There are roughly four types of people who push the frontier of gentrification: creative types in search of cheap rents; gays and lesbians drawn to affordable, like-minded communities (and Jersey City, just a few path stops from the West Village, has a strong gay community—on the first day I visited, the City Hall was flying a rainbow flag); young couples and new families who’ve been priced out of the neighborhoods in which they’d hoped to buy; and speculators driven by those tantalizing stories of the $150,000 Boerum Hill brownstone or the just-before-the-neighborhood-exploded Tribeca loft.
Typically, the gentrification process is linear and unfolds over time. First the artists seek out a neighborhood (usually an abandoned industrial zone or vibrant ethnic enclave) that’s cheap and relatively accessible. Then come the scenesters, who have more money but who still want an authentic urban lifestyle because, seriously, no one moves to the suburbs anymore. All they want is an affordable place on a non-eyesore-ish block within walking distance of a few cute restaurants, and a couple of good bars, and a halfway decent bookstore, and a yoga studio, and a wine store that isn’t just full of cheap swill for rummies, and maybe a children’s boutique with adorable $80 hand-sewn frocks hanging off a wooden tricycle in the window, and a Starbucks, and a Whole Foods. And they’re willing to bet that, if just a few of those things are in place already, the others will come along soon enough—so that eventually their new neighborhood will look pretty much identical to the ones they couldn’t previously afford. At which point the developers arrive to throw up new condo buildings named after the neighborhood, and the hipper chains start to sniff out a new lucrative demographic pocket—and the artists have long since moved on, along with a good chunk of the neighborhood’s previous residents.
This neighborhood ADD is a luxury, of course, afforded to a certain kind of urban nomad, those who aren’t obliged to choose their home based on necessity, community, or need. So instead, they—all right, we—have become settlers, in both senses of the word: constantly seeking out virgin territory where we can enact the dream that brought us here, or at least the closest version we’re willing to accept. And the more we hear about these neighborhoods happening elsewhere, the more fidgety we become. Which means the gentrification cycle speeds up. In Williamsburg, the transformation from artist colony to condo glut took about ten years. In Dumbo, maybe five. In Jersey City, it’s not a cycle at all. It’s happening all at once.
No neighborhood better illustrates this than Waldo, or, as Councilman Fulop prefers to call it, the Powerhouse Arts District. For years, an abandoned warehouse at 111 First Street served as an unofficial squat for Jersey City artists. Two years ago, the city seized the building and evicted the occupants, and the warehouse is now waiting to be torn down to make way for a Rem Koolhaas–designed condo tower—which will contain subsidized housing, somewhat ironically, for local artists.
This kind of urban-biosphere approach is springing up in cities all over the continent as a way to resurrect underused—and suddenly fashionable—industrial properties. The goal is to artificially accelerate gentrification, sort of like digging up an untended garden of wildflowers and building a greenhouse instead. A block away from 111 First, the massive Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse sits gutted, awaiting some presumed influx of galleries and performance spaces and, possibly, a Barnes & Noble and, if they have trouble filling it, a couple of big family restaurants. The project’s been granted by the city to the Cordish Company, a Baltimore-based developer that renovated similar powerhouses in Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore’s Power Plant now houses a Barnes & Noble, a Hard Rock Café, and an ESPN Sportszone. And, on a nearby corner, the skeleton of a luxe Donald Trump development, Trump Plaza Jersey City, with top prices at $1.24 million, and which, at 55 and 50 stories, will become the two tallest residential towers in the skyline, is already starting to rise, scheduled to be open in 2007.
I didn’t move to New York to live in Jersey City,” says Amanda Assadi-Rullow, publisher of the New booklet.
“I didn’t move from England to end up in Jersey City,” says Cliff Rullow, her husband and owner of Life.
They’re explaining to me how they wound up in Jersey City. Like many pioneers, their story involves a series of fortuitous accidents (my favorite of these is the guy who says, “I was looking in Hoboken and got lost”) and at least a little bit of arm-twisting. Cliff and Amanda were living in Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, when they got priced out of the neighborhood. So they started looking for a better deal. A friend who lived in Liberty Towers, a well-appointed high-rise on Jersey City’s waterfront, convinced them to come across the river for a visit. Cliff says, “We walked in and our jaws dropped. Then we went up to his apartment and our jaws dropped further. After that, it was an absolute no-brainer.”