Jersey City’s Tax War
For Christmas 1967, Betty Robinson’s seven children got just one present among them. Betty had announced that gifts would go only to those kids who brought home good report cards, and that year, only her fifth child, nine-year-old Kenneth, qualified. He got a green bicycle, and the others, from fourteen-year-old Patricia down to baby Lydia, got nothing. Still, Kenneth let his brothers and sisters take turns riding his new bike along the dirt paths that ran between the three-story brick boxes of the Booker T. Washington Apartments in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The welfare mothers and working families of the Booker T. housing project, virtually all of them African American, lived in the shadow of the elevated New Jersey Turnpike extension, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of a city whose glory days seemed long behind it, and even in that hard-pressed community the Robinsons felt poor. Other project families had cars, but the Robinsons did not. Betty sometimes wept with anxiety over how she would feed her family, and the kids at school teased twelve-year-old Larry about the holes in his shoes. Years after that Spartan Christmas, Larry wondered if the report-card story was just his mom’s way of covering up the fact that she couldn’t afford presents for all of them.
When Ernestine Rock left little Eadytown, South Carolina, to start a new life in the North in the years after World War II, she also left her name behind. From then on, she called herself by her middle name, Betty. She had never liked the hard work that life on her grandmother’s farm entailed: when it