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FROM THE FRONT LINES: While mismanaged, New Brunswick far from miserable

From the Front Lines

If you are attuned to local news, you might have recently heard that New Brunswick is the 11th most miserable city in the country, according to a list by Business Insider. Upon actually checking their list, which was based on census data, it is clear that their analysis was paltry at best. 

The entirety of their comments on New Brunswick read as follows: “New Brunswick has 56,000 residents, 54% of people are working, and 35% are living in poverty. It has had problems with crime. In 2017, the city's assaults with guns rose 64%.” 

With all due respect to all the data journalists out there, that is not reporting, it is just number crunching. To ascribe the term “miserable” to a city, a more in-depth look at the actual mood of the community is needed. 

The Daily Targum reported on Business Insider’s piece, offering more insight based off of Rutgers University Police Department (RUPD) data, and included community efforts to help out, like Elijah’s Promise and the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance. 

This explanation of the ranking offered a bit more parity than Business Insider, but due to our protocol regarding news reporting, it focused on specifics more than emotions. 

The fact of the matter is that the people of New Brunswick, like just about any else, have deep affinities to, and pride in, the place they live. This is especially true for longtime residents who have spent generations here. 

By being born in New Brunswick and raised in the adjacent suburb of Franklin Township, I have been in and around the city for my entire life. That is long enough to know that while occasionally downtrodden, and often let down by leaders who say they have their best interests at heart, the mood of New Brunswick is not miserable. 

It is a common trope to become an amateur etymologist whenever someone tries to describe you using a term you do not agree with, but “miserable” sat wrong with me from the moment I heard about the list. 

So I consulted Merriam-Webster, which defines “miserable” as “being in a pitiable state of distress or unhappiness (as from want or shame).” Residents of New Brunswick would be the last to accept pity, even though they deal with a rapidly gentrifying environment and the constant betrayal of public officials. 

There has been plenty of reporting on the development happening in and around New Brunswick, some of it for the better and some of it for worse, but the gist of the story is the same one that follows news of gentrification around the country: working-class residents getting priced out of the homes they raised their kids in while the city attempts to welcome people who can afford higher rents. 

When it comes to public betrayal, a clear case would be the tale of Edward O’Rourke, the former licensed operator of the New Brunswick and Milltown water utilities. “Between April 2010 and December 2012 (O’Rourke) repeatedly and intentionally submitted false water purity testing data to the DEP in order to hide the fact that he had failed to properly oversee testing of drinking water samples on behalf of both towns," according to NJ Advance Media.

This has real-world consequences. For instance, last year, McKinley Community School, the K-8 New Brunswick public school where my father teaches, was reported as having “10 water sources (that) test over the lead action level,” according to an article on USA Today

This is far too reminiscent of far too many cities, who face severe neglect from local, state and federal officials. In all honesty, high rankings aside, this is not a very unique story being told. The arc of New Brunswick's history is a microcosm of what is happening to working-class people all over this country. 

This is the American status quo, and New Brunswick is just another reflection. That is why this is the oddest spot: As sad as it sounds, the normalizing power of neoliberalism makes it so that the mood of any given city is not miserable per se, but a quiet resignation to the hand that it has been dealt. 

When I ask my father about the water safety in his school he shrugs it off. When we pass homeless citizens of New Brunswick we do not question a reality that allows for homelessness at all. 

The most common reaction to the news about the city being “miserable” that I saw was people laughing it off. I suppose I did too, at least to keep from crying. 

Still, there is plenty to celebrate here. From the Mexican community that serves as one of the cultural backbones of the area to the underground DIY music scene to the tireless efforts of social workers and educators in the city, New Brunswick residents have more than enough to take pride in. 

I am sure that sounds and feels like an empty sentiment, but as I have gotten older I have begun to realize that the only way to change your situation for the better is to be honest about the mess you are in. 

Taking stock in the state of New Brunswick — and large swathes of our population — requires contending with what may seem "miserable." Some mythical "better future" may or may not be around the corner, but I would rather wade through the muck of life than wallow in misery. 

Jordan Levy is a School of Arts and Sciences and Mason Gross School of the Arts senior double majoring in journalism and art. He is the features editor at The Daily Targum.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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