all gone. St Bridget’s is a shell, due to be redeveloped as apartments. Five minutes’ walk away, I came to Montgomery Gardens, a former public housing development. It too, was deserted, the doors and windows shuttered, awaiting government-sponsored demolition by a private developer. In 1992 when I worked there, it was home to 1,300 people, among the 10,000 public housing tenants in Jersey City. Now it’s victim to the nationwide attack on public housing that has led to a net reduction of social rented homes, displacement and the destruction of working-class communities.

Empty public housing awaiting demolition in Montgomery Gardens, Jersey City, New Jersey.

The signs of this are evident around Journal Square, which used to be Jersey City’s commercial and transport hub, featuring some magnificent architecture. Today it is a scene of dilapidation and faded grandeur, a bit like an English seaside town without the beach. During the day, scores of the homeless and dispossessed (almost all of them black) gather to beg change and share each other’s company in a place that has turned its back on them. Next to where they sit is a vacant two-acre site that’s been due for redevelopment for six years–the company behind it is headed by none other than Jared Kushner. Montgomery Gardens has been moth-balled for a similar period. The juxtaposition of homeless people with a site being developed by the son-in-law of the US President is particularly poignant.

This corporate urbanism is inscribed with racism. Jersey City has long been a centre of immigration and is sometimes described as having the most ethnically diverse population of any US city. But as in the country as a whole, this demographic pattern reflects deep-seated economic inequality and social isolation. In common with other US cities, fewer black and brown people are living in the urban core. Steadily, they are being replaced by white people who are more likely to be able to compete in the over-heated housing market. A residential map of Jersey City shows very few black or Hispanic households in the downtown area along the waterfront, a picture that has changed dramatically since my first visit in 1992. By contrast, there are swathes of the city where there are very few white households. This was also true 27 years ago, but the steady erosion of genuinely affordable places to live in high value neighbourhoods has further reduced housing options for people with low-income.

A homeless rests on his bag in Journal Square in Jersey City, New Jersey.

This deepening ghettoisation must be put in wider context. The Hispanic people struggling to survive in Jersey City are related to those the President doesn’t want coming to America at all. Although there haven’t yet been high-profile shootings of black people by Jersey City police, there are repeated complaints of brutality. Deadly street-violence is common. At an anecdotal level, I spoke to many people whose coded references to certain parts of Jersey City suggest the fear of ‘The Other’ that has been promoted by Trump in office is finding resonance. During my first visit, I had asked one person if there was a local bar in the Communipaw area where I was staying. He immediately said I should get an Uber and go downtown. He didn’t add “it’s safer and whiter,” but that’s what he meant. Instead, I walked round the corner and found The Junction Lounge, a very friendly place, where all the staff and customers were black.

Jersey City reflects the nation in another way. Despite the wealth on display downtown, there’s a poverty rate of 19% that almost equally afflicts households of different ethnicities. Although wealth distribution in the US is still grossly skewed against black people, who are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty, Jersey City illustrates that in post-industrial areas at least, the misery is shared. Despite Trump’s crude, divisive appeals to nativism, the working-class suffers together.

Jersey City is America in microcosm, a deeply divided landscape of abandoned places and people, with a thin layer of super-privilege on top. The civic infrastructure is visibly crumbling. Roads are rutted, public transport creaks and services, particularly those relied on by the poor, have been severely cut. The Jersey City public housing authority’s website prominently informs prospective applicants that its waiting list is closed.

The future for Jersey City–and all of us–will be shaped by next year’s election. It’s already been remodelled by the Trump machine. As a local resident Devyn Manibo puts it “when Jersey City becomes a commodity, it’s no longer a home.” But like the US as a whole, Jersey City has a deep-rooted resilience and humanity that will endure beyond 2020, a spirit symbolised by its most famous resident. According to local legend, 1 Communipaw Avenue is the official address of that “mighty woman with a torch,” Miss Liberty, and her message of “worldwide welcome” for the poor and dispossessed. The week after my trip, we saw the photo of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez lying dead in the Rio Grande. It seemed to sum up the gulf between America’s promise and its realities.