Project Statement: Before the Skyscraper

Construction has begun on the first of three luxury rental skyscrapers to be built over the next several years in Journal Square.   The development, “Journal Squared,” will feature 1840 luxury rental apartments and 36,000 square feet of retail space.  The tower currently under construction will rise 54 stories. Advertised amenities include an outdoor pool and a golf simulation room. Studio apartment rentals will begin at $1800.

The developer, Kushner Companies, is aggressively marketing to millennials –  and particularly to the so-called “creative class”.   Jersey City has attempted to draw this demographic across the Hudson with its taxpayer-funded 2014-2015 ad campaign, “Make It Yours”.  Campaign posters  have appeared on NYC subways and in trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods where real estate values have skyrocketed in recent years, driving upwardly mobile residents to look elsewhere for a more palatable balance of living standards and proximity to Manhattan.
A brief look around Journal Square indicates that most people living and working near the Square do not fit this demographic, and it is understatement to say that the majority of current residents will not be able to afford to live in "Journal Squared".  Behind it shiny facade, the promised “renaissance” of the Square will, in fact, function as a means to displace current populations and their businesses for another, more affluent culture of transitory residents.  Some current property owners will profit from rising real estate values, but innumerable renters and business owners will suffer from inflated prices and aesthetic changes, and be compelled to leave.   

It is true that cities, particularly American cities, are in a constant state of flux.  Land changes hands from generation to generation as populations respond to complex economic and social trends.  But it would be a disingenuous to assume that the “luxury” brand of urban development now dominant in America is inevitable.

“Journal Squared” is neither inevitable nor necessary.  It is a product of decisions and values that prioritize profit over other essential, competing concerns. These include ecological sustainability, urban scaling, mixed income use, respect for public space, participatory planning, and social justice.  The voracious fever of luxury development, reflected so egregiously by Billionaires Row (which will limit access to the sun in areas of Central Park), and throughout Brooklyn, New Jersey’s Gold Coast, Washington DC, Nashville, Toronto, Seattle, London and in numerous global cities is an essentially exclusive vision:  it values private property over public space; homogeneity over pluralism; control over expression; speed over quality; the young over the old; and the upper-middle class and rich over middle class and working people.

The application of these values expressed through the Journal Squared mega development has particular significance for Jersey City, the “Golden Door” of the United States, proudly defined by its diversity of peoples.  For what makes Jersey City and particularly Journal Square unique is its unusually successful experiment with racial and economic diversity.  Far from being a blighted or stagnant neighborhood, the Journal Square of 2015 is defined by its lively cultural and economic pluralism and relatively low crime.   In the context of a racially polarized nation, it is a testament to the very promise and possibility of America.  To aggressively seek its transformation and homogenization through a “game changing” luxury development is a significant cultural and historic mistake not only for our city, but for our larger American story.    

Before the Skyscraper is a modest effort to contextualize what is at stake in Jersey City’s confrontation with the aggression that is “Journal Squared.”   Through painting, photography, audio interviews, sculpture, and performance the exhibit seeks to capture something of the essence and the crucial worth of the ‘now’ as a means of digesting the enormous potential costs and consequences of the skyscrapers.   It is not nostalgic, nor does it pity.  It does not deny the reality of change. But it states: these are images and forms of passing; this is evidence of a shifting city, which is not inevitable but chosen. It begs the question: what city are we building and where can we go from here?