Avoiding the ’burbs
Why more families are planting roots in Jersey City
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Feb 10, 2013 | 8108 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
More families are choosing to stay put, plant roots, and commit long-term to Jersey City.
More families are choosing to stay put, plant roots, and commit long-term to Jersey City.
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“I used to live in Jersey City, in my youth,” joked an attorney and former Hudson County employee, recalling the few years he spent sharing a waterfront apartment with some of his buddies. The arrangement was great for a while. But one by one, they all left Jersey City for homes elsewhere. In his own case, he left the city for a townhouse in Secaucus.

And why did he leave?

“By then everybody had met their future wife or significant other and we were all looking for places where we could raise a family,” he said.

This story, recounted four years ago, is memorable and stands out precisely because it’s one you don’t hear as often in Jersey City these days. The story of the young singles or young couples who come to the city, live for a few years, then leave when they start families – it’s more associated with the Jersey City of the 1990s.

While Jersey City is often called a “transient” place, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the city has already shed that label.

“The city is changing for the better, and I think people see that,” said Phil Rivo, a longtime resident and professional real estate broker, recently. “In tracking my clients from last year, the majority of them, over three-quarters, were from Jersey City or Hoboken. In general, these were people who were trading up, say, they were going from renting to owning. So people are definitely staying. In the past, 50 percent of my business was from people moving from New York.”
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For all the parents, the benefits of being in Jersey City outweighed the challenges.
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Rivo and his wife are an example of this trend. The couple has been living in Jersey City for more than 25 years and moved here from nearby Hoboken.

“We might have flirted briefly with the suburbs, but having grown up in suburban New Jersey, it didn’t really appeal to us,” said Rivo, who has a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. “Having grown up in the homogenous towns of Murray Hill and Berkeley Heights, you’re not exposed to the world as much.”

In several recent interviews, many other families shared similar sentiments.

Making the schools work

Downtown resident Felicia Noth, a married mother of two sons, 4 and 6, recalled growing up in Milwaukee when that city began busing students to schools outside their neighborhoods to racially integrate the school district.

While many white families responded to forced busing by moving out of urban communities or sending their kids to non-public schools, Noth’s family stayed put. That decision influenced her own choice regarding Jersey City.

“Schools were very segregated in Milwaukee and they implemented busing when I was in kindergarten. So my parents sent me to an inner city public school,” said Noth. “There was a group of like-minded people who did the same thing and there were enough of them that it made a positive difference in the schools. At the same time, it was enriching for the kids who were exposed to a lot of different cultures that we wouldn’t have been exposed to in our neighborhoods. So, I have a belief in integration in urban areas. It is a very powerful thing that can really impact kids in a positive way.”

Noth is currently the PTA president of P.S. No. 5 and said her involvement in the education system is fueled by a strong desire to improve public schools – for her own sons and other children in the city.

“I’m willing to work with a school that isn’t exactly perfect because I think, ultimately, there are other benefits that they are getting from this experience,” Noth added.

School reform has become a top issue among parents in Jersey City in recent years, with relatively new parents’ groups like Parents for Progress joining the fray alongside the Jersey City chapter of the Statewide Education Organizing Committee.

While these groups don’t often agree on school policy matters, their existence is indicative of the level of parental involvement in the local public school system.

Many parents believe there have already been payoffs.

P.S. No. 3, another downtown elementary school, has created a strong dual language program that will probably become a model for other similar programs elsewhere in the city.

High school graduations and drop out rates are also improving. The drop out rate is currently the lowest it has been in 11 years. And new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles recently reported that 64.2 percent of the district’s students are on schedule to graduate on time.

“Jersey City schools were not as good 10 or 12 years ago,” said Rivo, whose children attend the Learning Community Charter School (LCCS). “But they get better every year. With more people staying, they are taking an interest in P.S. 3, P.S. 5, Cordero. The test scores are creeping up. Had these schools been where they are today, we might have considered sending our children to them, because they’re better.”

In addition to the popular LCCS, Jersey City is home to several other charter schools, private schools like Stevens Cooperative, and a number of highly regarded parochial schools. With more families moving to Jersey City and sticking around, competition for space in some of these schools has increased substantially.

Interestingly, other parents who send their children to private or charter schools have sometimes become public school advocates, simply based on principle.

“I try to be involved within my limited capacity to improve the public school system,” said Lycel Villanueva, a mother of three who sends her children to Primary Prep Elementary School. “I believe in the need for it and that it is the responsibility of our government to have decent education available to all. We opted to put our kids in a local private school where they are thriving and I am very pleased with it. I feel fortunate that we were able to make that choice.”

Triumph of Jersey City

For all the parents, the benefits of being in Jersey City outweighed the challenges.

In addition to the issue of education, parents admitted they are occasionally concerned about crime, but believe their children are still better off growing up in Jersey City than elsewhere.

“You can be a victim of crime anywhere. Crime doesn’t just happen in cities,” said Jacqueline Miller, a mother of two who is raising her children with her longtime boyfriend.

Citing the book “Triumph of the City,” Rivo pointed out that many people recognize the environmental advantages to living in a city that has several mass transit systems within its reach.

Like Villanueva, who has been in Jersey City since 1999, most of the families interviewed came to Jersey City for its proximity to New York, but stayed for Jersey City.

“What initially attracted me to Jersey City is its vicinity to New York City and the easy connections we have to it,” said Villanueva, a married mother of a 6-year-old son and two daughters, ages 4 and 22 months. “But I’ve come to realize a long time ago that that there’s more to it than just Manhattan…I’ve also come to realize that it is Jersey City’s diversity that I really cherish. It is a special place, quirky in its own way, but definitely special. I feel fortunate that I’m able to expose my children to this environment and everything good it has to offer – the cultural pulses, foods, holidays/celebrations, faces, languages, and unique experiences that come with it.”

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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