Thursday, September 29, 2005
the sold coast
I'm at the post office on Washington and Montgomery. A fat middle-aged man in front of me is chatting up the rest of the line in between loud conversations on his cellphone. He is real estate law, I soon learn. Oddly enough, I believe him. He does seem to be the personification of some gauche business principle. He is here, he tells an overburdened postal worker, to deal in property. He and his wife (his business partner, we are told) have a line on some houses. I am watching the pineapples on his Hawaiian shirt as he breathes in and out, swaying as if they have been set in motion by a tropical breeze.
I have seen him all over the Downtown -- not this very insect, but different individuals from the same swarm. They stop on the corners of Paulus Hook, point, and take notes. Or they drive by slowly in big cars, windows half down; one man handling the phone, one man steering. The cars don't always have New York plates. But often they do. They love us here, these speculators. We are hot. We've got what they want.
Housing Maps reveals that a one bedroom "parlor" apartment in this part of Jersey City rents for approximately two thousand dollars. Hundreds of miles and several Great Lakes to the west, fifteen hundred bucks gets you four bedrooms in Detroit. On the waterfront. In Grosse Pointe. It is not enough to say -- as if there is a real estate deity holding the scales and devoted to the cause of fair value -- that something is haywire here. But it is legit to ask: are we getting what we're paying for?
Unless those listed apartments in Detroit are booby-trapped and coated with slime, I believe renters there are well within their rights to laugh their asses off at our folly. We pity them for having to put up with the Midwest. But as prices around here double, triple, and quadruple, our knee-jerk provincialism becomes harder to justify. After awhile, it stops looking like admirable, dogged loyalty, and it begins to feel like we're getting played. They've got bookstores, music clubs, and a real arts paper there, which is three better than we've got. I've heard tell that there are a few rock and roll bands there, too.
We've got our Jersey pride, and our proximity to New York City. But Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods aren't proximate to NYC -- they are New York City. As the gap between prices in Jersey City and those in near outerborough neighborhoods continues to close, by rights, we ought to demand a New York City standard of living. And that doesn't mean more cops on Grove Street. It means we shouldn't tolerate aesthetic dysfunction and incoherence. It means there is no longer any excuse for being a municipal basket case.
My new friend who is real estate law isn't selling to me. When he rolls through my neighborhood, peeking out from behind tinted windows, he is scouting for new flats for commuters working in the financial services industry. His ideal buyer works at the World Financial Center, makes a preposterous amount of money working hours that would exhaust a Spartan, and returns home to collapse. His interest in Jersey City will be passing, at best: will the PATH run on time? Can I get an already-made dinner in the small grocery in my condominium complex? Is my view of the City with which I truly identify unimpeded by new construction? Look, I want to stay here, really, I do. But I can't justify paying Manhattan prices to live in a giant banker storage unit. For thirty years, I've waved the Jersey flag as furiously as anybody this side of Thomas Kean. But the Sold Coast is wearing out my patience.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
In the future, chips embedded in our eyes will instantly broadcast everything we see onto the Internet, where it can be classified and categorized. That way, our "souls" can be searched using traditional websearch software. This is another way in which the future will suck, but we are all going there together, so we will make the best of it. It's best to not expect the best, that's the best you can do, says pessimistic Ted Nesseth of the Heavenly States. When you rock like that, people tend to believe you.
Reference is exponential. You don't need any new technology -- two complementary sets of data will do fine. This website combines Google's mapmaking feature with Craig's List apartment advertisements. It takes some of the cartographic fun out of the hunt, but it's still mesmerizing. For instance, who knew that apartments in Downtown Vancouver were so expensive? No wonder the New Pornographers are trying so hard to sell records.
A few cursory observations: I'd assumed that we were priced out of Hoboken, but this map reveals a few places in our range. The first time I did a Craig's List search for apartments in Hoboken, I found nothing but shares. Sharing an apartment in Hoboken means you'd better like beer. I do not. But there's a two-bedroom listed on First Street, and that's intriguing.
Beyond that, looking at an illustrated map of available properties changes your perspective: it's possible to quickly compare neighborhoods and get a sense of where the market rate is completely nuts. For instance, there is no reason that property on Pine Street and Communipaw Avenue in Lafayette should be as steep as Downtown prices. If you'd just limited your search to Jersey City -- as I've generally been doing -- it's possible to convince yourself that this is reasonable. But when you can scroll over to the right and see that several apartments in Carroll Gardens -- where the F train is right around the corner and everything on Earth that you could possibly want waits for you on Smith and Court Streets -- are less expensive, well, it helps you put that red line through Lafayette.
Monday, September 26, 2005
all you stereophiles
Stephen Mejias wrote a little bit about the Courthouse show on his new weblog -- one he's doing for Stereophile magazine. To be more fair, though, Stephen did much more than that. He helped me put the show together. In fact, were it not for the assistance of Stephen and Hilary on Saturday night, I would have had to check myself in to the Montgomery Medical Center. And as the building is going condo, there aren't any beds there anymore.
To all of you who came to the Courthouse on Saturday: thank you. I know it's an unconventional venue, and some serious cognitive dissonance goes along with any rock performance in a public building. Next month, I'll be playing a show at Rothko, and it'll feel good to be back in a real NYC club. But it's these struggles to get our strange, out-of-the-way buildings to sing that makes me appreciate Maxwell's and the Mercury Lounge all the more.
Okay, show's over. Back to the apartment stuff tomorrow.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
I write under several aliases. I do it because I don’t want all my boring, for-pay work traced back to me. It also helps to discipline my thinking, which is dangerously disorganized. And I am enough of a postmodern subject that I enjoy fragmented identities.
So I get checks for several names. When they come in, I sign them over to myself and deposit them in the bank. I have been doing this for ten years. When I lived in
Last year, that regional savings bank was bought out by a giant chain. Most of the old managers and staff were replaced. The day of the switchover, the chain gave out goodie bags containing a mug, a keychain, a promotional t-shirt, and two large cookies. A few visits later, I was informed by a teller I’d never seen before that double-endorsed checks would no longer be accepted.
I explained that if the manager would check the files inherited from the old bank, she’d see a record of hundreds of checks that I’d deposited. Further, I told her that if she wanted to do some digging, she could determine that I’d paid taxes on all of them, and that they’d all been charged to the same social security number. She didn’t do any of those things. Instead, she took my word for it.
For months thereafter, the anonymous tellers at the conglomerate chain bank took my checks. Sometimes they’d look at me funny, but then so do total strangers on the street. Once the teller called our account up on the screen, she’d invariably accept that I’d been a customer for years.
On Saturday, I needed singles. I’d agreed to manage the cashbox at my Courthouse show that evening, and since I’d talked the County down to an eight dollar admission fee, I expected to have to make change. I grabbed my stack of double-endorsed checks, wrote out one of my own to “cash”, and hit the street.
When I arrived at the bank, I was informed that the checks I was using – those bearing the name and I.D. of our former bank – were no longer valid. Now, we don’t write a lot of checks: we do our banking online. But our old neighborhood bank was constantly making us buy new checks and deposit slips. Now those checks were worthless, and only those issued by the conglomerate would be accepted.
This felt unfair to me, and I said so. Not only did I consider it disrespectful to make me buy new checks when I have a huge stack of old ones on my living room counter, I thought it was disrespectful to the memory of the community bank that got swallowed. What, after all, is a check? It’s a piece of paper with a logo and a tracing number on it. The trappings surrounding the tracing number are irrelevant. Therefore, the only objection my new bank could have is to the logo: an insignia, and a memory, that the conglomerate would like to bury.
The teller didn’t want to hear an argument. She called over the manager, who immediately challenged the double-endorsed checks that I was attempting to deposit. I explained (again) that I’d been doing this for years, and that I’d never had a problem – and, in fact, that the conglomerate’s tellers had been accepting these checks for close to a year. Her face went blank. I would have to apply to the state for a special form, otherwise I would be breaking the law. The tellers who’d been taking my checks were lawbreakers, too. I was beginning to get irritated. I submitted that neither I nor any of her tellers, nor any of the tellers at my old bank were outlaws.
The manager turned to her teller. How much money is there in the account, she asked, privately.
And I snapped. All of the frustrations that I’d encountered over the past two years seemed to be summed up in that one utterance. Depending on whether or not I had sufficient money to impress the authorities, an arbitrary and stupid rule would now either be enforced or ignored. It shouldn’t matter!, I shouted. Surprised that I’d overheard, the manager’s mechanical remove fell for a moment. Suddenly, I had no desire to put my money in this bank. I demanded that she give me the checks back. She stammered for a moment about making a one-time exception, but by now, I was too hot. I grabbed my deposit from her, shoved it in my wallet, and walked out onto
Going to my old bank was a nice experience. I knew the tellers and they knew me. The bank offered very few competitive services, but I was always treated like a valued customer. Certainly I am not the only person in
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
It's dark as a cockroach in the backyard. All of the lights in the building across from us are out. In the distance, the flat honeycomb of the Mack-Cali tower still glows with activity, but the sky around it is leached purple, like an ugly apron. The only tree left in the courtyard is visible in silhouette. It looks like black cracks in the sky.
Here in the living room, faint orange light shines down from the stovetop. I can make out the remains of dinner on the kitchen island: a jar of peanut butter, a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a green collander we bought in Woodstock, Vermont, a lemon. Pans lean in the dishrack. On the floor, six empty bottles of seltzer water stand in a rough pyramid. They are candlepins for the cat.
A wind is blowing in from the north. It smells like birch and dust. The wind is sweeping down from the middle of the sky, turning calendar pages as it blows. Since it is no longer warm enough for the fan, I switch it off. In the courtyard, the wind is shaking the branches of the tree and twisting the cracks in the sky into purple diamonds. In forty minutes it will be autumn. The wind is blowing past the midpoint of a troubled decade, and pushing down toward the next, turning book pages as it blows.
There is a hurricane in the Gulf again. I have been following its progress on the Internet. Elsewhere, Los Angeles has defeated Texas. Oakland has defeated Minnesota. Joe Crede's walk off piece in the bottom of the tenth leads Chicago over Cleveland. Yahoo reports that there have been seventeen named hurricanes this season, still four shy of a record set in 1933, a year I associate with Carl Hubbell and the screwball. I have seen grotesque photographs of Hubbell's left arm, twisted like a tornado, like overcooked pasta, after defeating Washington in the World Series. The great hurricane of 1933 raked the Atlantic shore during the pennant race, tearing islands from ribbons of sand.
Three red beacons set to warn airplanes crown the beehive. One by one, office lights blink off below. The brick chimneys across the courtyard massage the wind, and send it streaming like a message through the window, turning web pages as it blows. I am sitting, facing north in the blue light of my flat-panel screen, watching the last minutes of summer flow between the branches of the courtyard tree, over the terraced rooftops of brownstones, through the half-constructed windows of hollow developments on the basin, over the red stone walkways of the waterfront park, past boats, ripples, slipstreams and the arms of Lady Liberty, and up into the soft cotton sky.
Monday, September 19, 2005
The campaign to attract artists to the warehouse district of Jersey City has netted its first success: a noted actor, speechmaker and performance professional. Yes, Donald Trump is getting in on the PAD. Technically, the multimedia superstar and all-purpose clown is moving across the street. But the only people who are going to know that are members of the planning board and those who, like me, have the map of the district taped to their refrigerators. To everybody else, it's just going to look like Lloyd Goldman has a new neighbor, and one with whom he shares more than just a tax bracket.
The plan for the development, initially (and perhaps still) called Harborspire, has been around for many years. It was always supposed to be the tallest residential building in New Jersey -- fifteen stories higher than the Marbella, even. So I am not sure what Trump is contributing to this project besides his name and his money.
But that's probably enough. Donald Trump is a come-lately to this party, but his attendance reinforces something that we all already know: New Yorkers working in the financial services industry have embraced the convenience of living here, and are relocating in droves to commuter towers. Sad to say, the stigma of Jersey was the last bulwark we had against total colonization. Trump's enthusiasm for Jersey City ought to finish the job of completely destigmatizing addresses on this side of the Hudson for employees in finance, insurance, and real estate.
But the really tragic thing is that just as Trump's name legitimates Jersey City for financiers, it delegitimates it for everybody else. Those on the outside who consider our Downtown little more that a big sandbox for multimillionaire developers now have Exhibit Z. Likely this is the one that will clinch the case, too -- because while Hyman, Goldman and Dean Giebel have earned an intense local antipathy, we've never had an international villain pulling strings around here before. It's hard to pretend your Downtown is cool, artsy and cutting-edge when Donald Trump is moving in. Posterity, forgive us.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
my mathematical mind
Periodically we are told to buy property. We’re supposed to do this to build equity, which is a capitalist’s euphemistic way of saying that buying a house qualifies us to participate more fully in mainstream American life. We are taught to feel bad about giving money to a landlord; this is money, we are told, that we are flushing down the drain. Instead, by purchasing property and paying into a mortgage, we are putting the money to work for us.
I admit I’ve never understood the argument. Well, I understand it, intellectually; the money we give to our landlord is unrecoverable. But so is the money we pay for food. When we go to the grocery store, I don’t feel like we are flushing dollars down the drain: I feel like we are paying to purchase something that satisfies immediate needs, something we want right now. Often it is a piece of fish or fruit. We take it home, we eat it, and it’s gone. We don’t beat ourselves up about not planting our own replenishable garden with the seeds. Nobody tries to convince us that it is a moral failing of ours that we aren’t subsistence farmers.
When we write a check to our landlord each month, we’re paying to satisfy similar desires. We can’t afford to purchase the kind of property we want in Downtown Jersey City, but we still want to be here: we like being near the PATH train and the turnpike extension, restaurants we dig, and neighborhoods that are interesting to look at and to walk around. For many years, we didn't have any of that. Now that we do, it's hard to imagine retreating to where we once were, even if we were promised the security of home ownership.
If the house we now live in were to go condo, and we suddenly went berserk and decided we’d buy it, our monthly rent bill would morph into a multi-headed monster: mortgage payments, insurance payments, maintenance fees and especially property taxes. Call me a Jersey libertarian if you must, but I feel better about handing money directly to a person I know than I do about sending a check for the same amount to the municipal government. I understand that the screwed-up
I’m here all day. I wake up in the morning and go straight to the computer. Sometimes I don’t stop writing until night has fallen and it’s time to head to
Housing prices in
It seems to me to be a psychologically unhealthy way to think about home. A residence isn’t a patriot bond, or a Sammy Sosa rookie card. It’s an investment, sure, but a second-order one: first, it's a place where we have to exist. I’m not a broker with a
Saturday, September 17, 2005
that, to me, was just a day in bed
Sorry, no apartment update today. I spent all day writing my articles for Music Video Press and doing research for a piece I'm doing on kickboxing in Central Jersey. No, I'm not kidding. Plus, there was all that pennant race baseball to pay attention to. I'll be back at it tomorrow.
Friday, September 16, 2005
this is not the civil rights movement, people
I'm aware that I used this space yesterday to irritate everybody on both sides of Newark Avenue. I wouldn't have done so if everybody on both sides of Newark Avenue hadn't been irritating me. Not just this last week, mind you; the whole two years I've spent in Jersey City. That there has been a debate at all around this issue is positively bewildering to me. I'm aware that in New Jersey there needs to be a fight over everything, and I have contributed to plenty of those fights, but this one just seems bananas, and I don't mean in that nice, Gwen Stefani way.
There are people in this town who really don't want to give an inch on Newark Avenue. They'd rather see the steel loading grates come down every night than allow the natural course of neighborhood development to seed the block with new bars and restaurants. I've also heard from some people who won't give LITM credit for anything; they refuse to acknowledge that Jelynne and her staff have brought a new life to the SID and created a de facto neighborhood center there. Most of these folks are anonymous, and they have been slipping me hate notes ever since I made my first post to the Tris McCall Report in favor of relaxing restrictions on Restaurant Row.
But over the past few weeks, the pro-relaxation folks have annoyed me more than the atavists ever have. The attempt to push through an ordinance without getting approval from neighborhood groups seemed designed to do nothing but create rancor and divisiveness. There have been community activists working on restoration and reconstruction plans for Newark Avenue for years -- now all of their work has to get shoved aside so that some makeshift task force can reimagine Restaurant Row in a fortnight? And all the self-righteousness and lofty rhetoric from the late-night crowd has really become embarrassing to me. Let me put my feelings to you as plain as I can: I do not see you fighting for any grand cultural vision here or for any sweeping rehabilitation of the Downtown. I see you fighting for the right to get drunk later at night. Period.
So yes, you bet I'm irritated with everybody. What should have been a simple negotiation between old line neighborhood activists and responsible businesspeople has turned into a grudge match between those who believe it is justifiable to move glacially at a time of whirlwind change and those who mistake their desire for inebriation and stimulation for some kind of liberation ideology. If I gave the impression yesterday that I believed that Tuesday's council meeting meant that change on Newark Avenue was bound to be forestalled, then I was being misleading: change on Newark Avenue is as inevitable as the turn of the seasons. But because of the rhetoric and those hardlines -- and because of the unwillingness of some of the major players to communicate -- there are going to be hard feelings Downtown that persist long after the current Restaurant Row ordinance has found its rightful place in the rubbish bin. It didn't have to be that way. But somehow, in Jersey City, it is always that way.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
task force newark ave.
If you haven't read my report from last night's City Council meeting, please do so now. In case I didn't make it clear in that piece, I do not think that anything happened at the meeting that could possibly be interpreted as favorable to the cause of lifting restrictions on Newark Avenue's Restaurant Row. Sorry, guys. The creation of a task force on which everybody and his aunt will sit places a major bureaucratic obstruction between the first and second readings of the ordinance to relax regulations. In fact, it would have been better for their cause if the ordinance had been rejected outright. I was totally mystified by the applause that came from the right side of the chamber, and could only conclude that the people clapping were complete political neophytes.
But then that makes them no worse than our Councilman, who (hopefully) learned two hard lessons last night. Lesson number one is that any politician goes over the heads of the Downtown Neighborhood Associations at his own risk. Steve Fulop tried to sneak this ordinance past the DCNA, and learned that the Association presidents have a hotline to the Mayor and Council President Vega. He'll be serving on the task force with all of these guys; presumably, he'll be sitting toward the end of the table. Lesson number two is that nobody enjoys being embarrassed in the newspaper. When Fulop spoke to Jarrett Renshaw of the Journal without first clearing it with those who support the ordinance, he broke the cardinal rule of political courtesy: don't throw your colleagues on the defensive the night before a vote. Nothing makes an infuriated opposition coalesce faster.
In case you're about to write to argue that Vega's task force is some sort of a productive compromise, let's review who will be sitting on this committee:
Mayor Healy. If anybody still thinks Jerramiah Healy cares about bar hours on Newark Avenue, they haven't been paying attention. If his police officers and his community leaders tell him that extended hours on Newark Avenue aren't a good idea, then there won't be extended hours on Newark Avenue. He doesn't fuck around; that's why we elected him.
Councilpeople Mariano Vega and Steven Fulop. This is Fulop's ordinance and Fulop's district, so barring a complete chickenshit maneuver, he'll continue to back it. In his interview with me, Fulop said that if he couldn't make the transformation of Newark Avenue happen in his four-year term, then he would have failed as a public official. Council President Vega is nominally in favor of some kind of transformation. But Vega always proceeds with the same objective in mind: genteel, inoffensive compromise. If his constituents (and Downtowners are still his constituents, although he is five years removed from Ward E) are upset about something, he's going to do his best to placate their worries. Which brings us to:
The Coalition of Downtown Neighborhood Associations. They don't want this. They're afraid of drugs, parties, litter rowdiness, the Hobokenization of Newark Avenue, and anything else that could potentially damage property values in the districts they've worked so hard to designate historic. Moreover, they are angry with Fulop for completely disregarding their wishes. The DCNA is on the wrong side of history here: with land values as high as they are, there is no way to prevent the invisible hand from giving Newark Avenue a proper shake sooner or later. But the presence of neighborhood association members on the task force ought to be enough to throw cold water on the dreams of LITM even if they didn't have to cope with....
The cops. Okay, let's do this one quickly. Do you think the police would prefer longer hours for bars, or shorter hours for bars? Right, kids.
The Downtown SID. This is the organization that has stuck the restrictions on Newark Avenue in the first place, and who benefit the most from the historic designation of Restaurant Row. The businessmen of the Special Improvement District may believe it is time for a change. But whatever change they approve, you can be certain they'll want it to be their change, and not one instigated by those looking to radically change the tenor of the neighborhood. The SID felt that they already had a good plan for Newark Avenue moving glacially through the normal municipal channels. They believe this is their territory, and they're going to want to punish interlopers.
Add it all up, and what do you get? A coalition of Downtown businessmen, the police, neighborhood politicians, a mayor who has better things to do than worry about a bar fight, and a Council president congenitally predisposed toward compromise vs. a freshman Councilman who just pissed everybody off. Never mind that it'll be December 2077 before that task force actually assembles; if they ever did harmonize their schedules and met, it would definitely not be good news for those who'd like to see a little more action around here.
It just now occurs to me that this piece should have been posted to the Tris McCall Report, and the impressions of the meeting should have been posted here. Ah, well, maybe I'll switch 'em sometime.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Here, the Manzo signs are still up. It's as if 2005 never happened. No brick rowhouses here, just irregular three and four story tenements with pastel aluminum siding. Vacant lots don't look like anybody's home, or anyone's property investment, either: they're just vacant. There's a Columbus Club on the corner of First and Brunswick, and a frightening bar called Indio's halfway down the block. It's late afternoon, and the sun is setting behind the Turnpike extension. I am reminded of the declasse section of Weehawken at the foot of the palisade, known to locals as the Shades.
We're still Downtown. But Colgate and First feels further from the Waterfront than Union City ever did. I'm here to look at the top floor of a five story building. It is white, featureless, and rectangular, and it juts, boxily, out onto the sidewalk. This house wears an ugly outfit, but its pals look no better. Nobody cares about looks on this strip. I imagine it's the same inside Indio's.
This isn't a part of town that many renters consider. We are at least seven long blocks west of the Grove Street PATH, and only a few hundred yards east of the highway. Numbered streets to the south of Newark Avenue do not count as Harsimus, and Van Vorst Park doesn't want them, either. The Italian Village is a historic neighborhood; bug them enough and the preservationists will take you on a tour here. I cannot imagine what they'd show. But nobody said that history had to be beautiful.
Over at City Hall, a coalition of activists are stopping the hand of a developer who'd like to raze the Sixth Street Embankment and build luxury housing. They want greenspace. Local businesses have gotten into the act, posting chartreuse "Make My Park" signs in their windows. They look like they were designed by... well, by me. But thanks to Sean Langon, I no longer feel like I've got the ugliest poster in town.
The landlord shows me the available apartment. It's the first one I've visited that is entirely unrenovated. The floor is hardwood, but some of the beams are splitting. In the bathroom, a leaky ceiling has been imperfectly patched. The kitchen is large, but mystifying: there is a water heater in a huge louvre cabinet, separating the stove from the refrigerator and the sink. Cabinets are everywhere, but I think cooking in this apartment would feel like an algebra problem. Out on the staircase, there are holes in the stucco walls.
The current occupant has been enlisted to pitch the flat. He testifies to the attentiveness of the landlord. The landlord testifies to his own attentiveness. I believe them both, but it's beside the point. Back on the sidewalk, the sun has gone down for good, and the humidity is suffocating. There may be traditional Italians behind these amber windows, or they may have all moved to Cedar Grove. I don't see anybody. The street is dark and quiet. A stray dog pads along beside me, panting. A squad car drives by on Brunswick, windows down, chasing the animal into the alley.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
the four elements
I remember the artist who used to be here. He worked in spray paint. He painted huge portraits of rappers: 50 Cent, Fat Joe, Ja Rule. They stared territorially out of the front window of the first floor studio, claiming the sidewalk. Across Montgomery Street are housing projects where broke blacks and Latinos live. Two blocks east is Van Vorst Park, surrounded by million-dollar brownstones. Most of the folks who play in the park are white like me. I like 50 Cent, Fat Joe, and sometimes even Ja Rule. But I do not forget what side of the street I live on.
This is the shadow of the Jersey City Museum. It is a low, squat parallelogram, and it does not go far. Our spray paint artist was a neighbor. His work always felt so much more substantial and evocative than whatever happened to be in the window of the city's gallery. During the Studio Tour, he came in to the Cultural Affairs office, asking to be listed on the map. He'd missed the deadline for official recognition.
I am a rap fan who has probably listened to Get Rich Or Die Tryin' hundreds of times. Many of Curtis Jackson's lines have become touchstones for me, words that come to mind involuntarily as I encounter and process the world around me. For instance, on "Many Men", he says, out of patience with the limited interpretive capacity of his listeners, "do I have to spell it out for you motherfuckers all the time?/ You illiterate, niggas?/ You can't read between the lines?" A great couplet for an arrogant cuss; a motto for poets.
Now the spray-paint 50 is gone. The realtor doesn't know where the artist is now. But his departure prompted the property-owner to make his building over. Two African-American handymen are laying carpeting on the steps and painting the hallways. The first-floor studio has been completely restored: beautiful hardwood floors, track lighting, and marble kitchen surfaces. The closets are enormous. A tall, bald, professional-looking artist is here already, talking to his broker on his cellphone, closing in on the space.
I am here to see the duplex. The price is nothing we could have afforded two years ago, but times have changed. The apartment is on the top floor. The restorers scowl at me as I scale the steps. It could be that they live in Greenville, in hovels, and they resent me for living large off of the fruit of their labors. But work such as theirs is highly specialized. It's more likely that they're very well-paid, and that they've got townhouses in South Orange. It's not about class, because it never is.
The space is spectacular, but imperfect. The floors are impeccably done in dark red hardwood; the tub is whirlpool-sized. A staircase leads from the kitchen to a small penthouse with wide windows, overlooking Downtown Jersey City. Hilary has wanted a roof; "roof life", she says, in that little voice of hers that always kills me. I am sweating under my orange linen shirt. The roof deck is painted silver, and radiates heat; inside the penthouse, sunlight slams through the high windows. All the walls have been painted a soft yellow. I have read that yellow walls make people hostile. At least it isn't yellow wallpaper.
On the street, the sun is insane: it's not supposed to be this hot in September. In Van Vorst Park, there are broke African Americans on the northwest benches again. They smell. We don't hate them, of course, we just wish they weren't there; just like the bums who our City Councilman would like to chase away from the Grove Street PATH Station plaza. Soon the developer of Grove Pointe will rehabilitate the plaza, and the bums will be gone. We will be happier. Our president gets on national television, and, with a straight face, says that race was not a factor in the FEMA's late response to flooding in the Gulf Coast. By now, our spray-painter would have added a canvas of Kanye to his gallery overlooking Montgomery Street. But he's not there anymore. Perhaps we will take his place. Do I have to spell it out for you motherfuckers all the time?
Sunday, September 11, 2005
then i remembered i was a songwriter
For once, writing does not come easily today. I have so much to do: several articles, several reviews, a few revisions to a three-thousand word piece on Jersey City. And I desperately wanted to come up with a few new songs for the Courthouse show on the 24th of September. The music came easy, but I wasn't finding the right words. Generally I will write from a topic -- something that moved me or outraged me. I've already written a song about apartment hunting: "44 Lines About 88 Realtors", cut from the Bottles sessions in 1999. I ought to try to do another, and this time I should keep it serious. I have been at this stuff so long that I should be able to coax a little poetry out of any experience I have. Or so I tell myself.
Friday, September 09, 2005
#1: On our street, but closer toward the river, and hence more expensive. The owner is a Russian emigree; she tells me she'd always wanted to be a journalist. She is enthusiastic and smiley, she approves of my second-string glasses. The windows are arched and extend to the next-door unit: they seem impressive from the street, but on the inside, it looks like you're staring at half of a face. Appliances are new standard, and the floors are dark hardwood. One of the two closets contains a boiler. B-.
#2: Third floor, over a nail shop. The staircase is horrible, and it smells like garbage. The apartment itself is best imagined as a long, hooked corridor, with a bedroom on one end and a gloomy den on the other. There is almost no closet space -- the occupants have built shelves, but the landlord informs me that these will be taken down. The kitchen is large, but drab. The rent is $200 more than we're currently paying. Again I am reminded that there is very little correspondence between price and quality. D+.
#3. Right across the street from our flat. Looking at the road from the opposite front staircases is like being held upside down. The owner and occupier is a rocker who is friendly and enthusiastic about Jersey City. The first floor apartment he shows me is oddly configured: the living room is keystone-shaped, with two tiny closets set into the shortest wall. The floor is covered with shag carpet, and the kitchen bears the unmistakeable stamp of having accomodated young postcollegiate men. It is dark. A giant transformer is set into the wall of the spare bedroom. C-.
#4. Snug, but interesting. The wood floor is made of uncommonly broad planks. The renovation has preserved much of the place's character: ceiling moldings, arches around the doorways, some wall detail. The kitchen is cozy, meaning that it's hard to imagine it accomodating a food snob. One of the narrowest refrigerators I've ever seen stands beside a small sink. A leak in the bathroom ceiling has been inexpertly painted over. The kitchen door leads out to one of the largest backyards I have ever seen in a city apartment. This would be ours, as well as a share of the washer and dryer, and the basement storage space. B.
#5. When I ring the bell, a grouchy old man comes to the door. He is not here to show the apartment, he tells me, he is trying to sleep. Gulp. I'm rescued by the landlord, who privately apologizes for his tenant. He leads me to a small top-floor apartment that has been lovingly restored. There's a skylight, track lighting, and exposed brick in the bedroom. It would be ideal for a single person with few possessions; say, a grouchy old man. Beautiful, but really not for us. B-.
#6. We're just north of Van Vorst Park, on a block associated by many Downtowners with hoodlums. I'm fine with hoodlums. The flat is very large, but it's been broken up into six chambers, so it doesn't feel spacious. I'd knock out a wall or two if I could, but tenants aren't allowed to do that, and besides, I wouldn't know where to begin knocking out a wall. The closets are old, but big; the kitchen is a tight yellow alley behind the bathroom. There are north, south, and east-facing windows, and all open out on to greenery. The owner likes us; he wants us to sign an application. We take one. But we're not ready for that yet. B.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
squeezing through tight spaces
I am in the middle of everything. Cars and trucks go by in both directions, barely pausing to avoid pedestrians. My bank is on the corner; across the street is a gallery where I once coordinated a jazz performance. The old chicken shack is to my left, and a brand new cafe is right in front of me. I believe this is the busiest intersection Downtown: a meeting place of neighborhoods.
Years ago, before there was any property market here, I attended a party at an apartment at this intersection for a few gay men and their admirers. Being neither, I chatted with the caterer. She was from Basking Ridge. She told me she had been scared to get out of her automobile. A decade later, she would not be able to afford rent here. It did not frighten me then, and it does not frighten me now.
I don't look my best. I'm unshaven this morning, and direct sunlight turns my hair into a mop of grease and sweat. Usually I fuss and bother over my appearance like a debutante, since I do not like to walk down the street until I can be sure that everyone who sees me will be fascinated by my noble carraige. Today I am settling for ruggedly handsome, or some dweebish minor-league variation thereof. At least I am wearing my second pair of glasses -- the ones without the crack in the lens.
The realtor is not waiting outside the corner tenement as she said she'd be. I am anxious to get out of the sun. After pressing buttons, somebody buzzes me in. I check the mailboxes, and find the names of two former Arts Center tenants. These were real holdouts; there until the bitter end, taking the abuse, and stoically mulling contingency plans. They counted me as a friend. I register their names without astonishment. Although I haven't seen them since they were forced out of the building in March, my strong sense was that they were around somewhere, and that I'd catch up with them at some unspecified point in the future.
That point is now. I am greeted by my old friend as I walk up the stairs. Her husband is working elsewhere, but she is all smiles; she is pleased to see me. It's her apartment that's for rent: the landlord hasn't shown up, so she's been giving the mini-tours today. She is a non-native speaker -- her accent is heavy, and she struggles a bit with English. Inside, I recognize much from her old studio at 111 First Street: books, art supplies, musical instruments. I recall sitting at her table at the studio, drinking tea and discussing development politics.
Chatter in Hebrew on the steps: a party of three Israeli women in their early twenties has arrived. They follow me into the apartment for rent. I sense undifferentiated ego boundaries, like those of college roommates. Their skin is young and tight -- they have not felt the cosmetic drag of city living. They stare at me, hypnotized by the lines of hard experience etched on my face. Okay, they don't.
My friend ushers them around the flat. I stay rooted to the spot and make awkward conversation, and try not to bring up the P.A.D. She isn't leaving for good, she hopes; they're moving in with relations in Queens so they can save money and purchase a building somewhere. In a week, their work will be packed up and carted across the East River, and two more Arts Center tenants will have slipped away to the Empire State.
When you have done your best to defend the rights of a couple to stay in their studio, it is tough to evaluate the place they move to next. It seems drained of significance, colorless and cheerless. These were characters in a drama that seemed worthy of Dickens, and yet here they are, in a nondescript apartment like the rest of us, availing themselves of the same rental ads, and harboring the same wish for property ownership and stability. This is from my romantic perspective, of course. To my friend, this is a temporary stopping-place. She likes it; she has put up shelves. Three big windows bathe the kitchen and living room with sunlight.
The landlord is hiking the rent. It will go for several hundred dollars more than we are currently paying. The Israeli wome seem uncomfortable with the price. Two would have to share a bedroom. I imagine that they also share a job -- taking turns managing a switchboard or call center on a vast international trading floor. They commute together, switching sections of The Wall Street Journal as they do. As I turn to leave, it becomes apparent that my friend had assumed that the three women were here with me. She must have thought they were my harem, or my backup singers, or my vetting committee. Embarrassed, she clasps her hands over her mouth. I tell her it's okay.
On the street, daylight is sledgehammer thick. My reserve pair of glasses isn't the proper prescription, and they make the world feel dislocated. I am to get cat food before I return home. Ducking into a shop, I watch the counterpeople ogle a blonde purchasing a box of pop tarts. She leaves, and they say something in a foreign language; I don't understand, but I get the gist.
From the waterfront, the sun shines high off of the Goldman Sachs tower. It burns through the thin canopy of leaves on Grand Street, and through the lenses of my second-string glasses. My eyes hurt. For a moment, I feel like an insect under a magnifying glass. I shrug off the burn and go inside.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
a good one
Downtown Jersey City is made up of microneigborhoods, all staring uneasily at each other across Newark Avenue, Marin Boulevard, or the Sixth Street Embankment. If Newark Avenue is something like our own version of Canal Street, then Harsimus Cove is to Van Vorst Park as TriBeCa is to SoHo. All are real estate constructs, and political units based on historic boundaries that feel more or less arbitrary at this remove. But the marketing wouldn't work if there wasn't something distinct about the areas, or more accurately, a way for the uninitiated to distinguish them.
When we first arrived Downtown, the Cool School of Jersey City had two contingents: those holding out against the inevitable at the Arts Center on 111 First Street, and those who lived and worked in Harsimus. Balance Hair Salon was there, and the Waterbug Annex, Lismore's home studio, Grisly Labs; later, Glenn Susser would open up his sandwich shop on Jersey Avenue. Chilltown Magazine was published from Harsimus. With no park, no PATH train stop, and a crime rate slightly higher than that of the rest of the historic neighborhoods, property values there were still low enough that reprobates like us could afford rental units.
In Harsimus, I see my first good one; a B plus, eminently liveable. It is on the north end of the neighborhood, in the shadow of the embankment. But the interior is sunny; big bright windows opening up on a leafy courtyard. There's a skylight on the staircase, even -- everything about the apartment has a restless-photon glow to it. The sink is a slab of black slate, and the walk-in closet has room for a computer desk. Nothing is renovated, but everything seems to work properly. The rent is more than we are currently paying, but there'd be much greater room for us here.
It isn't perfect. There's a faint but displeasing smell to the place. The kitchen and bathroom are functional but undistinguished. The apartment has no balcony. Since living at the Hi-Vue, we've grown so accustomed to having a terrace that going without one would feel slightly like being restrained. If we don't have a terrace door to leave open, how will the animals come in and out? At the Hi-Vue, we never shut the terrace, and we kept our bedroom windows wide open, too. One day a blackbird flew into the bedroom to keep us company. Uma, our cat, did not know whether to follow her instinct and attempt to kill it, or to run like hell toward the door. So she froze. Hilary grabbed her by the scruff and deposited her in the kitchen. There was no sense in prolonging her identity crisis -- at least not in front of the bird.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
My sister, well-meaning, continues to send us on-line listings for available condominiums in Jersey City. They are all aesthetically unsuitable, or far too small, or far too expensive. But constitutionally, I am a renter, not a purchaser. And after a night spent marvelling at our ability to find an apartment in this neighborhood in the first place, I recovered my equilibrium today.
I have my Powerpuff Girls notepad and my telephone. But hesitation has cost me units; some of these places are gone already. During our last search, listings in the Hudson Reporter recurred week after week as good apartments went unclaimed. I doubt that will be happening this time.
The Windsor Apartments on fully-rehabbed Essex Street are the first to call me back. I'd scribbled down their number without thinking clearly after seeing it on an advert banner. I assumed these new faux-brownstones were priced for far more that we could pay; in fact, I didn't realize that these were rental units at all. During my two years in Downtown Jersey City, almost all new developments have been referred to, derisively, as condominiums. I'm now discovering something that any realtor-in-training could surely have told me: agents will sell where they can, and rent where they can't. Not all of these newly-constructed luxury complexes are playing for highest stakes.
The saleswoman is kind and patient with me. She is from the South, she is only mildly corporate, and she is not sizing me up too harshly. I'm wearing my backup glasses, having stashed the usual cracked and krazy-glued pair at home, in the vain hope of passing myself off as the sort of person who might reasonably live at the Windsor Apartments. Everything here is new and streamlined, including the courtyard pool. I don't swim.
The cheapest one-bedroom unit (The Alexander, my brochure calls it) is spacious and serviceable, but a bit antiseptic. The floor is carpeted and the kitchen is large, but it reminds me more of a chain hotel than the lovely brownstone interiors I spy into on a walk home through Paulus Hook. Unlike Grandview, there is very little attention paid to stuffy neo-con style. Just as the nicest Marriott suites still look like the human resources conference room, the Alexander seems drawn by Scott Adams: luxury for those accustomed to spending time in offices and corner cubicles.
Later, I examine a first floor unit in a gorgeous historic building that I have passed hundreds of times, always wondering what sort of extravagance I'd find inside. The interior turns out to be decorated in Early American Frathouse: chipping paint, bicycles chained to the wall, and a pervasive odor of mildew. The smell is even worse in the apartment itself, a low-ceilinged horror with misplaced brickfaces, fold-open closet doors, and a refrigerator and oven that even Holly Hobbie would have found unacceptable. Some molds are historical -- I am told there are gigantic colonies living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that have been there for decades.
Back home with my own mold, I meditate on the notion of luxury. I found the Hi-Vue luxurious because of the stained-glass windows and the spectacular balcony, but the roof leaked and the knobs came off the doors when I turned them. Strangely, I never noticed. An infinitely self-indulgent sybarite, I desire luxury. But it occurs to me that I should ignore the promises of luxury made by realtors, since I cannot depend on anybody to be able to understand my own specific and perverse relaxations. And I can't find my real glasses. Holler if you see me tomorrow, staggering down the street, hands in front of me, feeling my way from apartment to apartment.
Monday, September 05, 2005
gloom in the courtyard
I do not complain about spending beautiful days indoors, since I don't care for direct sunlight. Still, there is no excuse for neglecting this apartment hunt -- other than the holiday, of course, and the deadlines. So we took walks. The first took us through our own neighborhood; then, after returning to the flat for water, we headed out again in the vague direction of Van Vorst Park. Much later, after the deadlines had been met, we walked along Coles Street toward Hamilton Square.
I took a little notepad for numbers. My pad had a Powerpuff Girl on the front, and scatterd notes from Hilary about Alexander Pope inside. I paged to the back and scrawled down everything I saw. Most referred me to realtors. When I got home, I didn't call any of them.
Paulus Hook is busy with signs: For Rent, For Sale, Condominium Available, Under Lease, Brickface Restoration. Some advertise buildings that are clearly under construction -- some are little more than crossbeams and the promise of concrete. A few adverts bear numbers with distant area codes. "Flipping" is real estate slang for buying property in a hot neighborhood, and then selling it as quickly as you can for a higher price. It works on the same logic as does day trading: get in, get out, repeat, get rich.
A middle-aged woman ushered us into The Grandview, a new complex on the corner of Grand and Greene. This is a mixed-use development that was thrown up in a matter of seconds, or so it seems; every vacant lot in this neighborhood has been purchased and has been framed by scaffolding. The newer structures ape the design of rowhouses much in the way that some musicians record artificial crackling in the midst of their CDs to simulate the flipping of a vinyl album. Nobody is being fooled here. Still, we go inside.
The condominium unit for sale at this open house is smaller than the apartment where we currently live. It is handsome and tidy, and its back doors open up to a large brick patio. The kitchen surfaces are all dark marble, and the refrigerator is jet black. It looks like somebody's idea of a bachelor pad for a well-mannered financial services employee more interested in gardens than girls. The price: 550K. Later, we use an online mortgage calculator to discover how far we are from being able to afford this. I feel financially devastated from by brief brush up against the numbers.
Inland, things are dispiriting. Balloons advertise an open house on Varick, one block west of the park. The house is stately and old, but uncomfortable and somewhat woody. A realtor inside is explaining to a young couple that they'd best look in West New York if they expect to find a unit at their stated price. I do not hear the price. The apartment is unrenovated -- cabinets open and close uncomfortably, and the window treatments seem crummy. The kitchen, a pink sliver between the two other rooms, is entirely unworkable. This apartment is leasing for $450 more than our current flat.
I do not tend to generalize from brief experiences, but for the first time in memory, I have a bad feeling about an apartment hunt. Purchasing a condominium unit here -- even a meagre couple of rooms -- is plainly beyond our means. We fully expect to pay more than we are currently, but a 33% increase is tough to swallow. And yet, conditions in Downtown Jersey City have changed so radically over the past two years that bargain hunting here feels daunting.
From now until we settle our hunt, this space will be updated daily.