By David Cruz
In the aftermath of the death of detective Melvin Santiago, Jersey City became the focus of national attention, for all the wrong reasons. In the middle of a genuine rebirth downtown, the city was forced to face the fact that many residents elsewhere remain trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty. Frustrations were high.
“This is what I’m talking about. We have no respect,” said Jersey City resident Lorraine Thomas. When asked how the situation could improve, she said, “Things get better here? Raise the rent and push people out. I’m sorry, that’s me.”
Most here don’t agree with that solution, though. They say it’s economic development and jobs that will help restore this community’s vitality.
One of the city’s plans for economic development in this neighborhood is the construction of a new city hall annex. It’s an idea that has been around for some time but is just now getting fast-tracked.
Mayor Steven Fulop says the annex will bring close to 300 city workers and hundreds more residents to the area to conduct business with city government, generating economic activity that will benefit people living here now.
“We’re not trying to bring in new people. These are the community who make this area special. Everybody wants a safe community with good schools and places to shop. You need economic activity to do that, so this will stimulate that,” Fulop said.
Even if the city starts building the annex before the end of the year — an optimistic estimate — it’ll be two years before it can really have the impact the mayor hopes for. Meanwhile, the shopping center built as part of the last big economic development idea here — the Hub — is in debt and has been steadily losing tenants since it opened in 2000. The imperative is to create jobs now.
“Some of these challenges are very stubborn, and you can put all these programs in place and sometimes it’s very hard to move the needle. You know, it can be demoralizing at times because you put so much resources into something and you move the needle incrementally,” said Fulop.
Police sirens are a major part of the daily soundtrack along Martin Luther King Drive, the main commercial corridor in Ward F, where more than two-thirds of residents are black. Unemployment here is near 20 percent. Eleven of the 15 homicides committed in the city this year, happened here. This is the area where detective Melvin Santiago worked. Cops here do the heavy lifting and often get resentment and distrust in return. Public Safety Director Jim Shea says building trust has proven to be difficult.
“The minority communities are the only ones in the United States that had to view the police as agents of oppression a lot of the time. That goes back 100 years. I can’t go back 100 years and reset what happened. We all have to deal with where we are now and it comes from both sides. The police have to be aware that when they’re dealing with the minority community — fairly or not — they’re dealing with that legacy,” Shea said.
“And, on the community side, they have to realize that the police officer they’re dealing with today is not the same police officer who was in Selma, Alabama in 1962 or even in Jersey City 20 years ago,” said Shea.
But even amid the blight and crime, positive signs are visible. Across from the Bethune Community Center, a group of teen artists is attracting attention, working on portraits they’re painting as part of a summer apprenticeship program. These are summer jobs with a purpose says the center’s director, artist Alvin Pettit.
“When you can help psychologically heal people, even on a small scale, it changes thought processes. You know, if people just have something to look at, rather than just iron gates and concrete, you know, maybe that’s an area where people are less likely to throw a bottle, or throw some trash. It starts to become a point of [designation], a point of interest,” Pettit said.
“I just try to be a positive influence to people,” said city resident Tyler Ballon. “Hopefully, some of my positive influence will rub off on them, but I just really gotta focus on what I gotta do. Perfect my skills before I can actually help other people.”
“This is the home stretch,” said Alfa Demmellash of the Rising Tide Capital.
Demmellash’s staff at the non-profit Rising Tide Capital is preparing for its annual Start Something Challenge, where 10 would-be entrepreneurs will pitch their business ideas for a chance to win $10,000. The Harvard grad founded the organization in 2004 and in the years since has helped over 500 entrepreneurs launch their own businesses, many right here in the heart of the city.
“By bridging downtown with uptown, by bringing together people from different backgrounds, whether it’s ethnic or industry, or a variety of different backgrounds, and I think we’re particularly well-suited to do that in this community, and this community is incredibly vibrant, welcoming and open and I think a great place to invest and be a part of a great American story,” Demmellash said.
No one here thinks this community can turn around on hope alone, but after decades of trying to reclaim the city’s most forlorn neighborhoods, the sense here is that this latest surge has got to work, because the alternatives are too unpleasant to consider.
Catch up on the entire “Crime In Our Cities” series