Strongest Town 2022, Round 1: Champaign, IL vs. Jersey City, NJ


Entry submitted by: Phil Jonat, Kevin Bing, Sean Reilly.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

The Statue of Liberty glows green and orange as the sun sets over Jersey City, reminding us that America is defined by waves of immigrants who have come to this country to make a better life. Here in Jersey City, officially nicknamed “America’s Golden Door,” this isn’t just ancient history and museums. Jersey City continues to be one of the most successful melting pots in this country, working hard to assimilate and celebrate many disparate cultures. Over 41 percent of Jersey City residents are foreign born, according to the U.S. Census. Recent waves of immigration have brought Palestinians, Egyptians, Peruvians, Filipinos, and Indians to our city. There are no easy ways to measure diversity, but a recent attempt ranked Jersey City as the most diverse city in the entire country.

These immigrants continue to bring along their foods from home, creating a restaurant ecosystem that is robust and constantly evolving. There are both high-end restaurants and suppliers competing with Manhattan, while many others thrive on serving their local community a taste of home. As noted by @hetal_nyc on Twitter, “Big bazaar on jsq [Journal Square] – brings immense comfort to immigrants missing authentic Indian groceries.. home right here in JC” @hetal_nyc

Even within the U.S., many young people are attracted to New York City to make a better life for themselves. But the price of housing in NYC has continued to outpace inflation for many decades. Jersey City has been a lower cost alternative and has continued to build significant amounts of new housing to accommodate migrants, instead of turning insular like so many peer cities.

What is the biggest challenge your town faces, and what are you doing to address it?

Jersey City and the NYC area are still in the early innings of a major housing crisis. Similar to the San Francisco/San Jose metropolitan areas, NYC job growth has long outpaced housing development, leading to rising prices. This affordability crisis is especially hurting Jersey City’s middle class, leading to conflict over gentrification, new construction, and property values.

Jersey City is the undisputed leader within the entire New York MSA for building new housing. According to the 2020 census, the city’s population grew by 45,000 people, or 18% growth. This far outpaced other northern NJ cities/towns, NYC itself, or any of NY or CT suburbs. This reflects the great combination that JC has for walkable urban neighborhoods and also new buildings that are filling in the big urban renewal project mistakes and old industrial manufacturing. For example, a new neighborhood is under construction in the shadow of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. This neighborhood, originally called The Horseshoe, was an Irish immigrant enclave that was destroyed by construction of the highways leading to the Holland Tunnel.

I’m afraid that the housing affordability crisis is only going to continue to get worse if the rest of the metropolitan region doesn’t learn how to accommodate large amounts of incremental development. There are strong needs to meet this challenge through all means necessary, like public housing, upzonings, tenant protections, and more.

What transportation options exist in your town for people of varying ages, abilities, and means? How easy is it to live in your town without regular access to a car? What transportation investments has your town recently made or is it in the process of making?

Jersey City has a number of transportation options that other cities don’t have. For example, there is a system of private jitneys that cater to immigrant communities. These services offer fast and frequent service to the car-free population and serve a mix of routes that both overlap with the official government-run New Jersey Transit buses (5th most heavily used bus system in the country) and provide additional routes like Bergenline that cater to Hispanic immigrants.

Jersey City joined the Lyft Citi-bike system in 2015, which provides a convenient bike alternative. Unfortunately, the system is undersized for the demand and the bike lane network remains disconnected. New protected bike lanes continue to be a focus area for the City. A number of scooter rental systems have popped up, but none have taken hold enough.

There is also the NJT Hudson-Bergen light rail, which has 13 stops within Jersey City (56% of the stops). This is the 13th busiest light rail system in the country.

There are numerous ways to get to NYC for a job, including the PATH subway system, private jitney, public bus, ferry, or the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. The neighborhoods with the most bus ridership are further away from the PATH, ferry, and light rail. Ironically, Jersey City tore down all of its heavy rail over the years, except a few passing tracks. There are no heavy rail stations within JC.

All of these options means that JC has very low car ownership by U.S. standards. Approximately 38% of households don’t own any car at all, and 43% have only one car. In 2019, Jersey City partnered with Via to provide subsidized, shared taxis within city limits. The administration felt they weren’t getting enough service from NJT and negotiations weren’t moving fast enough.

Tell us about your community’s local economy. Who are the key players, big and small, and how do they help your town to be financially strong and resilient? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Jersey City’s economy is too complex to describe fully here—nearly 300,000 live within its borders. There are enough offices in the downtown area to swell the pre-pandemic daytime population by 100,000 people. A lot of the growth in white collar office space came after September 11, as financial companies sought to diversify away from downtown Manhattan. In addition, there is a thriving arts community, port activity, logistics, and retail. And don’t forget the pencil factories!

There are a lot of food businesses to serve the diverse food choices of residents, including Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the U.S. There are many supply chain companies that specialize in importing from a myriad of foreign countries. These companies strengthen the economies of their home countries as well, just as Italy pulled itself from poverty on the strength of exporting its food to nostalgic migrants one hundred years ago. One of my favorite small businesses is the “Coco-Frio” truck located at Pershing Field, one of the largest and busiest parks in the City. This food truck is run by Dominican immigrants and serves fresh fruit. My children love to have their thirst quenched by a cold coconut, hand-cut with a machete.

The business community in JC provides a key source of diverse revenues to the school system. There was a planned cut in state aid for the district and a payroll tax was added in 2019. This has raised $86 million per year, helping significantly during the pandemic.

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