Beauty and its Beast: Jersey City Artists and Gentrification

By Ennica Jacob, Class of 2017

Emerging from the Grove Street Path Station, you’re hit by a wave, in the figurative sense. A portrait of a controlled ocean wave hovers above Dunkin’ Donuts. Depending on what path you choose, you’ll be greeted by an aesthetically pleasing mural or “Protect Yo Heart” tags spray-painted on the dreary cement. Grove Street art has become embedded into the community, alongside boutiques and graffiti from days gone by.

Jersey City artists are aware that their paint brushes and spray cans are being turned into currency, contributing to Jersey City’s gentrification. The art scene in Jersey City has been showcasing talent for years and also drawing in the upscale crowd and foot traffic into the city.

According to the United States Census data, residency has grown 6% from 2010 to 2014, with almost 262,000 people calling Jersey City home. Developers have been rushing to build, with estimated  7,000 units of housing under construction and 19,000 approved — more than any other city in the state, according to the mayor’s office.

If you walk down Grove Street towards Jersey City’s famed Taqueria, you’ll notice a wheatpaste of Mickey Mouse in the form of a firearm target on the side of Redeemer’s Community Church; where Marco & Pepe was located before closing down. The locals aren’t strangers to the resident artists in their community. Sean Lugo, Distort, and Dylan Egon took the time to answer questions on recent local developments and their passion for art.

“I’ve lived here for 5 or 6 years and lived 7 years in Philly before that…My parents sold their house in the 80’s thinking they were making a great choice but the irony is you have people with a lot of money moving into small or studio apartments in densely populated areas,” says Distort as he sips his coffee walking back to his studio.

Tagging since he was 13 years old, Distort embraced the graffiti culture and the self-expression that came with it. Combining art and politics, Distort’s murals leave the community with mesmerizing illustrations. Geometric typography of his name are scattered around the city in an array of colors depicting his passion and love for the original art form of graffiti. One riveting piece can be seen on the side of a brick warehouse on 430 Summit Ave. Deep shades of purple, fiery reds, and vibrant greens illustrate Distort’s perception on the connection of human beings and their effect on the Earth.

The first hand view I get of gentrification is that I’m probably a vanguard for it. The minute I tag something, that building is 5 years away from being gentrified…Look at Brooklyn, because of that culture and appeal of it, everyone wants to move there; and then it becomes gentrified, it’s a contradiction,” says Distort.

A single-family home sold for an average of $229,772 in 2015, up 33 % from 2014, when it was $173,130, according to JCity Realty.

Surrounded by rare collectibles in the garage turned studio apartment in downtown Jersey City, Dylan Egon has witnessed the changes in his neighborhood and couldn’t resist pointing it out.

“It resembles Hoboken, it’s lost its edge. I’m came from Red Hook, as a kid I’ve watched people get stabbed on the street 3 or 4 times. This is where are artists, musicians, and creatives go; into poor areas which makes it beautiful. I think if I didn’t own my building, I probably wouldn’t be here. All the creatives are pushed out and now it’s just about money and greed, ya know,” explains Egon.

Walking down back streets and major roads, you can see demolitions being done instructing bystanders to ‘Beware Falling Debris’. Journal Square Plaza already has signs for the Starbucks being built, which will join Chickpea, Dunkin’ Donuts, and other franchises in the area.

A cream, white, brown YSL themed boot, hatchet, and skateboard sits in Egon’s living room, showcasing his edgy pop artist style.

“Especially being a pop artist , I think it’s important to do art that makes people think or makes them question.When I started doing ‘Arsenal and Animal’, which was a weapon with an animal that was actually the first thing Jersey City wanted. Well, I’d do the ‘Butter Knife’, which was the switchblade with the butterfly on top. I said it’s perfect for Jersey City because it used to be pretty bad,” Dylan said.

Sean Lugo started doing graffiti in 1999, before evolving to wheatpastes after being arrested and taking a hiatus from the streets.

“I leave murals to the experts – I prefer to create in the comfort of my own home, at my own pace and then go out there and in just a few minutes with some slaps of glue you’ve got a piece on a wall.”

Sean9Lugo on corner of Columbus Dr_

“My art is something that I hope engages people and draws parallels to their lives, where they can easily replace themselves in the image since the head can be anybody. All of my art shows the world and life from my perspective. In my paintings, collaged layers serve as the base  – washed out, faded layers of thoughts, memories, and experiences as they are found in the rolodex of my mind,” Lugo explains.

These artists remember a time when graffiti and taggers were treated as vandals, labeling their work as property damage.

Lynne Ho has been the manager at The UPS Store in Journal Square for 5 years and a Jersey City native. She remembers how beautiful and raw the art was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s.

“They didn’t hire people to paint on walls, it wasn’t common; it was very rare. Back then people tagged buildings as a form of rebellion, now art is considered great after being frowned upon. Art is for everyone but at a time they didn’t want it on their building.”.

“It’s so gentrified, it’s more for the people with money than anything; it’s not really for us. People express themselves and use it as a tool to bring people in; drawing in the New York crowd with the lower prices and similar aesthetic. Downtown didn’t always look like that, you were just as likely to get beat up or shot down there as you were up here.”

Professor Edgar Rivera-Colon teaches a Contemporary Cities course at Saint Peter’s University. Also, a longtime resident of Jersey City, living on Grove Street, he has seen many changes within the last 5 years.

“Newark Ave, near the Grove Street Path Station, was blocked off and turned into a restaurant row. Some affordable, most are high end and it’s part of the gentrification process,” he said. “What I’ve seen is an increase in gentrification, in Journal Square they put up a building that had no community benefits at all.”

“The Kushner Family, Trump’s son-in-law, that’s his family’s project. I’m concerned about all the little businesses along Bergen Ave and Kennedy Boulevard, that are immigrant family owned. When that high rise goes up, what’s going to happen to their rent and a lot of homeless people congregate there, are they going get rid of all the homeless people?”

Recently, some Jersey City residents have been signing a petition to create a better vetting process for the murals being put up around the city. The Mural Arts Program has pushed the art scene to flourish in a new way in Jersey City. However, local artist Sarah Ordway and others want Mayor Fulop to demand for a proper process when choosing potential murals.

Prof. Rivera-Colon continues, “The murals are used like a marker. The problem with those murals is it’s sort of like a lie because Jersey City doesn’t really support the arts that much. The regular artists are struggling to survive in Jersey City.. there’s not that much art funding in Jersey City. The Mural Arts Program is just for show, it’s basically branding.The artists don’t have much of a say, it’s advertising and dishonest, like most advertising. It’s them saying, ‘Here’s a little branding or logo you can associate with our cool ‘art scene’.”

Developers, meanwhile, are taking advantage. It is said that the current development of  Jersey City’s planned three-tower project will bring 1,840 units to the area; becoming home to the tallest building in the state, at 950 feet.

As for the artists, they and their supporters hope the newcomers will remember the artist who  paved the streets with alluring color schemes and eye-catching messages that has become a part of Jersey City’s character.

For those who are doubtful in their abilities as an artist or a creative mind, Sean Lugo leaves some raw advice to live by.

“Don’t fall in line with the bulls*** out there, if you’ve got something original share it.”

 

 

 

 

 

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