Neighborhood cleanup

Yesterday was the second annual Keep Jersey City Beautiful neighborhood cleanup. We got a great turnout in Ward B, and it was a surprisingly fun morning. I was very impressed by how well-organized the whole operation was, with shuttle busses dropping off volunteers to clean up areas just outside of reach. Here’s some pics:


It really was great. And those streets got clean.

Unfortunately, by nightfall, bad habits came back. By this morning, Facebook was exploding with people talking about litter again. I took this picture:


It definitely wasn’t as bad as it’s been at times, but also it wasn’t good. And of course, after all that effort less than 24 hours earlier, it was hard to take in. A DPW worker was out cleaning it up, and a friend and I pitched in to help him a bit.

This isn’t going to get better overnight. But the amazing turnout yesterday shows that this community wants to have clean streets and we want to do better. We’ll get this right. This is a winnable battle, and we will win it.


Like wearing a headdress to Coachella.

There’s been a pretty fervent debate brewing over the last few years in this country over the idea of “cultural appropriation.” In the wake of someone like Rachel Dolezal, the question of who has a right to claim the right to signifiers of different cultures has been debated feverishly on college campuses and beyond.

I think that even among people a little on the fence on the issue seem to agree that it’s tasteless – to say the least – to define and appropriate a culture, ethnicity, or race by a few  token visuals we ascribe to them. Native Americans, possibly more than any other group, have suffered by seeing their culture reduced to a few kitschy, mass-produced “accessories” – exemplified by the image of the hipster wearing a ceremonial headdress to Coachella, and chronicled in blogs such as Native Appropriations.

A few more articles on the topic (there are many):

Enter, Jersey City.

I was shocked, to say the least, at receiving an email from the New JSQ Community Association earlier this week, announcing a new city-funded (that is to say, taxpayer-funded), “official” mural going up in JSQ. Here’s the artist’s conception. Painting started today:


I was concerned, to say the least. At no time was there vetting or information shared with the community for this mural, nor is there ever any vetting for any city-funded mural ever – Jersey City’s mural program is done almost completely in the dark, run through the Department of Public Works, and paid for by a grant for litter and graffiti abatement (if you read this blog regularly, you know how well that is going). There is no open process by which artists can apply, nor any process by which the community can give feedback or let the city know their opinion on the work that they will have to live with for the foreseeable future. This results in debacles like the Monopoly board scandal of last summer. You can read a letter I wrote to the editor of the Jersey Journal back then, about the need for more of an open process:

As I viewed at the email from the neighborhood association, I tried to keep an open mind at the jpeg opening up on my phone. Yes, there’s a tepee in the lower right, somehow being blocked off by the hand of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, there’s a howling wolf, braying at the moon. Perhaps all this Native American kitsch was just…. a coincidence? Maybe it was an ironic swipe at the history of appropriation?

Then, I realized the artist had a second mural, already in the area:



I checked the artist’s website, praying he’d claim membership as a member of an indigenous tribe. As far as I can see, he does not.

It really doesn’t even matter. The fact that I even had to check to see if such a thing existed in the bio of the artist says to me that the city hasn’t done their job in creating this mural. In other cities (like Philadelphia, or the many programs that exist in NYC, or numerous other cities), creating a mural is a multi-step process. The artist meets with the community. They get to know him/her. In some cases, schoolchildren or members of the neighborhood are tapped to come out and assist in helping execute the mural. The work of art becomes a centerpiece and place of pride; people can walk by and say, “I had a hand in that,” or “I know that artist – and he’s great.” People are happy to have the work of art as part of their daily lives. They feel a sense of ownership and connection.

But that’s not how we do things in Jersey City. Here, we rush to get up as many murals as possible (over 70 last year), community be damned. People wake up one morning, and there’s a mural there they had no input on. But it’s not really about what we want, you see. It’s just about jamming this project through as quickly as possible. (Does the impending Election Day have anything to do with this? Well, that’s up to you to decide.)


I showed images of the mural in progress to my sophomore/junior/senior art history class this past week, at the art school I teach at in NYC. They were absolutely aghast. How on earth could a city, just 20 minutes away, do something so tone-deaf, so out-of-touch, as this? They were slack-jawed and horrified. “That’s like wearing a headdress to Coachella,” one of my students said.

And yes – that’s absolutely correct. That’s the Jersey City “official” mural program – so out-of-touch, so twenty years behind any sort of dialogue on art and culture that it’s absurd. And so it will remain, until actual, real community involvement is integrated.

Note: a petition has been drafted to address these very issues. It can be found at the following address:

Thinking outside of the box about littering

It’s been a few weeks since I talked to Scott Garibaldi about the litter situation on Duncan Avenue. I knew that the Department of Public Works had met with him after that blog post, and that they spoke with him about improving services. Checking in with him this evening, he said mostly what I had expected: “Even though things have gotten better, it is still not enough to keep up with the severity of the situation.”

Thinking about this persistent problem made me curious to do some research and talk to some people outside of Jersey City, outside the direct mix of personalities and particulars of our area, to hopefully get a fresh perspective on this problem. After all, litter is a issue everywhere; cities throughout the US have all come up with their own programs and ways of dealing with it.

Nobody gets a PhD in litter strategies (at least, no one I could find), but there are related fields. I found Dr. Rosemary Wakeman, the Coordinator of Urban Initiatives at Fordham University, through a friend who suggested I speak with her. And by way of an article about litter and what communities can do to help with it, I also found Justin Travis, who is a specialist in Industrial Organizational Psychology and instructor at several colleges/universities. Wakeman and I spoke via the phone; Travis and I emailed each other. Here’s what I found out from speaking with them.

I first started by asking the simple question: why do people litter? To this, Travis had the most specific and direct answer. He divided it into first, “dispositional predictors,” such as:

  • Values – clearly some people hold values that drive their environmental behavior. For instance, it is likely individuals who hold values such as protecting the environment, caring about others, and community concern are going to be less likely to actively litter.
  • Attitudes – Attitudes toward the environment are predictive of littering behavior, as attitudes are strong predictors of intentions and intentions are predictive of actual behavior (all else held constant). Additionally, attitudes toward groups (neighborhoods, classes of people, etc.) are also indicative of littering behaviors since holding a negative attitude toward a particular group can disinhibit someone who may otherwise not litter. This could be considered a type of interaction between attitudes and environment – say someone is driving through an unkempt neighborhood where the driver holds negative opinions about the residents. That driver, who normally doesn’t litter in their own neighborhood, may be more likely to throw trash out the window since “these people don’t care about their community anyways.”
  • Age – younger people are more likely to litter
  • Personality – People that are more conscientious (dutiful, organized, careful, dependable, etc.) are less likely to litter.

What’s most relevant to us (because they’re things that we can have the most control over) are his list of “situational predictors.” The immediate environment someone is in has a big effect on whether or not they litter:

  • less likely to litter in clean environment (litter begets littering)
  • farther from receptacle/disposal = more likely to litter
  • presence of authority figures = less likely to litter
This speaks to some basics that our community has been asking for for years – more garbage cans, help from the city cleaning when messes occur, and more of a community policing presence.
But I thought it was most interesting when I asked both experts what their ideas would be for making the situation better. Dr. Wakeman suggested a “flash activity” that could be “mediatized” to get maximum attention. It’s important for people in the community to feel as though the public spaces they pass through include them and that they feel a part of them – this leads to a sense of responsibility and inclusion. She suggested some sort of act that could help involve people in the community to beautify the space. People will want to keep a place clean that they helped to make pretty in the first place.
Strangely enough, I remembered this random occurrence from a few years ago. I was shocked to discover that I had saved a picture on my phone, as it really was more than two or three years ago. Anyone remember this?
Back then, we have a major problem with people throwing out chicken bones in the park, on the sidewalk. It was the weirdest thing – and really troublesome since they can be a choking hazard for dogs (also, no one wants their kids playing near a big pile of chewed up chicken bones). So someone took it upon themselves to do this – they wrote it on the sidewalk in multiple locations throughout the park. When the rain washed it away, they wrote it again. I remember I took the picture because I found the phrase “thrown your bones in the trash” so wonderfully emo and poetic, and really a little funny. But here’s the thing: that hasn’t been a problem since that person did this. Once these chalk statements started appearing, the chicken bones vanished.
Could something like this – a simple slogan, written in chalk – really change something as complex as littering? Probably not… but what if it was a really beautiful chalk drawing asking people not to litter? What if we got a bunch of neighborhood kids to help out with it? I mean – it can’t hurt to try, right? The only cost is that of some chalk and an afternoon of drawing on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, Travis also had some interesting ideas:
  • Get people to make small commitments (signing petitions, agreeing that litter hurts the community and environment) that are pro-environmental. This facilitates their later behavior that is congruent with the previous behavior.
  • Make the importance of a clean, healthy environment salient around the community. The principle of social proofing suggests that people feel social pressure to conform to others, particularly those they see as similar to themselves. Thus, if a community members perceives everyone in the community as being committed to and valuing pro-environmental behavior, they are more likely to adopt this behavior as well.
The first of these two really struck me. What if we had a Girl Scout troop (or some such group – staffed by cute kids overseen by an adult) go around to people in the neighborhood and ask them to sign a pledge not to litter? Who could resist such a thing? While they’re out there, they’re spreading information that it is our community standard to not litter, and also getting people to make a promise. Again, it strikes me as something that is worth a shot, doesn’t cost anything, and definitely won’t hurt.
None of these suggestions replaces the help we need from the city in keeping our streets clean. We still need garbage men to pick up after themselves when a bag they’re hauling rips; we still need dozens of additional garbage cans that will be emptied regularly. We still need, in short, for the city to do their job. But maybe some of these suggestions will help us to figure out what we can do in addition to all of that, to make our community a nicer place to live.
(As a final note: if you know of any local business that needs to be reminded of its responsibilities to our neighborhood, here is a link to a bilingual sheet explaining their responsibilities, and also a link to the official DPW brochure on what they need to do. Please share with them.)

Many thanks to Gina Vergel for her help with this article.

Justin Travis cites the following sources for his remarks:
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current directions in psychological science12(4), 105-109.
Schultz, P. W., Bator, R. J., Large, L. B., Bruni, C. M., & Tabanico, J. J. (2013). Littering in context: Personal and environmental predictors of littering behavior. Environment and Behavior45(1), 35-59.
Steg, L., Bolderdijk, J. W., Keizer, K., & Perlaviciute, G. (2014). An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals. Journal of Environmental Psychology38, 104-115.

Lincoln Park West walking trail

It was gorgeous out today, so I played hooky for a bit and headed out to Lincoln Park west – way west, out in the part that runs along the golf course.


This is past the dog park, over the little bridge that in the summer has people fishing (please don’t do that, or at least, don’t eat the fish you catch – the Hackensack River isn’t entirely healthy; it’s fine where the park is, but those fish move around a whole lot so you don’t know where they’ve been), and onto a trail with a sign warning you to look out for flying golf balls (this is of course impossible, because how are you supposed to see them before they hit you?).

I’m under the impression that a lot of people still don’t realize that this part of Lincoln Park is even open to the public. It’s pretty rare to run into anyone over here. Off in the distance, you can see golfers, but it’s otherwise really quiet. As you walk along the path, wildlife scampers away  – a whole variety of birds, gophers, and rabbits live in this area – frightened, but often not so scared you can’t at least catch a peak at them.

It’s quiet – almost unsettlingly quiet. I took a video to show you how quiet it is. It’s a terrible video and I turn around too quickly so hope it doesn’t make you nauseous. But here it is:


You entire by a tiny waterfall:


And then very soon thereafter, you’re surrounded by a field of beautiful golden grass. It looks like what I imagine wheat to look like, given that I don’t know what a wheatfield actually looks like and I’ve never been to one. Look, I don’t know what it is, but it’s just wild and free, and it’s a home to lots of little critters and looks amazing with that golden color just contrasting against the bright, blue sky.


Of course, this part of the park is planned and cared for – there’s a very definite path that you stay on, and your course throughout it is determined by that planned path – but it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels very free and open. And quiet. That’s the very best part.

(There’s a second route even more tucked away and isolated, but my dog got too tired and we had to head home. For another day.)

Lastly, my pic could be better, but I am convinced that this is the very best tree in Lincoln Park:


But I’ll have to follow up further to be absolutely sure.

New community calendar

There’s about a million different ways to add a calendar to a website, and they all have their pros and cons. I’m testing one out here; you can click on the left under West Side Calendar or just click here. 

Right now, I’m not going to lie – it’s not that pretty, and the only events in it are ones I could quickly find to plug in. But before I spend a bunch of time getting it exactly right, I wanted to test to see what the needs were, if people in the community are willing to add their own events, and what kind of tweaks and additions we’ll really need. I don’t want to put a ton of work into it only to find that I’ve totally misjudged what our community wants and needs.

But for now, if you want anything added on it, please reach out via Contact Me (also on the left, or just click here). If you own a bar or restaurant or other space and want to be able to add your own events, I can make that available to you. Reach out and let me know.

Rachel Mason and The Use opening for Xiu Xiu

I don’t usually post about things happening downtown, but this one involves one of our neighbors here on the West Side:

updated FB XiuXiuFlyer

The amazing band Xiu Xiu is playing at Monty Hall, and,

The night opens with The Use aka Michael Durek joined by visual artist, Rachel Mason, performing a unique one-time collaborative set, to celebrate the release of their 7″ on the Aagoo label. They will be joined by multi-instrumentalist / composer Brian Lawlor on bass, and Ramsey Jones (Wu-Tang Clan, Funkface, Falu ) on electronic drums.

Michael Durek is a new addition to the West Side, where he and his friend Patrick Hambrecht have been putting together electronic music events as Zip Zap Vroom at Halftime Bar and other places for some time. I’m really excited to have Michael as part of our neighborhood, and really hope this leads to more great music in our area!

Tickets are still available for this event and are $13-$15, aka about half what you’d pay in Manhattan. Come out and say hi to our new neighbor!


Talking to: musician/songwriter Jonathan Mann

There’s a lot of musicians who live over here on the West Side; this weekend, I’ll be highlighting a few of them, starting first with Jonathan Mann.

Jonathan is a prolific singer and songwriter who is probably best known for his Song A Day project on Youtube. Every day, he writes and makes a video of himself singing about an issue in the news or that’s on his mind, producing catchy, memorable songs you won’t be able to get out of your head. With millions of Youtube views and guest appearances on Rachel Maddow, CNN, and Anderson Cooper, he’s become an undeniable, self-made star, mixing his personal charm with his quirky, homemade videos and songs. 

It took me a while to realize that “that guy” I’d seen around on the internet and my neighbor jogging in the park were the same person (I’ve been known to be a bit slow about these things). I’m really impressed with not only how hard working Jonathan is – it takes an awful lot to write all those songs and make all those videos every single day – but also how he’s been able to turn his talents into a sustainable practice. There’s also a lot to be said with how he’s managed critics. Last night, I actually broke my own internet rule of “never read the comments” to check out some of his, only to find that he’s cracked the radar of the so-called “alt-right” in a big way, and they are not happy about it. The level of the comments – personal, anti-Semitic, often violent – were pretty shocking. But his response to this was refreshing: through his work he laughs at them, doubles down, and keeps going. I found this very inspiring.

So, scroll through for a Q&A with Jonathan and check out some of his videos on the way! 

How long have you been doing Song A Day? How did you get started?
I started on Jan. 1st of 2009, so I’m in my 9th year. It’s 3000+ days. I tell the story of of I got started here.

I like that your website describes you as having a “superpower” to be able to distill complex stories down to a song. How long does it take you to write a song? 

It depends on the song! It can take all day or it can take 20 minutes.

What’s been your most popular song? What’s your favorite?

Hmmm. Well going by views on YouTube, this song that I made out of one of the Trump/Clinton debates is the most popular with over 2 mil views. I don’t really have a favorite. I recently made a Spotify playlist of some that I like, though.


What kind of music do you make other than Song A Day?

Part of my mandate for Song A Day has always been to take songs that come out of that process and polish them up a bit, and releasethem as a proper album. So that’s some of it. I do a lot of commissions for people, both on the small, personal level, and the bigger, corporate level. I do a thing where I call myself a Conference Troubadour, where I go to conferences and make up songs.


I know a couple of months ago you started getting threats from some “alt-right”/nazi viewers. Can you talk a little about this?

I’ve been getting hate and death threats since well before the beginning of Song A Day. I got my first death threat online in 2006 when I posted about The Mario Opera, a musical I made out of Super Mario. Then, during GamerGate, which in many ways was the breeding ground of what we now call “alt-right”, I made a series of videos that they really didn’t like, and things intensified. There was a moment back then that it got really bad, where I was getting threatening phone calls, and people were trying to hack my email, find my address, etc. Of course, all the stuff that I deal with is only a fraction of what women and people of color deal with on a daily basis. I’m over here actively kicking the hornets nest and it can get scary, but for other folks, they don’t even have to DO anything and get far, far worse. Anyway. If anyone is ever in a position where they feel truly threatened by anything online, a really great resource is the Crash Override Network.
 [Ed. note: my favorite of his videos that seems to have gotten quite a lot of attention from this crowd is #BetaAsFuck which he did with Peter Coffin. Wordpress won’t let me embed it for some reason, but check out that link – it’s pretty hilarious!]

You and your family live on the West Side. What are some of your favorite parts of our neighborhood? What sort of improvements or changes would you like to see?

The snow removal this year was really abysmal. I’d love to see that improved. My wife takes the bus a lot, and she’s always wishing there were just more service. It’s to get to Journal Sq., but the one bus she could take to our son’s preschool doesn’t come very often, and doesn’t show up on the NJ Transit app (and it’s a super long walk). We also wish there were places for our son to play indoors during the winter. There’s a few things downtown, but nothing up here.