Describing a shootout today where five cops were gravely injured and two suspects killed in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a team of New York Times reporters writes of a bloodbath not far from “glittering waterfront condominiums” in a benighted area of “empty lots of overgrown grass, bodegas and beauty salons,” like something out of The Wire.
In this version, a weedy stretch of empty lots becomes the entire neighborhood. In fact, the street where the shooting took place is one of the worst intersections—if not the worst — in the neighborhood and not really representative of the constellation of homes and blocks around it. At a monthly meeting with residents in June, the district police captain was well aware of the blight of the block in question, when a resident complained about the drug dealing he was seeing there. Nearby are three new condo developments, all nicely done historic renovations; the two that opened before the real estate market crash last year have sold upwards of 75 percent of their units. Stately older condo buildings dating to the 1930s and 40s not more than a block away have two-bedrooms selling for upwards of $300,000, and the local park is filled with families and children, many long-timers and many newcomers who have recently fled Brooklyn and the posher precincts of Jersey City.
The disparity between the description of the area and the reality of families’ experiences living here just points to the difficulty of national news organizations doing local reporting—even when it’s just across the river—and the biases that creep in. New observers want what they are looking at to be stable and to hew to a category, for better or worse: if this block is bad, this neighborhood must be bad—or conversely, if this stretch of high-rises is glittering, the entire city must be aiming for glitter. A few years ago, for instance, Paul Goldberger’s article in the New Yorker about Jersey City architecture focused only on the waterfront, where high-rises have been going up since the 70s, and painted Jersey City as an aspiring gated community or Asian megacity. The area he visited on the Hudson represents about less than an eighth of the entire 15-square-mile city. (The article even contained this unfortunate sentence: “As Jersey City grows, you can sense a yearning to make a real city.” One wonders whether nationally reported shootings amid old brick homes finally confer ‘real’-ness.)
Not only does the Times’ quick take on the shooting make you reflect on the shorthand visions of mainstream papers and magazines, but it makes this reporter who lives nearby start to question the shorthand that I might engage in within other cities. Do you have to be from somewhere to know which block means what? Until now, that’s what beat reporters were for—but many papers are cutting back, and the Times doesn’t appear to have a dedicated Jersey City reporter, even though it is a city of approximately 250,000 just across the Hudson River from their offices.
I have a bias against the idea of micro-news-gathering online—because I have an old-fashioned attachment to writing for print and getting paid for it, mainly—but it may be exactly the sort of reporting best suited to the complexity of cities, where things change dramatically block by block, corner by corner.
Still, the local message board, jclist.com, which presumably is a test case of this kind of citizen reporting, is filled mainly with people arguing about how close the shootout was to the new high profile developments, with much disagreement. The fact is that it IS close. In many cities, ‘bad’ blocks and new development exist within blocks of each other. Brooklyn is a case in point. When I lived in Fort Greene, there was a project shootout that turned into a broad daylight street shootout in a year of escalating property values (I believe it was in 2000). In cities, weedy lots and high incomes are no stranger.
The online posters to jclist, however, live mainly in downtown Jersey City, while the shooting was in a neighborhood a mile away, under a freeway overpass and up a hill. Perhaps that’s just another example of how “micro” micro-reporting has to be in order to lay claims to accuracy. Tellingly, in the post-beat-reporter era, the people who now know the city best block by block come from the ranks of those five officers who were shot today.
Carly Berwick writes about education and culture for Next City, as well as The New York Times, ARTnews, and other publications.