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Urban Marginalia: Graffiti in Jersey City

Mar 24, 2015

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An study of graffiti near the northern border of Jersey City, NJ, near the Holland Tunnel. Discusses the neighborhood, the graffiti sites, and the graffiti itself; includes almost 100 photos.

Urban Marginalia Graffs.htm.doc

08/31/2007 08:23 AM

I always tell people that if you want to know whats going on with a city, look at the writing on the wall: you can tell what skill level and what social problems are happening, whats going on with the youth. Toons, Los Angeles graffiti artist Graffiti. Not graffiti in general, which has been painted and written since humankind first put markings on cliffs and in caves, but graffiti of a certain type that originated on the East Coast of the United States, particularly New York City and Philadelphia, during the late 1970s. This type of graffiti became associated hip hop culture, which also includes the music itself, with its DJs and MCs, the videos that go with that music, the various styles of break dancing, and certain fashion styles. As hip hop spread around the world, so did associated graffiti styles, though they've never become completely absorbed into hip-hop culture. As far as I know, there is no standard term that designates this particular graffiti tradition and distinguishes it from the general run of graffiti. But people in this tradition often talk of graffs. Thats the term I will use, the graff tradition. Here is an example in the graff tradition:

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Figure 1: Mural, Jersey Avenue, Jersey City Note: If you want to see a larger image, you can click on the image and thus be taken to my Flickr site, where I store these images online. Click on the ALL SIZES button (the one with the little magnifying glass) above the picture and then choose a larger image. That is as typical of the style as one could hope for in a single example, and that is why I chose it. The style is based on letters, specifically, the letters of the writers nickname. In the graff tradition, a writer is someone who paints graffiti. Reading the mural from left-to-right, we have DR. SEX (notice the downward sweep of the two Rs), Jersey Joe (the green creature), and HOUR. That elephant-like creature in the middle of this mural is called a character; such characters are often used as embellishments, though in some cases the embellishments may expand and take over. This mural is about 50 yards from my apartment building, clearly visible from my front windows and from the street. Or it was visible; now it is painted over it in a medium light gray paint. Someone complained to the City and the City responded. While I am interested in graffs in general, I am writing specifically about examples within walking distance of my apartment. Much of what I say, however, is informed by general reports and discussions about graffs, most of which are journalistic, even informal, rather than scholarly. I have no reason to think that my local sites are unique in any but a geographical sense. Ive seen similar images in books and websites devoted to graffs. The Lay of the Land I live in the Hamilton Park neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey, located on the West bank of the Hudson River across from lower Manhattan. This is a complex urban environment containing housing, small businesses, major roads, abandoned buildings and lots, and small concentrated patches of woodland and grassland. Think of it as an urban savanna in a temperate climate. While exploring one site I sometimes feel like Ive fallen into one of those jungle adventure movies at the point where the Intrepid Explorers first see signs of The Ancient Temple That Has Been Lost for Ages:

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Figure 2: Lost Temple? The letters to the left of center spell out AIDS, a graff crew that is quite active in the area. I have no idea whether or not there is any affiliation with an old Chicago crew writing under the same letters: Artists Inventing Def Styles. It should go without saying that these artists know quite well that AIDS is also the name for a chronic disease. Another locally active crew calls itself ADHD. Less than a mile from that graff we come to the remains of an old chocolate factory at least thats what Ive been told about the building:

Figure 3: The old chocolate factory Notice the remains of spent fireworks at the lower right. I dont know when those fireworks were discharged, though July 4th is a plausible guess, but I took the photograph on October 31, 2006.file:///Users/bill/Documents/New%20Savanna%20II/Graffiti-Jersey%20City/Urban%20Marginalia%20Graffs.htm Page 3 of 59

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Roughly midway between those two locations there used to be several small abandoned buildings they were demolished sometime during the winter. I took this photograph inside a compound bounded by three of them:

Figure 4: Compound surrounded by abandoned buildings Standing on an embankment not far from the mural in the first photograph, and roughly two blocks south of that now-demolished compound, I took this shot:

Figure 5: Freight terminal, PATH building, Empire State Building In the left middle distance you see a red brick building that used to be a freight terminal for the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad. The water tower at its western end is visible from the compound in the previous photograph. Its on top a building that used to be a freight terminal for the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad. In the background to the far right, the Empire State Building. The building in the middle belongs to the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, the New York-New Jersey agency that runs the port, the airports, the tunnels and bridges, and ground zero. This then, is where I live. My apartment is roughly three-quarters of a mile from the Hudson River and threetenths of a mile as the crow flies from the in-bound toll booths for the Holland Tunnel. The southern end of the Jersey Palisades is about a mile inland at this point. The highways serving the Holland Tunnel comes down off the Heights, as the Palisades are known locally, about a third of a mile West of me and two blocks (in-bound) and four blocks (out-bound) North.file:///Users/bill/Documents/New%20Savanna%20II/Graffiti-Jersey%20City/Urban%20Marginalia%20Graffs.htm Page 4 of 59

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From the last half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century Jersey City, along with Hoboken immediately to the North, had major port facilities. Those facilities were served by railroad lines and yards. Many of those lines and yards where just north of my neighborhood. Most of them, but not all, are gone now. Most of the graffiti in the area, but not all of it, is located in or near the abandoned or remaining railroad facilities. That AIDS graff is 25 yards from a still active railroad line; it is painted on the base of a stanchion supporting a highway that feeds into the Holland Tunnel. The chocolate factory is 100 yards from a commuter rail line. When I took the picture spanning the old freight terminal and the Empire State Building I was standing on land that had four railroad tracks on it until the late 1960s or so. This land is marginal to the sites where we live and conduct office and retail business. That is where you find the most interesting graffs. Life at the Margin I became interested in graffiti in October of 2006. While walking to one of the sites in Jersey Citys annual tour of artist studios and galleries, I noticed things and stuff that prompted me to take pictures. Not remarkable or beautiful things, just ordinary things on the streets. So I got out my Canon point-and-shoot and began walking the streets taking pictures.

Figure 6: Abandoned doll

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Figure 7: Stop Sign One day I was beneath a long ramp that carried US Routes 1 and 9 down from the Jersey Heights and into the Holland Tunnel. At this point the roadway is supported by rows of squat cylindrical columns of reinforced concrete. When I looked down the rows toward the Tunnel I saw shopping carts, stacked mattresses, and furniture, all in order. It was an odd and unexpected sight. What was going on? I approached to investigate and, more likely than not, to take pictures.

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Figure 8: Urban homestead The only reason I did not immediately conclude that someone was living here is that that did not make sense. Here? Underneath one of the most traveled roadways on the East Coast, funneling tens of thousands of people into New York City every day of the year? In full view of an office-building parking lot? This is not an enclosed area; there is something of a roof overhead, the highway, but thats it. No, it did not make sense that people lived here. But if no one lived here, the alternative made even less sense, that someone went to a great deal of trouble to arrange trash in such an orderly fashion. By the time I had taken my third or fourth photograph I had concluded that I must be in someones home. I felt embarrassed, taking photographs of someones home without their knowledge or permission. Over the next few days I thought about that place and the people who lived there. Yes, I thought the obvious thoughts about such poverty in the worlds wealthiest nation. But those were not new thoughts; Id been having such thoughts all my adult life. The thoughts I now had were a bit

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