For the better part of a week last year, this corrugated, cardboard box sat in the much-maligned central fountain in Journal Square in Jersey City. I chose this symbolic discard as the focus for the blog because the box effectively stands in for the unfortunate decay evident in the central plaza in New Jersey’s second largest city. For some time now, the water has been turned off in the fountain and people sit around the edge of a dry marble bowl. In the spring and summer months it becomes a popular place for dozens of people to lean and watch the diverse crowd passing by.
From 2007 to 2009 I conducted ethnographic research in and around Journal Square, a formerly vibrant center of political and cultural effervescence. Since its glory days from the 1920’s through the 1950’s – a time when presidents and celebrities campaigned and performed in the Square – it has fallen into a long period of decline and even blight. The Square once exemplified the type of public space that would have represented the “meaning of public life” for Hannah Arendt. It served as a place where thousands of people gathered, they were seen and heard, and “wordly reality” appeared (Arendt, The Human Condition). As a participant observer in the life of the Square and the surrounding neighborhood, I was witness to the continued neglect of what was once the central cultural node in Northeastern New Jersey. Numerous community stakeholders have initiated a variety of plans for the neighborhood’s revitalization; however, no measure has succeeded in restoring the vibrancy and appeal of Journal Square’s former era. It remains what I call a suspended place.
The box in the fountain provides tangible evidence of the Bermuda Triangle effect that operates in the Square. It is a discard that carries enormous meaning. Objects and people (and the entire Square itself) hang suspended in time, revitalization plans stall, politicians and stakeholders argue, and the place once known as “Jersey City’s heart,” as one local businessman described it, spirals downward. Another interview subject told me that the fountain has become “nothing but a place for homeless to urinate – they actually put soap in there and bathe.” Another person also stated that the fountain is “a bathing area for the homeless.”
Reality is socially constructed each day. When authority figures denigrate the key parts of the Square that promote a healthy social life in the plaza, many residents and people who work in nearby office buildings will continue to see it as merely an eyesore, rather than the formerly dynamic, vivacious place it once was and can be again. Objects can become discards. So can places. With care, imagination, and political will, we can bring new life to them. Eric Friedman Old Journal Square