In Jersey City, Gentrification Accelerates, Changing Neighborhoods and Lives

NJ Spotlight News | March 17, 2016
Downtown Jersey City, once a place full of vacant lots and abandoned tenements, is now booming with economic activity.

By David Cruz

It’s only mid-March and the sidewalk cafes are already out. Nannies are pushing high-end strollers past the Citi Bike rental station. If you’re not from around here you could confuse this for a downtown neighborhood in Manhattan or Brooklyn. But this is downtown Jersey City. This is a fairly typical sunny morning on Grove Street nowadays, but it wasn’t always this way.

“This, for a long time, and people who grew up here would know this, the downtown area was among the poorest in the city, and there was nothing close to the waterfront,” said Mayor Steve Fulop, “So when people say obviously it would develop and, of course, all the rich people lived downtown, and it’s a tale of two cities, I generally point out to them, that for the 200-plus years of this city’s existence, the downtown area was relatively nonexistent.”

What a difference a couple of decades can make. In the ’70s beautiful brownstones were available for less than $100,000. We’ll let that sink in before we tell you that today, some of these same homes go for over $1 million. Local developer Paul Silverman and his brother, Eric, purchased their first property here back in 1981. Most observers will point to those days as the very beginning of the gentrification of downtown.

“We didn’t know that it would get to what it is now but we knew it would improve,” said Silverman. “Beautiful buildings, right next to the best city in the world, so much access to transportation, so we knew it was a matter of time, but we didn’t know how great it would be as it is now.”

Those early days downtown were typified by vacant lots and abandoned tenements, so when the Silvermans started, they were rehabbing existing structures, and building on vacant land. In fact, very few people were directly displaced by all the new development. But, those new developments came with higher rents and that resulted in higher rents for everyone else downtown also. Max Sherman is director of the Urban Studies program at NJCU.

“Gentrification usually means that there is a population change characterized by middle and upper income people moving into a community that previously was occupied by people of lower income,” he explained.

It’s a term Fulop doesn’t like. “Well, I think gentrification has some negative connotations in regards to how people view it,” he said. “When you say an area’s being gentrified, it means that, to many people, it means that the long-time residents are being thrown out.”

Since 2000, the population downtown went from just over 31,000 to almost 39,000. Poor and working class blacks went from 18 percent of the population to 9 percent. Puerto Ricans, from 17 percent to 8 percent. Meanwhile, whites went from 46 percent of the population to 56 percent. Councilman Danny Rivera grew up down here and still lives downtown. He recalls the last two decades wistfully.

“I remember, even when I was in school, my teachers used to call it the land that God forgot, which was very bad. You know, downtown was a very, very rough neighborhood, but it was very family oriented. Every corner you would hear the music, on Grove Street, the Antillanos every Friday you had the Spanish music,” he recounted. “Personally, I just hope that the Latino community that’s left here can bring some of that back out. My father’s always saying, ‘Let’s have a little party over there on the corner’ and I say, ‘Pop you can’t do that any more,’ but that’s the mixed feelings that I have. Tradition has been lost a little bit.”

Back on Grove Street, we run into Christine Goodman, who runs Art House Productions, which runs a variety of arts events around the city. She recounts her experience in Jersey City, starting 18 years ago.

“Yeah, some people consider me a newcomer,” she chuckled. “I don’t feel like one … I mean I came here for the cheap rents after college and intended to stay only for a year or two. And I stayed and really became invested in the community.”

Many of those who were priced out of downtown moved up the hill to Journal Square or the Heights or over to the Bergen-Lafayette section. In part two of our story, we’ll take a look at the impact gentrification is having in those parts of town.

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