Hot Neighborhood Entropy
Red Hook? Already over. Lower East Side? It’s hot—no, wait, it’s not. No, wait, it is again! The life span of a trendy neighborhood used to be measured in decades. Now it might not last long enough for you to make the subway ride out there.
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Right now, that person just might be living in Jersey City.
“Shake off the old perspectives and move into a new way of perceiving the world around you,” reads the introduction to the first issue of New, a palm-size booklet full of glossy Jersey City attractions. And sure enough—its pages promise an undiscovered land so packed with bistros and wine bars and galleries and day spas that you’d think you were wandering lost in Paris.
You’ll find one such bistro, a cute and cozy four-year-old place called Madame Claude Café, nestled at the corner of Newark Avenue and 4th Street, tucked in among a Texaco station, a Gulf station, a funeral home, and a building marked demolition and concrete local 325. This is the first difference you notice between the Jersey City of the booklet and the Jersey City of walking-around-downtown Jersey City. The spas and boutiques are there, all right, but you’ll need the booklet to find them, scattered as they are amid a blighted landscape of dollar stores and empty lots.
For the record, downtown Jersey City is not Eden. It’s not even nice. Downtown Jersey City is pretty much what you think it is, if you ever stop to think about Jersey City: an industrial hub from which the economic lifeline, the railroad, was pulled a long time ago, leaving a hole that was filled by poverty and crime and, in some areas, a nasty toxic legacy in the soil. The entirety of Jersey City is huge and sprawling, the second-most-populous city in the state (next to Newark), but the current revival is centered in the long-neglected area anchored by the Grove Street path station, only a couple of stops from Manhattan. Beyond a kind of hardscrabble grittiness, there’s little here to romanticize, even for the locals. While Manhattan has ghosts of all persuasions to lure you to its canyons—Dorothy Parker, Lou Reed, Carrie Bradshaw—Jersey City is haunted by Nathan Lane, Martha Stewart, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner from The Cosby Show. The city’s better known for its string of ethically flexible mayors who eventually wound up in jail. A photograph of the current mayor, naked and passed out on his front porch, wound up in a story in the New York Times. And that was before he got elected.
Even its name, Jersey City, is a double-barreled insult, “worse than the punch line ‘Jersey’ alone, with the image of urban squalor added on, like insult to injury,” wrote Helene Stapinski in Five-Finger Discount, her memoir of growing up on the wrong, rancid side of the Hudson. People like her great-grandparents “did not settle in Jersey City. They settled for Jersey City. They were settlers of a different kind, the kind who always feel cheated, because they settled for less.” For a hundred years, Manhattan has been the backdrop for dreams. Jersey City, if you’re looking west, has been the backdrop for Manhattan.
But then, isn’t that exactly the kind of flowers-in-the-concrete place that’s ripe to be discovered? Aren’t there pockets of Brooklyn—hell, pockets of Manhattan—that once seemed burned out and blighted until, all of a sudden, they weren’t?
I set out from the WTC path station—traveling directly through the ghostly ground-zero pit, as though riding a monorail through a brightly lit attraction at a macabre amusement park—to Grove Street. I’m headed to Madame Claude to meet with Ingrid Dahl, a 26-year-old bass player with hair shaped like a candle flame, and her bandmates, Stephen Hindman and Penelope Trappes, who together form the local glitch-pop band Lismore. The three of them are, by local standards, graybeards of the renaissance: Stephen’s lived here for nine years, Penelope seven, and Ingrid four. And they are the perfect Jersey City evangelists, exactly the kind of people you imagine living on the vanguard of the coolest scene in the city. Penelope’s from Australia and wears her blonde hair in eye-skirting bangs. Stephen, who grew up near Pittsburgh, has a dyed-black asymmetrical haircut that recalls Robert Smith of the Cure. They each have an excellent “How I wound up in Jersey City” story, none of which starts, “Well, I’d always dreamed of moving to Jersey City...”