Press conference with JC Together/Honeywell development

I attended a press conference today with the great Jersey City Together, an interfaith organization that comes out for issues of fair and affordable housing and other related issues. To quote the article from the Jersey Journal:

A group of over three dozen local pastors and activists today demanded to be a part of the process to select a developer for the 100-acre Bayfront site on the city’s western waterfront.

The group, under the banner Jersey City Together, slammed recent reports that one of the three developers seeking to oversee the massive development intended to make it an Orthodox Jewish enclave. They spoke gathered in a parking lot on Route 440 with the fenced-in Bayfront site behind them.

Jersey City Together is a successor group to the Interfaith Community Organization of Jersey City, which spent decades fighting the owners of the property, now Honeywell, over the site’s chromium contamination. ICO eventually sued Honeywell in federal court and won a victory in 2003 when a judge ordered Honeywell to clean up the site.

Pastors today criticized any attempt to turn the site over the developers for an “exclusive community, not for the people of Jersey City.”

“I personally did not spend decades of my life for a toxic deal for Jersey City,” said the Rev. Will Ashley, of the Abundant Joy Community Church.

It was so moving to hear this group of priests and ministers (the group was largely, if not exclusively, Christian even though JC Together includes other faiths as well) talk about the need for community involvement in the redevelopment of that site. They talked about what it once was – the dumping site for a wasteland of seeping yellow, cancer-causing liquid – and what it is now, some of the cleanest land in all of JC. There remains the question of what it will be in the future, and the religious leaders talked about their hopes that it would be an inclusive neighborhood that would integrate the existing community and generate jobs for people in the area.

This is the site currently:

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Not much to see now, but it’s a huge area (eventually, the development will be larger than Newport) across the highway from Home Depot on 440. Bordering on the Hackensack River, it has incredible potential for parks and shared areas, as well as commercial development and housing. And potentially, it could revitalize an entire area that currently is just empty for as far as the eye can see. The group was asking for a seat at the table to be able to give input on what gets developed there, to make sure that the best use for this land is chosen.

To be fair, I didn’t so much as attend the press conference as technically I participated in it; I felt a bit like the token heathen in the midst of all these amazing religious people:

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I am staunchly and proudly not religious (I often identify as an atheist but that’s not probably 100% correct) but I’ve attended several events put together by JC Together and always I’ve felt totally welcomed and accepted. As I was standing out there in that blazing 90+ degree sun in the parking lot of the Home Depot, I deeply regretted my all-black outfit decision (although I didn’t have it nearly as bad as the priests – I at least had shorts and a tank top). And a couple of times, I caught myself feeling a little funny, a little out of place. What do I do when they do the opening prayer? How do I act?

Something I’ve come to (more or less) peace with is, this is what social activism in JC is. Some of the most serious, most determined, best people are very religious, which means they live differently than I do and believe things that I don’t. And instead of being turned off or weird about it, it’s a good thing for me to stretch and learn and be open.

And as with so many things, in this case we agree on so much. Why should a developer just get to make sweeping decisions on what the future of this community should hold? Why does the city – a 40% shareholder in the space – get to make decisions without asking the people who live here what we want? This land belongs to all of us. There should be no fighting for it. It’s already ours.