Mixed messages

As it was.

Yesterday we walked to Berry Lane Park. I’d been looking forward to a little time on the grass, or just a seat on a park bench. But familiar comforts were tough to find at Berry Lane. We took a tour of the perimeter and, without stopping, walked home.

Berry Lane is a park with a visual signature. Its most famous feature is the line of yellow-gray silos in the midst of a wide lawn — a tip of the cap to the neighborhood’s industrial past, and an acknowledgement that this used to be a brownfield property. Those silos are still standing, but visitors can’t get to them anymore. Most of the lawn, too, is off-limits, ringed by a cyclone fence. Yesterday, only the hill in front of the silos was open for visitors. Hoops have been taken away from the basketball courts. The gates to the kids’ playgrounds were closed, and the baseball field was locked. The most vigorous activity in the park, and the loudest, too, came from the construction workers who’ve turned the green square at the foot of Bramhall Avenue into a building site.

I later learned that they were putting in a skatepark. That strikes me as a bizarre thing to do in the middle of a pandemic. The state government ordered a halt on all inessential construction projects on April 8. Some residential projects have paused, but the frantic building and overbuilding that has been the most reliable characteristic of life in Jersey City for two decades hasn’t exactly tapered off. As we in Hudson County are now painfully aware, construction continues on Duffield Avenue at the eastern edge of the Hackensack River. There, a crew drove a sheet piling into a thirty-six inch main, causing a massive spill that has denied clean water to Hoboken and Jersey City for the last eighteen hours. As I type, people in Journal Square and Marion are still reporting outages. It is hard to keep hands and surfaces clean during an outbreak when there’s no running water. It’s worth asking whether the state and the city have their priorities straight; it’s also worth asking whether they’re backing up their stated priorities with consequential action.

On our way back from Berry Lane, we passed Ercel Webb Park, set like a little emerald in the bezel of the neighborhood. Barricades were still up, but at least a few people ignored them; they’d either moved them aside or hopped the fence. It was easy to see why people in the neighborhood were so tempted. Webb Park was as inviting as Berry Lane, just two blocks to the south, was off-putting. Why had the city chosen to open a park under construction instead of the one that’s ready to receive visitors? It made no sense to us. Like so many of the decisions, large and small, that have been made by authorities over the past months, it seemed arbitrary, ill-considered, and destined to be sporadically enforced.

Elsewhere, people were out, and masked, and gathering supplies. The line at our local butcher’s shop stretched from the middle of the block to the corner. It is always nice to see an independent local business doing well during a crisis, and the people who run that butcher’s shop are good neighbors in every sense of the word. That said, the frantic collection of meat continues to be a deep-psychological response to the virus that I neither understand nor condone. Stories of threats to the national meat supply are reported daily: outbreaks in packing plants, words of despair from heads of the chicken industry, runs on the meat counters of area groceries. Two days ago, we learned that millions of pigs in Iowa would soon be euthanized. I doubt it matters all that much to the pigs, who were going to be slaughtered anyway, but it’s still gruesome to contemplate. Always attuned to symbolism, if little else, the White House announced an executive order designed to keep the meat industry operating. Here, in an echo of Herbert Hoover’s reputed promise of a chicken in every pot, was the chief figuratively throwing red meat to the tribe. How the federal government intends to keep sick people, and sick businesses, on their feet and on the job wasn’t explained.

Meat is not a necessity. Water is. Long after the break, a boiling order is still in effect for Jersey City, and we haven’t been told when it’s going to be lifted. For a city already suffering, the threat of a contaminated water supply is almost too much to bear. Suez, the company in charge of the utility has dispatched tankers to the hospitals, and I pray that these are sufficient. We’ve got another mess on our hands, and it’s probably not going to be an easy fix.

If I sound a little more irritated this morning than I have in recent days, I want to make it clear that it’s not Suez I’m mad at, or even the clumsy contractors who ruptured one of the city’s vital arteries. I’m annoyed at a state government that makes a great noise about tough construction restrictions, but allows construction projects to continue that further jeopardize the health of a sick city. I’m annoyed with a municipal government that should have put an end to this project, or at least forced a postponement until the worst of the pandemic had passed. I’m annoyed with City Hall for making a self-congratulatory park reopening announcement before the park was ready to be visited. I’m annoyed with the White House for prying an industry open, from afar, and without a real plan to safeguard the people working in that industry, and I’m annoyed at state houses who are forcing people back to business on the basis of nothing more scientific than their desire to avoid cutting unemployment checks. I’m mad at leaders more concerned about the optics of an economic downturn than they are with the public health that any economic progress depends on. I’m annoyed with the system we’ve created — one that makes leaders out of camera-friendly public-relations people, loud-talking executives who never seem to think about what they can do without worrying first about how they’re going to look.

We ought to be well beyond this now. Hard reality should have splashed the cold water on our faces. But I sense that this terrible April hasn’t taught the authorities any lessons that will help us cope with what will be an equally difficult May. Next month, we’re assured, America plans to reopen after a long and restless sleep, and yesterday was my indication of what that’s going to look like: a lot of crashing into pipes, and clashing objectives, and public-services inefficiently distributed, partial access, underwhelming returns, mandated labor, unsafe conditions, no big relief, no tickertape. We’ll cross our fingers, and hold our breaths, and wait for the word from the authorities that we can drink from the taps again. When you get it, will you trust it?