For those who attended the Oct. 13 forum for Ward F City Council candidates, the questions and answers may have seemed like a blast from the past.
Many of the issues concerning Ward F residents seemed more typical to 1967 as 2017 – too much crime, too little affordable housing, and a desperate need for jobs, and the need for good schools and other basic neighborhood services.
While the city has proposed to inject new life into the Martin Luther King Drive shopping district with the construction of a City Hall Annex there, residents have seen similar initiatives fail in the past.
Hosted by BITE, the forum featured the six candidates seeking to serve on the council for the next four years: incumbent Jermaine Robinson, Yoland Dorch-Amiker, Michael Griffin, Dennis Burgess, Tyrone Ballon, and Anthony Blake.
Ward F includes most of what are known as the Bergen-Lafayette, Jackson Hill, and a portion of Bergen Hill neighborhoods of the city. It is one of the poorest areas in the city, and yet has begun to feel development pressures, especially along its northeastern boundary, where it abuts the wealthy neighborhoods in Ward E.
Census data shows that more than 70 percent of the nearly 40,000 residents of Ward F are African American.
Robinson, a local business owner, was appointed to the council last January to fill the unexpired term of Diane Coleman, who became county register.
Robinson, a runner-up in the 2013 Ward F council race, is currently running for reelection on Mayor Steve Fulop’s ticket.
“When I look across the table here I see people who love Ward F,” Robinson said. “I see partners, not challengers.”
He said he loves Ward F because from it he can reach any part of the world, and it is part of the greatest city in the world.
“I’m against crime, poverty, and Donald Trump,” he said. “You have to remember 40 percent of New Jersey voted for Trump, so that mentality still remains. We need to partner with each other no matter which one of us gets the seat. We cannot do this alone, reach down in our guts to make Ward F better. I don’t pretend to know all the answers. But I’ll put it all on the line.”
He said a huge issue in Ward F is gentrification in some neighborhoods.
“A lot of people are losing homes and can’t afford rents,” he said. “We are seeing people become homeless every day.”
Tyrone Ballon works as a terminal supervisor and dispatcher for the PATH system. He ran in a special election for Ward F seat in 2012. He said he was born and raised in Jersey City, but for a short time lived in East Orange before returning here. He said his political roots go back to the late Mayor Glenn Cunningham, when Ballon served as a committee person.
“I always desired to bring grassroots back to Ward F,” he said, claiming that over the last few years it has eroded. “I want to bring back to the community what I experienced growing up here, when we had CETA jobs, recreational programs, and our parents made sure we had resources.”
Anthony Blake works for the Jersey City school district as a crisis intervention specialist. He said he started out in PS 41, then went to Lincoln High School, and for the last 12 years he has worked in MS 4.
“I’m also a business man,” he said. “My wife and I have run an insurance agency for 12 years.”
He said he’s been active in the community his entire life, and as an educator he learned long ago that a teachers’ day doesn’t end when students leave at 3 p.m.
Politically, Blake was originally aligned with former Assemblyman Charles Mainor when Mainor first announced he would run for mayor. Mainor later decided to run for council at-large, but withdrew from the race in September.
“I’m committed to change in Ward F,” he said.
A proponent of a “tough love” philosophy, Burgess, aka “Master Sup,” is a martial arts champion and community activist. He has been involved with numerous local organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Jersey City and Hoboken, where he’s held gang-awareness, anti-bulling and terrorist awareness programs. He said he is running because he believes Ward F has problems that need to be addressed urgently.
“I don’t like what’s going on,” he said, referring to the needs of youth, homeowners and veterans, which he claims are not being addressed.
“I’m not political, or a politician. I’m real, and I tell it like it is.”
Dorch-Amiker runs a nonprofit called Healing Is Power, which helps veterans return to civilian life. Dorch-Amiker is running on the Matsikoudis slate. Raised in Jersey City, she joined the U.S. Army in 1995, partly, she said, to escape some of the problems in the inner city. She got to see the world during her 18 years in service.
“I started by helping disabled veterans coming home,” she said. “I’m running because I do not like the representation we have in Ward F. The quality of life is low, and government needs to be transparent. I want to help give the community hope again.”
Griffin, one time housekeeping manager at a New York City and is currently the director of Community Economic Development, was born and raised in Jersey City. He is the former program manager of The Jackson Hill Main Street SID and current chair of Bergen Communities United Real Estate & Development Committee.
“I’ve been in community work for over a decade,” he said, noting his political career also started as a committee person under the late Mayor Cunningham. He has been active in the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition.
“I believe in grass roots and working with residents and neighbors he said,” he said. “I want to change City Hall and create policy.”
The causes and solutions to crime in Ward F
Gun violence, murder, and lesser crimes have plagued Ward F. What will each candidate do to address this?
Burgess he said these things often arise out of social conditions, lack of jobs and lack of affordable housing.
“I have provided shelter two people in Ward F from being homeless,” he said, noting that rent control must be expanded to houses with three or four units. Currently, only buildings with five units or more are governed by rent control laws.
“People lose their homes when the landlord spiked up to get them out,” he said.
Dorch-Amiker said quality of life in Ward F started with crime.
“Shootings are up 200 percent in Ward F, other crimes up 100 percent, homelessness is up 1,000 percent,” she said. “We have no jobs to off them. Many are lying on the ground. We walk past them every day. And yet our council president said he voted on 16 abatements for developers.”
Blake also admitted there are problems in Ward F.
“We have to start having our police meet the community by getting out of their cars and onto the street,” he said, noting that years ago, the city had a group that walked around and gave tickets. “Some felt this was intrusive. But they were out in the community.”
Robinson also stressed community action.
“We need to take back our neighborhoods block by block and street by street,” he said, saying Ward F needs to rely less on City Hall, and more on neighborhood associations. He said he would like to bring back neighborhood watches.
Griffin said he would put himself on the front line, working with the neighborhood groups to develop plans that will improve the community.
“It’s about sacrificing self and letting people know we are here,” he said.
Burgess said, “We know how to solve the problem. Our people are being pushed out of the crayon box. It’s the same thing all over.”
Protecting the residents against gentrification is a big issue.
Much of the crime has to do with parents who let the street raise their kids, Burgess said.
“We threw them out there and now we complain about them,” he said. “People are letting criminals raising their kids. We need some tough love in Ward F.”
Griffin said he would continue to work with the community and talk about the initiatives that need to be done. He said providing places such as recreation programs or school facilities would help keep kids off the street through after school programs.
Robinson said he supports community policing.
“But it needs to start with us in at home, in block associations,” he said. “We need to strengthen our neighborhood watch, work with our churches. We have over 50 churches in Ward F, and we are already working with many of the pastors.”
He also said the city needs to hire a police chief that understands the inner city.
Blake said unless people get out of the out of churches and meeting halls and hit the street, “All this is just jive.”
“We’re seeing more cops and more lights since Christmas late year,” he said. “We need to get police out of their cars and on to the street. But we also have to understand the safety concerns and how to protect the officers.”
He said he supports a gun buy-back program to reduce the number of guns available on the street.
Dorch-Amiker said she’s on the street every day, and criticized Robinson for not being out there, too.
“He’s not been out there. He hasn’t been there when a child is shot, he’s there now because of the election,” she said. “We need community policing and need to get away from a warrior mentality. Police need to engage the community.”
Ballon said crime is about poverty. While he said he can’t justify crime, he said crime can’t be done away with until you deal with the root cause.
“Kids need to be taught how to deal with their conflicts,” he said, noting that he would like to develop a special police force of officers truly there for community and with experience on the street
How would you provide affordable housing?
Dorch-Amiker said would set up an office of affordable housing.
“But first we need to do an inventory to see how much affordable housing is available,” she said.
While she is critical of tax abatements, she said the focus of redevelopment has to be Ward F.
“Downtown is already built up, we need to build up Ward F,” she said.
The ward needs more business, which will provide more jobs, and residents may need training so they can qualify for these jobs.
Blake said when you talk about development in the city and in the community you have to look at parking, schools, employment, and how development impact neighbors.
“A community can stop a project if it’s not in its best interest,” he said.
Robinson, however, refused to do away with abatements.
“I’m absolutely for abatements when they are done the right way, when there are affordable units,” he said. “I watched downtown rise out of the ashes to become great city we are. When I vote for something in Ward F, I will vote every abatement that gives back to the city.”
Griffin said tax abatements are needed in Ward F, which is an area in need of redevelopment but they must come including affordable housing. Developers must also guarantee qualified residents jobs. He some of this money must go to schools and project must provide community benefits such as fixing local streets or other improvements to the neighborhood.
Burgess said all new projects have to include affordable houses.
“If there is none, then people are going to get shut out,” he said. “I would bring around people who know what they are doing. But I would call the shots.”
Ballon said there has to be accountability when projects are approved. If a project is required to provide local jobs, then the city has to make sure this happens. He said the city needs to expand rent control in order to counter the rising costs of rents in the city.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.