Even in the depths of winter, Princeton is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The buildings here are perfectly designed, varied, and well-kept, but after a stuffy January, I needed a different kind of beauty. So I fell hard for the run-down apartment buildings and hole-in-the-wall Greek pizza shops I found in Jersey City over intersession. I came to Jersey City looking to get lost in the honest reality of a run-down place that has spent its life in New York’s shadow. The trip was an attempt to become grounded after a month of small-town Princeton, where you walk into a building and immediately see someone you know.
As I got off the train in Journal Square on Friday, I saw a little trash on the ground and the sidewalk. A few homeless guys were standing around talking in slurred, loud voices. The buildings were run-down—the old Jersey Journal sign looked like it was about to fall off the building to my left.
I walked down JFK Boulevard and passed at least five sneaker shops, and—as I got closer to the bend in the road to my friend’s apartment—shops with Arabic names and windows full of cigarette advertisements and Western Union signs, which sat quietly along the busy street. The VIP diner stood next to worn houses with home daycare, tax accounting, and State Farm Insurance signs in the windows.
A block away from my friend’s house, I passed the Egyptian-run coffee shop next to the hole-in-the-wall takeout Chinese restaurant next to two liquor stores. My friend was late, so I bough a Turkey sandwich from the Egyptian liquor store/deli next door for $4.00. The owner bragged that she gave me more meat than Subway ever would. I agreed.
Walking through the streets near my friend’s apartment over the next few days helped me get to know this subtly beautiful city. Everyday life near Journal Square is busy and varied—people from across the world are trying to make their living, be it in a restaurant, convenience store, dry cleaner, or bank.
These lives produce a collective smell that captures the city’s soul. When I walked outside each morning, the air smacked me. I’d walk around the corner to Bergen Square and smell greasy Chinese food, cheap coffee, pizza, cigarettes, trash, and falafel all at once. The city is dirty, and the air doesn’t have that crisp, clean cut that Princeton’s does, but it doesn’t care. The smells of Jersey City are unassuming, humble, and loud all at once. They don’t hide—they hit you right in the face—but they do not try to be something they are not.
The people and businesses were the same as the air. Everyone I met was honest, hard-working, and ruggedly warm. They come from everywhere from Matawan about an hour south to the Egypt. Nothing—not the people, not the buildings—in Jersey City is fancy. Nothing is really decorated. Storefronts and signs are up not to show anything off but simply to tell you what’s inside. It’s the least pretentious place I’ve ever been.
The beauty of North Jersey is in its honest, unassuming appearance and demeanor. If you’re scared away by the old factories with broken walls, signs advertising divorce for $399 dollars, or oil tanks, these places won’t be nice to you. But if you go inside, take the train to Journal Square and walk up JFK Boulevard, and say talk to the guy leaning against an old street lamp outside the train station, you’ll find it welcoming. It’s a rugged, middle-class area, but it won’t reject you unless you refuse it.