Cultures Coalesce in Jersey City

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December 11, 2023

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(JERSEY CITY, N.J.)— On the last Thursday in November, the Jersey City Farmers Market was packed with shoppers buying apple pies, fresh peppers, and trinkets for the gift-giving season. Reflecting the city’s diversity, customers also flocked to vendors selling Argentinian empanadas, West African ankara print garments, and focaccia bread made by an Australian baker.  

The farmers market in historic downtown is a mirror image of  the demographics of the city, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States.  With 260,000 residents, nearly 40 percent   identify as foreign born.  

The migration to Jersey City  spans two centuries with Europeans in the 1800s, Latin Americans in the mid-1950s and southern Black Americans in the mid-1900s. Jersey City residents who identify as “Asian Alone” account for the largest group by race.  In addition, over half of Jersey City residents speak languages that are not English. Some of the most prevalent languages include Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic.

Rimli Roy of Surati Studios standing outside of the front entrance of the studio.

Roy teaches classes at the studio and online. [Credit: Joy Ufomadu]

Start in India Square with the largest concentration of Indians in the western hemisphere. Surati Studios, just off the square, offers classes in Indian dance, music, and culture.  Promotional posters for “Ramaavan, a Musical”  are posted across from each other in the reception space.

The non-profit is led by Rimli Roy, a Jersey City choreographer, performer, producer, and director who also teaches online classes in the arts. “Diversity is huge in this city, so we have people from different walks of life participate at the studio,” says Roy who immigrated  from India 23 years ago.

Roy first  began working in IT. However, she says that she sensed that the community needed a space like Surati Studios and she left her job to pursue this mission. The current location is supported by 40-50 volunteers and part-time employees. 

The studio has several upcoming projects in Jersey City including a partnership with a neighboring city, the Holi Festival, taking place next year. 

Front entrance of Vegan AF restaurant

Toledo says that Vegan AF opened its doors just one day before businesses in Jersey City were forced to shut down at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. [Credit: Joy Ufomadu]

Several blocks away in the Heights neighborhood, William Toledo and wife, Norma, own Vegan AF, a restaurant. In tattoo style writing, the words “Vegan AF” are painted above the entrance in green, orange, and pink. Norma takes orders upfront, and William completes the orders,  bringing brown paper bags from the kitchen to the online order table.   Toledo, who identifies as Hispanic and Catholic, relocated to New Jersey from Ecuador in 2003, following his wife’s immigration four years prior. The couple chose Jersey City because their families found home in the city prior and they often reflect on how large the Ecuadorian community was over 20 years ago. 

With its few wooden tables and benches, the restaurant specializes in vegan versions of popular dishes from a variety of ethnic backgrounds including burgers and fries, teriyaki burritos, salsiccia, and nachos. Toledo  says he developed the restaurant’s diverse menu to reflect his time spent as a chef in Mexican, Cuban, and American restaurants. 

Front of John's Luncheonette in Jersey City.

The casual restaurant has been open for seven years. [Credit: Joy Ufomadu]

Nearby in Journal Square, another casual restaurant is owned by  Beshoy Mourad who opened John’s Luncheonette seven years ago. The hooded green sign above the entrance reads “John’s”, and while inside, brown wooden tables line both sides of the restaurant.

Mourad has lived in Jersey City for 13 years. He says that when he first opened his restaurant, limited experience with running a business was a challenge for him. He had to learn things “from scratch,”  but he continued to remain in business until he acquired a roster of faithful customers who have grabbed lunch from across his counter for years. 

He attends St. George & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church and enjoys regular gatherings at church with his large circle of Egyptian friends and family.  The church, with its tan stone exterior and large, dark, wooden doors with designs etched deeply into its frames, serves as a fellowship space for  many in the Egyptian community in Jersey City. 

Mourad says that one of the reasons that he lives and owns a business in the city is because of its diversity. As he wipes a crumb off a brown wooden  table before heading to the counter to begin closing the restaurant for the day, he says,  “I love it here; I love Jersey City.”

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