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Facing its Past, Newark Gets Ready for its Future

Julia Vitullo-Martin, July 2007

If Newark is lucky, the federal criminal indictment of former Mayor Sharpe James will signal the death throes of its old life as a battered, forsaken, shady city of the past—and its new life as an energetic, safe, handsome city of the future. Newark has many things going for it—most importantly, its location at the heart of the New York metropolitan region, the country's strongest. Can it throw off the shackles of the past, and exploit its geographic location to reclaim its spot as an important city in the Northeast?

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Few cities are as enviably sited as Newark. It offers a mere 20-minute commute to Midtown Manhattan. It sits amid a phenomenal transportation network—an international airport 10 minutes away, an international container port that is the largest on the Eastern seaboard, passenger and freight railroads, a light rail, and major highways.

And yet few cities have been as badly served by their public officials. While most media accounts of Sharpe James's wrongdoings have focused on his lavish travel and entertainment, his far more serious crime was against the neighborhoods he had sworn to care for and protect. His betrayal of black neighborhoods represents a betrayal of all that he claimed to stand for.

At least one of the theoretical promises of black political leadership back in the days when black elected officials were few was that they would save vulnerable neighborhoods by halting—even preventing—the all-too-familiar downward spiral of black in-migration, financial red-lining, blockbusting, housing deterioration, arson, and abandonment.

Even worse than the routine decline of American cities after World War II was the most important federal policy tool for countering it: urban renewal. In Newark, that meant ripping out the heart of the black Central Ward—clearing 150 allegedly blighted acres to build a medical school and hospital center—and driving I-78 through Weequahic, the fragile but still viable Jewish neighborhood, where Philip Roth, among many other prominent people, grew up. The resulting displacement of tens of thousands of Newarkers and the deliberate demolition of a large swath of the city were blows from which Newark hasnít fully recovered four decades later. That the riots of 1967 started in the Central Ward is no surprise in retrospect. Detroit's even more ruinous riots also occurred in the downtown black neighborhood that had been ploughed under by urban renewal.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

By the time Sharpe James became mayor in 1976, failed government policies and middle-class flight had weakened much of Newark, except for a few corporate-supported blocks downtown and a few enclaves, like the Ironbound and Forest Hill. Mayor James's own neighborhood, the South Ward, not far from Newark International Airport, was one of the worst. Hundreds of vacant lots were interspersed with one- and two-family houses, most owned by struggling households—many of whom eventually lost their property to mortgage foreclosure or to the city of Newark for failure to pay taxes. The South Ward also became home to public housing projects, many since demolished.

It is in this neighborhood that Sharpe James, in his last term in office, chose to sell public property, mostly empty lots, to his friends and supporters at prices far below market value.

For this he's been indicted by a federal prosecutor. But from the neighborhood's point of view, the real crime is not the cheap sale price but what then happened to the property: mainly nothing or, even worse, arson. Instead of selling to legitimate developers, who would have renovated old houses and built new ones, repopulating vacant blocks, James turned the property over to speculators, who flipped the lots repeatedly without improving them. So even though new town-houses are sprinkled throughout Newark's residential neighborhoods, vacant lots and poorly maintained properties dominate far too many blocks.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

This sordid story, however, has a potentially happy ending in Newark's new mayor, Cory Booker, who is willing to take on the toughest issues, including race. "Never avoid race," he said at a recent speech at the New School for Social Research. "For me to ignore that blacks are 14 percent of the state's population but 60 percent of the prison population would be to miss the prescription for getting out of this situation." His prescription is a complex combination of New York-style crime-fighting (he recruited his police commissioner from the NYPD), education policy that includes charter schools and vouchers (thereby enraging the teachers' union), and audacious rezoning and economic redevelopment policies to put the city's vast amounts of underutilized land to use.

The truth is that while Newark's assets are impressive, its economic progress has been held back for decades by race. Consultant Daniel Biederman, who is working on a redesign of a major downtown park, recalls how a top official in the previous Sharpe James mayoral administration told him "if you don't look like me, you can forget about it." Mayor Booker phrases the problem delicately: "I'm the mayor of an incredibly diverse city. But diversity worked to the disadvantage of Newark in the previous administration. You saw it in their anti-growth sentiment, in their regulatory practices, and in the pervasive corruption that used to worry business." Beset by double-digit unemployment and with one-fourth of its residents living below the poverty line, Newark is ranked right behind Miami as the second poorest major American city.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

In the past, even Newark's assets have often worked against it. The Booker administration sees this clearly. Newark is said to be the most accessible city of its size in the country. Yet ease of getting in has also meant ease of getting out—and Newark has never had anything approaching a 24-7 environment. At the end of every workday, employees flow out of the corporate towers into the trains and cars that will take them home, far outside Newark, leaving downtown empty by 6:00 p.m. But thereís very little to do in downtown Newark were employees to want to stay for an evening's entertainment, nor is there very much residential development for those who would like to live close to where they work.

"Retail has been under-invested in Newark," says Stefan Pryor, deputy mayor for commerce and economic development. "Not only do we have retail leakage to surrounding towns, we have almost 100% leakage in categories like restaurants. We don't even have restaurants in the college area where we have four university campuses. Instead, we have lunch trucks parked on the streets. We have no need for charity. But we want a recognition among retailers that Newark is an emerging market."

The Booker administration intends to enlarge that emerging market via rezoning. It recently persuaded the City Council to approve an as-of-right commercial conversion zone in which the lovely—but deteriorated and largely vacant—1930s office buildings can be renovated for residential use. The one successful residential conversion, the 35-story once-abandoned Lefcourt Building, which was begun in the James administration, is now mostly rented at market rates. The sticking point for other projects will be the proposed tax (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) abatements, which developers say are necessary—but which some council members oppose as giveaways. Lefcourtís owner, Arthur Stern of Cogswell Realty, has two other vacant downtown buildings he hopes to convert—but only with tax abatements.

The port of Newark is the second largest in the country in terms of volume and the largest importer of foreign cars, says Mayor Booker. (The Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, which is sited within the boundaries of the two cities of Newark and Elizabeth, is the New York area's major container port. It was the busiest in the world in 1985. It ranks only 15th today, but its volume is on the upsurge.)

The port, however, employs few Newark residents. "The last administration didn't recognize there was a port," says Jeffrey Wolpov, CEO of Distribution Solutions Inc, a trucking and warehousing company. "We felt completely ignored." DSI and many other firms located on port property are doing well financially now that the port is booming—and they want to expand onto the underutilized property around them. Much of the property looks abandoned to the naked eye—as well as to the eye of Deputy Mayor Pryor. "We're doing an inventory of abandoned properties," he says, deploying inspectors from the fire department and neighborhood services. Once an abandoned property is listed, the owner must rehabilitate it or lose it under an expedited tax lien foreclosure process. Mr. Pryor argues that the process will free up property for productive port use, and also help him negotiate for additional jobs for Newark residents. "Port jobs are the manufacturing jobs of the global era" he says. "For us, theyíre the gold we intend to mine."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Newark does indeed have gold to mine in its underutilized property and its underemployed population. But both exist in part because of its most contentious problem: violent crime, particularly homicides, which are up slightly this year over last, even as overall crime is down 20% in Booker's first year. And 2006 had the highest number of killings since 1990—the peak of the crack epidemic. Part of the problem is that some 1,500 violent offenders return annually to Newark from prison. As Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College and an expert on prisoner re-entry, has noted, "they all come back." Mayor Booker looks to a "five-year crime turnaround that will be a national example of a safe and secure city, with substantive economic abundance created and broadly shared." He says Newark will see the same level of crime reduction that New York saw in the 1990s.

Federal judge William Martini has set a Feb. 4 trial date for Sharpe James, whose defense lawyers are saying they need more time. James's trial will doubtless become a long-running saga.

Meanwhile, Mayor Booker is in a race to get the good things going fast enough to ward off the bad things, of which Newark still has plenty. If he carries off Newark's turnaround, he will have accomplished something thatís never been done in America—the rescue and recovery of a mainly black, poor, mid-size city.


July 2007
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Making the Most of our Parks
“We weren't the only city that exploded in riots in the 1960s. But you can darn well be sure that in the next five to ten years, Newark is going to show a way out of the dark cloud that still hangs over this nation's dream.”
Mayor Cory Booker
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