You can go home again, but someone else lives there now

June 17, 1996|By RICHARD REEVES

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- This is the city I grew up in. And this was the scene at lunchtime last Monday at my old grammar school, P.S. 11, now rebuilt after a fire and named the Martin Luther King School: The statue of Peter Stuyvesant, which I and other ''patrol boys'' were once delegated to guard against graffiti, has been moved from the middle of the concrete yard in front of the school to a corner. (Stuyvesant, you may remember, was a Dutchman with a peg leg, the colonial governor of New Amsterdam, who cut a permanent deal in 1658 with resident Indians to take over this land on the west side of the Hudson River.)

There are 10 or 12 feet of space between the statue and the building next to the school. The statue and the building's wall marked the sidelines of a noisy touch football game -- a half-dozen kids yelling ''I'm open'' ran down that narrow gridiron to a high iron picket fence. Another group of boys, between Peter and the iron fence, were playing a handball game against the wall. The games were being played in each other's gaps.

Wars have begun over less. You could not imagine a more polyglot group of humans than those kids, ranging over the spectrum from the thin, sun-threatened skin of the alabaster Irish to the mahogany of Asian Indians and the coal black of West Africans. Most were some variation of coffee colors, with faces that could have come from most anywhere from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur.

The balls regularly squirted through the fence, bouncing or rolling across the sidewalks into the gutter, where an old man, probably Italian, or a woman in a long dress, wearing her head scarf Pakistani-style, or I would bend over and flip the thing back over the fence. A sign read: ''Boom Boxes Are Illegal in Jersey City.''

A young man walked along the cars parked on Bergen Avenue, sticking fliers under windshield wipers. I reached out, and he handed me one of the papers, which read, in both English and Spanish: ''Lucky 7 BAIL BONDS . . . 24 Hours a Day, 7 Days a Week . . . 'Get Lucky, Get Out' . . . We Can Help -- Even When The Gloves Do Fit.''

''Let's work together''

Across the bottom was the legend: ''Lucky 7 does NOT endorse the use of violence. Let's work and live together in America!''

I know this real estate, which I grew up on in the 1950s, better than any place on Earth. I remember what it was, block by block, from those days when the population was about 300,000, about the same size then as Denver or San Diego.

As I came back every year or so for a while, the population steadily dropped toward 200,000. The last time I was there, in 1988, was on the day the state of New Jersey took over the city's schools because funding and performance were so low. Then, the city seemed sullen, a backwater mix of old whites, poor blacks and young Puerto Ricans.

The 1990 census stated the population at about 230,000. Those people were recorded as being 48 percent white, 30 percent black, 11 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic; the numbers did not add up because Hispanics were also included in the black and white totals, most describing themselves as white.

Six years later, the population breakdown is anyone's guess, but changes are obvious everywhere -- larger numbers from the Philippines, India and Pakistan, Korea, Vietnam, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Egypt. My father's Masonic temple is now an Egyptian Coptic Christian church. The old Episcopal church is AME, African Methodist Episcopal; the Stanley Theater on Journal Square became a Hispanic Jehovah's Witnesses church. The building across from what was the Jewish Community Center at Bergen and Belmont avenues is now a Muslim school, a ''Sunday school'' being taught in Arabic.

City officials believe the population now has passed 250,000, and some of the new residents are not from abroad; they are young and ambitious and relatively prosperous couples and families working in Manhattan and moving into Jersey City because they can no longer afford the prices in Hoboken, much less Manhattan or Brooklyn Heights.

Don't get me wrong. The place is a mess. Some of the new residents are trouble, including the planners of the World Trade Center bombing. But a lot more than that is happening here. Streets bombed out in 1960s racial riots, like Monticello Avenue near my high school, Lincoln, were still boarded up and empty of people when I was here last in 1988. Now there are Asians of various kinds opening up small markets. The candy store of my youth has passed from Jewish to Indian. There are people everywhere, reflections of the faces at the grammar school.

Are these immigrants legal? Most are -- because U.S. immigration has been based on family reunification, and Asians have very big families.

Nobody much cares. A friend in City Hall answered that question: ''I don't know. What I know is that they're investing here and working their butts off. . . . All this illegal-immigration talk seems to be based on the assumption that people will be coming back to Jersey City from the suburbs or from California. That's nostalgia. These are our people now.''

It's not my city anymore, but these are my people, too. That place in my memory was an Italian city governed by the Irish. Now it is the new kids at Martin Luther King and Lincoln High School who are going to pay my Social Security.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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