Josh Hild, Unsplash License.

The Illusion of a Renaissance

Jersey City’s political machine wants to push gentrification. Can there be another future?

Jersey City, home to 300,000, has often languished in the shadow of nearby New York City, its glittering skyline looming across the Hudson.1Data USA. 2018. “Data USA: Jersey City.” For much of its recent history, JC has been portrayed as a far-distant and undesirable option for people in the region to live and work. It was for decades known mainly for its political corruption, crime, and extreme forms of racism—such as groups of young men anointing themselves the “dotbusters” and proceeding to roam around beating and pummeling Indian residents during the late 80s and early 90s.2Ricardo Kaulessar, “How Indians in Jersey City fought back against the terror of ‘Dotbusters’ in the 1980s.”, Jan. 26., 2022, More recently, there’ve been allegations of police overreach, with officers using physical force primarily against Black residents, prompting rallies and protests during the Floyd Uprising a few years ago. 

But while corruption and crime remain significant issues, the city’s character has changed significantly of late. Beginning in the 2000s, but accelerating under the administration of Mayor Steven Fulop—who came to power nearly a decade ago and has been in office continually ever since—Jersey City has now become synonymous with high-end living, property development, and gentrification.3Aaron Morrill, “Jersey City is Top City For New Yorkers Moving Out,” Jersey City Times, Feb. 19, 2022,

For some, this has meant a greater degree of safety and comfort. As opposed to being seen as a city down on its luck, losing residents and resources with each passing year, Jersey City has become an “investment opportunity” for property developers and corporate business. The resulting capitalist-led development has transformed vast stretches of the city—converting dilapidated properties into luxury condominiums with supermarkets and other amenities inside them, for example—and led to an influx of newer upper-middle-class residents. At the same time, Jersey City has retained some of its cultural vibrancy, with a majority Asian, Latino, and African-American population making it one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the United States.4Less than 23% of the city considers itself non-Hispanic-white on the census, while Asians, Latinos, and African Americans all hover above or around 25-30% of the population. DATA USA. 2018. “Data USA: Jersey City.” Various cuisines and musical traditions are represented all along its streets, the latter often echoing down the avenues in the afternoons; at bus stops, at local restaurants, in bustling intersections, people still speak to each other not only in English but in Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Spanish, Arabic, and Tagalog. 

But this has come at a great cost—literally. Today it’s Jersey City, not Manhattan, that has the highest rents among all major cities in the country.5Stefanos Chen, “With a spate of new luxury developments luring tenants from across the Hudson River, Jersey City has made itself the priciest city in the nation.” The New York Times, July 28, 2022, The average monthly rent has cracked $5,500, while the poverty rate remains a few percentages higher than the state average. In this context, the rainbow diversity of Jersey City’s working class is bittersweet. For the first time in decades, real money is going to the maintenance and improvement of the city’s infrastructure, services, and amenities. But for longtime residents, gentrification has also meant a massive rise in cost of living—and eventually, displacement. Tragically, by the time the city achieves a certain peak of prosperity, much of that diverse population will have been forced out before they can enjoy it.

As someone who’s spent a good deal of time in the city, I’ve been drawn to its diversity, its contradictions, and its potential. Overall, Jersey City is a city to pay attention to. Based on my interviews and research, I’ve concluded this place contains important lessons about race, class, concepts of development, as well as political power. With its distinct pattern of increasing diversity amidst inequality, it exhibits trends that are hinted at on the national level—more representatives of color stepping into government offices and corporate boardrooms, while a majority fall further and further behind financially.

Josh Hild, 2022, Unsplash License.

What do such patterns mean, and how should we comprehend them? If JC is any indication of things to come, we should expect a society where politics exists in a state of corrosion or paralysis; where most people of color find themselves either barely hanging on to what they need, or being pushed to the economic and political margins; all this, while a core group have been incorporated into a governing role as business owners or as politicians, backed by the political support of curated segments of the general population, white and non-white alike.

In Jersey City, the fact that most of the population is non-white has not inevitably led to any major changes, aside from some cultural shifts and positive representation of non-white groups. Here, too, the city embodies the future of the country—its problems as well as its possibilities. There will be no organic uprising among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans, regardless of how difficult life has become. Instead, people will continue to try to find ways to manage life under existing conditions—or they’ll leave the city and renew the struggle elsewhere until, once again, they’re pushed out. With each move of the working class from one temporary oasis to another, the distance between them and some measure of a “good life” deepens. I argue that this gap will inevitably continue to grow and deepen, until it cannot be resolved under our society’s existing institutions.

A Diverse Milieu

As someone who grew up in New Jersey, I would oftentimes spend entire days in Jersey City, or on the weekends, touring the various neighborhoods—especially the downtown area where luxury condominiums spiral into the clouds, where you can find pubs and bookstores and yogurt shops lining the streets, even as other blocks nearby continue to feature Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines.

There are entire city blocks where one can find store after store with Urdu or Hindi names, or supermarkets selling exclusively the various types of produce that would appeal to a cross-section of Indian, Filipino, or Latino residents. Most importantly, although Jersey City is growing, it isn’t as overwhelming as Manhattan and remains far more self-contained. That is, someone can easily and fairly quickly pass through several neighborhoods with various types of people of color, their mini-universes and cultures on display. Not to mention that unlike Manhattan, where many of the historic neighborhoods have been washed away and sanitized (presumably for the benefit of those largely affluent and white Midwestern transplants seeking their “unique” New York City story), Jersey City still consists of an exciting array of working-class areas. And these neighborhoods—with their bodegas, corner shops, local restaurants, and food markets—reflect the many ethnic and cultural communities which, sometimes within a few blocks from one another, live side by side in this majority non-white city.

“You have South Asians, some recent immigrants, members of the Egyptian Coptic community,” said Joel Brooks, himself Honduran-American and a recent candidate running for local office. “You also have a long standing Puerto Rican community,” he continued, describing the district he lives in and campaigned for. “African Americans, Black Caribbeans, Latinos from many different countries, and Filipinos, who are a significant plurality in JC”

On the buses, you’ll see Indians, Jamaicans, Egyptians, and Puerto Ricans crunched up against each other, headed to work across the bay or somewhere in the county. Even in areas that are gentrified like the neighborhoods near the pier, where you can see ferries taking people across the river to Manhattan, the rest of Jersey City still manages to spill through: on most evenings one will hear Latin-inspired music echoing down the block as Black and brown couples saunter over to the pier, past the older East Asian-American women conducting outdoor aerobics routines to Korean or Chinese traditional music booming from some other radio. 

This is an incredible achievement—and a prescient one, given how much of the country has indeed been returning to its non-white roots. As some have argued, the US has in places become and in general is fast becoming a “majority-minority” nation, with whites soon to become the minority in many critical areas of the country such as cities and towns along the coasts.6Steve Phillips. Brown Is The New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority (New York: The New Press, 2016). If you want a vision of the future, imagine Jersey City, everywhere.

There is a vibrancy in JC that I haven’t experienced in other places I’ve been recently—and that includes NYC. I chalk it up to diversity.

There has always been diversity in this land, of course—especially prior to European colonization of the majority of the North American continent. But even since then, the U.S. has always had pockets of racial and ethnic diversity throughout its history. European immigration was famously a massive part of the growth of industrial cities in the North. But people of color have always been here, too, and often played a prominent role. In large sections of the US, Native American nations continued to thrive up until after the civil war period. Mexicans constituted the majority in the Southwest. In the Deep South, despite the collapse of Reconstruction due to white supremacist coups and violence, African Americans formed either a majority or a significant minority within countless former Confederate states.7W.E.B Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America, 1869-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1935); Nick Estes. Our History Is The Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019); Bedolla, Lisa Garcia Bedolla. Fluid Borders: Latino Power, Identity, and Politics in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Still, the diversity on display now—since the 1980s—has been far more distinct and totalizing. Few would have expected this decades ago when racist immigration quotas were finally lifted. The Asian population in the US has ballooned in recent years, expanding at the fastest rate compared to other racial and ethnic groups.8Matt Barreto and Gary M. Segura. Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).  Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the major “minority” bloc in the US; but more importantly, diversity within the group has increased considerably, ranging from Mexicans to Puerto Ricans to those who’ve fled poverty—or US-supported death squads and dictatorships—in Central and South America. 

As Jersey City has become an epicenter of this demographic shift, it has shifted from a Black and white racial dynamic to one that’s more complex and oriented towards a “multicultural” narrative. The new racial politics incorporates the various groups who have moved into the city from the 80s onwards.

Buildings in the Jersey City skyline. Stefanos Nt, 2022, Unsplash License.

For some to stay and feel welcome in this growing population of various non-white groups, they must feel they have some voice within established institutions. It is true that the sheer size of a group, whether white or non-white, doesn’t inevitably lead to drastic changes within a society or its governing institutions. Nevertheless, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted, the status quo, however incapable or unwilling it may be to wholly address the majority’s needs, must nevertheless, in order to legitimate itself, respond in ways that do bring the various sections of civil society together—at least enough to have some segments be willing to consent (for the most part) to the way politics and society is already being run.9Antonio Gramsci. Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971). 

In today’s Jersey City, and the rest of the country in due course, institutions like local government are a space for some Asians, Latinos, and African Americans to rise up the ranks and win or be nominated to seats with some power. Currently, a majority of the city council—except for the mayor, Steven Fulop, and a handful of seats—would be considered non-white, including a Palestinian American.10Jersey City Councilmembers, “Jersey city council”, Fulop, as we’ll see, adopts an explicitly multicultural approach to politics. And even white politicians who are considered to be more conservative, such as Richard Boggiano, appeal to voters using a language of multiculturalism and diversity-as-strength.11“Down to the wire: Readers on why they support Boggiano or Bing in Jersey City council runoff | Letters”, Dec, 2, 2021, Unlike other parts of the country, where whites are the majority or historically oppressed groups are not as vocal or organized, cities and towns like JC show us a glimpse of a future when the faces one sees in the halls of government will be quite different than those who without much challenge had dominated those same positions for generations.

But will these new faces in high places make a dent in the real challenges of the multiracial working class, in Jersey City or anywhere else? 

Recent US history provides us with a warning. If we look at what happened in the decades following the formal end of Jim Crow, we’ll see that Black elected leaders came to fill city halls across the nation. But the issue, as critical Black thinkers like Adolph Reed, Jr. would point to eventually, is this: what kind of Black leadership?12Adolph Reed, Jr., Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: The New Press, 2000).  Who is being represented when such leaders find their way into the mayoral chambers? What politics do they push? Whose interests do they drag with them into their quests for maintaining power? Which constituencies continue to be excluded from power, even though there are now rows of Indian and Filipino stores and supermarkets? Who remains on the losing end of policy? There’s the rub.

The Rent is Too Damn High!

Santos Rodolfo, founder of Jersey City Tenants United, has called the city home for over twenty-five years and counting. Rodolfo originally grew up in an area that was more working-class and Latino, but over time almost everyone he knew was forced to move due to rising rents and landlord harassment. He still lives in Jersey City and plans to stay for as long as he can, given the cultural vibrancy that’s become a cornerstone of his daily life. 

Yet as the city has expanded and become a prime location for some, it’s also seen new issues emerge. A growing gap has formed between residents in newer developments and those who’ve stayed on for decades now—who persisted through decades of disinvestment and increased policing, only now to face skyrocketing rents.

“The city is now very economically segregated,” Rodolfo said, “I still want to stay here, but things are getting difficult for everyday people.”

Kristy Jones, who is African-American, has been in JC all her life, having lived through most of the major demographic changes. Jones talks about forging friendships with other Black and Asian and Hispanic residents, many of whom rely on her for advice on accessing financial help and other kinds of resources.

But after sixty plus years of calling the city home, Jones is now having to look in other towns for places to rent, which itself has become harder to do. “It doesn’t feel good to have to leave,” Jones said, “This is where I was born, grew up. I have so many friends here too.”

Clearly, there are still many people on the losing end of this renaissance that’s supposedly been taking place inside JC. The city’s future looks golden on billboards and brochures. But at the ground level, hardships are intensifying for many Black and brown working people—those who don’t own a small business, let alone live in one of one of the new high-rises dotting the harbor. Many are left to fend for themselves under the crushing weight of living costs.

Property developers have extended their vision to various sections of the city, transforming dilapidated areas into places where high earners can rush in and build an ecosystem for themselves. This movement of people and resources has caused costs of living to soar for everyone. In a city where a significant portion (upwards of 71%) are still renters, the typical rent is $5,500.13“Retail market: Jersey City”, Meanwhile, nearly 20% of residents, twice the average New Jersey rate, are languishing in poverty.14“Census: Jersey City”,

Amy Wilson is a local news blogger and artist who moved to Jersey City nearly twenty-five years ago, when such changes were first sweeping through various neighborhoods. 

Wilson attends city council meetings on issues of affordable housing. They usually lead nowhere, but they’ve given her a sense of how housing works in JC. “We are building to attract high earners, building in a way to disenfranchise the working class and poor people, making them feel uncomfortable enough that they leave,” Wilson explained. The city seeks to attract high-end property developers with tax cuts or other schemes, even when the end result is rents locals can’t afford. This is clear enough from the relevant journalism. Here is Terrence McDonald at the Jersey Journal:

Fulop’s Downtown abatements include a 25-year deal for a two-tower project at Metro Plaza; a 17-story residential building on Marin Boulevard that will avoid conventional taxes for 20 years; a 52-story Columbus Drive tower with a 25-year abatement; and 20-year tax breaks for two hotels. Thirty-year abatements were reserved for projects in areas of the city where large-scale development had stalled: five in Journal Square, three on the New Jersey City University campus, one in McGinley Square and three for Ocean Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.15Terrence T. McDonald, “Has Steve Fulop evolved on tax abatements?”, The Jersey Journal, July 5, 2017,

Similarly, in Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, Samuel Stein writes,

Among the most direct examples of geobribes are Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) projects, which have become commonplace in municipalities large and small. Under these schemes, developers pay a low annual fee to the municipality rather than a full tax load. Sometimes these deals are negotiated for deep-pocketed nonprofits or developers building on publicly owned (and therefore tax-exempt) land, but many cities—like New Jersey’s Jersey City—have found ways to apply them more generally in order to incentivize downtown development.16Samuel Stein, Capital City, 57. 

Here JC is following a well-trod path of neoliberal policies, whereby the government hinges all investment in public goods and resources (e.g. housing) upon distributing them via private channels (e.g. private developers). Since the 1970s, both GOP and Democratic lawmakers have subscribed to the idea that to run an “efficient” economy, one must shape it according to the interests of its capitalists and major businesses. This transition was part of a multi-decade resurgence of extremists among the capitalists’ ranks—those who’d always rejected the New Deal compromise, even when it had helped save them during the Great Depression so that owners and their cabal of managers could perpetuate their control over the workplace, the bedrock of worker exploitation. Now the champions of unfettered capitalism were in the saddle, and they took full advantage of it.17Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).

As the neoliberal period progressed, manufacturers would shut down their major factories in more heavily unionized areas, shifting their main headquarters and operations to the Sunbelt, or overseas—in other words, places where unions were either suppressed or had always been non-existent.18Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (New York: Verso, 2018). For many cities and towns across the country, this was an unmitigated disaster, not least for racial reasons. In Jersey City as in many other places,19“American Can Closing Jolts Jersey City”, New York Times, April 10, 1972, just as Jim Crow was formally ending, the city was hit hard by deindustrialization, losing revenue and compelling politicians (many of them now African Americans) to somehow respond. The typical result was for local governments to concede more and more of their responsibilities to the private sector for the sake of “efficiency,” stability, and the attraction of outside investment.20Adolph Reed, Jr., Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (New York: Haymarket, 2016). 

In this sense, it’s important to acknowledge how local politicians don’t themselves simply have all the power to rewrite the rules—not immediately at least. Structural conditions like outsourcing and federal austerity force their hand. Inevitably, cities such as Jersey City seem to get caught in a loop: once started they must keep providing tax breaks or policies that cater to the most wealthy, which includes making the city more attractive to certain people and tourists, or else risk losing a stream of investment they’ve grown dependent upon. But this method of development still does very little to address the immediate needs and interests of city’s long-time residents—let alone those who are more working-class, many of whom are non-white. Local government essentially becomes a tool for private industry to shape society in ways that benefit them the most, not us. 

Politics & Power in the Multiracial City

The gentrification ripping apart Jersey City’s longstanding communities is a result of the city government’s neoliberal policies. And if we really want to understand how we’ve reached this point, we must take a look at the career of the man who’s been at the helm of that government for nine years: Mayor Steven Fulop.

Fulop, who has a background in the military, rarely looks disheveled or overwhelmed.21Dustin Racioppi, “Jersey City Steve Fulop focuses on veterans issues at DNC meeting,” Associated Press, July 26, 2016, Often, he’s wearing a suit and tie with a nice fit, his black hair perfectly cut and combed. As a news intern in Jersey City relatively early on in Fulop’s administration, I had multiple opportunities, at major events and small business grand openings, to observe him and those around him. And even I, with all my leftist bonafides, couldn’t help but feel an energy around Fulop—him smiling, with people around him returning that smile, laughing with him, excited to see him at their new shop selling freshly made pasta. 

When he first got elected in 2013, Fulop was heralded as this upstart—a new type of mayor combining technocratic expertise with a deep connection to the grassroots, like a Silicon Valley guru who doesn’t mind rolling his sleeves up every once in a while, a policy wonk who surrounds himself with “the people.” And in many ways he did exude this brand. Even though he was white—and therefore more representative of the old JC than the new—his championing of diversity and his support for politicians of color created a certain air about him. His was a broader vision for the city; he was the boss who “gets it,” someone who could provide an expert perspective on policy while not seeming so distant from everyone else. I remember this especially during the opening of a local restaurant, how he himself came through, and how everyone was so thrilled that someone so important as him was there with all of them.22Meredith Mandell, “Down to the River: Newly Minted Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop Plans Big,” Observer, July 30, 2013,

Fulop was to set things right in a city that had undergone major corruption scandals and, despite some growth, was still seen as the poorer sixth borough of New York City. In this he reminded me a bit of Cory Booker, someone else who could gladhand his way through a crowd, play the part of the technocrat with a beating heart who appeals to the “right type” of people, promoting projects that he knew, somehow, the city desperately needed. 

It’s now been a decade since Fulop and the team of allies he’s helped bring into the city council became the major force in local government. With them, the city’s landscape has dramatically changed.23Joshua Rosario, “Fulop says Journal Square revival ‘a historic turning point’: Boggiano wants development to slow down,” The Jersey Journal, March 1, 2022, Currently, the city council includes Black and brown representatives, albeit along with white members too. There are still issues around representation, such as a lack of Asian Americans, but the council does reflect some of the local demographics, and Fulop himself has been very forward about celebrating “diversity” and being there to support major cultural events and communities. But despite the multiracial coalition that Fulop has built around himself in the city council and among his constituency, the effects of these policies on working-class people of color have left much to be desired.

Pamela Johnson, executive director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition movement, works on issues of violence prevention and restorative practices in areas beyond the city’s downtown, where many residents would benefit from an investment in such things as social services and rehabilitation clinics. The city and its major corporate allies, as Johnson noted, have spoken on issues of “social justice,” sometimes even creating a task force or two where there are Black and brown representatives willing to “dissect” forms of injustice. However, such representation itself remains narrow, and the solutions, as expected, steer away from any collective action and transformation that goes beyond the political beliefs entrenched in the system—namely, the predictable reliance on private industry and charity to solve systemic problems like the lack of affordable housing. 

“Folks can form all types of committee meetings, advisory boards, and entities to oversee diversity,” Johnson expressed in regards to some of the racial and ethnic diversity now found in the upper echelons of government and business. “They can appear to be diverse, but if it’s not diverse in income brackets, not just ethnicity, and if you don’t have low-income people at the table, then you’re not as diverse as you’re saying you are.”

Michael Griffin, a known community organizer and recent candidate for city council, discussed how sections of the city have been left to fend for themselves, essentially. Greenville, a section of the city that is predominantly African American and lower-income, has experienced residents, including some homeowners, leaving as living conditions continue to deteriorate. 

Instead, there are increased levels of police surveillance in neighborhoods across Greenville, according to Griffin, especially as newer luxury apartments are being built in the surrounding areas. “If you go to Greenville you’ll see cop cars on the corner, flashing their lights. These lights will also be flashing into people’s homes and windows,” Griffin said, “It almost looks like apartheid, it looks like you’re policing every single resident. It has this martial law look to it.”

The population of African Americans has declined over the years, with many unable to keep pace with the increased costs of living.24Joey Fox, “Most of New Jersey’s largest cities got less white between 2010 and 2020,” New Jersey Globe, Sept. 17, 2021,

Yet despite these policies, Fulop’s administration receives support—not only from the people of color who are business owners or the whites moving in, but from precisely the working-class people of color his policies hurt the most. Fulop has managed to develop relationships with key “community leaders,” who may have a more working-class base of support themselves. Such relationships have allowed Fulop and his candidates to appeal to people of color who are blue-collar and struggling, people who haven’t been engaged on issues by other organizations in a long, long time. 

“It wasn’t just the homeowners who supported him downtown,” said Brooks (the Honduran-American candidate) about Fulop, “It’s been working people, renters, and people who are struggling.”

Despite some common issues, such as housing costs, working-class people from the city’s various ethnic communities—Asians, Latinos, and African Americans among others—have yet to formulate a common political agenda or broad-based movement to address them. 

One of the major reasons for this has to do with an uncomfortable reality: there are other issues, or indeed lingering tensions, between groups of color even when they share a class position. 

Take the issue of policing. Police brutality affects Black and Latino residents at a much more intense level. In 2020, the year of the George Floyd uprisings, similar protests took place in Jersey City after video was shared of cops beating up a group of mainly Black men.25Chris Halleron, “Jersey City Peacefully Rallies Against Police Brutality Nationwide, Demands Improvement Locally,” TAPIntoJerseyCity, June 1, 2020,

Meanwhile, for Indians and other members of the South Asian community memories of the 80s “dotbuster” gangs run deep. Many Asians may not understand or care for police reform, since it’s not they who are overwhelmingly treated with such disdain by local law enforcement. Some, as I’ve noticed while touring the Little India section of the city, may choose to identify with pro-police politicians instead—like Richard Boggiano, an ex-cop who currently sits on the city council. Class does play a role here, of course: it’s mainly posters of Fulop’s electoral squad, including Boggiano, plastered on the windows of South Asian-owned businesses. Nevertheless, such owners can influence what their workers think, many of whom are Latino and Indian. 

In the social science literature, there is mixed opinion on the closeness that communities of color may feel to one another. According to Jane Junn and Natalie Masuoka, Asians, African Americans, and Latinos continue to hold stereotypes of one another that can obscure a common struggle against a common enemy.26Natalie Masuoka and Jane Junn, The Politics of Belonging: Race, Public Opinion, and Immigration (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013). In particular regions, like the South, there is mounting evidence of African Americans viewing Latinos as competitors.27Just Neighbors? Research on African American and Latino Relations in the United States, edited by Edward Telles, et. al. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).  

All this combines to form a grim picture. In Fulop’s most recent campaign for his third time as mayor, the percentage of people voting was incredibly low. It’s clear that many do not feel a sense of engagement or prioritization with local politics. Some of this, as Brooks and others have identified, is a product of a lack of organizations on the Left inside the city. 

What Could Be Done?

There was once, and still is, a lot of hope for the sort of multiculturalism Fulop promotes in his cultural policies. Some, such as Steve Philips, have argued that as demographics shift, our politics will do the same, with more Democrats winning seats, leading to policies that will benefit most people of color, and not just the few.

But Jersey City has been run by Democrats for decades now; that’s how we got here in the first place. An analysis that treats demographics as destiny misreads how historical change for the most oppressed has actually taken place. First, it’s rarely been achieved solely through the ballot box; and secondly, a dismissal of the complexities and contradictions within and between groups of color can cause coalitions to disintegrate—or never form in the first place.

In recent years, there has been some pushback against politics as usual. Aside from Brooks—who again developed an independent progressive campaign in the face of the Fulop administration, one which provided its own list of candidates and networks—there are other independent voices who’ve succeeded in achieving some power and influence. One is Frank Gilmore, a city councilor representing Ward F and parts of the Greenville area.

There’ve also been other examples of some interesting local shifts. The last few years have seen efforts to respond to the growing economic and political disparities, such as the work being done by North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America and others affiliated with them. Not to mention the ongoing work of groups, like the one led by Johnson, which focus on providing resources and training for people to avoid and resolve conflict. Such initiatives fill a void that government and private institutions alike, with all their resources, have left in the social fabric.

These are examples of what’s possible when there’s organizing being done. But how does one get organizing in the first place, at a scale that can create real social change? Here, there’s a lot we can learn from historical social movements.

The great successes of the twentieth-century Left in the US—the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement—depended heavily on independent organizations that could develop people’s political consciousness and coordinate their efforts effectively to form mass movements. Such mass organizations were not easily countered by business elites and their allied politicians; in fact, more often than not, it was precisely the independence of these organizations which allowed them to pressure and coerce politicians of all factions into doing the right thing. Groups like the CIO and CPUSA during the New Deal era, or the SCLC and SNCC during the Civil Rights era, were instrumental in channeling some of the anger and frustration simmering beneath the surface of working-class life into the sort of cohesive action that working people themselves, isolated from each other amidst the demands of daily survival, don’t always have the capacity to undertake.

The Jersey City skyline at dusk. Veronica Florez, 2023, Unsplash License.

In states like Alabama during the 1930s, CPUSA organizers found ways to organize resources (including money and leadership) in a way that developed solidarity among African Americans. Of course, Black people were already well aware of how awful Jim Crow was, given the disappearances, the beatings, and the murders of people they knew and cared about by the police. But it took CPUSA organizers, Black and white, to get people to see each other as inseparable in this fight, and to galvanize them, to have them see a different type of being that could crush the segregationists and their liberal and conservative allies. “The Communist movement in Alabama resonated with the cultures and traditions of black working people, yet at the same time it offered something fundamentally different. It proposed a new direction, a new kind of politics that required the self-activity of people usually dismissed as inarticulate,” writes historian Robin D.G. Kelley.28Robin D.G. Kelley, “The Black Belt Communists,” Jacobin, August 20, 2015, For his complete analysis, see his book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During The Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990). 

Later on, in the 1960s, it was the planning, coordination, agitational literature, and training organized and disseminated by groups like the SCLC that made people able to protest effectively in sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. “Several months before the confrontation in Birmingham the SCLC held strategy meetings and retreats,” Morris writes in his now classic text, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, adding, “These gatherings served to iron out internal conflict as well as to plan strategy. It was emphasized repeatedly that the activities of the SCLC in Birmingham had to be synchronized and harmoniously linked. In part, the SCLC solved its internal problem by bringing on staff some of the best people the movement had produced.”29Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1984), 253.

Such groups can even bridge the very real and under-discussed gap that exists between different communities of color. In Sonia Song-Ha Lee’s work detailing the rise of coalitions between segments of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in late 1950s and 1960s New York, she describes how organizational leaders, many of whom were steeped in labor and tenants rights battles, helped people learn that to push powerful people and institutions one must be willing to strike and boycott. “To the surprise of many, the boycott was successful in garnering participation from a large section of the Puerto Rican and black communities in the city,” Lee writes about the 1964 decision by Puerto Rican and African American parents to not send their children to school in protest of what they felt were racist teachers and a racist educational system: 

More than three-fourths of the students from the heavily black-populated neighborhoods of Central Harlem and Washington Heights and the Puerto Rican-dominated neighborhoods of the Lowest East Side and East Harlem did not go to school. Many civil rights leaders proudly claimed that this was a day of victory.30Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Durham: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 121.

Such tactics forced the city school officials and other politicians to finally come to the table, relinquishing some of their top-down control over local school issues and delivering on demands for more Black and Puerto Rican teachers. The same logic holds for labor and rent strikes, civil disobedience, and other strong-arm tactics used by independent mass organizations.

This is real power. Yes, electing progressive politicians is critical—at the very least they can stifle, or sometimes even turn back, some of the worst policy ideas, such as extending more tax breaks to landlords and private developers. But for the government’s role to be transformed in the way it needs to be, for it to become truly responsive to working people of color, there have to be city-wide organizations with democratic participation and funding structures independent of the state or nonprofit industrial complex which guide and develop the people’s capacity for building power and taking radical action.

Of course, this is truly easier said than done. In a time of great precarity, when rents are going up and housing is becoming scarce; when people are sometimes grateful for having any job that pays relatively well in the first place; when you have political leaders appealing to people in other ways—under these conditions, most people can be resigned to their fate, or simply view organizing itself, even joining an organization or political group, as a pie-in-the sky distraction. Furthermore, for such organizations to exist in the first place requires that people from such communities be willing to sacrifice time and other resources, including an extra shift at work, to develop a political power that may not really flourish, if ever, until years in the future.

Still, the work needs to be done. It must be tried, by people who are willing to lead, and possibly fail, and be compelled to try again. Jersey City—where property developers have such an outsized influence on politics, where a housing crisis is ongoing—has to be pushed to reinvent itself or it will simply become a place that people pass through for a few years before moving somewhere else, a corporate island that not even city hall will be able to control any longer, a hollow city that even some politicians wouldn’t want to claim as their creation.~


  • Sudip Bhattacharya

    Sudip Bhattacharya is a former reporter and current doctoral candidate in political science at Rutgers University, where he studies progressive political coalitions among Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinx populations in the United States. You can find his work at outlets such as Truthout, Monthly Review, Protean magazine, Black Agenda Report, Reappropriate, The Aerogram, among others.

    View all posts

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.