Song of Jersey City

PATH Map.jpg

Rick Garnett recently wrote on “cities’ hipness competition.” According to a recent article in New York Magazine, my urban home (Jersey City) has recently won some prize:

To live [in New York now] is to endure a gnawing suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is marveling and reveling a little more successfully than you are. That they’re paying less money for a bigger apartment with more-authentic details on a nicer block closer to cuter restaurants and still-uncrowded bars and hipper galleries that host better parties with cooler bands than yours does, in an area that’s simultaneously a portal to the future (tomorrow’s hot neighborhood today!) and a throwback to an untainted past (today’s hot neighborhood yesterday!). And you know what? Someone is. And you know what else? Right now, that person just might be living in Jersey City.

It’s not just Tyler Cowen who’s rescuing New Jersey from punchline status–even the uberhip NYM is recognizing us (even if we’re shunned by NYC Bloggers). Our hospitals may be closing, but at least we’ve got a hot arts scene.

Of course, the NYM piece focuses not on all of the JC, but only on the “downtown” close to the Hudson waterfront. I live a bit further down the PATH line, in Journal Square. I think a comparison between the two areas may help us answer Rick’s question: “what law can do — e.g., zoning laws, liquor licensing, etc. — to make cities / metro areas more (or less) attractive to the young (or the old, for that matter)”? Can big urbanism work?

Downtown Jersey City (Grove Street on the map above) is indeed charming at present–it has nice litte parks, a variety of interesting restaurants, and an attractive housing stock. Real estate prices are approaching Manhattan levels, although an impending condo glut may dash that trend. But I share the NYM article’s sense that downtown is pretty much secure in its status as a “Sixth Borough,” destined to become a “West Brooklyn” as more and more people are driven out of Manhattan due to $1200+ per square foot housing prices.

Journal Square, however, is a different story. Aside from a few old theaters, leading buildings offer uninspiring variations on “urban brutalism.” The housing stock is decent, but there are precious few lovely brownstones or parks within walking distance of the train station. The preferred look is fake stone siding. There are fantastic Indian restaurants, but I’ve not sampled many other good ones. It’s no worse than lots of the “hot” areas of Brooklyn or Queens, but it definitely loses out to the “downtown” on the charm barometer. Here’s a sample photo:

Journal Square.jpg

So if Journal Square is to succeed, it probably has to do so on the basis of infrastructure. Just how committed are people to a shorter commute? One thing the neighborhood offers is a great public transportation; it just takes 11 minutes on the train to get to lower Manhattan, about 25 to midtown, and there are a ton of buses all over. So my sense is that, if Journal Square manages to succeed like the “downtown” of Jersey City, this will help show that basic infrastructural advantages can revivify a long “unhip” urban area. If, however, this part of town languishes, it may well be that uglier urban areas will have a much tougher time developing than their more eye-pleasing peers.

Finally, as for law, I would be remiss in failing to mention this Malani article thesis:

Laws should be judged by the extent to which they raise housing prices and lower wages. The logic is that the value of a law, much like the value of a lake or a public school, is capitalized into local housing and labor markets. Desirable laws increase housing prices and decrease wages because more people want to live in the relevant jurisdiction; undesirable laws have the opposite effects.

I’m surprised I haven’t seen more commentary on this counterintuitive approach.

Photo Credit: PATH NY/NJ Subway System.

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