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Hizzoner On The Hudson
Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler Is A Policy Wonk With An Eye For Art

Originally appeared in The Sunday Star-Ledger on August 30th, 1998
By Dan Bischoff
Star Ledger Staff

It began with SoHo in the early 1960s but really took off In the late 70s with the Lower east Side, followed by Long Island City and Brooklyn's Williamsburg district. There was some talk that it was happening in Hoboken in the 1980s, but that never came to much.

These days when talk turns to the next alternative art scene, the name you hear often is Jersey City. And no one has worked harder to make that impression stick than republican mayor Bret Schundler.

"Why would anyone live in a city if they could afford to live in an affluent suburb?" Schundler asks. "Because cities are where the arts live, where there is a critical mass of people interested in and anxious to be involved in living arts... You need to be at the center of a large population, near a transportation hub, to find visual artists, performing artists, great restaurants and all the things we think of as the finer things."

Since taking office in 1992, Schundler has made quality of life issues a hallmark of his administration. Like another reform-minded, big-city Republican mayor just across the Hudson, he has initiated successful anti-crime efforts (the overall crime rate dropped 23% between 1992 and 1997). In June, the mayor -- as a member of the ad hoc committee seeking the return of Ellis Island to New Jersey -- helped win the publicity-making tiff with New York, prompting a whoop of Jersey pride heard 'round the State.

But it is the Mayor's cultural projects that earn him the most praise. Jersey City Museum Director Nina Jacobs credits him with helping land more than $2 million in federal money for a new $5.6 million museum building on Montgomery St. On a smaller scale, Schundler has opened the rotunda of Jersey City's ornate Victorian city hall to regular exhibitions by local artists; he recently walked among the works on display with evident satisfaction (...this artist is from Guatemala, this one from Peru, these two work with children in the neighborhood making pottery, which they use in their own art...").

Schundler's "Slice of Heaven" series - so called for his catchphrase " Heaven is a place where all the world's people get along" - has brought a dizzying array of ethnic festivals to city parks, reflecting Jersey City's impressively diverse population and winning an award for multiracial programming from the National Black Caucus last year.

Perhaps most importantly to the daily lives of artists, Schundler in 1996 introduced Jersey City's Work and Live District Overlay (WALDO), intended to develop a thriving art colony that won't be uprooted by the gentrification that has made communities like SoHo and Hoboken unaffordable for struggling artists. Offering moderate tax incentives and eased development regulations, WALDO aims to encourage landowners to dedicate the frequently derelict buildings of the downtown neighborhood around First Street to artists' studios.

The goal of these initiatives, Schundler says, is to redevelop Jersey City in rings around a revitalized cultural core, which will raise all boats -the arts community, local retailers, the real estate market -- on the same tide.

The New Jersey State Council on the Arts believes Jersey City's efforts tie in with two objectives in its recently released storewide arts plan.

"It helps to create a cultural district to aid the development of an inner-city neighborhood," says David Miller, the council's assistant director. "And it does this by directly helping artists to live and work in that district.

"We believe that what Mayor Schundler has done has been visionary," Miller continues, adding that the WALDO project could provide interesting models for other arts districts around the state," such as the Camden waterfront and the Roebling Center in Trenton.

While it is difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship, Jersey City -- with a population of approximately 255,000 -- this year displaced Newark as the most populous urban center in the state. Cultural Affairs Director Orlando Cuevas estimates there are at least 500 emerging and established artists living in Jersey City today; more than 200 of them have studios in the old Lorimar tobacco factory on First Street (part of the WALDO plan).

"I think he is just very sincere about wanting to improve the quality-of-life issues in Jersey City," says Jacobs, the Jersey City Museum director. "One of the first things he did as mayor was create a Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs, which for the first time put culture on the same footing with the city's regular day-to-day business. I've been here 12 years, and believe me, you can really tell the difference he's made in Jersey City."

Not there yet

Still, it may be premature to talk about a thriving art scene in Jersey City. Where five years ago there were seven commercial art galleries in town, now there are only four. The Jersey City Museum, which should be the mainstay of the local artists' community and a prestigious venue for showing their work, is at least 18 months away from opening its new building; until then, its distinguished contemporary shows are shoehorned into three galleries on the fourth floor of the Public Library.

More disappointing is the failure of the key provision of WALDO -- the "work and live" part -- to take effect. Since 1996, many of the buildings in the district have been bought up by speculators, but there have been no large conversions to arts use. The studio space in the old Lorimar tobacco factory predates WALDO and, in any event, addresses only the "work" element of the plan since building code violations make it illegal for artists to live there (although some do).

The fact is that practicing artists may live and work here, but many focus their hopes on Manhattan, which looms over Jersey City's skyline like an unmoving line of thunderstorms. There are others who say the Jersey City art scene has come and gone, the victim, oddly, of the current boom in the contemporary art market.

The model of urban/cultural rejuvenation is SoHo, in living memory a forbidding cast-iron neighborhood of half-empty factories and warehouses that attracted artists for its vast spaces and cheap rents. Its success spawned both a real art colony in Long Island City and an unexpected alternative Manhattan art scene on the Lower East Side. The latter went through its own (albeit smaller scaled) gentrification in the 1980s, sending a wave of artists across the river into Brooklyn's Williamsburg district.

In each case, the value of the "hot" art neighborhood went up, and by 1992, the question was, who would be the next Williamsburg?

Jersey City made sense. Rents were about half those in Manhattan, and there are lots of empty manufacturing buildings. The city is easier to reach by train from Tribecca and Chelsea than Brooklyn is, and the state sales tax is only 5 percent (compared to 8 percent in New York) and just 3 percent in the WALDO district.

All those things are true today, but the art-market boom of the past year has made Manhattan once again affordable for the best younger artists.

"Things looked brightest for Jersey City two or three years ago," says artist Robert Costa, a former visual arts coordinator for the city who now lives ,and works in' Manhattan. "At that time, New York was still caught up in one of the longest art-market slumps in memory, and people were looking for an alternative scene where rents were low enough and the art interesting enough to create a new Lower East Side."

Schundler rejects such criticism. "The WALDO project is not stalled," he says. "Getting the zoning regulations and the building codes changed was the easy part -- then we had to get out there and sell hope."

He says the city is in discussions with two investors proposing to transform four WALDO buildings, with more than 100 units each, into artists' spaces over the next 18 to 24 months. One developer also "is talking about taking an abandoned garage and turning it into a performance space," Schundler adds.

That reaction is hardly a surprise, coming from the city's No. 1 booster. But listen, instead, to photographer Leon Yost: '"this is the most positive climate Jersey City has had for the arts since I moved here 25 years ago. Of course, artists have to create their own future -- it's up to them to take advantage of the situation the city has helped provide. But ... every time were gone to City Hall with a problem, we've found support, and that's just really, really refreshing." Jersey City artists are not the only ones who feel the competition from New York. Battles with the city over licensing and other regulations prompted two nightclubs to close down some operations in recent months, and the city's latest attempt to foster nightlife development was tabled Aug. 12 for more study.

Talk to Schundler about his arts fueled initiatives, and you will first be carried along by a rushing stream of sociological analysis and urban planning -- how cities are "transportation nexuses" that provide a "critical mass" of population to support the finer things in life. The mayor's grasp of planning jargon and the market friendly role of the fine arts in urban renewal -- so fashionable of late -- comes naturally: He has a bachelor's degree in sociology from Harvard and reads religious, historical and policy books for amusement.

But the real reason this 39-year-old father of two (Shaylan, 6, and Hans Otto , barely 1 month is in Jersey City comes out only later, when his bedside reading retreats a little.

"You know, some of us just have this perverse love for life in the city," Schundler says. "It's the place with the widest range of experiences, full of alternative folks and different ways of seeing life, and I'm that way. I love living here."

He does not, however, love it unconditionally. "While I'm here, and I'm attracted to the city, you always want to imagine it as a place that could be just a little safer," he says, "where there isn't loud music on the streets at 3 a.m. from boom boxes, a place where you can enjoy urban life.

Politics and religion

As Schundler readily admits, he didn't grow up planning to be the mayor of Jersey City. He was raised in Westfield, where he was an all-state football lineman, and graduated from Harvard in 1982. A Presbyterian, Schundler was living in a religious mission in Washington, D.C., and casting about for a position in the ministry when he was hired as a staffer to Representative Robert Dyson (D. Md.).

In 1984, he went to Iowa to help organize Democratic Colorado Senator Gary Hart's bid for the presidency. Hart did surprisingly well in Iowa but lost the nomination to Walter Mondale. Schundler came back to Jersey City and started working for what was then Salomon Brothers. It was the heady first days of the 1980s boom.

"I figured that if I could sell Gary Hart to Iowans," Schundler says, "I could sell bonds on Wall Street."

He did well enough to quit after six years, then traveled around the world with his wife, Lynn, a lawyer who now teaches at Seton Hall Law School. In 1991 they bought a house in Jersey City, less than three blocks from City Hall and almost immediately became involved in local politics.

Republican politics, this time, aimed at the county-wide Democratic machine. To protest what Schundler believed Were inequities in the city's property tax laws, he mounted a campaign for state senate and, much to his own surprise, came within a whisker of winning. That set him up for the 1992 special mayoral election, called after then-Mayor Gerald McCann was jailed for fraud.

Schundler says his commitment to quality-of-life issues grows out of his neighborhood concerns and, more basically, his religious background. He goes around saying stuff like "parks are the front lawn of a city." But his hopes for a cultural renaissance in Jersey City are based on more than a feel-good-fuzzy feeling about the finer things in life and how they boost a city's image.

Soon after taking over City Hall, Schundler was introduced to ArtSpace, the influential, nonprofit Minneapolis design firm that helps communities integrate fine art into urban planning. The group has worked in more than 75 cities, including Portland, Pittsburgh, Reno (Nev.) and Newburg (N.Y.), and is now collaborating with ProArts, the nonprofit outfit that promotes the arts in the greater Jersey City area

"No state has more aggressively pursued the concept of arts-led urban redevelopment than New Jersey has," says ArtSpace consultant Chris Velasco. "Just the fact that in Jersey City there is already s collaboration between a nonprofit arts group and the city government is in itself a thing of great value. In most cities where we are asked to help out, we have to go through a rather lengthy education process lust to get that started.

"Admittedly, WALDO has been a little slow off the mark," Velasco continues, "but on paper, it is one of the most progressive and forward-thinking arts plans we've seen anywhere. Maybe the city needs to do something more to get it going. But when it does, it's the sort of development that will get a lot of interest from other communities around the country!

Establishing an alternative arts scene, however, takes much more than planning prospectuses, building code waivers or even prominent partnerships. It has to do with style -- a recognizable, exportable style that communicates whatever shared values the scene embraces. The Lower East Side, for example, produced a diverse but identifiable style that was irreverent, funky and frequently sexual in content.

"I don't guess you can really define a Jersey City style except to say it's painterly," says Alejandro Anreus, curator for the Jersey City Museum, "you don't see too much conceptual art. It's multiethnic, and it isn't afraid of narrative."

There isn't much Bret Schundler can do about a Jersey City style. Except, maybe, recognize it when it's there.

"I would argue that my strength is the ability to listen to people," Schundler says, "and my hope Is that great art will draw great art lovers?"


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