When I first moved to my neighborhood in Jersey City, I knew it was something on the edge of “up-and-coming,” kind of like “slowly approaching” or “looking forward, sometimes.” But I figured with the stop before mine on the PATH train improving so quickly, it was just a matter of time.
It turned out it would be a lot of time. I moved in as the housing bubble burst, and what had been transitional turned into a standstill. It wasn’t as bad as in unsafe, but it wasn’t good as in somewhere you wanted to explore, either. The only retail options have questionable inventory at best. I mean, these aren’t even dollar stores.These are like stores filled with crap typically found for sale on sidewalk blankets. An indoor yard sale.
The dining options are equally lackluster. Technically, we have everything — McDonalds, Burger King, Blimpie, White Castle, Subway — everything you could want in fast food. If it isn’t represented within my ten-block radius, it must be on a lower, less-recognized rung of the value-meal ladder — like Long John Silver’s. And the “nicer,” non-chain restaurants are generally buffets with folding tables. Whenever a new restaurant enters the neighborhood, I anxiously await the opening like some might look forward to a PowerBall drawing. And, in much the same way, I’m usually a loser.
One of the last new places to open seemed promising enough until they raised the sign that read “Chinese and Mixcan Restaurant.” I’m not sure if they misspelled Mexican or they’re serving mixed canned food. Neither seems like a good combination with Chinese.
Whenever a new restaurant enters the neighborhood, I anxiously await the opening like some might look forward to a PowerBall drawing.
Then there is the foot traffic. My neighborhood closely borders two courthouses and a high school, hence the abundance of fast food options. Any doubt that there is enough demand for quick, cheap food is quickly erased by simply counting the wrappers in the streets. The sweepers do a good job each morning, but by the evening the neighborhood again looks like a fast food war zone.
So it’s fair to say that anyone coming into my neighborhood for the first time might question their safety and my choice of residence. Soon after I moved in, a friend came to visit from Miami. Her flight arrived much later than expected, and the cab dropped her off at the front of my condo building well past midnight. I had fallen asleep on the couch, and in the ten minutes it took for me to awake to the buzzer, she nearly suffered a panic attack.
I’ll admit that even I was a little nervous when I first moved in. My neighbor had seen a guy outside her window one evening masturbating. My mind recalled Law & Order episodes for precursors to becoming a more violent offender. I installed an alarm system; I became more guarded.
In the first couple of years, I didn’t meet anyone outside of my building and made no effort to get to know my neighborhood. Then I adopted a little dog, a Westie-poodle mix. Fully grown, Ollie is only 14 pounds, so not an obvious means of protection. But that’s not why I got him: He was a rescue in need of a home, and I had always wanted a dog.
Ollie, however, has proven to be the opposite of a guard dog. Instead, he has broken down my defensiveness. I had let stereotypes and assumptions creep in, and Ollie helped me realize and remedy that. Nothing was more eye-opening than the morning I was walking Ollie and ran into the most intimidating guy in the neighborhood. Big, muscular, covered in tats and constantly looking pissed off, this guy was not normally someone I would introduce myself to. Then I saw him coming down the sidewalk walking two Chihuahuas wearing matching jackets. Their names were Princess and Zoey.
In short, I realized I was being an idiot.
It has been four years since I adopted Ollie, and in that time I’ve built more of a relationship with my neighborhood and the people in it. There are the two brothers who run the gas station that Ollie has to visit every morning because they give him treats. There’s the grandma in the house down the street who sits on her stoop in the summer — if Ollie sees her from a distance, he literally drags me down the block to visit her.
I think we know at least everyone who has a dog in the neighborhood. Dog people know each other, if not by name than by furry friend. I’m not Courtney but “the woman with the little white dog.” Generally, we’re friendly to each other, and the neighborhood seems better to me, improving. Sure, the slow rebound is slowly becoming more visible. A new hipster shoe store opened recently. Nothing says your neighborhood is turning like a store with dark lighting, loud music and overpriced footwear.
But the main improvement, at least for me, has been getting to know the people, which may never had happened if it hadn’t been for Ollie, my little networker, the bias-breaker. My unguard dog.