As Gentrification Spreads, Tensions Start to Mount

By David Cruz

Downtown’s dramatic transformation continues at a remarkable rate in Jersey City. Gentrification has brought hip new cafes, bars and restaurants to old neighborhoods and luxury housing has raised rents and property values across the board. Max Herman leads the Urban Studies program at NJCU — we’re going to meet some of his students in a moment — but Herman says it’s this next wave of gentrification, spreading into the inner city, that could prove combustible.

“I think right now we’re on the cusp of it,” he suggested. “I think most of the real estate development has been on the waterfront district and there really hasn’t been a culture clash there. There are other developments here — like Bayfront — that won’t involve much cultural clash either because these are industrial sites that are being re-purposed for housing and stores. I think if anywhere we’re going to see that clash it will be in a neighborhood like Bergen-Lafayette because those areas are areas that have traditionally housed working class people and people of color and now you have middle class people coming in who can’t afford places in Brooklyn, Queens or Bronx and they’re moving here, and they’re looking for homes, not necessarily just apartments and condos, and I think that’s where we’re going to see the flashpoint.”

On a block of historic row houses on Summit Avenue, you are right on the middle of one of the city’s predominately black neighborhoods, but over the last 10 years, the makeup of this community has been changing significantly.

Earl Morgan is a retired newspaper columnist and lifelong resident of Bergen-Lafayette. He has literally seen it all in this neighborhood.

“We had enormous fights with the druggies on the corner and we finally smoothed all of that away. Now some other people are coming in and saying we’ll take it from here,” he recounted, “and I have some very interesting conversations with them because when I point this out to them they say, ‘Well, you’re a racist’ and I say, ‘Look, I’ve been here all my life.'”

Morgan knows that since 2000, the percentage of black residents here has dropped from 46 percent to 41 percent while the percentage of whites has gone from 21 percent to 26 percent.

“If you move a black person into a white area, it’s like putting a little chocolate in the milk; it changes everything,” he said, adding that the reverse is happening on Astor Place, and this part of Bergen-Lafayette, where residents are getting a drop of cream into the coffee. “It’s more than a drop. I mean they’re coming in here every day.”

Changing the names of neighborhoods into more realtor-friendly monikers like Bergen Hill, which sounds foreign to someone like Morgan but kind of quaint to a newcomer. It’s a phenomenon of which Mayor Steve Fulop says he’s both aware and wary.

“We’re trying our best to protect the affordable housing and the texture of the city,” said Fulop. “I tend to think that if the entire city looks like white middle class to upper class professionals it would be the type of city that no one wants to live in because there’s no texture or diversity to it.”

Back in Max Herman’s Urban Sociology class, students say the changes have had a negative impact on their lives as newcomers move in, concentrating inner city problems in ever-shrinking poor neighborhoods.

“No matter how much new stuff they build, crime is still here, and it’s getting worse,” said one student. Another added, “I feel like if anything, it’s getting worse.”

“I think they’re just pushing a group of people into one area and there’s just a lot of tension among the people,” said another student. “As they continuously build downtown or Journal Square, in the Greenville section, people are just being pushed there and there’s crimes every day.”

In the Heights, where the mayor just bought a home — for three quarters of a million dollars – newcomers are becoming a part of the local scene, like the Johnson family. They’re from Freehold but when they were looking for a place to open a hip eatery, they opened Fox and Crow on the Heights main drag, Palisade Avenue, in a spot formerly occupied by a notorious Latin nightclub in a neighborhood that is still largely Latino.

“In terms of the neighborhood response. Graffitti, for example, all types of people love graffiti. When I was painting the front we attracted every walk of life in terms of ‘that’s cool’ and conversations opened,” Rebecca Johnson recalled. “I think there was a lot of positivity that actually has come and any negativity probably came moreso from not having certain types of beer.”

With more and more of the city’s 15 square miles of habitable land being consumed, developers are looking upward, and this new skyscraper heralds the arrival of the city’s next hot neighborhood — Journal Square — which will be home to at least four similar structures already approved by planners. If things continue at this pace, Jersey City could supplant Newark as the state’s largest city by the next census, which is good or bad, depending on whether you’re looking at things from street level or the penthouse.