NJ Together action/mayoral forum

Last night, over 1100 church members, tenants’ rights groups, JC activists, and their guests packed the theater at NJCU for the NJ Together/JC Together annual “action” – a mix of their yearly meeting to discuss their successes and priorities, and a time when they call upon elected and appointed officials to commit to work with them on various causes they champion. The last time the group had their annual action, things got pretty spicy, with Mayor Fulop being called out repeatedly (and on widely circulated video) by Rev. Perry for delaying the reval and perceived economic injustices in the city.

This year – with the election about a month away and both candidates invited to the action – expectations were super high about what was going to happen. The meeting was largely shrouded in secret (I volunteered a bit to help with the setup, and even I had very little clue as to what was going to happen) but hotly anticipated. As I watched the crowd file in, I was amazed – it seemed that every single elected official in JC and candidate for office was in attendance, neatly spread out throughout the theater and each assigned to sit with a different congregation according to JC Together’s fastidiously planned seating arrangements. On stage, the two candidates – Steve Fulop and Bill Matsikoudis – were separated on opposite sides of the stage like two Siamese fighting fish (seriously, this is the image that came to mind) with a packed row of religious leaders separating them. The rumor was that the organization was going to unleash a “surprise” and there was a lot of nervous chatter as to what on earth that was going to be.

This blog post could easily go on for a year if I recapped everything that happened at this jam-packed meeting (including but not limited to: gospel music, multiple prayers in multiple faiths, and so much more), so I’ll just try to hit the highlights.

The candidates were asked to commit to affordable housing and safe streets (as in crime reduction). I filmed their answers. First up, Matsikoudis:

Response by Fulop:

Ok. Later, one of my favorite people, Pastor Willie Keaton talked about the importance of clearing outstanding warrants for people who had them for minor things (traffic tickets, failure to appear in court), and got a commitment from Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez to book two days in May to meet with people and help them through that process. So that’s really great.

Meanwhile, the big secret is still coming.

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Rev. Alonzo Perry took the podium and started talking about the Bayfront development and a second cleanup site in Bergen-Lafayette, which I’ve written about before. He stressed the need for affordable housing in JC and that JC Together was pushing for affordable home ownership on the site. It was compared to a similar site in East Brooklyn which has successfully built affordable housing in the midst of a very robust market.

As I’m sitting there, I’m thinking – “ok, this is all very good, but that’s a long damn commute to JSQ/NYC and how on earth are all these people supposed to get to their jobs without dumping hundreds/thousands more cars on our streets which are already completely snarled with traffic, or overloading our public transportation system that is barely chugging along already?”

Enter: the surprise. It’s at about the 12 minute mark on this video:

(My phone started dying around now so I’ll try and fill in what I couldn’t catch because I spent so much of my battery life taking videos of the awesome gospel singers earlier.) There is a THIRD site being developed, across the Hackensack, in Kearny. It’s directly across from Bayfront. And the point of this site is to build a commercial corridor (not more residential) with businesses and light manufacturing. They’ve already attracted a number of small businesses and are continuing to grow it – and the idea is that the Kearny site would have to jobs that the people in Bayfront and Bergen-Lafayette would be commuting to (via a “five minute ferry ride”). My interpretation is that they’re trying to build a whole middle class enclave here – jobs nearby, affordable homes, easy commute – that can exist where no such thing exists currently. It’s almost like building a company town within a city, except instead of there being one huge employer, there’s many smaller companies.

Ok, on the surface, this is pure genius, total urban planning at its very best. It sounds like a model for the kind of thing that can actually save this country and its loss of jobs and housing crisis and so many inter-related problems. But, I have some questions. I’m concerned about actually attracting the right kinds of businesses to Kearny and getting everything to line up. Like – there is no ferry; what does a ferry cost? That’s a very minor point in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one concrete question I have out of many. I want this to work and I’m stunned and inspired that NJ/JC Together even got this far and were this ambitious in putting together such a plan. I desperately want this to work. Please work. Please don’t get mired in bullshit NJ politics and poor management and weighed down by a thousand little things where it never happens. Please please please work.

After the presentation above, Mayor Fulop was called to come to the podium and asked if he supports the plan. He answered an enthusiastic YES and the crowd cheered. This felt a little weird to me for two reasons: 1. Matsikoudis wasn’t asked the same thing, which seemed unfair given he was sitting right there and also running for mayor; and 2. What the hell else was Fulop going to say in that situation? And I think we all know that when a politician running for office says “yes” about something, there’s a thousand nuances that can be added later, so the lack of specificity in what he was being asked felt a little off. But I also get that there were dozens of cell phones in the air filming the commitment, and the idea is to hold him to that YES as much as possible, should he be elected.

So I had some misgivings about that one particular moment. But the overall meeting was just stunning as an example of what a small grassroots organization can accomplish, and we potentially have an absolute marvel of urban planning waiting to happen in our part of Jersey City. In two short years, NJ Together has really made a name for themselves as a leader in our community in fighting for progressive values around a number of issues, and I can’t overstate how impressed I am with the tireless work they’ve done. As always with these things, there’s so much work still to do, and I just hope it all goes as planned.