The first few weeks of freshman year are filled with waves of vapid first encounters, and in the sea of September’s mundane conversations, one of the inevitable questions is always, “Where are you from?”
I’m always proud to say, “I’m from Jersey City, New Jersey.”
Here’s where the conversation often gets interesting for me. We get to a fork in the road. To the right is the common, unenthused, “Oh, cool,” or “Where is that?” And to the left is where the person’s voice changes its tone, and tinged with sympathy, asks “Oh…is that near Newark or something?”
I think that we’re all familiar with the Princeton Class of 2017 Facebook group, which heralds an exciting smattering of questions, ranging from “Who likes science?” to “Do you know the dimensions of Whitman dorm trashcans?” A few weeks before I got to campus, someone posted that he would be arriving at Newark Airport early in the morning. I was half-surprised to find that the thread grew into a web of people admonishing the author to keep his bags close and his eyes wide open.
It seems like most Princeton students understand New Jersey through only a few, simplistic lenses. Princeton, in a lot of students’ minds, is wealthy and white. The rest of suburban New Jersey is staidly middle class. The Jersey Shore is inundated with guidos. And everywhere remotely near New York City—Newark, Jersey City, Orange—is, of course, impoverished and dangerous.
Speaking from personal experience, there is more to Jersey City, Newark, and the surrounding areas than a legacy of crime.
Frank Hague, who reigned as Jersey City’s mayor from 1917 to 1947, was the archetypal corrupt politician. “Boss Hague,” in the fashion of his fascist contemporaries across the pond, essentially outlawed freedom of assembly and instituted a pervasive stop-and-frisk policy. In 1967, Newark was home to a destructive riot that killed 26 people, injured 725, and caused over $10 million in property damage. But Frank Hague is long dead and the riots ended more than 40 years ago, and Jersey City, Newark, and their environs have changed.
There has been a recent wave of New York Times articles shedding light on Jersey City’s improvements, not only lauding the city’s falling crime rates and vibrant arts scene, but also highlighting the area’s incredible diversity. There have also been articles surrounding Newark and its great potential for improvement; led by charismatic mayor Cory Booker, many predict that the city that was once home to some of the most disruptive riots of the 20th century is in place for an impressive renaissance. According to New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman, Newark has a new waterfront restoration program that mirrors the strategy that many now-cosmopolitan cities, from “Seoul to Madrid to San Francisco,” took to get to where they are today.
I’ve lived in Jersey City my entire life. I went to a public high school, where roughly a fourth of the student body was Black, a fourth White, a fourth Hispanic, and a fourth Asian. This student body is reflective of the city as a whole. My city’s Little India is one of the largest in the Northeast; I can saunter down a single street and buy all the ingredients for masala chai, a sari for my mother, and a life size poster from a recent Bollywood movie. The cheap Vietnamese grocer sits next to the Korean supermarket, which both sit across the street from the Dominican bachata-blasting bodega. I’ve seen the beginning of my city’s gentrification; it has changed from a city of empty lots, to one of high-rises. The miraculous thing is that the city has not lost its texture—at least not yet. Jersey City is a counterexample to so many of the stereotypes wrongly associated with immigrants and marginalized minorities: according to the 2011 US census, 52.2% of Jersey City residents over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home, and 40.6% of Jersey City residents over age 25 have a Bachelor’s degree, while the national average of college graduates sits at 28.2%.
If so many of us pride ourselves on appreciating difference, on being worldly by virtue of associating ourselves with so many of our campus’s international opportunities and students, I think it’s also important to appreciate—not sneer at—places like Jersey City, which may not have the chic pedigree of other cultural hubs in our nation, like the Mission in San Francisco or New York City’s Alphabet City but have just as much, if not more, unpretentious people, food, and culture. It isn’t right to selectively appreciate diversity, to pick and choose what is acceptable to your palate of pluralism.
Once upon a time, Alphabet City and many other parts of New York City were home to high levels of violent crime and hard drugs, but today they are looked to as beacons in the art world. Jersey City used to mean corruption and crime, but today it is a city that encapsulates honest diversity; Jersey City was recently lauded as the second most diverse city in America, and ranked as the 10th most artistic city in the nation by the Atlantic.
Northern New Jersey—Jersey City, Newark, etc.—is a place so ripe with potential. I’m excited to see my area’s trend continue, for crime rates to continue to abate, for new faces from around the world to continue to flow in.
As Jersey City finds itself a regular spot in the New York Times real estate and food section, my hope is that where I grew up manages to retain its candid character, that it remains a place where I can get a moutherwateringly authentic samosa or plate of bulgogi, and that the things that make it special do not get drowned out by an influx of Wall Street analysts looking for cheaper rent.
I’m from Jersey City, and I’m damn proud.