Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gentrification, Neighborhoods and Holiday Spirit

Ah, the holidays…a time for family, love and kind words. And where else would one expect to find such sentimentalities but on “Ellen?” Hey, Queen Latifah was on and she can do no wrong in my book (we’ll ignore the film with Mr. Martin). She is a true inspiration and this I knew when I nearly spit up my eggnog upon hearing her spectacular suggestion for New Jersey’s new motto: “New Jersey – We don’t like you either!” Oh, please, please, don’t be offended. New Jersey has had to defend itself against a tirade of abuses for decades and it was a much-welcomed stance from one of New Jersey’s most regal members. Currently, that stance may be to no avail, however, because it seems that the “you” in the suggested motto is quickly becoming “us.”

What do I mean? I’ll tell you. I have never seen so many people rushing towards me and mine since I was the most unfortunate customer in K-Mart to grab the last Tickle-Me-Elmo in ’92. The same frantic get-whatcha-can-while-you-can energy has engulfed Jersey City for the past year and it is making me twitch with nervousness. I keep looking over my shoulder, out of fear that an actual physical wave of business suits and $100 haircuts will tsunami my ass. I had always heard of gentrification. I always knew about the neighborhoods that gentrification happened in – hell, I partied in ‘em! But, I never lived in an area under the process. It stinks! Construction is going on 24-7, you see new people in the area who look nicer than you do, and you are always afraid of when your lease is up. Will the landlord change it? Will he raise it if we ask him to fix the missing floorboard that our feet keep falling into? Will he get angry if we ask him to fix the rotting pipes and then keep our deposit?

I suppose it’s not all bad. For two years we lived with an X-TREME Sports obstacle course for a road in front of our apartment, but this year it was paved and it is a smooth as Pilate’s-trained yuppie’s bottom. Our supermarket changed, too. When we first moved in, we had a choice between orange drink and some neon blue stuff that they serve in public schools. Now, we have all kinds of organic fruits and veggies, cage-free eggs, and other overpriced foods for people who believe in animal rights. Ain’t I an animal?

Oh, and the most important thing. We got Christmas spirit. Yes, believe it or not, gentrification has brought Christmas spirit to Jersey City. See, before all the upper middle class people started moving here, Journal Square (my area of Jersey City) had a few lighted branches and lampposts, and maybe a wreath or two here and there, to represent the few Christians in the area. Journal Square, while I have lived here, has A LOT of cultures represented, so maybe Christmas is cool and all, but not everyone here celebrates it.

Now, however, a really cool developer called Metrovest Equities is making what used to be a hospital that served the poorest of Jersey City into condos. Hey, it’s a gorgeous art deco building and sick people can’t appreciate that! Anyway, as a token of its love for the residents of Jersey City, Metrovest Equities also dedicated a big, big tree to us. I’m not joking; the holiday tree stands one foot taller than the tree that is going to be lit at Rockefeller. Yes, a big tree for us, the residents of Jersey City, to enjoy. Although, I guess we’ll have to enjoy it from outside the gate of the condo complex because that’s where the tree was erected. No, it wasn’t erected in a public place where families can gather. The big, big tree was erected in front of the condos that Metrovest Equities wants to sell…to people who buy condos…who are moving here…and who may leave us New Jersey peons with no place to live. Someone with a more business-oriented mind might think that the big, big tree is actually a way to advertise the condos, a sort of beacon for the incoming masses, but I know nothing of business. Funny, though, that the complex is, indeed, called The Beacon. Hmmm. It’s right around the corner from my apartment, so I get to look at it and get filled with…inspiration every day.

It seems to me that this type of thing wouldn’t happen if we had policies that kept people in the same neighborhood for years. My friend Rachel said I should post an idea I had and I guess I will, but the idea cannot work unless we ensure a variety of rents in any given neighborhood. I read once that the most successful and active neighborhoods have people who represent a range of incomes – and when I write successful, I mean ECONOMICALLY, for all you bottom-line people.

That said, my idea is somewhat simple. Why not get a group of people from, say, three neighborhoods in a city/town? Each neighborhood group has to have two kinds of people in it: stationary folks and travelers. The neighborhood group of leaders should be small, like maybe six people. Anyway, the stationary people STAY in the neighborhood for a minimum of 20 years and vow to be active in its development. The travelers agree to regularly travel to other towns, in the United States or in other countries, and study what successful neighborhoods are doing. They bring their ideas back and share ‘em with the stationary folks. Then, maybe once a year, the three neighborhoods get together and have a festival, sharing neighborhood accomplishments, etc. The participants shouldn’t be politically motivated or have corporate interests. In practice, it might be as simple as getting neighborhood residents to know each other at block parties or as complex as bringing someone from another country to teach residents how to repair each other’s cars (the way people do in Cuba). Ultimately, the goal is to create a place that belongs to the people who live there, as opposed to people who don’t. Okay, Rachel – it’s your fault if I have to sift through countless emails about how this can’t ever be done!

Gentrification does stink, but the ideas and dreams in my mind cannot be appropriated with such ease. I can still imagine. Sometimes, I even create. Can you? Sure you can.

Happy Holidays!


Painful definition (Jersey City is in it!): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentrification

Jersey Journal article, “Tree is holiday beacon at old Med Center site,” Nov. 29, 2005.
http://www.nj.com (pick "Jersey Journal" and type "beacon tree" in the keyword bar; the article will be posted for a week, maybe two)