It’s late enough in the afternoon that the shadows from the New Jersey Turnpike overpass have started creeping toward the westernmost basket. It’s early enough that the five young men on the court aren’t yet thinking about wrapping up the game.
They’re from the Village, Mill Creek, St. Joe’s – the cluster of neighborhoods at the western fringe of Jersey City’s historic downtown – and this patch of pavement in Mary Benson Park is their territory. Only it isn’t Mary Benson Park here, it’s “the Five.” It has always been that, ever since they were students at P.S. 5 across Merseles Street. But even the school – Dr. Michael Conti School – has a new name now.
That is the way things are in Jersey City these days. Everything is changing, even if the game in the Five remains the same. “I’ve been coming here all my life,” Ed says on a different afternoon, shooting one-on-one with his nephew Chase. “I went to that school, and I played on this court. It’s always been here. But I don’t know for how much longer; the City is changing faster than I can follow.”
The second-largest city in New Jersey is a boomtown. Its population has grown more than 10 percent in the last decade, as well-heeled refugees fleeing the housing shortages and high rents of Manhattan and Brooklyn crossed the Hudson River in search of more affordable housing. That means boom times for property developers, who have cleared the docks and warehouses at Exchange Place and along the old Morris Canal. Glass and steel towers rose and brownstones were gentrified in Paulus Hook.
Most of the City’s population growth began at the River line, and has steadily advanced westward, into the historic downtown and beyond. Now, almost half of Jersey City’s residents are new arrivals since 2007; most of them are prosperous professionals, with jobs on Wall Street, or Madison Avenue, or in Manhattan law firms. This city of docks, warehouses, railroads and rolled-up sleeves has changed dramatically. The Colgate Clock is a quaint landmark next to a condo development; the old Colgate factory is long gone.
Yet, the newcomers brought New York’s real-estate realities with them. In the once-industrial neighborhood just north of Exchange Place, around the old Port Authority powerhouse, the average home price is over $1 million. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city as a whole is $2,300, twice what it was a decade ago. A one-bedroom apartment in the Kushner-owned Grove Pointe complex near the PATH station is closer to $2,900. Long-time working-class residents have been priced out.
There’s another dimension to it as well. While most of the affluent newcomers to JC are white, most of the people they priced out of downtown – and now the Village and Bergen-Lafayette, too – were Hispanic and African-American. You can see it in the street traffic and in the economic environment.
The Churrascarria at the corner of Newark and Monmouth was demolished to make way for a condo development years ago. The Latino market at the corner of Second and Coles is now Café Madeleine, complete with red awnings and sidewalk tables. For the young men on the basketball court, shooting hoops while the city changes around them in real time is an act of resistance. This is still their game; this is still their court. This is still their home.
Malik comes by the court after his shift at the Medical Center on Grand Street. It’s a new building, like so many in Jersey City, built to replace the old Art Deco complex up the hill on Montgomery, next to the Montgomery Gardens housing project. The old hospital buildings are now a luxury apartment complex called The Beacon. The old project buildings were demolished two years ago. Malik drops his sports duffel, strips off his shirt, and jogs onto the court.
“I am ready for this,” he says. “Born ready.” Malik has skills; the ball arcs into the blue and whispers though the hoop. His layup kisses the backboard. “That is how you do it,” he says. “Let’s play some one-on-five, so you can work on your defense. Don’t think it’s all about making shots – this game is about defense.”
The five younger men fall on Malik man-on-man as he darts across the court up to the net. His shot hisses through the hoop. They set up a 2-3 zone, and Malik scores. They try a 3-2, and he scores again. Standing casually with the ball resting at his hip, Malik offers pointers to the other players as they gasp for breath with their hands on their thighs. “It’s all about knowing your territory, and holding it,” he says. “You need to focus, and know where the ball is coming from, because it might not be coming from where you think.” They repeat the drills. They make Malik work.
Suddenly, Malik turns and passes to the trespasser with the camera. I miss the pass. “It’s not my game,” I mutter with a shrug.
“So you have something to learn,” Malik laughs, as he picks up his shirt to wipe the sweat from the back of his neck. A player tosses him the ball from the sidelines. “I’ve been playing here since I lived over on Jersey,” he gestures in the direction of a street now home to gourmet cheese shops and brewpubs. “I came here every day after school, and twice on Sunday. The Spanish people used to grill food on game days at the baseball field over there. On summer nights we’d all sit out on the sidewalk over there and drink beer. This is my home… but I don’t live here anymore.”
There’s a pause. A jetliner out of Newark climbs overhead. The shadow from the overpass creeps across toward the eastern basket. “So what will you do when they bulldoze the Five for a condo development? What will you do then?” I ask. Malik shrugs and runs onto the court, firing off a jump shot with perfect accuracy.
The other players have gone. There’s a dense cloud rising like an anvil in the direction of Brooklyn. “It’s getting late,” I say, “and it looks like rain.”
“I don’t care,” Malik says, looking East. “I’m going to keep playing here as long as I can.”