Every day I walk out my front door and am met by the same bustling community that has inspired me over the past few years. As a queer rock musician, I live in what I consider to be the surprising sixth borough of NYC—Jersey City. My roots lie in this historically rich city, and from where I stand on the Jersey side of the Hudson river, I’m privy to a gorgeous view of lower Manhattan—from the sun reaching across the river to greet me as I wake, to the bright lights of the skyline that cast a spotlight on me as I skateboard by the waterfront at night.
I have lived in Jersey City for almost five years now and have had many opportunities to move to Williamsburg, South Park Slope, the Lower East Side and the East/West Village, but something keeps me here. And perhaps I don’t want to give the reason why too quickly—the stunned looks on the faces of snobbish New York City socialites when I reveal my home locale amuses me all too much. Little do they know about the hidden treasures we enjoy throughout the downtown area of Jersey City. These perks go beyond the ample square footage in our affordable homes that many of our NYC peers, if they could expand their horizons westward, would enjoy. Still, I wouldn’t have written this article about the awesomeness that is Jersey City, before that fateful day, December 21, 2006, when NJ took a huge bite out of the Big Apple with some really good news. As progressive as all five boroughs may be, they lack one advantage. New Jersey will grant civil unions to same-sex couples and appears to be on its way to signing a marriage bill for LGBTI individuals starting on February 19, 2007. In celebration of this momentous change, citizens of Jersey City are assembling a PATH to Equality ride from Christopher Street PATH station to Grove Street (in downtown Jersey City) for New Yorkers to join Jersey City same-sex couples and obtain civil union licenses at City Hall. Now that just tops it all.
How has Jersey City become an attraction for gay New Yorkers, surpassing even the longstanding gay center, the West Village? Getting to know several key figures in the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Two-Spirit, and Intersex) community in Jersey City (JC) helps make this movement perfectly clear.
In Madame Claude Café, a favorite Jersey City hangout, I meet up with former Dyke TV filmmaker/producer Donna Kessinger and Candy Ellison, 35, of Les Biens Incorporated, a video collaboration project in which they conduct interviews on “how you knew you were a lesbian” for an upcoming film project. They sip from the same mimosa, as they describe their perspective on Jersey City. Candy explains that, at first glance, JC reminded her of New Orleans, “it was refreshing that people looked at each other here. [Donna and I] can walk down the street, hold hands, and there is no attitude or need to explain anything.” She continues, “You never know how homophobia will affect you, but here, you don’t have to hide.” As she looks across the table at her girlfriend, they exchange smiles.
Shortly, Jersey City-born LGBTI leader Yvette Cid, and Kristin Hurd a broker manager for Weichert Realty join us. Hurd discusses how she initially wanted to move to NYC, yet decided to stay in JC due to the quality of life, getting more for your money, and the rawness of the environment. “Jersey City isn’t ‘pretty,’” she says with a smirk. “It is diverse in culture, sexuality, income and race. Many gay and lesbian couples with kids live in JC and have settled here to raise families.” Despite sky-rocketing market prices (a three story brownstone in 2000 cost $300,000 and in 2007 that same brownstone costs $1 million), she offers that there are opportunities to own real estate in Jersey City with low-interest rate loans.
Hurd is a co-chair of the Chilltown Pride Center, an organization working towards establishing a LGBTI community center in the downtown area that Cid co-founded. “Jersey City was very friendly to the LGBTI community since the 1950s. ‘Chilltown’ was what Jersey City was called back in the day,” Cid explains. Philip Piccione, the Vice-Chair of Fundraising for Chilltown Pride Center stops by to say hello. In his opinion, Jersey City is “laid back” and makes him feel, what with civil unions in place, “more like an American.”
Cid was chosen to witness the signing of the Civil Union Bill this past December. I ask Cid what it was like to be present at the signing. “I [felt] really proud. It was an awesome feeling as an American to witness this event for the gay community…At the moment of the signing, I realized I was at a historic moment for NJ. I never thought as a little Puerto Rican girl born in NJ I would witness this, and as a lesbian woman. I felt like a little kid in awe,” Cid says.
The work done to get this bill signed gives an idea of how dedicated leaders in the overall NJ gay/lesbian communities are. Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach, Inc. (JCLGO), has taken a leading role pushing for civil unions for gay/lesbian couples, and despite the joy of the bill signing, they are working on a marriage bill to follow. Steven Goldstein from Garden State Equality, Laura Pople from NJ Lesbian/Gay Coalition, Babs Casbar of New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, and Joan Hervey of Plainfield Equality also believe in a future that makes marriage possible for all people. As Cid states, “New Jersey is more liberal than New York State. I didn’t set out to be an activist but I became one. I want people to have what I didn’t have in my life.” Cid’s sentiments echo several other JC residents, many of whom have started mentoring programs for youth, opened up their first businesses, and envision a future for Jersey City that offers services they would like to receive. Jersey City is a place where people who, as Kristin Hurd self-describes, “live hard and play hard.”
Cid repeated a comment Senator Loretta Weinberg and others made, which struck me: “I wish I was signing a marriage bill but I have to go with what most people believe.” What do most people believe? In my world, most people believe that our differences make us stronger, that love comes in all different forms, and expressing uniqueness is far more interesting than hiding it. At the point where I wonder if I have it all wrong, I pass by 2nd Street’s Grace Church Van Vorst. I stand for a moment, wondering about this issue of “belief,” and remember that a woman and an openly gay reverend lead the congregation. I end up speaking with Reverend Greg Perez, 47, co-founder of Chilltown Pride Center, who also witnessed the civil union bill signing and ask him his belief. He explains, “I am excited about [civil unions] and hope my partner and I will be in line to get our license. In the next five years NJ will [see] a marriage bill [in place]. It will take the unification of the LGBTI groups [and their willingness] to keep [their] eyes on the ultimate goal: marriage is the completed step.” Perez reflects on the complexities of being an out leader in an Episcopalian church, “the church is dealing with issues of sexuality and morality…[but] I have no problem conducting marriage ceremonies for LGBTI couples who want to give marriage a shot.” This sentiment brings a new lightness to my step.
Jersey City begins to feel like an oasis I thought only Portland, Oregon could be when I was a graduate student working at the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls. After stopping by kinder-queer hang out Janam Indian Tea Shop for an excellent cup of tea, I walk with local Stephen Hindman, 34, of Cult-Hero Records who confirms: “No one bats an eye to see punk kids or gay kids here. The more people see that, the more it is commonplace. It is awesome that there are civil unions now for the community.” Nancy Caamaño, 26, who runs Youth Mentoring at Hudson Pride Connections, a center for the LGBTI community located in the Journal Square area of JC, shares with me why she loves living in downtown JC. She laughs and explains, “Everyone wants to know why I live in JC. JC provides for me what I only had as a dream when I first came out: a place I could live, be out, okay with it, and proud…JC allows me to serve the community and take leadership on issues that are important to me. I would never have considered myself an activist, but JC gave me a sense of cause and belonging.” Her colleague Vanessa Brown, 35, who directs the (GLITZ) Transgender Women program & the Youth Connect Program at Hudson Pride, comes to JC from Brooklyn almost every day of the week. From Vanessa’s point of view, “There’s a whole different vibe here. There’s a willingness to collaborate, help one another out, and everyone is very open.” I ask her if she has considered moving to JC. She states, “What would make me move to JC is the people, the community feel, the cost of living, and its close vicinity to NYC…JC is becoming more of a youth-oriented place that is hip and progressive.” Guido Sanchez, 26, the Director of Hudson Pride Connections, plans to move to Jersey City since “serving Hudson County is a very unique experience with a diverse community. It’s a whole different world…with interesting politics and people.”
But there are more than civil unions and progressive politics that make Jersey City attractive. For starters, if you like a warm community that recognizes you by name, a quick 6-minute PATH train ride to lower Manhattan, and underground scenes sans hipsters, then Jersey City is for you. Small shops have opened all over downtown (read: no Starbucks) and visitors to JC may even run into famous authors, like Leslie Feinberg, members from the band Interpol, or several up-and-coming visual artists like Doris Caçoilo, Nyugen Smith and Sebastián Patané Masuelli. Many events, often supported by the thriving artist, music, and LGBTI communities occur here on a monthly basis. There are always things to do and new people to meet. From parties at 58 Coles Gallery that echo Andy Warhol’s Factory, to fashion shows, and hip, woman-owned vintage stores, Jersey City never ceases to impress me. One of the most multi-ethnic cities in the state of New Jersey, our community is a great example of an American city, where people work together across difference, valuing human rights for all people.
As Mayor Jerramiah Healy states, “Just outside your door, a cultural oasis awaits.” The tourism line for Jersey City has caught on: See the art, taste the food, hear the music, feel the diversity. As a queer JC resident I am inclined to agree with both statements. Jersey City is a community of kick-ass folk with newfound freedoms available at their fingertips. Now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get on the PATH train to hang out with us musicians, artists, fashion-heads, queers, and progressives of multi-layered interests and backgrounds. Maybe you will be part of making the future marriage bill pass in Jersey and eventually, New York.
Ingrid Dahl, 26, is a queer rock musician who plays in the bands Boyskout, The 303s, & Lismore. She is a founding member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls and is the editor for Youth Media Reporter. Ingrid has a Masters Degree in Women’s & Gender Studies from Rutgers University, is a mentor for LGBTIQ youth,, and a make up artist/stylist model for many of the JC art/fashion shows. Dahl.Ingrid@gmail.com