Talking to: Willie J. Keaton, Jr.

 

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Pastor Keaton at his ordination

 

I first met Pastor Willie J. Keaton, Jr., a few weeks ago, and was immediately impressed with his passion and commitment to his congregation at Claremont Lafayette United Presbyterian Church, located in Jersey City’s Ward F. I was eager to sit down and chat with him about his impressions of his community, and his hopes and concerns for its future.

 


I know you previously served in North Philly and Chester, PA – both of which are communities that face a lot of challenges. Can you com pare what you see in Ward F with your experiences there?

Yes. In many ways the circumstances are almost identical. I started my pastoral ministry in Chester PA, in 2008 and at the time I was an ordained Baptist Minister. I only came to Chester to help start a after-school program and I was paid by a suburban church to work in a urban church, but soon after I arrived there were some difficulties in the pastoral relationship and the congregation that could not be resolved and I was asked to preach. This left me preaching every Sunday and the only service I did not provide was communion. I was in seminary full-time – Westminster Theological Seminary – and I was allowed by the Presbytery of Philadelphia to serve as the pastor [at the same time]. I taught Bible study every Wednesday and preached every Sunday. I also was involved in the community affairs and the community events and there was this issue with the school system and its inability to pay the teachers and this made national news; Ellen Degeneres even donated financial support (if I remember correctly) to the teachers. Also, just as Jersey City, Chester was under the management of the State. But I remember being so perplexed and I just couldn’t understand how in Chester city the school system was so poor and was ranked last in terms of performance and right next-door was Swarthmore and Media – which was the county seat – and the school system was so rich. In Chester City the value of the homes was so, so low and the value of the homes in Swarthmore and Media where so high, I mean there were extravagant and beautiful homes, and the quality of life was so different, dainty shops and a Trader Joe’s.

Think about this, I was being paid by Media Presbyterian Church and working with some of their young people in teaching a class and and preaching in this “high steeple” congregation, but part of my responsibilities was working in this urban neighborhood. By the way they loved me like I had been birthed on their pulpit. I was born in Brooklyn but spiritually I was shaped in Chester PA. But any way some days I would drive from Media Presbyterian Church through Media, through Swarthmore, through the back roads of million dollar homes with manicured lawns and within five minutes I was in an area where prostitution was a problem, where drugs were being sold heavily; there were murders, there were police shootings. And like pouring salt on a wound, A lot of the murders went unsolved. Even now there is national news being made in Chester about the murder rate and the unsolved murders – for such a small city there was and still is lot of violence and crime. During this time, I noticed the political way in which problems were solved.

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Keaton as a pastor in Chester, leading youth on a trip to Washington, DC

 

I’ll never forget the events leading up to the soccer stadium being opened in Chester for the first time. The grand opening was being touted as the beginning of economic development and opportunity [in this] otherwise economically depressed urban city with blocks of boarded up homes, high unemployment and the blight was thick as the fog in Los Angeles.. The soccer stadium and the political hoopla around the state-of- the-art center dominated the news in Chester and Philadelphia which the team was representing during the week leading up to the opening of the stadium, realizing that the stadium was going to to attract suburbanites The mayor and the police commissioner called a curfew which was very suspicious to a lot of people [in the community] because it sent the wrong message: Now we’re going to do something about the crime because we want to protect those who are coming down for the soccer events. The mindset of our leaders should be: The time to crack down on crime should be all the time, not just when it’s economically or politically advantageous. So it’s OK if the violence is poverty on poverty but to make outsiders feel safe, we’re going to try a new tactic? It sends a bad message. When it’s trendy we want a piece of it, but when it’s tragic – out of sight out of mind.

I see similarities in Jersey City to be frank. Example,I was invited to the Midnight Market downtown and I really was enjoying myself sampling the different foods soaking in the ambience of the waterfront. Then, within a ten to fifteen minute drive back to my residence, I felt like I was in a third world country as I drove through Ward F. The contrast of the two cities, really was that much more noticeable. The trash, the prostitutes, the dark streets, the liquor store on every corner, the poverty and suffering on MLK.

Here is a rhetorical question for you: If we allow our children to grow up in trash then what should our expectations be of the developing mindset and their dreams? Have we stopped to think that if a child grows up in trash, surrounded by trash, then maybe subconsciously they begin to wonder “maybe my life is worthless.” Or maybe they begin to believe, the kid down the street his life is worthless so I can shoot him down. Even though they played hide-and-seek together as kids.

In North Philly, where we did marches and rallies against gun violence, in the worse neighborhoods, on the worse corners, the trash you see walking that you do not see as you drive through is remarkably staggering. I see that here in Ward F, coincidentally on Martin Luther King Drive. In fact, I saw a shooting this past Christmas Day, which incidentally was a Sunday after I led worship – I was with my daughter and granddaughter in the car and the shots rang out. Children and the elderly running and ducking for cover together. Broad daylight. On Sunday, Christmas Day, on Martin Luther King Drive. Nothing is Sacred. Felt like I had ventured into a war zone. Very different vibe than that of the festive, exuberant and joyous atmosphere of the Midnight Market. Certainly a tale of two cities

I heard you once describe the atmosphere of Ward F as embodying a sense of hopelessness. To what do you attribute this? Can you describe what you meant by that?

Poverty breeds hopelessness and I think that prolonged periods of poverty saturate a person’s mind from the time that they are children, and can leave a permanent stain until the day they die. I think when you have generations stacked upon generations of suffering and oppression, there is this sense of apathy as if nothing is going to change.

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Listening session on re-entry

There is this feeling – and I’m just being honest – in Ward F, that City Hall does not care or has forgotten about Ward F, or has simply decided that, that area Ward F is not worth developing and the people are not worth developing. If Ward F could fund mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns, would it look that much different than downtown? The abatements end up downtown for a reason. Again, this is not me giving an assessment after a month or two, but after a year and a half of being in the neighborhood mingling with some of the ministries and with participants in a organization, that leases space in our building, and the listening sessions we have had.

The overwhelming sentiment is that no one cares about Ward F. The F stands for forgotten. Or the F, stands for the grade City Hall receives for letting one area be disproportionately be developed while other portions of the City deteriorate physically and spiritually. Many people in Ward F act as if no one cares that our public schools are under-funded; no one cares that drugs are being sold openly and aggressively in schools and on the corners as latch-key kids walk home from school. I just heard recently from someone who really was saddened by the fact that most of the children were not being fed or properly nurtured in the homes and they were coming to school hungry. Now if the children are coming to school hungry, then how are we expecting them to perform? If the children are hungry in Ward F, will they have the energy to sidestep the school to prison pipeline? The narrative that I’m hearing as a leader with Jersey City Together is that this has been an ongoing issue and no one cares – or at least that’s how it feels, that no one cares. Because if you cared, action speaks louder than words. Think about this, if you say “Jersey City is a safer city” and you tout this as an achievement, but the people in Ward F do not feel safer, then what is the subliminal message?

Ward F does not matter.

So if Ward F does not matter, than what emotion should I expect to overtake me? Hopelesness. If you tout, low unemployment and the establishment of 650 new businesses and that is not my reality in Ward F, then I am convinced that this part of the city has been left to fend for itself. In addition, if our leaders stand by and are silent as the truth is being stretched then I might begin to die spiritually. We really need to go back and read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts on tokenism and how tokenism stands in the way of true freedom and justice for all.

What kind of help do you need – from the city, law enforcement, the community, anyone – to help make Ward F a better place?

We need quality and authenticity. If a problem issue is identified then we should not rest until a quality, authentic solution has been identified. Too many times “shell” programs are inserted as a means to quiet the masses that feel disenfranchised. But after the crowd has dispersed, the ribbon been cut, the checks get cashed the doors get closed and we are left holding the bag. There are several programs that simply are not providing the services in a manner consistent with their claims. Again, as a person who is in Ward F, hearing the stories, we need quality and authentic programs providing measurable results in a transparent way. This is important because of the connectedness of the events in areas such as Ward F. If we do not provide quality re-entry and recidivism reducing programs should we be focusing on a persons record when someone is shot? [Ed. Note, see article: Should Fulop Have Publicly Discussed Slain 17-Year-Old’s Criminal Record?] Victim-blaming will not get us anywhere. In fact, the blame game is tricky because fingers get pointed in every direction. We have to take responsibility and work harder on solutions as opposed to justifying or rationalizing violence when it’s poor on poor.

What gives you hope for the neighborhood? What bright spots or success stories have you witnessed?

At Claremont Lafayette United Presbyterian Church I am proud of where we are now. We have worked hard to provide for the community not because of politics but because of the

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Claremont Lafayette and turkey dinners, 2015

Gospel. We have fed the needy the last two years giving away over 250 turkey meals. We have worked side-by-side with Jersey City Together with youth and education issues. We have promoted plays, started a re-entry program and raised $50k to go toward assisting ex-offenders and with the assistance of other leaders I am in the process of starting a Civic Trust in Jersey City. We are doing our part in the neighborhood paying for CCTV’s to monitor our property and make the community safer.

What gives me hope? I leave you with the words of a famous hymn, a hymn that has inspired hope for close to 150 years.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand

Have you been banned by Mayor Fulop on social media?

Mayor Steve Fulop uses social media the way that many mayors do: to communicate important information about things the city is doing to his constituents. It all seems simple enough at its face; a reminder about snow removal here, an announcement about a meeting there. If, in the end, these posts serve to boost him as November approaches, one could forgive him. It’s good, after all, if a mayor can run for re-election based on his record.

And it’s understandable in these times that any public figure would want to at least lightly curate their comments on social media. We’re in a very negative time in US politics, and Fulop is a high-profile Democrat. There are loonies out there as we all know; people willing to turn a simple post about the importance of shoveling your sidewalk into a racist, all-caps rant that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, written by someone living far from Jersey City, just to get a reaction.

But what if it wound up that the mayor was censoring and deleting on-topic, sensible, reasonable – albeit critical – comments from people within JC? What if those comments are calmly and rationally stated by well-known community activists, who are simply choosing to object to a certain issue or the way in which the Mayor framed it? What if, in the absence of such comments, the thread accommodating the original post looked as if everyone in Jersey City was in whole-hearted agreement with Fulop?

It’s been the rumor in JC activist circles for sometime that if you dare to disagree with our Mayor on Facebook, you will get banned – your comment will be immediately deleted, and you will not be allowed to comment further on any posts, ever. In some cases, it’s taken so far that you’re not allowed to see the Mayor’s posts ever again in your feed (no more announcements of snow removal schedules for you, you crazy dissident!).

I’ve heard this from enough people that I believed it, and I’ve been following this as an unfolding story for a few weeks…. but I had a hesitation. How widespread was this, really? And what if the people who had been banned really said something bad – like in the heat of the moment?

So, two things. For one, I started an online questionnaire. If you’ve been blocked by the Mayor on any forum, perhaps you’d like to take it. The link is here. More on that in a moment.

But secondly, this appeared on the Jersey City Politics group on Facebook:

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(That’s all one post – I’m sorry I couldn’t make it fit better.)

Bruce Alston is behind the Hudson County Chronicles, a website that covers local issues. When I posted my Ellen Simon story, I received an enormous amount of traffic from his Chronicles, even more than I did from NJ Politico – the man is a force to be reckoned with and has an absolutely huge following. And he is definitely not crazy or prone to all-caps ranting – I don’t know Bruce personally at all, but I’ve seen him on Facebook dozens of times and he is nothing if not totally polite and on-topic. I don’t always agree with the guy, but he is certainly not someone to be censored or dismissed.

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There is something about a Facebook comment thread that is 50+ comments deep – it comes across as a certain kind of truth. You see it as a casual observer, and it feels like you’re seeing an accurate portrayal of what people really think of a person, a product, or – in this case – an administration.

Back to my questionnaire: I only have a few responders, so it’s too soon to really report what I’ve learned so far. But if you’ve been blocked, please fill it out. You can be anonymous or you can sign your name – it’s up to you. I’ll follow up this post later, if I get enough responses.

Look, no one has to have comments turned on for any of these media. You’ll note that I have comments turned off on this blog – that’s because I wanted to create a place for my opinions/thoughts/ideas, not a discussion. Fulop can likewise turn off the comments to his Facebook posts, and that would make it much more clear that it is an outgoing platform for him to share information with the community, but not a discussion.

But making it appear to be a discussion when in fact it’s not is intellectually dishonest. He’s taking out all the “bad” comments and making it seem as if there’s overwhelming, nearly unanimous support for everything he does. There is not.

Be my creepy Valentine: The JC Oddities Market is next week!

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Brittany Graziosi is a jewelry designer and Jersey City native who has put together this amazing event, happening next Saturday. All kinds of creepy things gathered under one roof – from pickled octopus legs to goth/horror memorabilia – make this market a first of its kind in JC.

The details:

Til Death Do Us Part: A Valentine’s Oddities Market

Cathedral Hall: 380 Montgomery Street, Jersey City

Saturday, February 11th, 12-6pm

I talked to Brittany about her experiences as a designer and vendor at JC’s various markets, as well as what we can expect to see at her fair. Interview below!


Q. Tell me about the JC Oddities Market. Why did you start it?

BG: I started JC Oddities for a few reasons, one being that I really want to open a store. The idea for the store would be a collection of work from various crafters, with a monthly (for lack of a better word) gallery show. (I use the term “gallery” loosely because I have no experience or intention of working with fine art but hate the word showcase). I want to rotate pieces in and out and give artists a chance to sell in a brick and mortar that they can direct traffic to- without having to worry about the overhead individually.In order to make that even remotely possible, I needed to build a network of the type of artists I’d like to work with.

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Piersanti Pop Culture

[In 2012]  I noticed as I introduced more bone work and “weirder” elements into my work, I stopped getting accepted into markets outside of JC. Pacific Flea, Sixth Borough, Indiegrove have all been warmly welcoming. Because of my old work schedules I didn’t get to do too many of them, but they all accepted me as a vendor.

Trenton Punk Flea is nearly impossible to get into cause it sells out so quickly. So beyond that, Monster Mania, the horror conventions- I was limited to where I could go and none of it was super local.

I recently applied to vend at Brooklyn Oddities Flea and was rejected, and ya know that’s fine because they have their scene going on and it’s wonderful. But we can have one too. I just wanted it to be known that you don’t have to wait for a massive yearly horror expo and you don’t have to cross the water to find a market like this.

In your experience – both in organizing this and with other events – what’s it like to put on an event in JC? What are the difficulties you face?

My experience with markets was mostly just as a vendor (though I do coordinate the vendors for Pacific Flea).

Jersey City events are fairly simple. Space is the big issue. Cathedral Hall was a godsend

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Down to the Bone Design

because it’s massive and aesthetically is PERFECT for an oddities market. I also feel great about spending big money on it because I appreciate the work 4th street does. [Ed. note: in order to pay for the rental of the space, Brittany raised money on Indiegogo and paid for a lot of it out of pocket. Her goal was to keep the vendor fee low to be as inclusive as possible.]

I know you’ve been looking to open a shop on the West Side or Greenville – can you talk about some of the things you’ve run into during that process?

Storefronts on the other hand… Owners have spaces that have been vacant two years and counting and won’t come down from $2200 on a 850sqft space on West Side and Virginia Ave. – it’s wild. There’s no real foot traffic there but they’ll wait out the wave of gentrification just to get a ten-year lease at that price rather than filling the space for 2 years a bit lower. I guess I don’t understand real estate so I’ll stick to one-day events and pop up shops for now.

How would you describe the overall environment in JC for artists and craftspeople?
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Naughty Rabbit

As far as environment- I think it’s great here but you’ve gotta be doing something original. There are so many talented people here that the competition is endless. Especially when your category is jewelry. It’s hard to explain for me at least that what I’m doing is way more than jewelry. That’s why I changed my own personal name from antisocial jewelry company to antisocial JC. Well, that and because I’m not one of those NJ artists that puts NYC in their bios 😂

One thing I will say though, is I owe a big part of my successes and ambition to create this market to Uta Brauser. Creative Grove was the starting point for me as a vendor and it was the first place I ever felt welcomed and comfortable selling work as a crafter. The politics of how Creative Grove was pushed out are all unclear to me, but I’ll always miss that market. It was the one place we have total unrestricted creative license, and it was affordable. Back when I had a small baby and wasn’t back to work yet, the spring and summer at Grove were my only expendable income, as well as my only time out interacting with peers- and it was something I could even bring my son with me for most of the day which was vitally important to us.


For more info and a full list of vendors, check out the website for the market at jcodditiesmarket.com

 

 

The greatest photograph ever taken of Jersey City

Ugh. I am so jealous. My neighbor Jodi took the photo I’ve been trying to take for years. And it is so amazing:

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This is of a man carrying what I believe to be two goats (that’s just a guess), one stacked on top of another, walking down Newark Ave in India Square, probably en route to a butcher or restaurant. It’s a very common scene on Newark Ave – a burly man in a rubber apron and boots, carrying some array of dead animals, slung over his shoulder. They’re usually out in the mornings.

I’ve been an ethical vegan for over nine years. I’m not even used to thinking of meat as an option to eat. But one thing I think of often is: if I were to eat meat, it would be very easy now to do so – just go into any suburban grocery store and buy your chicken breast all perfectly filleted; cut up just so, so that you don’t even have to think of it as an animal. It could be animal, it could be soy – whatever, it all looks the same. You don’t have to think about it. There it is, all pre-packaged and perfect for you, just cook it up real quick and it’s ready to eat.

About fifteen years ago, I remember walking down Newark Ave and watching a guy pull out four or five skinned goats from a truck. He just flung them over his shoulder like they were nothing – legs dangling below, the stomaches stacked up one by one, hauling them off to wherever he was headed. I remember being at first taken aback by the horror of it – so many dead animals – and then by his brute strength (they had to be incredibly heavy, right? How much does a dead goat weigh?). And then just by the alienness of it all – of the glimpse into another way of life so different from mine. He just walked matter-of-factly, down Newark Ave, while I sort of staggered behind him, trying – but failing – to take a picture. It was all I could do. I almost couldn’t process what I was seeing.

I hate to put too much on this moment, but in many ways, this – to me – is Jersey City in a nutshell. It’s all about being confronted in a way you can’t ignore, with a way of life you only barely knew existed. Did I know that there were people who carted around dead goats for a living? I mean, I guess – but I never really thought about it. I definitely never saw one with my own eyes, let alone many of them over the years. Nor did I ever admire the strength it took to do such a job, or the strange beauty inherent in it.

Looking at this photo, I can’t help but think of a Francis Bacon painting – and yet, there’s something about the photo that makes the Bacon seem almost kitsch. The Bacon is a set-up, a metaphor; this is reality, walking down the street, just making a living. I hate to be like “it’s art” because it’s really so much more than that. It’s reality. It’s life. “Art” feels like a pose. This is something else.

 

 

Talking to: Jessica Berrocal–Abdelnabbi

This past Monday, a rally was held in the Newark Pedestrian Plaza in downtown Jersey City, to show support for immigrant and Muslim rights in the wake of the Trump travel ban. I reached out to local activist Jessica Berrocal –Abdelnabbi to find out her thoughts and reflections on being a Muslim in Jersey City, and what our city can do to support that community. Jessica is probably best known for her involvement in encouraging JCPS to close in honor of Eid al-Adha. She is the mother of three children and a very strong voice for her community.

*Please note: Jessica and I first started working on this interview on 1/30; she submitted a final version to me on 2/2. Earlier on 2/2, the Fulop administration announced that the Mayor would be signing an order to declare Jersey City as a sanctuary city tomorrow, at 1pm. The exact wording of this order, as well as its depth and reach, are not known at this time.

**UPDATE (2/3): The Mayor signed the Executive Order. A copy of it can be found here


On a personal note, my understanding is that you were not born/raised Muslim but converted later in life. Could you tell us a little about that journey?

I am a daughter of a non-practicing Sephardic Jewish mother and a father that practiced Catholicism to the fullest until he went into an Evangelist Christian Rehab home. After my dad had stayed there for six months, he came out intoning about one God and his mercy. I grew strongly believing in God, even through rough moments of my childhood. After my father’s conversion, I automatically converted, but it opened up a door to discover different religions. I found myself going on a journey of discovery in my life.

During my journey of learning different faiths, my father told me I could never convert to any other religion until I become an adult.

During my teenage life, I grew up in Jackson Heights in Queens, N.Y. I went to Newtown High School, where I was in involved with everything you can imagine. Newtown High School was diverse. My schools were closed for the High Holidays, as well as for Christmas and Easter. I remember learning about dreidels in class, during the Jewish holiday.

But I have faced the difficulty of sending my child to public school on holy days. To celebrate Eid, which commemorates Abraham’s binding of his son, my 13-year-old daughter had to choose between classroom and mosque. So I began a petition three years ago asking the Jersey City Board of Education to designate Eid as a day off, but it fell flat. But after attending the board’s monthly meetings, organizing 200 Muslim parents to show up at one of the meetings and persisted on the high holy days to be added to the Jersey City School District calendar. Hopefully with the political climate Jersey City Board members can adopt a parent calendar committee they have spoken about in the past. We can foster and cultivate the many different student body that attends Jersey School District.

What has the mood been like in the Muslim community in JC since Trump was elected?

The current atmosphere of the Muslim community in Jersey City since Trump was elected is very shocking. It’s been a rude awakening. A lot of members of the community are mobilizing to obtain their citizenship. It has created a sense of movement for protection to stay in the USA. I have taken the opportunity to make sure they register to vote immediately.

The young college Muslim student body is moving in the direction of Socialist, Independent, Green Party voice because of the decay of the Democratic/ Republican party.

Women have been scared, and some have considered taking off their hijab, so they’re not a target because Donald Trump has given the “okay” and paved the way for bigots to attack Muslims. The women in the Muslim community are an easy target because they’re distinguishable. If everyone in America wore hijab, then Muslim women wouldn’t be a target or discernible, but that’s not the case.

Specifically, how have people in your community responded to the Muslim travel ban?

The reaction towards the travel ban in the Muslim community is very frightening because it shows the type of dictatorship we are being implemented. The majority of Jersey City’s Muslim community comes from a Pakistani or Egyptian background. Neither country (Egypt and Pakistan) is on the travel ban list, but the community is still fearful because Trump seems to be unpredictable but predictable. The communities are afraid that he will add these countries to the travel ban list.

 Our Muslim community here is very diverse, but are there any particular regions of the world where a majority (or sizeable minority) come from?

The Muslim community in Jersey City is indeed very diverse. Having a roundabout of 250,000 residents, 4.2% of the city’s religious adherents are Muslims according to PEW polls. This growing Muslim population in Jersey City includes a significant Latino contingency as well as American, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and various Arab nationalities. Based on the PEW research center, in 2014, New Jersey ‘s Muslim population is between 300,000 to 450,000. However, we don’t know a public census of Muslims in general or Muslims in Jersey City correctly. There is no way for us to know our exact number. Although it is against the law to profile and research into how many Muslims are in some parts of the country, but we need to know while also being protected. By knowing our number and our strength, it will shake the status quo under the Donald Trump’s administration, and it’ll help the community mobilize to go out and vote. Making sure this doesn’t happen in the next Presidential election, and that is why we have created an NJ Muslim Political Social Club to organize our future political representation.

What’s the environment in JC like for a Muslim person? You wear a head-covering – have you gotten any negative comments or are people supportive or neutral?

I had an incident in Jersey City, once in a Laundromat, a man attacked me telling me I needed to go back to my country. I was very shocked and shaken because my three-year-old daughter was with me. Since then, I haven’t been able to take my daughter with me to the Laundromat because she is traumatized by the experience. We don’t have enough protection for our Muslim community, not just in Jersey City but throughout Hudson County. Our community centers and mosques aren’t protected vigilantly either; when the mosque on Westside Avenue received a hateful letter, nothing was done in particular. The issue was dusted off, and this is scary because we could face an event like that which happened in Quebec, Canada. I fear that I could be in a mosque in Jersey City with my children, praying, and have someone come inside and attack us while we’re praying. (Side note: Muslims pray five times day. Mosques are active from 5 AM until around 8 PM every day).

Jersey City is not designated a “sanctuary city.” [Ed. note: as stated in the introduction, Mayor Fulop announced late today that tomorrow he would sign an order declaring us one. The wording/details of this order were not made public at the time at which this blog post was published.  On 2/3, an executive order was signed. A copy of it can be found here.] If we were, do you think that would improve things for Muslims currently here? Or would there be any affect at all?

Jersey City is not a designated “sanctuary city,” but there are three steps: the Mayor would need to issue an executive order, council members need to create a strong ordinance and the Chief of Police must agree not to work with I.C.E (Immigration Customs Enforcement). I think it would make a big difference because of we, in Jersey City, are diverse and we are the golden doors for Ellis Island and have significant monuments for immigration. Being a sanctuary city will make the community feel safe, especially because I.C.E. will not be knocking on our doors taking away our loved ones.

I first met you at a Police Captain’s meeting where you were trying to get extra protection/patrols for families walking home late during Ramadan. Did that workout? Have the police been responsive to your needs as a community?

They have been, but only a little. The sheriffs have picked up the task of protecting us during Ramadan. I feel that we lack the support of Jersey City police, but perhaps it could be because we don’t advocate for ourselves enough collectively as a community. And I believe we don’t have enough police to protect the city. More than ever, we need this protection because our women who wear headscarves are easy and visible targets. We are singled out the same way the Japanese and the Eastern-European Jews were during the World Wars.

Between the almost daily shooting happenings in our city, we are living a scary dark place in the world. Our brother and sisters in the African American community are hurting with this non-stop violence. We are being desensitize; accepting it as an ordinary thing to be expected.

Anything else you want to add to your experience as a Muslim in JC at this precise moment?

I moved to Jersey City because of the diversity I found and the fact that it can be a safe haven for me to build my family and raise my children with Hispanic and Muslim Community. I can go pray at the mosque and go two blocks over and find a typical Spanish restaurant. That is some of the many reasons that I came here to feel welcome as Hispanic Muslim. I am a Hispanic Muslim woman and mother of three girls setting a role model for our future generation.

Let us not forget that collectively the representation of the United States infrastructure was on the backs of our African brothers and sisters and immigrants running from religious persecution.

A tour of the monuments of Jersey City, NJ

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.

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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.


img_6246This 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.


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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.


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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.)

 

 

Talking to: JC Eats

logo.jpgFor 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.

— Amy


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.

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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:

  • Tacos. Always tacos. My favorites right now are from Taqueria Viva Mexico (chorizo
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    Always tacos. 

    and barbacoa) and Sol Azteca (carnitas and nopales – the grilled cactus).

  • Any of the huge sandwiches from Andrea Salumeria (Pete’s Special Tuna is my personal favorite) but really the majority of Italian delis in Jersey City won’t let you down.
  • Dosa and Idli from Chutneys.
  • 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.

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Sandwich from Prato Bakery