A few weeks ago while on a family trip to Israel, I was sitting at our Passover dinner and my phone started blowing up with Instagram notifications. DMs, tags, comments from people about a post that was taken down by Chris Gadsden. Chris had posted on his Instagram and Facebook about a rumor that Holland Gardens, a 75 year old public housing complex, would be phased out. This post went viral, but was later taken down. People were tagging me, asking for answers so without thinking I started inquiring. I was on the phone with our editor Alex and feeding her information that I knew. I reached to to someone from the city to get more info and then decided to text Chris to get clarification. Everything happened really fast and honestly I wasn’t really thinking things through when the article went live. It struck a cord. The backlash was insane. It was so intense that I almost called it quits.
I made a mistake and I will honestly admit it that the article could have been written differently, that I shouldn’t have added screenshots of my conversation with Chris. It was in poor taste. I have the outmost respect for Chris and all that he does for the community and in no way did I intend to put him on blast.
A few days after the article came out and all the backlash, Pamela Johnson, the Executive Director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition, reached out. We had a really great conversation and I had asked her if she could help me set up a meeting with Chris to talk about all of this. We met at Hooked JC and I learned so much from Chris and Pam.
Press play for the full video interview or read the transcript below.
Hey guys! So, what are your names and what do you guys do?
I’m Chris Gadsden. I’m a lifelong resident of Jersey City, principal at Abraham Lincoln High School, father, married for going on 18 years.
Wow! How many kids?
Three. Three beautiful girls. One is going on 13, 10, and 6. I’m a community advocate, leader, whatever you want to call it. Former Councilman in Ward B, the West Side of Jersey City. And just passionate about helping people and helping improve other people’s lives.
Pam, how about you?
I’m Pam Johnson, lifelong resident of Jersey City. I’m a mom, I have 2 beautiful kids. They’re grown now, almost 27 and just turned 21. I am a new grandmother of an almost 2-year-old girl. I’m excited about that. I’m the Executive Director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement and I just show up when necessary. A community advocate, people call me a lot of different things. That’s cool too, as long as it’s on a positive note.
Love it. So tell me a little bit about growing up in Jersey City and the changes in the last decade, and how you feel about the changes.
Chris: Well, I grew up in the 70s, 80s. Jersey City was a little bit different than what it is today. I grew up primarily in two sets of Jersey City, along West Side across from the Board of Ed, attended 38 from K-8, then I moved up on the Hill in Greenville and attended Snyder, lived on Wilkinson for a couple of years. I graduated and went out with my mom, she moved out of Jersey City for various reasons. She didn’t like it no more, it was during the time of crack and, during that time, people wanted to get out. It was crazy, and my mom wanted a better life. She went to Piscataway and then eventually in North Brunswick, I traveled out there with her because I didn’t want to be homeless. I attended Middlesex County College and got some credits. Then I came back home after a year away and attended NJCU. At the time, it was Jersey City State College and then transitioned to NJCU. I got my degree in Sociology and History with a focus in Secondary Education and started teaching in the Jersey City Public School system. Started off as a substitute teacher, teacher’s assistant, a teacher. In 2011, I became Vice Principal at Lincoln High School and, this last year, became Principal at Lincoln High School. Before that, I was on the city council. By growing up in Jersey City, I had a lot of heroes and people who influenced me to be the man I am today. When I see the changes in Jersey City… one of the things my grandfather had said – he was one of the earlier black cops in Jersey City – is, “You always gotta be at the table. You always gotta be in the mix.” Just imagine growing along the West Side when you start seeing old industrial factories, purple dye factories, old coronium fields, back in the days they called it Cancer Alley. Two Guys department store sunk into the ground. All that land the Bayfront is on, that was all toxic. Like Society Hill. It was nonexistent.
Liberty State Park was also horrible, Berry Lane Park…
Chris: All these areas. Jersey City transitioned from an industrial juggernaut to companies moving out during the 60s and people moving, they call it the White Flight – people moved out of Jersey City because it was an abhorrent wasteland. A lot of people like my grandparents and a lot of people’s grandparents moved up to Jersey City from the Great Migration from the South. People moved from South Carolina and came up into Newark, into Jersey City, during the 1920s and 30s because they wanted a new stock of housing and wanted some work. During the 40s, a lot of our relatives fought during the war. The governmental policy during that time basically said you had different incentives to be in the war. People came home with GI Bills or a lot of our people weren’t afforded the opportunity to live in newly formed Country Village or all these communities that were sprouting during that time. People were living in Greenville. While people were taking GI Bills and buying homes, we were greeted with new housing gardens like Montgomery Gardens or Booker T, which is one of the first housing projects. Marion and different places, they were all developed for people who were coming home from wars, people who needed places to stay. As people migrated from the South, they already had an allotment of houses.
I didn’t realize it’s been around for that long.
Around 40 to 50 years. There’s deep history in the housing projects. History is just where people of color were allowed to live during that time. My grandfather was one of the first black families to actually live below the Boulevard. We are talking about a time when we weren’t afforded the opportunity to live in certain places because redlining was real. During that time, the allotment of houses that were actually built, these projects and everything, were built along waterways, bridges, and highways. Curry Woods was built along a highway because you wanted low-income folks to be unseen on the outskirts while you created these mini suburbs, towns and everything else like that. Times started to change. Between urban flight and decay, to incentivize the industrial areas during the 1980s under the leadership of McCann, revitalization started to happen. You see Newport and the rest of these waterfront areas start to develop. Over time abatements were used to incentivize development. Jersey City grew from the 1980s going into the 2000s. The transition has been somewhat gradual, but over the last decade, its been expedited. When we were coming up, it was a great thing to be able to see Newport because you can shop and go to a movie. It benefitted you. All transportation led to Newport, whether it be on West Side or Ocean Avenues. You actually had access to this new development. I’m trying to paint this long story because sometimes you have to see the gradual change inside of Jersey City. A lot of people at Newport were developing in the underlying area when you had the Latino, the Puerto Rican population that moved during the 1940s and 50s up into Columbus Drive, moving into Monmouth, those areas. They were suddenly, in the 1980s and 1990s, displaced and forced to move into other areas of Jersey City. The changes that have happened, happened because folks during the 1980s and 1990s have taken advantage of old industrial buildings, lack of development taking place, and cheap land. Developers came in with their long dollars and did what they needed to do. The changes have been for about 30 to 40 years very gradual, but now we can see that it’s heightened, a little faster. It’s almost like there’s an undertaking, the last bit of living space folks had for decades was slowly eroding away. That’s the thing that’s really alarming people, especially people of color, because now it’s like, “Where do we live? Where do we stay now? What’s going to be carved out for us?”
As time went on, the economics and everything else hadn’t really changed. It’s just that folks got more money in one particular place and others don’t. That short amount of money can’t afford anything. Like I can’t afford housing, I can’t afford to hold it down and take care of my family no more. Even when people came up in the 30s, 40s, 50s, whether I worked at that pocketbook factory or Holiday Fair or whatever department store, my dollars were long enough to take care of that rent, and to make sure I had some food. I was able to hold it down, and right now, the stress is strained for individuals particularly on the South Side basically saying, “I can’t do it no more.” But they see other people doing well, other people who are moving in, doing their thing, getting their piece, and they’re like, “Man, this thing is changing.” That’s the transition and what I see, and that’s the thing my grandfather basically said, “Listen. When you see things, you don’t keep your mouth shut. You always gotta speak about it because that matters, especially with us. Black people. We gotta have our voices always heard.” It’s a long story.
Pamela: This is necessary, and he even showed the purposeful acts of how the neighborhood’s transitioned. He talked about redlining and living below the Boulevard and how now we can’t afford to live where we want to live, or even take care of our families in some cases.
Chris: It’s real. When I first got married and moved my wife out from Brooklyn… I graduated from NJCU and moved to Warner Avenue between Jackson & Rose. When I moved up there, my wife was like, “I got a job, you got some money, why don’t we go and buy a house?” I was like, “Alright, fine.” We would ask realitors to take us out. A gentleman kept showing me all these properties on Myrtle, Bostwick, Wilkinson. I said, “Listen here, sir. I don’t mean no harm, but you not about to do that redlining crap with me. You’re gonna show me some other properties, whether it be in the Heights, West Side, the West Slope, Downtown, whatever. You’re going to open up the lot of housing because all our housing does not exist in just one place, and don’t look at the color of my skin either. Look at my credit score, look at the fact that I’m prequalified, and take me to a place where I can shine.” I thought it was a big thing for me and my wife at the time because we actually lived below West Side. Living between West Side and Mallory, it’s an area with Filipinos, an area of diversity, people of all cultures. I was like, “This is what’s up. This is what my grandfather did.” He said, “You could be black, but you could also not be marginalized.” That’s the way I took it. When I moved up on Union and purchased my first house along West Side, I felt like I was breaking through a barrier, if that makes sense. It made me feel good.
You fought for something.
Pamela: That’s right. And got it.
Let’s talk about the situation going on now, with affordable housing. I think there’s confusion – what’s affordable housing, what’s available, what is mixed-income housing, is affordable housing even affordable? Can you clear that up for us?
Chris: The way I’ve been looking at it over the last couple of years, especially sitting on council, there’s different types of affordable housing. Whether it be low-income, veterans, moderate, whatever you want to call it. A majority of the affordable housing being built is moderate. It’s something for the folks making $60K, that type of housing. Then there’s low-income housing, and that’s the type of housing that needs to be protected, that you can’t let go because people are using short dollars. They have to continually have low-income housing. The problem sometimes is that in-between. It’s that working professional, that security guard, the person making $40K who just does not qualify for low or have enough money for that moderate.
I posted this because the Mayor was talking about the Bayfront project and basically saying that we’re going to have no less than 20%, but we’re aiming for 35%. When you aim for 35%, what type of housing will be at 35%? Is that housing at 35% going to be moderate? When I look at the development of Bayfront, I got Society Hill, market rate. NJCU, West Side, market rate. Development inside of the water street, with fields, and with 400 Claremont Urban Renewal LLC, market rate. Everybody’s market rate, and then now the type of housing that’s going to be placed inside of Bayfront… The buzzword that gets people kind of ticked off, especially “market rate” people who have money, is to say, “Well, what type of affordable housing are you gonna build? Who’s going to live in my neighborhood?” That’s the thing people in Society Hill would think, like, “You’re not going to mess up the property values around me because I’ve been down in this coronium dump since Roosevelt Field, so my increase has been coming up. You’re not about to hit me with people making under $35K, not able to take care of their place.” There’s always an element of classism, racism, and things like that, that always accompany conversations on affordable housing. In that particular area, the problem is, what type of housing are you going to build? There’s not enough low income housing, and the low income housing that exists only exists in housing developments, “projects.” I don’t like using that word. It’s aligning itself along Martin Luther King Dr and all along the South Side. One of the things while sitting on council that I was appreciative of was when Councilwoman Watterman was like, “We need some low-income inside of Ward E. We need dedicated low-income, not the moderate stuff.” If you look at any development inside of Ward E, it’s always that moderate stuff. I appreciated our conversation because imagine if you take a family from Marion and put them inside the high rises? It changes my perception, changes my dynamics, it makes me feel like I deserve this type of housing, and I’ll continue to work even harder because I want that to be sustained. You’re my family, grew up out of Booker T, 96 Fremont. When they moved to an apartment building and not having to live inside of public housing, it was like, “Whoa, I can live in an apartment, take care of some things, send my children to school, and not live with the stigma of being low-income and impoverished.” I just think the conversation on affordable housing needs to be more for people who don’t have it, and nobody’s willing and courageous enough to build it. It’s my belief that you’re not going to build low-income housing you don’t want low incomes here because it’s messing up the money. Over the last couple of years, housing developments have been phased out – like the old Lafayette. It’s not like it’s a huge amount of original inhabitants who came back to the old Lafayette, it’s not even managed by public housing. It’s managed by 4 or 5 different management companies in that development, and a lot of people didn’t come back. The Montgomery towers were knocked down and then you have the new development taking place, and it’s affordable and moderate with a touch of low income, but you didn’t build enough low-income to bring original inhabitants back inside Montgomery.
Pamela: And that’s what we see a lot. I don’t think people know how much we see that and we’ve seen it in history. Even with Booker T, when you say it’s mixed-income, it tells you right there that there’s a percentage of people who will not be brought back to the projects.
Where do they go?
Chris: Well, they go to wherever that Section 8 voucher will take them. Hopefully they find some stock in Jersey City. What happened with Montgomery was a lot of people who moved up from Montgomery moved to the Hill and into Lafayette Court and the rest of those areas. Then you wanna worry about, “Why is there a spike in crime? Why is there a spike in shooting?”
Pamela: Exactly, I’m so glad you brought that up.
Chris: It’s because you moved inhabitants in one area who have a problem with somebody right on top of each other. Then it’s, “Why did they move?” Well they moved because they need a place to live. “But my kids are having some problems with this kid,” now the parents try to make sure they survive and have a roof over their heads, but these kids are saying, “I don’t like this group” and “I don’t like that one.” So our policy in development has caused crime. Government officials did it on purpose. No matter how much you try to explain this or say it, everybody’s like, “No, we like the new changes. Everybody likes a little change, growth” and all the rest of these keywords but I’m not tripped up. There’s a lot of people who don’t live around here no more. The population of my school when I became VP, I had at least 1050, 1100 students. I’m on 670. Where did 400, 500 people go? Where’d they go? They moved. The problem with housing is that the people who moved into the neighborhood along Park Street and Bergen Hill which is called Astor Place, is they’re not sending nobody to our schools. 12 school, which is a feeder school, only has about 200 people in it. When I toured that 12 school in my early years, we were busting 500 people inside that school. A feeder school pump into the high schools. 12 is a feeder school, 17 is a feeder school, 14 is a feeder school. If people are not inside of the elementary and middle schools, they’re not coming into the high schools. If the neighborhood is seeing that my school is some type of eyesore or violent haven, then they’re not sending children to the schools. The new residents coming in aren’t looking at existing schools, they’re looking for other things to get their children into. This housing issue is having an effect on everything.
I just came back from City Hall, there was a press conference about affordable housing in the Downtown area. Yesterday, there was a JCBOE meeting with the budget cuts. There’s all these crises happening and it’s kind of blowing up in our faces at the same time.
Chris: But they all could have been prevented. Any reasonable town or city takes the property taxes, spends it on kids and public safety, does what it has to do with their dollars. Jersey City basically said, in the beginning of the 1980s, “I’m going to take some property tax dollars, but then I’m going to take abatements, pilot money, and do what I need to do for city government and disregard public schools.” And Jersey City doesn’t fund its schools. It hides wealth. There’s two ways school funding is determined: the capacity of a city or township to pay, and the needs of the kids. The needs of the kids are still there. In Jersey City, this reval and everything else is revealing that y’all can pay more. All of these things could have been prevented if people would do what they have to do. Jersey City has to fund its schools, build quality housing for ALL residents, not just people they anticipate coming from Williamsburg or Manhattan who can’t afford that no more. They have to building housing for everybody. I’ve always said this, especially on City Council – where is the incentive to empower residents to purchase so they can get another level of life? I’m a homeowner, that feels good.
It seems like Jersey City is becoming a transient city because there’s so many of these tall high rises and there’s not a lot of opportunities to buy homes.
Chris: No, there’s opportunities to buy homes.
Pamela: Depending on what you pre-qualify for, it’s expensive.
Chris: See, that’s the thing. Other people are coming in, taking advantage of housing stock that exists.
I mean for locals, residents who are here. There’s nothing available, they can’t afford it.
Pamela: Oh now, it’s completely unavoidable.
Chris: Our economic practices have driven up the market. And because we’ve driven up the market, the folks who live here are not able to pay.
Pamela: I want to touch base on something you said as far as the displacement and the increase in violence. I always try to make a note because I know that violence in our community and folks who perpetrate the acts and the victims are always painted to look like they may have been involved in something, so it’s victim-shaming and blaming. I’m not saying folks are not involved in it, but I’m saying that it’s not the main reason why things are happening. It can happen to anyone. I don’t want to give false hopes of safety if you’re not involved in anything because that’s not true, an 11-year-old girl was shot and a boy shot by the post office in the face. We had a young man on Sackett who was at the mechanic and shot in the head. All of these were non-targeted shootings but they weren’t written up that way. Part of it is the media, part of it is political, part of it is folks don’t care sometimes. The displacement of housing sites and complexes have definitely, like Chris said, contributed to the violence. I remember when my son was in high school, he’s 21 now, I was looking for an apartment. I’ve always lived on the South Side, I grew up on Wade, I live on Princeton, I’ve always been in that area. I was looking to go a little further down and I’m not sure why, I was just looking to move, and my son was really drilling me on where I was looking. I was like, “Why does it matter? We can go anywhere we want to in the City.” You have this young man who’s never been in trouble, and I’m saying that to say he doesn’t “meet the criteria” of what they say a victim or assailant would look like, but he still let me know we couldn’t move past Armstrong. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “Mom, we’re from up top. The mix when you cross a certain barrier, you can’t feel safe.” When you talk about victims and you talk about people perpetrating crimes, folks who are not entangled in what folks would want you to think is the dangerous lifestyle still feel like they can’t live anywhere in their city. They can’t maneuver throughout their city. These are folks that are not “what an assailant looks like” or what a “perpetrator victim looks like.” Until we get that misconception out of our brains, that your child, my child, anybody’s child, anyone, your grandmother, my grandmother can’t be affected by violence, we’ll do better by the whole city. But if we keep separating folks depending on where you live in the city, how much money you make, what’s your status in life, where your kids go to school, we’ll continue to try to protect the haves and push the have-nots either further down or eventually out.
Chris: You’re touching on something real serious. What I see and what you’re saying is social policy and decision-making have marginalized a group of people to now where, it is my belief, people are being contained. Now we’re in containment mode. When you look on the city’s website and look at the Affordable Housing stock available and click on those houses, you can see what you qualify for. When you click on those houses, it’s going to say “low income” along the stretch. If you do an overlay of just income – you do the housing stock, the income, then an overlay of the shootings that have occurred and people who have died. In Jersey City over the last 10 years, over 300 people have died, homicides have happened. 260 have died on the South Side below Montgomery by Curry Woods. 260 people. When you look at those dots, they’re all lying on top of each other.
Pamela: And that’s public information.
Chris: Now you see all these police efforts. When you look at how the cars are situated, they’re situated in containment zones. We’ll go to a meeting and talk about safety efforts, and I’m not knocking police, but the law enforcement sometimes gets used as a tool to keep the entrapment at play. It’s also used to say, “We’re cleaning up in the area and it’s eventually going to be safe for you to drop your dollars into a particular area.” The mayor is saying, “Let’s finish the deal on the South Side. Not only do we have 280 Grove St, we also have a City Hall annex. We’re going to improve the light rail, continue to improve the infrastructure because you need a reason to come on this side of town to invest.” All the while, the containment is still occurring and still happening. If you take a panoramic view, you’re like, “Dang, these people are moving nice.” All these things are being done, to me, deliberately by social policy makers who see the big picture. The pawns in this whole thing are people who got to make the decision in order to get the thing done, they actually do the bidding of every last person. They do the bidding of the developer, the bidding of those folks who got the interest, and that’s why it was hard for me as a councilperson to play this game. It’s just wrong. Especially when you have a conscience. I’d be in meetings with certain developers like, “Well how come you can’t dedicate 20%?” and they’d say, “It’s too expensive, and when I go into the affordable trust fund, they only give me $15K for a unit and a unit costs $300K. The type of housing I’m building is costing more than what the city’s giving me in that trust fund.” I’m like, don’t you have a conscience? You don’t care about how people live around here? So you want the new neighbors, okay fine. I know your bottom line is profit, I totally get it. But do you care about the people who are living on this block? When you put this thing here, the surrounding housing stock is going to say, “Oh, I’ve got more value in this place. I’m going to raise your rent by $200.”
It’s a ripple effect.
Chris: There’s no rent control in two-family housing. So it’s like, “You have to bounce because I know I can get more for this, new people are coming in.” Everybody is at fault for this whole thing. Putting that thing on blast, things continued to happen. Nowadays, you asked an elected official, “What’s your opinion on this type of development that’s taking place?”
Pamela: Some don’t take an opinion at all. They just told you what side they’re on. They don’t take the community’s side or the developer’s side, but some have said, “The community doesn’t want it but I’m still not gonna take their side because I don’t want to get caught up in the middle of that, so I’ll stand to the side.”
Chris: When you’re sitting at that cocktail party or when you’re at that person’s face and they’re coming in here looking all rich… One of the first things I told a developer at NJCU, my first two days, I’m sitting there with Burns and they’re talking about NJCU. I was like, “Let me ask you this question. What type of housing are you building?”
“Well it’s going to be all market rate?”
“Market rate? What’s a studio?”
“$1,400. One bedroom, $1,800.” Who can afford that? I was like, “Let me tell you this, I don’t like your project for a lot of reasons. All you builders who build don’t employ Jersey City residents. Until you become conscious, and I don’t know when that’s going to be, I can’t support that because my conscience won’t. This project is going to transform this whole particular area.” See, people who advocate for culture and the arts, I’m not against that, but now anytime you place a performing arts center, you’re changing the dynamics and affordability of that particular area. The only thing that I’ve asked of anybody who came to me with a project is to be conscious enough to care about other people who live in the neighborhood, and that just doesn’t happen.
What can the community do? Let’s say people are watching this and asking themselves, “I want to get involved, what can I do? I’m pissed off about what’s going on, I want to voice my opinion.” What can they do, instead of going on social media and saying things? What can people do to help the community and give back?
Chris: That’s a great question. The first thing that we have to do is form an agenda that outlines where we stand. People don’t know what to do until they know why they’re doing and what purpose they’re doing it for. Everybody has their agenda – the developer has an agenda, the city has an agenda. Once we get that, we can go in somebody’s face with actionable items, but it takes a massive amount of people to do this. The masses are not woke and that’s the problem. Folks who are suffering the most can’t fight. Sometimes I get a little emotional with that because you’re beating up on people who can’t fight for themselves.
So how do we fight for them?
Chris: What I’m saying is, it takes hundreds of thousands of people to actually rally and care and then tell your people. When developers go to City Hall, the first person they meet is the Deputy Mayor, who’s going to sit down there and look at the project and going to talk it over with the mayor. Then the mayor is going to say to the council, “Maybe you should talk to the councilperson in that ward.” Then that person is going horse-and-pony meeting us out of the neighborhood.
It’s like too complicated so people are just like, “I don’t want to deal with it.”
Chris: It’s not complicated, though.
Pamela: They *think* it’s too complicated.
Right, that’s what I’m saying, they think it’s too complicated.
Chris: Conscious people have to force people to be conscious, but there’s not enough of us. Now that’s the sad part. You asked the question, “What can be done?”
The question is, “When are you going to wake up, Mayor? When are you gonna stop the crap?” You use the old adage, “It was all done before I was here.” Anybody always passes the buck, but when are you going to care? Don’t give me your talking points, “We’ve built more affordable housing than any previous administration. We’ve got more housing stock in the next couple of years.” Nobody’s got time for that. People of color, black and Latino people, are leaving Jersey City because they can’t afford the place and you are not building enough housing. There was a study that said there’s not enough in Jersey City. A whole Supreme Court ruling said the State of New Jersey is lacking in it. The Courts and everybody else can say that, and you’re not even going to move on it. The affordable housing that you’re building right now is for another marketplace.
Affordable housing works like this: it’s not just people who live in a particular neighborhood, it’s for the surrounding areas. When somebody’s coming from New York and says, “This moderate housing is 60% above, 120% above your salary,” these people coming from New York qualify for that housing. It’s not just somebody with long dollars, it’s that graduate from NYU who just got that job, relocated over here, and got that house. Some developers build buildings and don’t even give the city access to the list to challenge them to say, “Did you even put Jersey City people in the house?” The question is, who’s monitoring the stockpile of affordable housing in Jersey City anyway? Who’s monitoring it? Who basically holds them accountable? A good thing the mayor did is put a rent control board to make sure people don’t go above 4% because sometimes, landlords do something stupid things. Like when a previous tenant leaves and that rent is $900, that owner will do some rehab or put a fresh stove in and a countertop, and then say the place is $1800. And nobody checks it. We just started right now advocating for the little person, but there’s not even enough people to do that. How many people are on that board? Three? Who’s monitoring affordable housing? When these new projects go up, who’s checking the list? There weren’t enough people checking the list over there in Lafayette.
I spoke to Commissioner Jones about what’s going on in Montgomery, and he was basically like, “The Housing Authority is really going to sit and monitor the list.” The list is like a majestic unicorn, nobody’s monitoring that. If nobody’s monitoring that, then people with certain incomes are coming in and taking advantage of the housing stock. Even the governmental funds – the money, the CBG, all the rest of this type of money – people are coming in from different areas and taking advantage of housing in low-income areas and it’s not the low-income residents that live in the neighborhood. That’s how Randolph and the rest of areas are developing. New people are coming in with these grants and putting down payments on their homes. Why can’t the city take all that land in the JCRA, the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, dedicate 10% of that land to incentivize home ownership for people who live in the South Side.
So what you’re saying is all politics, but what can people like me do?
Chris: You have to continue to push the envelope and push the issue with media.
Pamela: You’re using your platform right now.
Chris: You have to use the platform. Everybody else has to galvanize and hold people accountable and make them do it until it gets done. Jersey City Together, they’re like a bulldog on Bayfront. They’re not letting you go. I’m holding my press conference, I’m doing this, and we’re going to go through every stage and every phase. What we got to do is take something on our agenda and go bulldog on it until it happens. It has to be incremental, it has to be small. The problem with that is everything is also expedited to everybody else’s cash and greed that these efforts, while being genuine, may be coming a little bit too late.
Educate me if I’m wrong, when developers come in here and buy a land or plan to build something, there’s a process they have to go through. Can the community become involved in that process?
Chris: Jersey City law is like, this is capitalism – My money, I bought it, I build it.
But there’s been community meetings discussing developments.
Chris: You can stop it if you have numbers.
Pamela: I’m not an expert in affordable housing, low-income housing, moderate housing. I’m learning as I go along. I learned a lot from Chris and I’ve been talking to other folks. We also formed the Housing Justice Department in the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement (JCAVCM)with Chris Perez, who fights for communities when development doesn’t make sense and he fights for affordability, and he was doing it already in a part of JCAVCM so he’s in charge of that department. I like to learn from folks who know much more than me because this is not my field. I want to say that I attended a couple of meetings with Jackson Hill, the 2.5-mile, largest Special Improvement District in Jersey City. It’s all of MLK, Monticello, and a portion of Ocean in Ward A, where I live. I’ve been attending some of our community meetings because the developer planning or zoning has to present plans prior to anything happening. The meetings are poorly attended. There are reasons why, people have 2-3 jobs, stuff is going on. For the small people who attend that meeting, it has been their job to go back into their community and their block and educate those who couldn’t come to the meeting. That’s one way to start circumventing action.
We’ve been trying to go to community meetings and write about them, and unfortunately people don’t really read it. This is my challenge, and you asked me today, “How many blog posts do you publish?” We publish 3-4 articles per day and the article we posted recently about affordable housing went viral because of the nature of it. It was clickbaity I guess, but we’ve written about issues many times and it goes to deaf ears. That’s a challenge for me, as a local blogger. Where do I find this happy medium between being a positive platform where I write about arts, culture, people, and businesses and also writing about the issues? I try to push the issues and be truthful, but at the same time, it goes on deaf ears. Then I’ll post something else and people will say, “Oh, she’s never written about this before.” But it’s not true, we have. This is a challenge I go through. We just published about the press conference that just happened at City Hall and it’s not getting any hits, it’s not getting any views.
Chris: It’s because that story is being covered by other media outlets. Everybody is well aware of Jersey City Together, they know, so you’re not going to get the click because they’re like, “Oh, they’re at it again.”
Pamela: Also, what do you think your demographic is? Have you ever done a study to see who’s actually reading the blog?
I moved to Jersey City ten years ago. I’m here for a decade. Not that I’m a lifelong resident, but I feel like I’ve been here a while. There’s people who recently moved here in the last decade and there’s natives who reach out to me all the time like, “Thank you for showing me what’s going and what’s happening.”
Chris: I think it’s the consistency and the presenting of this narrative that we’re talking about right now. While you may have had articles in the past about this particular issue, it’s almost like in order to save folks, you almost have to ring the alarm. Now, ChicpeaJC probably can’t do that consistently because of the range of stories that you have to cover.
I think I can. I think this is great and, as I told you before, I think everything happens for a reason. It’s unfortunate that it went this way and we all had to go through it, but people are talking about it and it brought me to be able to sit with you right now and for you to tell me all this history. My eyes are open and hearing more about what you’re doing from a different perspective, I’m going to continue meeting with different people as much as I conceivably can. At the same time, we are a blog. We aren’t the Jersey Journal, it takes time for us to put together articles. This is an hour interview, it takes hours for us to transcribe and put together. I understand there’s this need for immediacy, but we don’t have the capacity of doing that. I’m still not going to stop, I’m going to continue. The blog is a work in progress, we’re human beings behind it. It’s all about learning.
Chris: It’s the consistency of keeping it real. When you put stuff out there that keeps it real, it’s sort of like anything you put on Facebook. You put on a serious issue, they’ll be like “Uh what’s that?” But when you keep it real and just say it, they’ll be like, “For real? I feel the same way.” It gets shared, it gets bumped, whatever. That’s what people want right now. In order to wake a consciousness to get people to go to a planning meeting, to go to this stuff, first you gotta be like back in the day.
Pamela: Like you said, gotta ring the alarm. I want to put in this point – like I said, I’m not the expert, I can only go on what residents tell me when I’m advocating for them. I’ve advocated for residents who were living in slum landlord housing, carbon monoxide leaking because you made some makeshift heating thing as opposed to doing what you had to do. Management companies where no one resides in Jersey City. That management company when all that mess happened and they were a repeated offender of having violation after violation, there’s no one guarding the hen house. That’s a big problem.
With the Booker T and any other housing complex where there’s been some rehabilitation, everyone may not go back in. What happens with those is – like Chris said – they’re in other communities or they go outside of Jersey City. I want to say for folks with vouchers – Now you have different people owning homes throughout the South Side. A lot of new homeowners don’t want to take those vouchers. They don’t want a Section 8 family living in those homes that they just purchased. It’s a whole stigma attached to it. There are different types of vouchers in Section 8 because you have families who make a decent income but they’re able to get a subsidy. They’re not necessarily poor but they just need somewhat of an assistance. It’s looked upon very negatively and a lot of new homeowners don’t want them living in their homes, so now they’re facing either living in a run down home where maybe the owner lives in Pennsylvania who doesn’t care if you have a voucher but is also not taking care of his property, or moving outside of Jersey City which is what we don’t want. I don’t want to be forced to move out, I don’t own a home. I don’t want to be forced to move out of Jersey City and I’ll fight to stay here. Bottom line is, a lot of folks don’t have the ability to do that. You have seniors who don’t have homes who are living with their children, who are barely making it. It’s a lot going on and when you see that happening in your community, and then when you hear about another housing site that’s going to be geared towards mixed-use income, I know what that means. That means there’s a huge percentage of folks who will not be allowed back in there. That’s reality, whether somebody will say it or not. It is what happens.
Chris: And to go back to Holland Gardens, they’re right now in Phase 4 because they’ve presented four different plans. The reason why they’re in this predicament is because of the condition of the homes. There’s not enough money in the budget HUD allocates to the Housing Authority to fix them all. Now, you’ve got $25 million to go and build a tower. Right now, they’re looking at different developers who can do this work and to build those towers. The concern of the residents is, when you’re building that thing within four or five years and I’m all over the place, am I able to come back and live in that tower? That’s the concern they have because there’s no insurance that they could come back. You’ve got to make real promises to people, and that normally doesn’t happen. And that’s the thing that scares the hell out of people because it’s like, “My income is this way. I want to continue to live off of this income.” and that’s scary for people.
It’s a lot. After this interview, who else could I speak to? Are there other people in the community who have a perspective of this?
Chris: You can go to Mike Griffin, you can talk to a lot of people. There’s a lot of people who are knowledgeable and understand all this. But I think the main thing we’ve got to do is ask the powers that be, “When are you going to build? When are you going to protect?” It’s getting into other people’s heads and incentivize us to do it for ourselves, too. Sometimes you need a plan to get it done. Other cities do this, whether you be in Baltimore or San Fran.
Pamela: Even in Newark.
Chris: In Newark, they do it!
Wait, I have a question for you: Are you going to run again for City Council? Both of you, are either of you going to run for City Council?
Chris: I’m going to run when I feel it. You’ve always got to have a voice at the table. The only reason why I wanted it was because I was authentic enough where someone can say, “I trust that dude enough to be in City Hall” and I lost because the dollars are too big and it is what it is. That’s politics. We all should have our voice be heard and make sure we hold people accountable so we can. If we get our acts together and form a collective of people that storms City Hall and do what you have to do, who has to run for being an elected official when you can be the person pushing their agenda or the person influencing them? A lot of time, we think that we have to be in office and most of the time, when we get in office, that’s when we get quiet.
It’s the last thing I would ever want to do.
Pamela: Since the election in 2017, everybody keeps asking me this question. Most of my majors and residents when I go to different places, depending on what part of the ward I’m in. I think what I was trying to do when I was running, because I had never run for office before, I really wanted to excite and invade and empower the disenfranchised. That was who I really focused on. I already knew that there were certain areas that I would never get a vote out of. At that time and not really running a strategic campaign, it was so grassroots and I’m so proud we got almost 900 votes just on name recognition alone. We could not pay people to pass out anything, so to get almost 900 votes on that premise, I was excited and I’m still excited about that. I don’t know if I would ever run again. I don’t know. I’ll never say no, nobody will say that I said no, I will not run.
If you ever do and need a campaign manager, let me know.
Pamela: What I will say is that I talked to my mother a little bit after the election, I think it was early 2018. It was an issue I was advocating for, a young man who got hit by a police cruiser. You remember that, we all did. We had the press conference. Even before that, I was talking to folks trying to figure out what was going on. My mother, she was like, “Do you think you could’ve been that boisterous had you been councilwoman?” And I said, “Absolutely not.”
Chris: Yes, you could.
Pamela: Well, I think the powers that be would have tried to stifle my voice.
I think that’s the problem.
Pamela: Sometimes, I can’t take the time to figure it out, if it’s the right thing to do. When people are hurting, I’ve got to do or say something. There’s no, “Who’s going to get expect?” I can’t think about that. I think that in certain aspects, you are more powerful that way. I do believe that you need allies in city government who can help you push your agenda forward.
Chris: The agenda, not yours.
Pamela: Right, not mine. When I say mine, I mean the people. That’s always the agenda. Like, it’s not about Chris, it’s about the people. I really don’t know, but everything is up to my family. I’m a big family person and even though my kids are grown, I still take into account of how whatever I do affects them. I remember the last time my daughter was pregnant, she did not like that. It was hard for her to go through her first pregnancy and mommy was at work all day and campaigning until 12 midnight. It was kind of hard.
Pamela: Nevertheless, they were right out there with me, too. She didn’t like it, but she was out there with her belly. That’s the family. It’s whatever makes sense for me, my family, and the people.
Pamela: When issues come up in the community that maybe you don’t quite understand, just because of whatever. Like I said, I’m not an expert in affordable housing but I talk to my people, I talk to Chris, I talk to Chris Perez. I’ll talk to whoever to try to find it out, so that is what this is right now. It’s talking about the issues, getting the real information out there so folks can understand, and engaging your platform to understanding Chris isn’t going on a rant. He’s talking about real issues and deeply rooted issues that have been in existence for a very long time. His views should be respected. He’s a longlife resident of Jersey City, former councilperson, principal of a high school, you have to respect that. He’s not talking about anything he doesn’t know. I think this type of dialogue is great and it’s a way to move forward because if we just stay like this, nothing happens. Nothing happens.
I’m all about talking and the blog is about the truth, we’ll never write things purposefully wrong, and it’s also a work in progress. The blog is about growing. When I started this, I never claimed to know everything about Jersey City, I wasn’t born and raised here. I came here and fell in love with it, started the blog as a hobby, and people started reading it. It’s not like I came off a bus and was like, “Oh, here I am!”
Pamela: I’m not thinking you have to defend that. Chris Perez, I love him deeply and talk about him a lot because he’s not from Jersey City either and he’s a Latino male, even though folks think he’s white. He’s not. Sometimes at development meetings, he gets so much negative energy from people. “You don’t live around here, you’re not from the neighborhood.” That’s not right. It’s not right.
I get that all the time.
Pamela: He has fought for livelihoods of folks he doesn’t even know. Simply because he cares about the community. If you can’t respect that, I want people to move here and get involved. What I don’t like is someone to come into my community and they don’t want to get involved. Instead, you want to form your own community and stay separate. That’s what I don’t respect or have time for. If someone comes here and they want to get down to work like how we work, that is what I want. To say someone doesn’t live here and not from here, you’re right. I’m from here, a lot from here don’t get involved for various reasons, but I don’t want people to feel like they can’t come here and engage in the issues in the community. That’s not what the movement is about.
Right. That’s the whole platform. We want people to shop local, know what’s going on, the local artists, the organizations around, where to volunteer. Instead of spending your dollars across the river, spend your dollars with local businesses. Don’t just stay in Downtown. It’s about keeping things local and empowering the community that way.
There’s no hard feelings with anything. Everyone is about wanting to get information, wanting to educate people, wanting to empower the community so we can do better for our community. It’s all about being positive and you’ve got to tell the truth. And that’s what Chris did – he was telling the truth, it brought us here, and it’s fine.
Ok, last question. What are your favorite Jersey City hangout spots?
Chris: I don’t hang out. My favorite place to eat? I’m simple, I go around the corner to Carmine’s. Shawn’s Table is nice for soul food.
Pamela: I told you mine years ago when you interviewed me and it’s still the same. It hasn’t been open in a minute because she’s renovating but I love me some Miss Ruth’s. Hundreds of years in business, same location, and she’s beautifying it for the neighborhood. I love it. She’s on Monticello. I also love Shawn’s Table on Ocean & New St.