Things one knows about Jersey City prior to ever visiting:
One, it’s in New Jersey.
Two, it has the word “Jersey” in its name.
Three, you can see it from Manhattan.
And four, uh, it’s in New Jersey.
When my wife and I decided to move to NYC so she could go to grad school, everything we knew about the city on the other side of the Hudson fit neatly into the above statement, but Steph needed quick access to TriBeCa, and I needed to be able to drive out to Northern Jersey for work. Despite our lack of any real knowledge and our awareness of the stereotypes, we decided to give Jersey City a chance.
Stereotypes held concerning Jersey City: Many people, particularly those who live east of the Hudson, have some deeply ingrained but categorically unfounded stereotypes regarding Jersey City. These we discovered recently when we invited friends over for a visit. “Will it take about an hour to get there? But there aren’t any good restaurants, are there? Isn’t it all gas stations and strip malls? Does it smell? Should we bring a gun?”
Most people who hold these stereotypes have never visited. Some have.
Anyway, one true generalization concerning Jersey City is this: the closer one gets to the river, the nicer – and more expensive – the neighborhoods become. So, on a Saturday, just a few weeks before we hoped to make our move, I charted out a course for us that would begin in Jersey City Heights, located on a cliff above Hoboken and the least pricey part of the city, through Journal Square, and eventually to the downtown area and the waterfront.
A word about the Heights and Journal Square: These are two very up-and-coming neighborhoods in Jersey City, but with all due respect to those who live there, neither place was for us. The first few apartments that we visited did not give us any sense of “home.” Signs of development were visible but, we ultimately decided, we wouldn’t be living in the Heights or Journal Square. Slightly disheartened, we continued on.
I will never forget what happened next. The feeling that settled on us in our car as we descended Newark Avenue into downtown Jersey City can only be described as “coming home.” Dilapidated buildings gave way to beautifully restored brownstones. Dollar stores gave way to restaurants with names like Skinner’s Loft, Ox, Beechwood Cafe, and The Merchant. We drove slowly and rubbernecked at the openness of Grove Street Plaza, the elegance of City Hall, and finally, at the heart of the neighborhood we had come to see, the astoundingly well kept Victorian-era Van Vorst Park.
I was immediately taken by the rows of brownstones that surrounded the park, reminding me more of the Cosbys’ neighborhood than any notion I had of Jersey. Steph loved the fact that streets are lined with trees and the buildings reflect the obvious intention of the residents to beautify their homes. We explored down by the waterfront, walked the boardwalk along the Hudson River and took a short trip over to the vast open space that is Liberty State Park.
Within a few hours we paid a deposit and signed a lease for a one bedroom on the first floor of a brownstone building. As we sat in a local coffee shop and ate sandwiches, marveling at the range of emotions we had experienced in one morning, the inevitable line of questioning set in.
Questions one asks shortly after deciding to live in Jersey City: “So, can we still say we live in New York City? Do we have to say we live in Jersey now?” Steph asked. These questions had been on my mind as well, and all I had was more questions. “What will people think when we tell them we chose Jersey City? What will they assume about us?”
We’re coming up on a year here now. And in that year an amazing thing has happened: we’ve begun to make Chilltown our own, to proudly call it our home.
There is a feeling we try to describe to friends, but that they don’t understand until they visit. When we get off the PATH at Grove Street, we walk up the stairs, out of the station, into the open air of the plaza, and feel an unmistakable sense of peace. From the bustle of Manhattan, to our little corner of it all, there is that same experience of homecoming that we felt the first time we drove into town.
What Jersey City is really like: On our way home we might stop in at any of the bars or restaurants that, in good weather, spill out onto the sidewalks, tables full, depending on the time, with people unwinding after work, couples out for a walk with their dog, or families surrounded by baby carriages and young children. Some days we feel we are in the vast minority, having neither a dog nor children. But we are so happy to enjoy seeing the dogs and children of our neighbors.
Minor inconveniences related to living in Jersey City: Though our commute is short (seven minutes to the World Trade Center, 20 minutes to 33rd Street) and the PATH generally takes us where we want to go (downtown or the Village), if we want to go anywhere north of Herald Square we have to transfer to the MTA, and there is no free transfer from the PATH. We still often have to explain exactly where it is we live, sometimes bringing up the map on my phone to locate us in relation to Manhattan, and it is a lot more difficult to get people to visit us because they have to cross not only the Hudson, but the much wider psychological gap between there and here.
Becoming Jersey City Evangelists: Excepting those things, we have found a sense of home here that we didn’t expect to find anywhere outside of our beloved Boston. And, with this piece as evidence, we’ve become what I call “Jersey City Evangelists,” spreading the good news to any and all who will listen, though Steph is a bit more hesitant. “We don’t want everybody to move here,” she reminds me.
But why not? There’s plenty of space and, unlike many other places in the area, the perpetual construction of condo and apartment buildings continues even in the midst of this recession.
So, check out Jersey City. You may find that unique sense of homecoming that we experienced. At the very least you’ll enjoy some amazing Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty views, some good food and music.
And don’t worry: if you decide to move here, you’ll get used to telling people that Jersey is not all gas stations and strip malls.