Jersey City Dreaming: Bullets, Bribes, and Unreal Real Estate
Last night I dreamed I went to Jersey City again...
I lived in Jersey City, New Jersey for sizable chunks of time during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The experience made a deep impression on me. Which is why I still write about JC when events resonate. In June an auction of luxury condos in an inner city neighborhood caught my eye. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) is helping the developer of The Beacon in Jersey City's Bergen-Lafayette district move unsold units by providing taxpayer-backed mortgages for yuppies (stale word but a rose is a rose) who want to live large in a glitzy condo compound surrounded by poverty and street crime. I asked myself, as I often did in JC, why has the U.S. housing mission expanded from sheltering the needy and giving vets a leg up on homeownership, into buoying developers and a New Urban uber class?
Summer Bloody Summer
On July 16th , a massively violent shootout erupted roughly six blocks from The Beacon and three blocks from a Jersey City municipal court. Career criminal Hassan Shakur shot it out with the police in front of, and within, an aged apartment building at 24 Reed Street. Reed is a one block drug-o-rama right off the main drag of Bergen Avenue. Utility workers call it “Smack Alley”* and are afraid to make service calls. The MLS real estate blurb for 24 Reed touts it as “great for condos” at an asking price of $1,675,000.
The death toll in the shootout was three. Shakur and his wife Amanda Anderson died at 24 Reed. Officer Marc DiNardo died later from wounds. Four other officers were injured. Officer DiNardo, 38, leaves behind three children under five years of age. Hassan Shakur, 32, leaves three children aged seven to nine from a relationship prior to Amanda Anderson. Anderson was 22, had no criminal record, and seems to have been swept up in mad love and Shakur's jailhouse Islam. Shakur had a cross-state record of drug dealing, weapons charges, and home invasion. Both Shakur and Anderson were being sought for a June 18th shotgun attack. The victim was shotgunned in the stomach at close range. Amazingly, he survived.
The victim, Victor Nagua, is from Honduras and lives in Westchester County, New York. Nagua was ambushed at 6:30 a.m. when he showed up for work at 30 Minute Oil Change on Broadway in Jersey City, a location at a nexus of several highways that weave around and through urban northeast New Jersey. Truckers moving cargo out of the port of Newark are among the satisfied customers of 30 Minute Oil Change. The motive for the attack is said to be robbery. According to a cop quoted** by the Jersey Journal, Nagua was carrying a thousand bucks. However, the money wasn't taken.
The attack was captured by a security camera. The actual shooting is blocked by the van Nagua drove to work, but Shakur and Anderson can be seen coming onto the scene (after waiting nearby for 45 minutes) as Nagua arrives and leaving soon after. The camera also captured the aftermath-- with Victor Nagua writhing on the street in a pool of blood while car after car drives carefully around him.
My Old JC Daze
Back in the day I hung my hat in several Jersey City nabes. On the pre-gentrified waterfront (Sioux Pork was still packing) and near the hub of Journal Square when its magnificent movie palaces were on their last legs. Dracula A.D. 1972 played to only a handful. Blacula did a bit better. Movies were my bag baby. I made experimental Super 8 and 16mm films. Somewhere there's a can of my departed BF Donna Malone atop the roof of an apartment building near the Square, wearing a gown from a cache of costumes found at a thrift store, and wringing her hands in silent movie style (sound was beyond my budget) as she gazes at the looming, and just completed, World Trade Center.
For those unfamiliar with Jersey geography, Jersey City lies across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. Its topography rises gradually from a waterfront built largely on wetlands and landfill, to the hilly end of the rocky Palisades. Journal Square is atop the rise. In the early 20th century Journal Square was envisioned as a companion piece to Herald Square in midtown NYC. An underground train (PATH) connects the two. Yet despite many efforts to make Jersey City a mirror image of NYC, the shining shitty (as current Mayor Jerramiah Healy once dubbed JC with a slip of his pickled tongue) has always maintained a distinct identity. For better and worse, it's a Jersey thing.
Confession: Until the early '80s, I didn't appreciate Jersey City. Seeing it as a stop-gap between Manhattan digs. Then I hit the Heights in northern JC. Though its largely blue collar neighborhoods showed signs of rust belt distress, they were still the kind of socially cohesive, walkable communities invoked by today's urban planners when they bulldoze blue collar neighborhoods. Ladies who lunched at luncheonettes shopped on Central Avenue and Tippy's Charcoal Haven lit up the night on Kennedy Boulevard. I became a Girl Scout leader, baked cupcakes for sales, and had fun teaching Daisies (the youngest Girl Scouts) classic holiday craft projects-- such as how to make a Thanksgiving turkey centerpiece from a potato and some toothpicks. Meanwhile, at home, I was plugging into the international Mail Art scene, and converting to Catholicism. The latter helped along by the (then) extensive traditional theology section at the main branch of the Jersey City Library.
Many of the other Scout leaders were JC native; dynamic dames adept at squeezing traffic lights and trash removal out of public servants. The dames knew just which seedy motels on Tonnele Ave (a strip running behind the Heights) were putting hookers and drugs into the nabe. They passed the info along to relevant officials but the motels seemed mysteriously cloaked with no-see. Speaking of motels...
While a Scout leader, I helped with a summer day camp program at a park in the Heights. One little camper (I'll call her Tammi) lived in a welfare motel on Tonnele Avenue with her mother and younger brother. Though 9 or 10, Tammi couldn't manage silverware very well. She was used to eating fast food on buns or out of buckets. Tammi loved being a Girl Scout, if only for a few weeks. The day camp was an island of Leave It To Beaver in a motel world. When the program ended she cried. So did I.
In 1992, when U.S. Attorney Micheal Chertoff rode into town, I applauded. Political corruption has always blighted JC and its overarching entity, Hudson County. Yet most pols acknowledged, however sluggishly or selectively, the social contract between themselves and constituents. But when mega developers began transforming Jersey City's post-industrial waterfront into a real estate “Gold Coast” in the '80s, area pols turned anomic. Some slipped over into sociopath. It wasn't just the ability to gorge to a hitherto unimaginable degree at the trough of federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or to indulge in perpetual pay-to-play with juicy developers, it was the old dream of being NYC's mirror image. At least in the realm of real estate. Hey-- what other realm is there? Except for drug trade. Which is hard to boast about, no matter how large it figures in the local economy.
While Michael Chertoff's later stint as Homeland Security Secretary had its stomach churning aspects, I still thank the man for successfully prosecuting Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann. Merry Gerry, as he was known, defrauded a Savings and Loan in the period twixt his two terms as mayor. He was prosecuted during his second term. Since he wasn't caught doing anything in office, Gerry felt being forced to resign was a huge injustice. When raging against his enemies (Chertoff, various local reporters, a few city council members, and a handful of hardy gadflies) Gerry's face got beet red and he blustered and threatened. No biggie. It was Gerry being Gerry. When Gerry went to jail, folks new to JC thought it was the last of him. Particularly because of the story, doubtless apocryphal, about his having crapped in his desk on his last day in office. (Take that, constituents!) But when Gerry got out, he still wanted to serve the people. A good number were willing to have him do it. Alas. McCann was barred. The felon thing.
The willingness, nay eagerness, of many in Hudson County to elect crooks and bozos is something on which crooks and bozos rely. As Hoboken mayoral candidate Peter Cammerano (only 32 but already hoary) put it this Spring when speaking to a wired FBI informant posing as a graft-giving developer, “I could be, uh, indicted, and I'm still gonna win 85 to 95 percent of those populations.”
Cammerano defined “those populations” as Hoboken's Italians, Hispanics, and seniors. Unlike Jersey City, Hoboken has few African-Americans. Nor are the Irish as well represented. In Hudson County overall, both groups have plenty of their own bozos and crooks.
Incidentally, in an area where the taxpayer-supported U.S. Housing Mission has helped jack housing prices sky high, bozos and crooks garner a lot of support via control of subsidized housing.
Three weeks after being put in office by “those populations” and by gushy Gold Coasters who thought him a good looking symbol of change, Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammerano was busted in a sweet FBI action that swept the state like a broom. Hudson County had the largest number of dust bunnies. Including Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, a venerable Realtor and campaign treasurer for Mayor Jerramiah Healy. Most of the indicted were caught in a real estate sting. Solomon Dweck, a crooked developer busted for large scale bank fraud in 2006, had turned co-operating witness for the Feds. In a bit of genius casting he acted the part of a crooked developer loaded with graft. Numerous public servants fell over themselves (allegedly) to assure Dweck his projects would pass through the system like s*** through a goose. Some promised grease at the state level.
Along with busting the bunnies (and a bunch of money laundering Rabbis but that's another story) the FBI also raided the home and office of Joseph Doria, Commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and removed boxes of documents. Doria hasn't been indicted. Yet. Joe Doria, a mighty machine man from Hudson County, was elevated to his state position by Governor Jon Corzine. As DCA Commissioner, Joe Doria had extensive power over development projects in Jersey. Note past tense. After the raid Corzine asked Doria to resign.
The July 23rd roundup is part of Operation Bid Rig, a statewide anti-corruption FBI initiative that began ten years ago under the auspices of former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie. To date, some 120 New Jersey public servants have been convicted via Bid Rig and other prosecutions. Disclosure: Christopher Christie is currently running for New Jersey governor. I can't say whether or not he'd make a good governor. I prefer my pols populist, libertarian, even contrarian. But I still thank the man for putting so much sludge in the can.
By the time Bid Rig began I was no longer living in Jersey City. I don't want to return, except in dreams or in writing. But then, I don't want to live in any city ever again. Jersey City isn't singular, just a wee bit extreme. It took more than one city, in one state, to make me throw in the towel on urban living. There's something rotten, policy wise, in the whole city-state of Denmark.
Part of my heart remains in Jersey City, particularly in the Heights area circa early 80s. But I just can't get over how our taxpayer-supported U.S. Housing Mission turned chronic corruption into a raging epidemic, and how like a war zone the Gold Coast's inner city has become.
*Jersey City Neighborhood Knows Violence, Drugs , Barbara Nevins Taylor, MYFOXNY.COM
**Cops Hope Video of Man Being Shot in Jersey City will Help Catch Thugs , Michaelangelo Conte, Jersey Journal, 07/09/09
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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