Sunday, October 22, 2006

Delivered Vacant

Yesterday was pretty much a disaster when it came to working. From 10-1 was Arabic class. I shuffled Amtrak words around for a while after that, then went to the 6 p.m. screening of Delivered Vacant at a middle school across town.

The two-hour documentary by Nora Jacobson was completely engaging. The filmmaker shot footage in Hoboken for eight years, during the prime years of Hoboken's transition from diverse old-time neighborhood to the upscale gentile waterfront community that it is today. Its transformation was completed years ago now. It's hard to believe that I used to know people who lived in cheap tenements over there, and that we used to roam the streets going to indie-rock parties, back when you could still park in Hoboken.

Several shots showed buildings on fire, and rumor was that the mafia was involved in setting buildings ablaze to drive low-rent tenants out, so that the buildings could be sold vacant to condo developers. Many of the interviews were with senior citizens and minorities who were driven out. Where did they go? Some went to the projects. Some disappeared. I'm sure some went to Union City or Jersey City.

The educated poor--that is, writers, artists, filmmakers and people who make a lifestyle choice not to pursue financially rewarding careers--were able to fight. They learned their rights, protested, and cut deals. As usual, most ethnic and economic minorities were pushed out without being aware of what they could ask for as compensation.

A few highlights: A group of Indians announced early on that they were quiet by tradition, but that they would fight back in their own way, and they did. In the end, they bought their building. And a Costa Rican couple held out for $20,000 payoff to leave their rental. They got it in the end.

The screening was crowded, even though the film is 14 years old. I'm sure that's because of all the development going on in Jersey City now. People want to see what happened in Hoboken, because what's happening here is scary and we want to keep the diversity and rich culture that exists in Jersey City.

There was a Q & A session afterwards. One woman stood up and said "It is happening here. Now. Today. We need to stop it."

True and not-totally-true. I'd describe Downtown Jersey City as a community "At Risk." In serious danger. But like the East Village during weekdays when the rich kiddies are not drinking themselves silly at every bar, there's still heart. There's still a lot of the original homesteaders and old-timers. Though not in the luxury high-rises, which are all dedicated to wealthy professionals. And unlike the East Village or Hoboken, we have a lot of houses, so many of the newcomers are families. A totally different breed than the type who view the area as a bedroom community. Families mean school involvement. Park renovations. Day care centers that offer jobs.

After the program was concluded, the beat writer for the Jersey City Reporter approached me for a few "Why did you attend" quotes. I talked his ear off, and I probably will come out sounding naive and overly optimistic. I suggested that we'd never have the mafia setting fires to drive people out because 1) a lot of our old-timers OWN, as opposed to renting (which led to remarks on property tax reassessments, but I do know that senior citizens on fixed incomes can get their tax bills adjusted accordingly, and believe me--if I know, you can bet the informed old-time citizens of my block know too), and 2) Jersey City is a lot bigger than Hoboken, which is just a little over a mile square. You can still get a cheap place up in the Heights or out near Bayonne. And the new(ish) Light Rail means these areas are accessible now, even without a car.

I dread to think how naive, rich, and oblivious I will sound in next week's paper. Think about it: I look like an invading yuppie and I was optimistic about development being managed or even slowing down completely. Silly me?

The neighborhood is in transition and in the end, no one will be able to stop it. Those of us who came here in search of cheap housing made the area more palatable to others like us. But the market goes in cycles and we're now experiencing a serious slowdown. Economics could dictate that development slows to a manageable level. We even have a developer who has cut deals with the Hamilton Park community. The guys turning the old St. Francis Hospital into condos are also restoring the eastern part of the park, researching the retail the community wants, and perplexing us by sponsoring local artists. Er, aren't developers supposed to be the enemy?

What we are currently at risk of losing is the Embankment, a fantastic elevated old bedrock railroad right-of-way. Some developers want to build homes on it. But the community and municipal government both want a park. Who will win? Normally, I'd say the developers. But I look around and see thousands of condos going up. In a flat real estate market. I suspect a lot of money will be lost. And I optimistlcally think the community might win this one.

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