It's unclear who first used the phrase “a tale of two cities” to describe Jersey City's economic inequality, but it's worked: the phrase has become the go-to shorthand for politicians and community activists criticizing the global wealth gap on the local level for some time now. With his new administration officially in place, Mayor Steve Fulop -- as likely to use the phrase as anyone -- made the lofty promise to create a "beloved community" of social and economic justice in his inaugural address on July 1.
So it was fitting that one of the only non-politician speakers at Mayor Steve Fulop's inauguration, Mahdi Hemingway – a friend, beneficiary, and “Marine brother” of Fulop – placed his story in a way that places the phrase in stark reality. Born in the Booker T. Washington housing projects (located just outside of the economic resurgence of the city's booming downtown, and where trouble still haunts its residents), Hemingway credited not only his own hard work to overcome the drug addiction that afflicted his parents. Nor did he just credit the “moral foundation” put in place by his pastor grandfather when his parents were unable to care for him. Rather, the Marine Corps public campaign rep said it was Fulop's push that put him on the path towards success.
Riveting, for sure, and well-meant. The story was more personal than the promise of a “helping hand” offered by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez in his official capacity as the state's now-senior senator; it was more to the point than the advice proffered by Governor Chris Christie (who was booed by many in the crowd), who said Fulop's first job was to do right by the people who put in office, which can be shortened to simply: do your job. No, Hemingway recounted how Fulop co-signed a student loan, how Fulop guided him into and through his time in boot camp with a pink-ink pen and a nickname of General Hemingway.
Fulop made a call to action to address "the disparity of income between our "Gold Coast" and those older, forgotten neighborhoods" to much applause. He added that there is an eed to correct "the dysfunction of a political system, which promised too much to too many, while delivering too little to too few."
Perhaps Fulop can't cosign every student loan like he did for Hemingway, but he can refocus resources in a just way, said Mahdi. To fix the injustices in the lowest of low-income neighborhoods, seniors must have heat and hot water, he said, while making jobs less scarce. “We're not looking for a handout, but a fair shot,” he said.
Indeed, Fulop's speech was heavy on social justice and personal responsibility.
Citing his family's struggles to flee the Soviet bloc afdter enduring the Holocaust, Fulop said "service is a clarion call for my family" that for him personally manifested itself in his time in the Marine Corps and on the Council, not to mention his work as a neighborhood association president.
Many residents in the city, which Fulop described as a “symbol of America as a whole,” share similar stories of trying to find safe perch after leaving the dangers of lack of opportunities elsewhere. And people have come from all over, for one reason for another: Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Latino-Americans comprise about 70% of the city according to the 2010 Census.
Yet for all of the allusions in the speech – from referring to that “city on a hill” to the proposition that “god helps those who help themselves” – it was hyper-local politics at its heart. Local schools and corporations situated in the city should pair up for better training and job opportunities, said Fulop; the rich “gold coast” has a responsibility to areas where big money development is quiet (or struggling); the school system's promise is the best for the city's future.
It was also a story of persistence. From outsized ambitions (Menendez recalled that Fulop's first time running for office was an unsuccessful attempt to unseat him in the Democratic primary in the early 2000s) to more realistic ones: trying to end the corruption that has tainted City Hall in the eyes of many. Or as Wally Rabner, an 89-year old resident who began working for the city under Mayor Frank Hague, put it: the city has seen many politicians promise to set personal ambition aside for the sake of the city but fail to do so. In fact, when Frank Eggers unseated Boss Hague in 1947, the corruption “got worse,” said Rabner.
“We were in a better position then than we are now,” says Rabner, referring to economic promise. But Eggers got greedy, he recalled, and the promise was squandered. Fulop “seems more honest,” Rabner continued, “and wants to do good things for the city.”
Despite a majority of the Council backing his plans and the political will that comes with a voter-mandate for change, there remain real challenges. Reeling in property taxes and crime is a must, as is expanding economic development to reposition the city as the state's so-called economic driver. But if Fulop's speech declaimed anything, it was the just spread of municipal services, starting with the school system. “If gang violence, addiction and prison have become the all too common end of our young, then we have to make every effort to reclaim their youthful promise toward a healthy, productive and law abiding end,” he said.
Indeed, addressing youth employment is a goal of his first 100 days in office, he says. And with hundreds of hopeful residents lining Grove Street, filling out the bleachers, and setting up on City Hall's lawn, the support is there from residents and the Council. Now comes a test of his much-touted platforms that got him elected in the first place.
Photos by Mickey Mathis
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