Leaving an Asian restaurant with beads of sweat reflecting off my head, my tongue retaining the numbing heat that only Szechuan peppers can provide, I step into a Jersey City evening so steamy I begin marinating. But there’s a difference between this visit and all the others: It’s July — which I’ve sworn to avoid — and it’s still light enough to clearly see the changes that, through the decades, have transformed a gritty, blue-collar enclave into another wealthy bastion, known as “The Gold Coast,” and it looks a lot more like Dubai than the Jersey of my formative years.
No one would ever guess I grew up around here as my gaze drifts up, up and away, focused on glittering skyscrapers rising like a phoenix, not from ashes, but the Hudson River shoreline, disappearing into the low-hanging, multi-color clouds, softly reflecting the urban light show below. That I could easily be mistaken for a midwestern tourist is a hard swallow but clearly, I don’t belong here anymore. I’m aged out — everyone is 40 years younger; I’m priced out — the average rent is $2,700; and honestly, I’m spaced out — having lived in solitude too long to tolerate this 24/7 metropolitan buzz.
With longtime friends the draw and great food an exceptional fringe benefit, I’ll continue periodic ventures south but with gentrification, my memories have become more haunting — nostalgia wrapped in a spectral shroud that dims recollection. A different place with different people going about far different lives is what I see as my mind wanders: docks and railroad yards, now a warren of condos running along the river from Bayonne to Hoboken. When luxury housing for New York City commuters began replacing shipping ports, neighborhoods saw investment bankers displacing longshoremen and their families. Tipping that first domino led to a cascade that continues today.
Once a poor, working class series of neighborhoods, downtown Jersey City has been “revitalized” by a more affluent caste of characters, repairing and reconditioning to the point that an influx of wealthier, middle-class residents began replacing earlier, less well-off neighbors. Housing values and rents have consequently soared, effectively evicting those who simply cannot afford to live there anymore, turning the once diverse population into one predominantly wealthier and whiter.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw another curve at the national real estate market, introducing a somewhat different, steroid-dosed gentrification, leaving most neighborhoods exactly the way they were structurally but launching a homebuyer’s feeding frenzy that has seen even modest homes double and even triple in value if they’re in what is considered a desirable area, which increasingly translates to rural, quiet and safe. As lockdowns spread and social distancing became the order of the day, wealthy urbanites suddenly found their ready access to crowded, kinetic cityscapes losing much of its allure. Working from home was an option reserved for well-paid professionals compensated for their knowledge rather than the tasks they’re willing to perform.
In a nanosecond, we figured out “home” was anywhere you could hang your modem as high-speed internet quickly topped the list of amenities sought by a workforce liberated through newfound mobility. Just as Apple employees drove up home prices in San Francisco nearly a decade ago and similarly to stockbrokers rendering much of Jersey City unaffordable for all but the wealthy, the infiltration of nomadic tech workers has jump-started a transformation in farther flung areas, as well.
Along with already affluent places like Nantucket, Miami and Palm Springs, an influx of COVID refugees has escalated home prices in places like Austin, Boise, Idaho, and Madison, Wisconsin. I recently spent several weeks in Missoula where my son — who’s lived there for 12 years — has been looking to buy a house. In the market for a couple of years, he’s been patient, since until very recently there was no real urgency, no reason to rush such an important decision. But the real estate boom has landed hard out west. As the Brooklyns of the world see their housing prices crater as their residents flee, Missoula, as well as Bozeman and Jackson, Wyoming, are heading in the opposite direction.
Zillow listings in Missoula have essentially become auction sites like Sotheby’s with the asking price considered merely an opening bid with the eventual selling price tens of thousands of dollars more. We toured several overpriced, older, single-family homes in good locations that were considered “tear downs” by the realtor, meaning that, once purchased, usually for over $400,000, another $100,000 is needed for demolition before investing a wad of cash constructing a home to their own specifications.
With average people unable to even think of buying a home under these circumstances without a hefty disposable income, the American Dream, that has become part of our DNA, is completely out of reach. If this trend continues, and there is no reason to think it won’t with more and more people planning to permanently work from somewhere other than a physical office, a new, national housing crisis will be emerging sooner rather than later and unlike the housing bubble that burst in 2008, this one appears far more likely to last for years.
On the New York Thruway north, our surroundings become exponentially cooler; lushly greener; and the city vibe slowly becomes nearly imperceptible, the pandemic exodus clarifies. I never really felt like an urbanite. As an adolescent, I paged through dog-eared copies of Field and Stream or Outdoor Life, lusting for open spaces, clear trout streams and grouse hunts in blazing autumn forests. I believe the need for tranquility resides deeply in everyone, but when such serenity is miles away, yoga classes, meditation workshops, tai chi or taking a stationary bike ride to nowhere, suffice to pave over emotional potholes.
As more people experience the real thing, though, their aspirations range further afield and with their newfound mobility, they might land on our doorstep. Unlike Brood X, the next wave will probably take a lot less than 17 years to get here.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.