By David Cruz
We have been documenting the dramatic evolution that is reshaping Jersey City — physically and culturally, mostly downtown, where condo towers are replacing empty lots. Brownstones refurbished into million dollar homes. Cafes and restaurants replacing dollar stores. But in the inner city — in the heart of the black community — an influx of Orthodox Jews have been arriving on Martin Luther King Drive over the last several months, and their presence is being noticed.
“Most of the people that’s coming here are from Brooklyn, they live in Williamsburg. In Williamsburg the prices to buy houses, it’s impossible. To buy a house in Williamsburg is $1.5 million a house,” said Yuel Perl, spokesman for the Ya’azoru Committee, which is opening a community center on MLK. “We want to live for cheap and the prices here are very cheap. Prices here is going now to buy a house $180,000, $200,000, so lower income people, we could afford these things.”
In that way, the Hasidim who have discovered the Bergen Lafayette and Greenville neighborhoods are not unlike the recently-arrived hipsters downtown, just looking for cheap housing. But Hasidim are known to be insular, and long-time residents here are known to be distrustful of anybody new. So far, the two sides seem to be just sizing each other up.
“These guys know me. I live right here,” said one man, sizing up a camera crew talking to Perl.
“I know him. He’s a nice guy,” noted Perl.
Perl says since January, 11 families have moved into this neighborhood, still one of the toughest in the city, but just blocks from the light rail station and minutes from downtown. He says 50 to 60 homes are already under contract. The committee is marketing apartments to families for affordable rents — $800 for a one-bedroom, $1,100 for a two-bedroom. Asked what he thinks this community will look like in a few years, Perl said, “We don’t know. We can’t say what’s going to be in the future. But this I have to say. We don’t want to throw out people, because here there are many houses for sale, you understand.”
Real estate agent Tina Devine grew up in this very neighborhood and has seen its demise and, now, its rise.
“The market is hot,” she said. “Sellers are getting at or above asking price. There are a lot of investors that are moving into the neighborhood and there’s low inventory so that’s creating a higher demand for the neighborhood.”
But, already, some residents have begun to complain about aggressive buyers, whose persistence — they say — borders on harassment. Asheenia Johnson is on the board of the nearby South Greenville Neighborhood Association.
“When you have people, day after day, week after week, knocking on their doors ‘do you want to sell’ and telling them that this is going to happen, that’s going to happen,” she recounted. “They’re basically scaring them into selling, and they’re offering people $90,000, $150,000 for buildings that can go for a million or better, and, as a member of the neighborhood association and as a concerned resident, I have a problem with that.”
“Yes, it happens. It’s a problem, this,” said Perl. “Many Hasidic people want to come here and they want to buy houses for cheap, so they are asking. They are trying. But if they don’t want to sell it, they say no they don’t want to sell,” Perl said. Do they take no for an answer? “Of course, no is no,” he said.
We’ve heard this before in towns like Lakewood and Toms River, where the city is now considering an ordinance to outlaw this kind of soliciting. And then there is the history of places like Crown Heights, where tensions between blacks and Orthodox Jews exploded in violence in the ’90s. No one here wants to think of that, but it’s not hard to see where tensions can begin.
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what they’re doing because they’re trying to help people, but I don’t like no conniving stuff,” said David Bethea, a longtime resident of the neighborhood. “Don’t do it; don’t deceive me because if you do that, then you’re going to get violence.”
Johnson says that kind of talk is not constructive. “You know, people will say that, but I tend not to look at it in that way,” she said. “That’s what we do not want to happen.”
Mayor Steve Fulop says he’s optimistic about the potential changes here.
“It’s not a new thing to have an Orthodox Jewish community living together and living together in a great neighborhood and that’s hopefully what that ends up being,” he said. “It’s still in the very early phases of this but we’ll see where it goes.”
Change here is inevitable and fraught with the potential for conflict. But change also presents opportunities for progress and dynamism that hasn’t been seen here in decades.