A trio of academics attempt an engaging and instructive experiment with their recently published book, Gentrifier (University of Toronto Press, 2017). Through their own lives, John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill explore and challenge the ideas and parameters of gentrification.
Although the suburbs are anything but dead, an increasing number of Americans are choosing an urban life. Many cities (and historic streetcar suburbs) provide residents with walkable neighborhoods. More Americans want to step out their front doors and walk to a grocer, a cafe, or maybe even a movie theater. Meanwhile, Americans are rediscovering the needs and joys of community. These are encouraging, positive trends.
However, a renewed desire for urban living places pressure on cities’ housing markets. This leads to changes in the urban fabric and built environment. Boosters call this progress. Critics call it gentrification. A great debate concerning gentrification rages among activists, politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and everyday citizens in many improving cities and those poised for a rebound.
On the evening of June 14, 2017, Jersey City arts advocates crowded the city council chambers and dominated the public comments segment of the council meeting. Speaker after speaker approached the microphone and articulated the integral role of the arts in the life of the city. Arts contribute to the local economy. Arts improve the quality of life. Arts capture the culture and history of the city. Arts matter.
Investment is pouring into Jersey City, and development is transforming its neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the arts are suffering. Many arts organizations rely upon the largess of real estate interests for studio and performance spaces. A pathetically small amount of state dollars earmarked for the arts finds its way to Jersey City.
Prior to the city council meeting, organizers passed out several hundred red shirts with the slogan “% for the Arts” printed on them. Citizens proudly wore the shirts throughout the meeting. The speakers and organizers were motivated and energized.
On Memorial Day weekend, I woke at the crack of dawn and boarded a bus destined for Binghamton, New York to see an old friend for the first time in five years. To me, that city meant little more than name on a highway sign. My friend was visiting his family in Western New York. Since Binghamton sat equidistantly between my friend’s and my respective home bases, we agreed to rendezvous in New York’s Southern Tier.
Since we had no plan for the day (aside from catching up), my friend suggested that we visit the local planetarium at the Roberson Museum and Science Center. Having just launched a company producing custom globes (Global Creations), he might have been searching for insight and inspiration.
Recently, a local historian and lifelong Jersey City resident shared with me his joyous surprise upon discovering a cache of newspaper articles concerning a prominent late-nineteenth-century resident of his neighborhood and this resident’s failed attempt to sell his private park to the Jersey City government. This nineteenth-century gentleman was Bernard Vetterlain.
Bernard Vetterlain earned his fortune in tobacco sales and lived near today’s Summit Avenue and Astor Place in Jersey City until 1870. In addition to a grand home and estate, Vetterlain owned a private park in the neighborhood. That’s right, a private park. Reportedly, this park was a beautiful, soothing sanctuary with gravel paths, flower gardens, well-placed benches, and a Japanese waterfall. This was Jersey City’s Gramercy Park.
Shortly after municipal consolidation formed Jersey City in 1870, Vetterlain offered to sell the newly organized city government his park for a purportedly fair price. After much haggling and discussion, the city ultimately declined. After Vetterlain’s death, developers purchased his Jersey City property from his heirs and unceremoniously chopped up the land into multiple lots for home building. Vetterlain’s park was lost. A single watercolor by an obscure Hudson County artist, August Will, stands as the only pictorial evidence of the park. (For the record, I have not seen this painting.)