Culture Magazine

Ramble: How an Idea About Graffiti, SK8boarding, and Preservation Has Informed Grass Roots Activism and Political Decisions [Jersey City Rising]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

As I explained yesterday, back in the fall of 2007 I wrote a report, Jersey City: From a Skate Park to the World, and revised and reissued it in 2013. When I originally wrote it I gave a copy to then councilman Steve Fulop, showed it around to several people, including Pete Klapper, Dan Levin, and Maggie Veca, and put it on the web. That report, like any document, is a collection of ideas from various sources. In particular, the idea that Jersey City has an assert in a path that leads from the 6th Street Embankment, along Bergen Hill, and through the Bergen Arches, that idea had been out there for several years, championed by preservationists and activists.

I took that idea, added a few things to it, and argued that Jersey City had an opportunity to become an arts and cultural center and a tourist destination. By reading up on the impact of the Guggenheim branch in Bilbao, Spain, and Millennium Park in Chicago, I was able to put numbers on it. I talked with an architect and guestimated a total cost in the ballpark of a quarter to a half-billion dollars. I projected possible tourist revenue of up to $90 million annually.

None of that was Real in the sense that I knew how to pursue those ideas and get things done. Jersey City certainly didn’t (and doesn’t) have that kind of money to spend. As for the projected tourist income, who the hell knows? Still, but putting numbers on the vision (if you will) I brought it into the Real World as a thinkable project.

And you know what? As I look over what’s happened in Jersey City in the last 13 years, I see that vision coming to life. Not exactly that, and not on the time-table I laid out, but things I talked about in that report have been realized. There’s even the prospect that in five to ten years, the full vision will be realized.

* * * * *

It started with a DIY skate park in an out-of-the-way place. I went there to photograph graffiti. Others went there to skate board, on a park they’d constructed. The land was sold and the new owner destroyed the floor slab in which the park had been constructed, perhaps because they didn’t want the insurance liability – it would be years before any construction actually took place. The skate boarders were distressed.

Councilman Steve Fulop called a meeting at City Hall for anyone interested in a new park. About 20 or 30 skate-boarders showed up, along with parents and some interested businessmen. I was there, mostly out of curiosity, and dressed in my banker’s suit. Fulop said he’d try to come up with the funds and a place to build a new park. Where’d they like to put the park?

I collected some names and email addresses, chatted online, and they came up with a spot, 7th and Newark beneath the Thruway. Fulop contact the Thruway, initial signs were good, and then things fell through. It’s during that period and I came up with the ideas in that report. I did some research on skate-boarding, saw the connection between skate-boarding and graffiti, researched graffiti (above and beyond the 100s, now thousands, of photos I’d taken of local graffiti), noted the geographical relationship between the proposed spot and the 6th Street Embankment on the one hand and the Bergen Arches on the other. I put all that together into that report.

As I said, I’d given a copy of the report to the councilman. I also gave him a set of photos I’d made of the demolished site and deposited a set of those photos in the city library. That DIY skate park was gone, but there was now a public record of it having been there.

And that was it.

* * * * *

In 2012 I moved from the Hamilton Park neighborhood, where I’d been living when I wrote the report, to Bergen-Lafayette (with a year-and-a-half detour through Hoboken). That’s a very different part of town. Hamilton Park was mostly white and deeply gentrified. Bergen-Lafayette was mostly black and brown, just on the emerging tip of gentrification, and the proprietors of the bodegas and small stores all spoke some variety of Spanish.

I met June Jones, who’d founded and headed with Morris Canal CDC, and began volunteering on the community garden she was building. Though that work I met Musaddiq Ahmad, a small contractor, who introduced me to Greg Edgell, who curated graffiti in a 5000 sq. ft. loft on Pacific Ave and the alley behind it. I showed him that report. He liked it, but thought it was crazy. I told him the world changes. I grew up during the Cold War and expected it continue to my dying days. But then the Berlin Wall came down and Reagan and Gorbachev signed a deal on Governors Island in New York Harbor. We began to work together. Greg worked; I took photos and gave advice.

At the same time I found out that June Jones and been instrumental in getting the city to build a major active-recreation park off Berry Lane. They were getting ready to break ground. “Whoa! Is there a skate park planned?” “No.” “Well there should be.” Musaddiq and me and who knows who else – many of the skate boarders who’d shown up at that meeting Fulop called back in 2007 – convinced June that the city needed a skate park. So she went to the politicians and a skate park was added to the plan. It took awhile, 13 years, and a lot of juggling and jiggling, but that skate park opened early last year, 2020. That’s not the location we’d picked in 2007, but that is the park we’d wanted. It’s real, in the ground. And that old report was used to secure a small grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation; it provided evidence of long-term community support.

* * * * *

In 2013 councilman Fulop ran for mayor. I saw him at a party in June Jones’s community garden. “Do you know anyone who could paint my campaign headquarters graffiti style.” “Yes.” I put him in touch with Greg Edgell and he got the job done. Fulop won the election.

Meanwhile Greg had been legal curating murals all over Jersey City. He’d had a falling out with the folks at the Pacific Ave. loft and so had to rethink his curating. He’d scout out a good looking wall, examine tax records to see who owned the building, and approached them about having a mural painted on the wall. Some said ‘no’, but enough said ‘yes’ that Greg’s walls were becoming a noticeable part of the Jersey City street scape.

Once Fulop was in office we worked with his staff to help get Jersey City’s mural program up and running. Greg continued curating murals, not only in Jersey City, but in Manhattan and Brooklyn as well. Early in 2015 he got permission from a local Pep Boys to place murals on the back of their building, where they would face the light rail line and thus been seen by thousands of commuters a day. The land was sold to Forest City Enterprises and G&S Investors and the building was slated for demolition.

Greg approached the new owners about covering the building with graffiti, inside and out, just before it was slated to be demolished. Since graffiti writers more or less expected their work to be destroyed – unless it was in one of those secret places no one knew about but them – the idea was entirely consisted with graffiti practice. They loved the idea, and gave him a small budget. Thus the Demolition Exhibition was born. It was a smashing success, and was written up in The Wall Street Journal.

* * * * *

Greg has continued to work with Forest City and has done other mural projects as well. But he’s shifted most of his energies to commercial real estate, a business he was able to enter because of his experience in scouting walls for murals. Jersey City’s mural program is thriving. In a couple hours I will be attending Jersey City’s first mural festival – in the report I talked of an “annual international graffiti jam.”

What’s next? When the skate park opened Mayor Fulop assured me that The Bergen Arches would become a park. We’ll see.

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