water glasses

It’s been nearly forty-eight hours since a state contractor ruptured the water main near Duffield Avenue, and the liquid coming from our taps remains a suspicious shade of beige. We were among the lucky ones: Last night, elsewhere in Jersey City, people had no water at all and couldn’t even wash their hands. Any water outage is a reason for alarm; a water outage in the middle of a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than seven hundred people in Hudson County is an outright disaster. In any public health crisis, hygiene is essential – and it’s impossible to keep hands and surfaces clean when there’s nothing but cold porcelain in the sink.

Jersey City residents stuck at home looked, desperately, to local authorities for answers. That tap, too, ran pretty dry. Neither the municipal government nor Suez, the utility company that provides our water, were forthcoming with answers. When would the boil water advisory lift? Would people need to get commercially packaged bottles for the weekend? Why did it taken two days for the lab to return results? What contaminants, exactly, were Suez so concerned about?

Poor communication exacerbated a bad situation – one in which our state and local governments have shown a grievous shortage of foresight. Given the state of public health in Hudson County, there is simply no way that construction should have been allowed to happen anywhere near a water main. Nothing that jeopardizes the city’s single most vital public utility should ever have been okayed. Nevertheless, the state went ahead with this project, and the city didn’t stand in the way. This is inexcusable carelessness, and it ought to make us all wonder what other foolish things they’ve been up to while the rest of us are, at their own request, staying inside.

In New Jersey, we shake our heads at the Southern states who’ve tempted fate by refusing to shut down businesses. Our own version of negligence isn’t so different from theirs. We’ve encouraged our churches to close, which is the right to do, but we keep on practicing our own local religion: runaway construction. We keep building, and overbuilding, on every available lot. No matter what we imperil, we can’t stop ourselves. Our state government assures us that the projects that continue are the essential ones, which is just about the slipperiest slope imaginable, since construction has been perceived as essential to the New Jersey economy for decades. Elected officials have lacked the political courage to put a halt to this activity, and now, we’re literally bathing in the consequences.

For a city already suffering, the threat of a contaminated water supply is almost too much to bear. Yet there was no apology from City Hall, or from the state, let alone a fresh supply of bottles for people who’ve been stranded in apartments without any access to water. If you’re 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, that’s more than understandable. If you’re annoyed with a municipal government that should have used its clout to put the end to this project, or at least forced a postponement until the worst of the pandemic has passed, that’s understandable, too. And if you’re mad at leaders more concerned about the optics of an economic downturn than they are with the public health that any economic progress depends upon, that’s more than legitimate.

We ought to be well beyond this now. Hard reality should have splashed the cold water on our faces. But this terrible April does not seem to have taught the authorities any lessons that will help us cope with what will be an equally difficult May. Next month, America plans to reopen after a long and restless sleep, and yesterday might have been an 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 great relief, no tickertape. We cross our fingers, and hold our breaths, and wait for the word from the government that we can drink from the taps again. Now that we’ve gotten it, do you trust it?


Tris McCall has been chronicling his daily experience of the pandemic at www.trismccall.net, attempting to be as honest and forthright as he can be, while he is, as all of us are, scared out of his mind.

Header: Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...

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