Aaron Cassara

New York-area Millennials moving there are finding a lot more than just low rent.

Twenty-nine-year-old Mark Bunbury is a poster child for upward mobility. He grew up in Jersey City in a low-income family, the son of Trinidadian and Guyanese immigrants. He attended a public high school, graduated from Penn State, then went on to law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s now an ambitious, gregarious labor attorney, with disposable income to burn.

Still, despite some expectations from family and peers, he never went across the river to New York. Instead, he carved out a niche in his hometown at the urging of a few friends who stayed.

“I kept hearing all this buzz about Jersey City, how it was changing, how people were investing a lot here,” he says. Even though Bunbury’s mom was “super weirded-out” by his return, he’s thriving here and has no plans to leave.

For Bunbury and many of the Millennials I met there, Jersey City functions as a lot more than just a “sixth borough.” It has the dual upsides of being smaller (its population is right around 250,000), cheaper, and more community-oriented than its gargantuan neighbor—yet closer to the tip of Manhattan than some places in Brooklyn and the upper Island. Real estate prices in downtown Jersey City, which has experienced rapid development over the past few years, can rival yuppie Brooklyn’s, but residential neighborhoods like Jersey City Heights are starting to entice young people with actual cheap rent, laid-back bars, and a cornucopia of inexpensive ethnic restaurants. One Jersey City twentysomething described the Heights as having the melting pot feel of Queens—except maybe closer to your downtown job.

Bunbury loves the influence he can wield in his hometown. He volunteered to campaign for newly elected Mayor Steve Fulop, the 36-year-old who rose to prominence after an unlikely city council election victory at the age of 28. Bunbury is also on the board of the Riverview Farmers’ Market in the Heights (where he lives) and the president of a young professional group called Jersey City Ties. He doubts he’d be able to have this level of involvement a few stops east on the PATH train.

Mark Bunbury, 29, grew up in Jersey City and has since moved back after finishing law school. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

“It’s harder to find ‘your people’ there,” he says. “[In New York] you meet someone, and you never see them again. Here, it’s a small enough environment that you can see people with some regularity and develop a sense of neighborhood.”

Bunbury also pays $775 in rent to live in a modern apartment with a roommate that’s “luxury compared to that price in New York.” A year ago, he was living in another spacious apartment with a roommate for $530 a month, including utilities.

The modest prices are a big part of what keeps Laryssa Wirstiuk, 28, a Montville, New Jersey native, in the Heights. She pays $779 for a large, charming studio apartment with a kitchen bigger than most New Yorkers’ bedrooms. She teaches, tutors, and writes on a freelance basis—she prefers variety to a 9-to-5—and she credits Jersey City with allowing her to have that more flexible life. There’s a lively and accessible arts scene here, she says, which provides “an energy that constantly stimulates me as a creative person.”

But Wirstiuk still works at an ad agency in New York City three times a week, and hangs out there a couple of weekends each month. To her, Jersey City feels like an extension of its bigger neighbor. To New Yorkers, not so much.

“I just get this attitude that New Jersey, no matter where it is even if it’s visible across the river, is like a whole different world,” she says. “To me it feels close, but [to New Yorkers], it’s like, ‘no, you are not another borough.’”

Of course, for a certain contingent of Jersey City young people, the feeling is mutual. Many J.C. Millennials have little interest in commuting into New York for their social life, especially if their work is centered here. Liz Migliore, 30, started her company, Jersey City Veggie Burgers, a little over a year ago when she got laid off from her job in the travel industry. When she and her husband worked in Manhattan, she’d hang out there sometimes after work, but now that most of the couple’s friends are in Jersey City, they tend to go out to the restaurants and bars downtown or in the adjacent neighborhood of Journal Square. “The commute is not worth it,” she says.

Central Avenue in the Jersey City Heights neighborhood. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

The nightlife in Jersey City doesn’t feel like mini-New York. For one thing, along with upscale restaurants and wine bars, there are also actual dives—as opposed to Brooklyn bars styled like dives that still charge five dollars for their cheapest beer. At the Lamp Post, a downtown watering hole, five dollars bought me a cheap beer plus a shot of whiskey and entrance to the bar's Weezer cover band show. Another dive called Rolon’s Bar, nicknamed The Keyhole, had low ceilings and served a diverse, intergenerational crowd. Several people also told me that community events in J.C. feel more central and well-attended. “I think it’s easier to get people to show up to something,” said a young woman I met dressed as a Swiss milkmaid at a pre-Halloween costume party in Harsimus Cove Cemetery, hosted by local radio station WFMU.

Still, my 28-year-old host, Will Clarke, says that “dating-wise, Jersey City leaves a bit to be desired,” a sentiment echoed by Bunbury and a couple of others. Clarke, who helps manage the Riverview Farmers’ Market and does a variety of side jobs, points out that many of the Millennials he knows in J.C. are on the older side and “moved here with their boyfriend or girlfriend.” Jersey City’s share of young people under 35 is actually 10 percent higher than the national average, but the consensus seems to be that it’s an ideal place for young urban-minded couples who crave things like yards, quieter streets, and pressure-free weekends.

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Tiffany Rea-Fisher, the associate artistic director of Elisa Monte Dance Company and Clarke’s 32-year-old roommate (and landlord), agrees that she and her husband are “very allergic to the suburbs” but still think of Jersey City as a “getaway.” Her then-boyfriend, Matt Fisher, warmed up to the idea of moving here when they were still dating in 2006 and going home to their separate apartments. One night, after a date downtown, she bet Fisher she’d be able to get home and call him before he reached his apartment up in Inwood. Sure enough, she left him a voicemail when he was still on the subway.

The couple bought a two-family home in Jersey City Heights for $445,000 in 2007, and married shortly afterward. After they collect $500 in rent from Clarke for a bedroom in their apartment, as well as rent from a second apartment downstairs, their monthly mortgage is less than $2000.

Even though they both still work across the river, Rea-Fisher says she loves Jersey City because of the diversity—as one half of an interracial couple, she feels more comfortable here than in increasingly segregated Manhattan—and because different groups “seem to blend better.” Fisher, also 32 and the general manager for a small Greenpoint company called DiGiFi, agrees. Greenpoint “is going through such rapid gentrification, and the neighborhood is totally bipolar,” he says. In the Heights, “you can come and just be part of the neighborhood. You don’t have to reinvent it.”

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