A changing city struggles to maintain space for art and artists

David Goodwin is an urbanist and author who's sharing a guest article about his town's struggles with supporting the arts. Read more Strong Towns stories on art, especially public art, here.

Jersey City. (Source:  David Jones )

Jersey City. (Source: David Jones)

While many neighborhoods of Jersey City, New Jersey are experiencing an economic resurgence and large-scale investment and development, the arts and arts organizations are struggling. Artists and creative professionals recently penned an open letter to the elected officials of Jersey City, arguing for reliable, dedicated funding and institutional support for the local arts community and its organizations. The Jersey Journal, the local daily newspaper, published the letter on May 17, 2017.

The letter described the strain placed on the local arts community: arts groups have shuttered or fallen dormant. City government has failed to include arts professionals in the decision-making process. Arts-focused zoning ordinances and legislation have not been enforced. The increasing desirability of Jersey City has led to rising real estate prices; thus, artists possess fewer options for studios, performance spaces, or even apartments.

Not long ago, the Jersey City arts community appeared to be growing, thriving, ready to burst. So, what happened? A brief look at Jersey City’s history might provide some answers.

Jersey City Arts: Then and Now

Jersey City sits directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan and has benefited from its geographical proximity to the financial, media, and cultural capital of the United States. A former industrial and shipping hub, Jersey City suffered through the postwar economic and social decline afflicting many older American cities, bleeding jobs and people. As New York’s fortunes improved during the past quarter-century, individuals untainted by the acceptable anti-Jersey prejudice (I’ll spare the reader a diatribe on this subject) and select businesses began to explore Jersey City as an affordable alternative to the ever-escalating real estate costs of the Big Apple. A subway line operated by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey connects the two cities, allowing residents to quickly move back and forth across the Hudson.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Jersey City waterfront was redeveloped to attract banks and financial services and affluent individuals. At the same time, artists and other creative types “discovered” downtown Jersey City neighborhoods for the same reasons that the business sector looked at the waterfront: bargain rents and easy access to Manhattan. For some artists, Jersey City was the choice over Manhattan and Brooklyn. (This seems impossible to believe today, admittedly.) The “rediscovery” of Jersey City paralleled the migration of artists and like-minded folks across the East River to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which became known as the capital of cool in New York in the early 2000s. Arguably, Jersey City stood as a rival—albeit small and scrappy—to Brooklyn until this point.

During an online debate concerning the artists’ letter on a local discussion board, a longtime civic activist cut through the noise and clearly observed the real problem. To quote Gertrude Stein: “There’s no there there.” That is, Jersey City lacks an anchor or primary institution for the arts.

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  The current state of 111 1st Street—a vacant lot. This was the address of the former center of the Jersey City arts community.

The current state of 111 1st Street—a vacant lot. This was the address of the former center of the Jersey City arts community.

The commentator cited two pivotal events leading to the current crisis besetting the local arts community. First: Between approximately 1987 and 2005, hundreds of artists worked out of 111 1st Street, a former tobacco warehouse located within a few blocks of the Jersey City waterfront. In 2005, the owner of 111 1st Street evicted the artists and later razed the building itself in 2007.

Additionally, this demolition effectively eviscerated an arts-centric development plan for the neighborhood surrounding 111 1st Street.  The second structural push in the marginalization of the arts community was the closing of the Jersey City Museum in 2010. The grassroots center of the arts died with 111 1st Street, and the community lost a voice of institutional authority with the shutting of the museum.

Jersey City is approaching a critical moment. Real estate development, long focused on the waterfront and downtown neighborhoods, is spreading to other sections of the city. The built environment is changing at a rapid, even dramatic, clip. The population continues to increase, and its demographic and socio-economic composition is shifting. Businesses, restaurants, and bars are opening to cater to this emerging population. The next few years might very well shape the city for decades to come.

If the local arts community fails to secure both physical spaces and a seat at the political table, another opportunity might not present itself. Jersey City might develop into another repository of capital and wealth utterly devoid of living art and culture.

  White Eagle Hall , a concert venue in Jersey City. (Source: White Eagle Hall. Photo by Stephen Olker.)

 White Eagle Hall, a concert venue in Jersey City. (Source: White Eagle Hall. Photo by Stephen Olker.)

4 Potential Solutions

What policies might be realistically proposed and enacted to safeguard art in Jersey City? What might the Jersey City arts community and their supporters advocate for? A few possibilities come to mind:

  1. Lease unused city land or property to arts organizations. This would provide affordable space and reactivate vacant property. In New York City, 596 Acres has begun advocating for such a project for closed and empty Parks Department buildings.
  2. Professionalize the current mural arts program. Currently, a single public works employee manages this program without open application and vetting processes. The murals do not appear to tell the story or aspirations of a given community, neighborhood, or the city as a whole. Other cities, both large (Philadelphia, PA) and small (Easthampton, MA), provide successful models for a coherent citywide programs.
  3. Enact and enforce a percent-for-art program in which a set percentage of the budget of large constructions projects is set aside to fund and install public art. Cities throughout the county have adopted different models of this concept. Jersey City needs to look no further than New York City, which initiated its program in 1982.
  4. City government and agencies could court smaller developers and companies genuinely interested in arts and cultural businesses (e.g. independent movie theaters or music venues). The presence of such private enterprises signals that art and creatives are welcome. 

Is the Jersey City government amenable to any of the above proposals? Evidence suggests that the government lacks the imagination or sophistication to consider them. To challenge the status quo, the professional bureaucracy and elected officials will need to be lobbied and persuaded to adopt these or other policies. Residents and registered voters will need to be convinced that art matters to neighborhoods and the city. This effort will require organization, coalition-building, outreach, and time. Are the signatories of the open letter up for this task?  

Why it matters

Moreover, critics might scoff at this entire discussion and view the arts as beyond the scope of government. Why should tax dollars be directed to the arts? Here are a few reasons: 

  • Arts draw people and dollars to a community. An out-of-town visitor might buy a ticket to a local theater production and follow the show with dinner and drinks.
  • An arts institution, such as a concert venue, can serve as a downtown anchor, reigniting commerce.  
  • Arts preserve and promote the stories and history of a locality and they expose individuals and communities to a larger world of ideas.
  • Arts help foster a sense of place and instill civic pride. Arts can make people care about their hometown.     

The precarious state of the arts in Jersey City should stand as an illustrative lesson to towns and cities across the United States. Local governments will not prioritize the arts unless businesses and citizens press for it. If communities do not support and advocate for local arts organizations, they jeopardize a productive component of the local economy. Without the arts, communities lose the voice to tell their stories.      

(All photos courtesy of David Goodwin)   

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About the Author

David J. Goodwin is a librarian, urbanist, blogger, and author. His book, Left Bank of the Hudson: Jersey City and the Artists of 111 1st Street, will be published by Fordham University Press in October 2017. You can follow Goodwin at: www.anothertowonthehudson.com and @DavidJHudsonJC.