In one of my high school English classes, I had a phenomenal teacher, Mr. Donald Delo. In this class, we had an unusual activity — we would write a speech for someone else to read. Perhaps this was an exercise ultimately rooted in the goal of “easy to read” writing styles — or being able to convey your thoughts as accurately as possible without the benefit of your own voice to cloud the interpretation of what you read. I, unfortunately, had to read a really compelling speech on being overweight and not making excuses for yourself. It really was a great speech, and I think I didn’t do it justice. I had the body of a varsity high school athlete (because I was one) and it just made the whole message look chastising and awful. (Really, I don’t judge by appearances I promise!) Luckily, the speech I wrote was read by someone awesome and as committed to dedicating his own voice to echoing the sentiments of minority folks.
(Shoutout to Norlan wherever you are, hope you read this!)
That speech was about how gentrification is going to ruin everything we loved about our beloved home, Jersey City, and how we have to hold on dearly to what we know and love.
At the time, people thought I was a little “out there” with my ideas — that gentrification really just made our buildings nicer, made our neighborhoods a little safer, and maybe the prices of bagels would go up. But what they didn’t see coming were the far scarier price hikes – the rent soared, people had to physically leave their homes because they were no longer affordable. The high cost of living that was so notorious in New York started to bleed into Jersey City, and people couldn’t afford groceries the same way, gasoline, diapers, whatever you can think of.
Then a Twitter hashtag started to build as the mayor and City of Jersey City enjoyed basking in the rays of tax benefits and growing tax income. Now small businesses were booming and rent is cheaper than NYC. What a great time to market the city on social media!
Let’s really take this apart quickly: “Jersey City. Make it yours.”
“Make it yours.”
You can imagine that Jersey City natives didn’t take always take kindly to this. “MAKE IT YOURS? WHO ARE YOU? YOU JUST GOT HERE? I’VE ALWAYS LIVED HERE AND I NEVER HAD TO MAKE IT MINE! ALSO WHY ARE YOU MAKING IT YOURS I LIVE HERE TOO?” (This is a paraphrase of some more aggressive and profanity-ridden sentiments–in true Jersey City fashion)
How do I know this sentiment is worth considering? That this hashtag is something to think about?
Because I live exactly 4,953 miles away from Jersey City at this point in time, taken here year by year by varying circumstances and opportunities; and that stupid little hashtag still bothers me.
I lived in Jersey City for the first 18 years of my waking life, and that has tied me to that place more than I can verbally convey. It’s been about 6 or 7 years since I last lived there, and I can only imagine what it looks like now after the rate it changed while I did live there.
Why does it bother me? Well, the reason is similar to that sentiment above. But maybe even more concise (and I will bold and italicize this because it’s important):
Jersey City is not a place to own.
That’s all there is to it.
Maybe it’s sort of Native American in that respect (which, holy crap that is a problematic thing to say and reference in itself, Jersey City doesn’t belong to anyone and never has despite every single demographic that’s ever tried to colonize it and chances are someone probably drove someone else out at some point way before we got there. Sorry, I’m getting side-tracked.)
The thing about gentrification is that, what often comes with it is the classic narrative of the “white knight” to save the town. And perhaps that’s why gentrification is always two-faced coin. On the one hand, an influx of capitalism infuses the neighborhood with financial resources to build safer parks, healthier options for food, better hospitals, and cleaner environment as a whole. But on the other hand there comes with it a dangerous sense of superiority and ownership; that this land would have been “still impoverished,” if not for this hero group of individuals. That the land and its inhabitants somehow “owe a debt” to the heroes.
Maybe you can blame it on our history books. Maybe you can blame it on Disney. Maybe you can blame it on literally any written account of a city’s transformation. We are brainwashed from childhood to believe colonization is justified and “better” than the alternative. The truth is gentrification is inherently racist and classist, and despite its good intentions.
So now what? How do you navigate this?
If you’re moving to Jersey City: don’t make it yours. It never was yours. It never will be yours. Even if you owned every damn brick in the town, and even if every damn person that used to live there either died or moved, it will still never be yours. The people aren’t yours, and the jobs aren’t yours. Nothing is yours but your own memories. And maybe you’ll stay there forever. That’s okay. It still won’t be yours. But the least you can do is respect the ground you walk, respect the people you meet, and treat every living soul on that soil as if they know the world around you more than you ever will, because to some extent, that’s true. No one owes you anything, but you owe it to everyone around you.
If you grew up in Jersey City: I’m sad to report, it’s not yours either. It, too, will never be yours. If everything burned to the ground, and the people were all native, it still wouldn’t be yours. Only your memories are yours, and that’s precisely why Jersey City means so much to you — because you build a lifetime on this soil. But the least you can do is welcome these awful people who likely have no idea that what they’re doing is racist and classist because they’ve walked through life with massive amounts of privilege and never had to experience racism or classism. At the end of the day, they’re making their own lives and memories, and that is all anyone can ever own. If Jersey City truly is great, it should be our utmost importance to ensure that it stays that way to the memories of every person that leaves this earth. No one owes you anything in return, but that’s okay. You owe it to everyone around you.