This past week, I lectured about the work of Robert Smithson to one of my classes. Smithson, known best for Spiral Jetty, wrote an essay in 1967 called “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ,” in which he describes taking a bus out of NYC and into NJ, to photograph bits and pieces of what he found there – industrial pipes, a bridge, and a lonely sandbox.
In a weird way, speaking about his work lead me to wonder what the “monuments” of Jersey City would be. At least on the West Side, it seems to me that our collection of abandoned homes would at least be a contender. In just a few block radius of where I live, there are several properties that have, in the 15 years that I’ve lived here, gone from being vibrant, lived-in homes, to rotting; empty and alone. The reasons behind the transformation of the properties range from family illnesses, to predatory lending practices, unemployment, or devastating household accidents. Simple greed figures in as well.
But the irony here is that the West Side is undergoing a real estate boom. Housing prices are sky high, and it seems that the moment a house goes on the market there are many competing bidders. I quite often talk to young families who are getting priced out, forced to move because of a shortage of housing. This is to not even take into consideration the sizable homeless population of Jersey City.
I have no solution to any of this. But here’s an introduction to just some of the abandoned homes in within just a few blocks of where I live. I tried to tell the story of each place as best I could, based on my memory of it.
This is one of the more perplexing properties to me. It’s a huge, hulking home, right on the edge of Lincoln Park. The woman who last owned it was a very nice and seemingly very successful real estate agent with a second home in Vermont. She rented the second floor to a young couple with a little dog, and I recall them telling me with a laugh that the ad they responded to for the rental read: Apartment for rent in Jersey City. Most love dogs and hate George W. Bush. The last time I saw either the owner or the renters was about six years ago. Last year, I jumped their fence into their back yard to save a cat that had gotten trapped during a bad storm. As I was freeing the cat, I could see inside the house and thought it seemed like there were squatters living in it. Spooked, I got out of the backyard as quickly as I could. It got boarded up soon after.
This house was lived in by a family I didn’t know much about. About two years ago, the property – and the property next to it – was purchased by a real estate developer who is currently in the process of fixing up a third property behind it, turning it into “luxury rentals” (this is the huge project happening at the St. Al’s convent). The plan was, he was going to finish the convent project first, then move onto tearing down this house and the one next to it in order to build a new building. A few months after he bought the property, a huge fire broke out and the house is now completely burned out inside. But it’s still standing – now empty and black from the fire – for at least a year and a half. The convent project seems to be taking longer than was originally expected, so no idea when this place will eventually go. I don’t know what happened to the family living there, or if they were even still there when the fire broke out.
This one is just painfully sad. A nice woman named Donna used to live here. She was a single mom with a young son, and she’d sit on the porch and nurse a cigarette and say hi to everyone who walked by. She was one of those people who knew everyone in the neighborhood and all the gossip. I think the story was she grew up in the home, and that her father owned it, and he was now away somewhere because he was very ill and elderly. She swore up and down that when he died, she was going to be left the home – which, seemed reasonable, except one day she started talking about her father’s new, younger wife who hated her. Donna kept clinging to the hope that he would leave her and her son the house as he had promised her, but the new wife started popping up in our daily chats more and more, and I started to worry. Suddenly one day, I heard that her father had died, and it seemed like within a week Donna and her son were evicted. This was about six years ago; no one has lived in the house since.
This is an empty lot now, but about three years ago it was a dilapidated house, which stood more as a parallelogram than a straight, up-and-down structure. People in the neighborhood complained about it for years – it really looked like all it would take was a strong wind and the whole house would tip over, endangering the other homes nearby. It was first lived in by a woman who was rumored to be a cat hoarder (there were always a dozen or two cats hanging around the house) and then after she died (?), squatters moved in. This was really terrifying, because I genuinely don’t understand how that house was standing at all, so the thought of people coming and going into it was truly a recipe for a disaster. Anyway, one night the squatters lit a fire to keep warm; the fire burned down the house and also jumped to the house to the right of it, destroying the home of an elderly, disabled man in the process. The huge pile of burned-out house remained in the plot for months, with scores of cats digging around and trying to find scraps. I finally complained so much and offered to knit a scarf for the city employee responsible for clearing it out, that it did finally get hauled out. Now it’s just an empty lot filled with garbage (this pic is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it) and of course, lots and lots of cats. (Still haven’t delivered that scarf though. Oh well.)
For several years now, blogger JC Eats has been covering the evolving Jersey City food scene, traveling all over the city to sample and report on the diversity of cuisine available here. Her blog is essential reading for anyone interested in really exploring JC and all of our neighborhoods. She also has great Instagram and Twitter accounts that document her visits to various establishments, food trucks, and markets.
JC Eats presents a totally anonymous identity online to ensure the highest ethical standards – she doesn’t want freebies, special attention, or anything other than to report on the food scene and to experience it as anyone else would. Her anonymity has only added to the intrigue. I was recently at an event where I ran into her, chatted for a bit, and moved on to talk to some other folks. When I ran into a friend who I knew was a fan of her blog, I mentioned that she had just been there, and my friend freaked out. “JC Eats is here??? JC Eats is a she??!? Where is she? You have to introduce me!!!” But nope – just like that, JCE disappeared into the ether, off to catch a bus to sample some great new mom and pop corner restaurant somewhere (or so I like to assume).
I sent her some questions about the current state of the food business here in JC. Below is our email interview, which concludes with her suggestions for some great cheap, local meals.
Q: In talking to restaurant owners in JC, what are some of the common complaints you hear about doing business in the city?
JCE: There’s really only one really prevalent universal complaint I hear which is dealing with HHS [Health & Human Services] especially during the final inspection/permit process.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of issues/problems food businesses and restaurants face in New Jersey in general – New Jersey has pretty high regulatory standards, but for the most part, that’s just a matter of understanding and following all the guidelines. Frustrating, but necessary. Then there are further regulations and more specific laws and processes that come at the county and city level, especially any time you’re dealing with construction, making improvements etc. While these aren’t unexpected and I will say, not usually something I hear a lot of complaints about as far as inefficiency, it can be confusing and time-consuming. If you’re doing extensive renovations, you have to submit plans several times over, often to neighborhood associations, planning committees, etc. There’s a whole host of licensing requirements and costs add up quickly which is tough for an aspiring business or an existing small business that wants to make changes or expand. I’ve heard that the Office of Innovation has been pretty helpful in helping small businesses wade through a lot of the regulations and figure out exactly what they need to do, but I’m not sure how many restaurants are aware of that or feel secure in using their services and regardless, it’s still a pretty convoluted system.
And then of course, once all that’s resolved, there’s still the final inspection process that any new or renovated restaurant has to go through in order to get their CO (Certificate of Occupancy) in order to open for business which as I mentioned is what I hear the most about as far as complaints and frustration. According to a lot of older restaurant owners, it used to be much much worse which is HORRIFYING because it’s really bad currently (I gather some heavy-duty bribery used to be the only way to get things done) and it can be a big drain financially. I can think of only a couple of places that have opened in the past few years that didn’t face delays to open while waiting to get their CO – I hear stories about inspectors showing up hours late or just not showing up, notes left at the door while the business owner was in the building saying no one was there, coming in with the wrong paperwork……and not just once or twice, but repeatedly.
Beyond that, there’s not much I hear about – l’m starting to hear more about really high rents especially in new or renewing leases and overly ambitious or difficult landlords and I suspect that will continue to increase as an area of concern over the next couple of years.
How would you assess the vitality of the food scene here?
In some ways, Jersey City far outpaces a lot of other similar cities and areas – the community and the city are fairly invested in it, there’s a lot entreprenuership, and overall, we’re quite supportive of small businesses. Given the development boom and population increase, especially over the past four years or so, there has been a lot more interest in restaurants opening here but we’ve also got a number of long-standing restaurants that have survived and thrived for years which indicates the possibility of long-term stability and success – generally a rare thing in the restaurant world. A lot of restaurant development groups that already have one restaurant open here continue to open second or third restaurants which is a positive sign. We have a thriving food truck scene that might actually be at the point of oversaturation, but still seems to hold pretty strong.
However, as much growth as we’ve had, I still don’t think we’re at the point of having as competitive of an industry as we probably should. A lot of average restaurants are able to survive and even do well. It’s good and even necessary to have a few just totally “fine” restaurants, but it shouldn’t be the case that four new restaurants in a row are simply “fine.” I’m not referencing any time and/or group of restaurants here btw, just trying to illustrate the point.
People are just so excited to see new stuff, especially people under 40, that they rush to it and make it popular via social media without really thinking about if it’s worth it. So not only does that add more pressure and one more thing for restaurants to have to manage (how to make themselves visually appealing and developing a following online), it often means they can coast on those initial impressions for quite a while. Now, this is an effect that’s happening all over the world and is in fact reshaping how people open and run restaurants, but I think it can be especially visible here in Jersey City. The growth in our restaurant and food industry has also not been developed equally throughout the city (again, not unusual), and while that is starting to change and we’re seeing or hearing more restaurants in neighborhoods beyond downtown, we’ve definitely limited ourselves as far as diversity and variety. A lot of the newer restaurants have tended to follow a formula or what seems like a popular and successful trend/menu/aesthetic which I understand – the idea is to be solvent – but it does tend to reduce innovation.
Too often, the Jersey City food scene is often either compared to Brooklyn/New York or the assumption is made that we can support the same kind of pricing/trend level that they can, but that’s absolutely not the case. Our demographics are very different in everything from population size and ethnic breakdown to available commercial space and I think those expectations and comparisons do a lot of damage. We need to see more restaurants that are built to meet the needs of Jersey City as it is.
“Food deserts” were an early focus of the Fulop administration. What changes have you seen?
Not enough. The West Side has had a couple of grocery stores open although I think it’s still pretty slim access, but Bergen Lafayette and Greenville are really stuck without options and having easy access to a grocery store is one of the basic building blocks of a happier, healthier community. A lot of it stems from the lack of development in these neighborhoods compared to downtown, but it also clearly hasn’t been a focus of the administration to make it economically advantageous for grocery stores or more food businesses to move in or thrive in these areas.
Riverview Farmer’s Market. All pics courtesy JC Eats.
About three years ago, it seemed that there was a farmer’s market opening up in every neighborhood in JC. Today, many of them have either stopped completely, or shrunk down to just a couple of vendors. Any reflections on this?
There are still quite a few that are doing pretty well although agreed, the market scene hasn’t stayed as strong as it was when it was at its peak, but I do love that we have do have a lot of farmers markets in Jersey City. When I first moved here, it was basically only Hamilton Park sometimes with maybe three vendors and to see that kind of growth in a relatively short amount of time has been really thrilling. But it definitely went through a surge of oversaturation – a neighborhood or select area can really only support so many markets and so many vendors. If you have too many in too close an area and have them too frequently with the same vendors, which is what was happening, it becomes unsustainable.
Additionally, I think several weren’t as well-supported or well-publicized as they could have been. Don’t forget, a lot of what makes these markets happen is volunteerism. It’s a lot of work, usually managed by a neighborhood association, and if they aren’t receiving support from the neighborhood, it’s very difficult to make it work. Add in the construction in a lot of neighborhoods and changing demographics and it’s a challenging environment. I do think the SNAP Double Bucks program has been great and I suspect if the city were able to expand those kinds of programs or bring in similar programs, it would really help support the markets.
What about healthy eating options, in particular? What do we exceed at? Where do we fall short?
This is a tough question because I very firmly believe in the overall concept of health in food being subjective. I mean, there are some very basic tenets we can all agree on – more fruit and vegetables are better is a big one, for example. Beyond that, it gets extremely complex especially once you start bringing socioeconomics into it and quite frankly, I don’t think anyone should have a serious conversation about what food people should be eating or what there should be without bringing socioeconomics into it.
That said – I think Jersey City does an above average job in offering a healthy food scene. I don’t think it’s great and it’s undeniable that it’s slanted heavily towards the wealthier among us (which is unfortunately the case just about everywhere), but it is overall better than a lot of other similar cities. We’ve got population diversity and somewhat easy access to a wide variety of ingredients and cuisines in our favor plus a community that is growing to have higher expectations of healthier food and more businesses with an increasing awareness of food allergies, vegan and vegetarian interests, and so on – not as many as I’d expect, but they are there.
However, we really need more well-stocked, produce heavy grocery stores and dedicated health food stores in a lot of neighborhoods or at the very, very least, better public transit access to currently existing markets. Probably more publicizing and advertising of these options would be helpful too. We really need more variety in the kinds of restaurants that are opening – ideally ones that offer more breakfast and lunch options which is admittedly hard to do because Jersey City is very much a commuter city – but I hear from so many people saying they want to grab breakfast and lunch and the only real, satisfying options (where they can even be found) are bagels or burgers. It’s limiting.
Outside of downtown and the waterfront, any neighborhoods you want to single out as having good food options?
The waterfront has a lot of showy, sort of very traditional restaurant restaurants, but truthfully, the majority of them are really just OK. The better restaurants throughout the city definitely show up more in the more residential, densely populated areas which I think is a very positive sign.
I’ve always loved India Square on Newark [Ave, between JSQ and Tonnele Ave]. It’s its own little world and there are a ton of options for exciting dining experiences. The Heights, particularly Central Ave, has really picked up steam over the past couple of years and has gotten very diverse in their dining options which is exciting although if you’re not relatively near that neighborhood, there aren’t that many places I would currently consider as destination-worthy (another example where easier transit would probably be a help), but there are a few. I think Lafayette is a neighborhood to watch in this regard, but I think it might be a little slow in happening.
I know it’s not Jersey City, but I’d also encourage people who are really interested in good food or in seeing food neighborhoods develop to keep an eye on Newark. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening there that quite frankly, I’m not seeing here.
Any recommendations for best meal for one person under $10?
Actually, I think a lot of our best and most interesting meals are under $10. They won’t be fancy places with tablecloths and silverware, but they will be delicious. Some of my favorites:
The chicken shawafel sandwich from from Gypsy Grill – both the chicken shwarma and falafel sandwiches are great, but the combination of the two makes something special and is especially filling.
The onigiri (rice balls) from Koro Koro – these are the perfect cheap eats. Gluten-free, some vegan, some not, and all delicious. You can have at least three or mix and match them with the sides and still be under $10
What about for a family of four without breaking the bank? Is under $30 possible?
I really wanted to find an answer to this, but without relying on fast food, Chinese take-out, or something like a shared giant pizza, I think it’s pretty difficult. Some of the best family-friendly, affordable options though are places like Prato Bakery, Roman Nose, O’Leary’s Publik House (a bar but with very friendly staff and great outdoor space), Churrasqueira Europa and Left Bank Burger Bar.
By now you may have seen the Jersey City hats I’ve been constantly shilling every chance I can get. If not, behold!
I made a bunch for our neighborhood craft fair and they were really popular so I made some more. And I’ve had a bunch of local knitters ask me where I got the chart from for the JERSEY CITY part. I made it, on graph paper, the old fashioned way that you make color knitting or Fair Isle charts – just by drawing it out and filling in the little squares.
To me, it’s a pretty easy and obvious chart. But I had so many people ask for a copy of it that I went on Stitchfiddle and made a real one nice enough to share.
This first one is perfect for hats – it’s the same one I used in the hat above. It’s only 5 stitches up and down, and 41 across. Working on size 5 needles, you could probably fit two repeats of it around if you’re making an adult-sized hat (obviously depends on your gauge and so forth, so these are just estimates):
If you want to print the chart out, just drag the image to your desktop and then open it there. You can resize it that way, too.
I also made this bigger one so that you could work your hometown into a sweater or larger garment. I’ve tried a version of this in hats, but it was a little big for my tastes. Maybe you can make it work:
Same as before, drag and drop to make it bigger or to print it. This one is ten stitches up and down, 60 across.
If you want to get really crazy, you can start doing stuff with fonts and multiple colors and so forth, but what I like about these two charts is that they’re easy to memorize and they’re good PATH train or evening knits.
And if you don’t knit at all and want a JC hat, hit me up!
Unless you have children enrolled in school – and even if you do – the school board might seem like some far-off, difficult-to-understand institution. We all know the importance of good teachers and principals, of smaller class sizes and good facilities, and yet the role of the board in delivering all this seems hazy and unclear to the casual observer.
So let’s start with the basics: the JC school board is a nine-member committee that is elected by the public. Each member’s term is three years; it’s an unpaid position. It is the final authority in the school district – the Superintendent answers to the board. If there’s going to be a new school built, the BOE must approve it. Rename a school? Again – that must be brought to the board. An addition to the holiday calendar? Talk to the board.
JC schools have over 28,000 students in forty different schools, so this affects a lot of people. And these days, it’s not just that schools teach reading and writing; they provide meals to students and can be save havens for kids with no place to go before and after school. Schools are now integral not only in giving children an education, but in providing important basic services communities have come to depend upon. If somehow all that isn’t enough, we know anecdotally that a good public school in your neighborhood can cause your property values to increase and overall crime to decrease.
Ellen Simon was a mom to a toddler when she ran for – and won – a spot on the school board in 2013. She chose not to run for re-election and her term ended in December. I conducted this email interview with Ellen last week, and I was curious to hear about her experiences. The interview is long – very long – so I’ve divided it up into sections below. If you’d rather jump to the full article, you can click on this link.
Her views are her own, and much of what she says below is controversial. While I wasn’t privy to many of the specific situations she refers to, I will mention that in the short period of time that I’ve known her, I have found her to be of the utmost integrity and passion when it comes to our schools. The first question I always ask myself when I meet someone running for elected office is, are they in it for the right reasons? Meaning, do they genuinely have a desire to serve their community above and beyond whatever their personal gain may be? To that, I can definitely answer that Ellen absolutely did when she was running, and does to this day.
Q: How did you first get involved with the public schools in JC?
ES: When our son was a baby in 2010, my husband and I ran into one of my old friends, who had older kids. He went on and on about how the schools were under state control, the size of the budget, how poor student outcomes were, etc.
I said to my husband, “Remember when we used to get pissed off by stuff like this?”
I had never been involved in politics at any level, but a couple months later, I was volunteering for then-councilman Steven Fulop’s slate of school board candidates. I became the mom with a diaper bag full of campaign lit, accosting strangers on the playground about the Board of Education election. I think our son’s first full phrase, as a toddler, was “School Board election.”
What was running for school board like?
I had the great fortune of running with Micheline Amy, who is a superb human resources executive, and Jessica Daye, an alumna of McNair and Columbia University and a professional special needs advocate. Both of them are women of great intelligence, calm, character and integrity. We spent so much time together that after we all got elected, Jessica’s husband, Paul, who makes jewelry, made us all really lovely rings. I plan to keep mine forever.
Running for office in Jersey City in 2013 was, in many ways, like running in 1913 probably was. There are still parades to march in, doors to knock, ward leaders to meet. It’s still very hard to win without the support of the city’s political bosses.
In general, what do you think of the public schools here? Where do they excel?
When my son was a toddler, I met someone new who said, moments after meeting me, “Of course you’re not sending your child to the Jersey City public schools.”
Where do they fall short?
One piece of data we got on the Board was about teacher absenteeism. While the vast majority of our teachers are hard-working and diligent, a few of our schools struggle with a handful of teachers who are chronically absent.
Specifically, do you have any particular experiences or anecdotes as they relate to the schools? Anything you’ve noticed as the mother of a kid in a public school? Or in visits that you made to schools while on the Board?
As one friend said, “We’re not religious people; we don’t go to church or synagogue. Our school is our community.”
A partial highlight reel of the last 13 months: A clip of a board member screaming at the Superintendent during a meeting. A clip of the board trying to name a school after a sitting board member when the community wanted it named after Pres. Barack Obama. An article about one board member suing the board president. An article about a board member resigning after a dunderheaded Facebook post. READ MORE
Why should people vote in the BOE elections? The answer seems pretty simple and direct if you have kids in the system, but what if you don’t? Why is it important for people without school-aged children to pay attention?
The Board of Education is one of the places in our democracy where your voice really can make a difference.
Your vote on BOE campaigns matters: Someone really did win by one vote once. I won by, if I recall, 189.
What did you learn over the last four years of your service? What would you do better, differently? And what are you most proud of?
I learned that with the right leadership, urban schools can change for the better, and real outcomes for students can improve dramatically. I learned that change doesn’t have to be glacial; real improvements can happen quickly.
What I’m most proud of are the tremendous strides the district has made and continues to make. I know I keep saying this, but it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of staffers at every level, from security guards to senior administrators.
This afternoon, I got to meet with our councilman, Chris Gadsen. He and I (and his friend who – ack – I forgot his name! I wasn’t expecting this to be a blog post, so I was unprepared to take notes) walked up and down West Side Ave between Duncan and Gautier, talking to business owners about what they’re seeing. Chris offered last night to come and walk the block with me, as a member of the community concerned about this block.
There’s that saying that all politics is local. In Jersey City, I swear it’s hyper-super-local. Like, if something isn’t happening to you in front of your face, you don’t think it’s an issue – you don’t even know it exists. There could be a major problem occurring three or four blocks from where you live and it’s like you’d never even know it. In NYC, you might have a half hour on TV devoted to just local news, just within the city, bringing the issues of disparate neighborhoods right into your living room. We don’t have that kind of intense, breaking news media coverage. So it’s especially important for us to get elected officials out – in person – to see what we’re dealing with, first hand. They’re not going to really get it any other way.
In this visit, I felt like Chris got it. He immediately identified a problem that many of us have been talking about for some time – the poor street lighting. Fixing that alone would be an immense help. Yes, we need foot patrols and police to pay attention, but we also need something as basic as lighting, which will be a huge deterrent to crime.
Anyway, here we are talking to the liquor store owner:
It was a good start! There are many things in flux in the neighborhood right now, so it’s hard to say where it’s all going to go. But I was pleased with this visit, and with what I heard.
Lastly, we ran into Caitlin Mota, clearly Chris’ favorite Jersey Journal reporter (love you, Terrence! but I’m pretty sure Chris said this!) who gave him a hard time for his beloved Cowboys losing the game last night. I took the liberty of superimposing a tiny crown on her head because, well, she is the winner in this case:
Hey, there’s now three free yoga classes you can take in our neighborhood:
Wednesdays, 6pm (with Camelia)
Thursdays, 5:30pm (with Jessica)
Saturdays, 9am (with Camelia)
Located at the Gallo Center in Lincoln Park (the Gallo is that small, administrative building near the Harrison/West Side playground). Free parking! Beginners welcome! Please bring a mat. And yes, it really is free – the instructors are paid by the County of Hudson, so you’re all set. Classes are one hour.
I’m going to be really honest: yoga isn’t my thing. If there’s not music blasting and I’m not jumping up and down feeling like my heart is going to explode… well, it just isn’t my thing. I’m just not very good at relaxing – probably should work on that. But! I can say that I’ve taken Camelia’s class several times and she is totally terrific. Very sweet, genuine, and down to earth. And her class is really good. The people who attend are likewise very kind and welcoming, and it’s a really nice little community. This is not a Lululemon fashion show competition by any means; it’s yoga and gentle exercise for all bodies, ages, and levels. (I haven’t taken Jessica’s class but I’ve chatted with her and she seems equally lovely and supportive.)
If yoga is your thing, I think you really might like these classes. They’re a wonderful asset to our neighborhood.