Old guard sees threat in youthful NJ urban influx
JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — To many longtime Jersey City residents, there’s no better mascot than their mayor, a colorful veteran of the region’s rough-and-tumble politics who released an album of Christmas classics while in office.
But there’s a relative newcomer giving the mayor a run for his money in a race that embodies the changes happening as young urbanites flock to northern New Jersey, looking for some relief from New York City’s oppressive rents while still living in an urban area in its orbit.
The campaign between 62-year-old Jerramiah Healy and 36-year-old Steven Fulop personifies the gentrification playing out in cities across the country, from California’s Bay Area to New York City, as young, mostly white professionals priced out of certain areas build new lives — and in some places a new political culture — amid swaths of the old guard.
Perhaps no place displays the tension as acutely as this slice of northern New Jersey, where political shenanigans have long been a fact of life — one that newcomers see a chance to change.
“This is indicative of a larger trend. I really think because of housing prices, cheap urban areas are kind of ripe for gentrification,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. “And as gentrification occurs, there becomes that subsequent change in political leadership.”
In Jersey City, a place long plagued by political corruption, crime, financial mismanagement and industrial pollution, the newcomers have settled in gleaming new buildings around the newly developed waterfront. It’s where financial companies including Goldman Sachs have put down stakes, creating a Wall Street West.
Others have moved into brownstones around a New Jersey-New York subway station, where some old-timers occasionally yell out to the “yuppies,” or using a term that Jersey City natives have adopted, “interlopers.”
The change is similar to that of neighboring Hoboken, long an Italian enclave where legions of young Wall Street types have flocked in the past decade, interspersing trendy bars with old-time restaurants. There, the police chief sued Mayor Dawn Zimmer last month, claiming, among other things, that he was being retaliated against because he was old guard.
“In Hoboken, there is a perceived political rivalry between ‘Old Hoboken’ — individuals whose families have been in Hoboken for decades or even generations, comprised of small business owners, blue-collar workers, and many members of the uniformed services — and ‘New Hoboken,’ comprised of young and middle-aged professionals originally from elsewhere in New Jersey or New York, many of whom commute to New York City for the workday,” the lawsuit said.
Other places around the country are also grappling with an influx — a cycle that has become a fact of urban life.
In Washington, D.C., there is worry that a crop of young, mostly white professionals could weaken the city’s longtime African-American power base. In Oakland, Calif., there are tensions between longtime residents and radicals and professionals who recently moved to Oakland after being priced out of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
On a more local level, New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and Crown Heights neighborhoods in Brooklyn are rapidly changing, as are parts of Chattanooga, Tenn., Minneapolis and other cities.
When longtime residents get priced out by newcomers who drive up rents, the tide can be hard to fight politically.
“If you get a process of gentrification displacement and existing power bases are being eroded, it’s not in the political interest to pursue it in the long term,” said Mark Davidson, an assistant professor of geography at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
The trend is driven by real estate prices and is particularly acute in the expensive New York City area, where there is a “real consciousness” about gentrification, Davidson said.
Harrison, of Montclair State, said many of the newcomers have young children, pay property taxes and want a voice in their local government, she said.
“This generation is very, very community-oriented, and there’s that political spinoff,” she said.
In Jersey City, Healy has paraphrased a freeholder, or New Jersey county official, who railed against newcomers.
“Get out to vote so that, as Jeff Dublin said, Jersey City can remain for Jersey City, not some newcomers, some interlopers who don’t know the city, don’t care about the city, and want to use the city for their own personal ambitions,” Healy said at his campaign kickoff in February.
In an interview at City Hall, in a room filled with photos of Healy with dignitaries including President Barack Obama and a framed, signed photo of Gwyneth Paltrow, Healy said he was referring to Fulop, not the new residents.
“As far as the new folks coming to Jersey City, we welcome them. We love them,” he said. “The election is really about the whole city, old and new,” Healy said.
“I’ve been around a long time, and Steve is a relative newcomer,” he said. When asked why people should vote for him, Healy said touted reduced crime and increased development and park space.
“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” Healy said.
In an interview at his campaign headquarters, its walls painted with Jersey City landmarks, Fulop, a former Marine who moved to Jersey City shortly after graduating college and was elected to the City Council in 2005, said he cares deeply about quality of life in Jersey City and it doesn’t matter whether he was born and raised here.
“I think there’s a culture in this administration that’s an acceptance of mediocrity,” Fulop said. “I think people in this city want results, and Jersey City is at a real crossroads not only for the next four or eight years, but how it’s going to be defined for a generation.”
Fulop, who represents downtown, said he wants to improve the city’s schools, which are under state control. “Fixing the school system is a backbone of making this city livable,” he said.
Fulop said Healy’s administration has been tainted by corruption, while he has not been touched by it during his time in politics.
A number of Jersey City officials were arrested in 2009 during operation Bid Rig, an effort to root out political corruption in New Jersey that was spearheaded by Gov. Chris Christie when he was a U.S. attorney.
Healy said it was “absurd” to lump him in with those who “fell off the path of service” and were arrested.
“No one was vetted more thoroughly in the state of New Jersey than I was four years ago,” he said. “Guess what? I came out clean.”
While the two say they have different visions, both agree that things that have driven the influx — art galleries, new construction, access to transportation — need to continue. Fulop says he wants more artist types who are priced out of Brooklyn and Queens to consider Jersey City as an option.