NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Newark that Cory Booker is leaving behind as the state’s newly elected U.S. senator is far more nuanced and complicated than could be captured in the boosterish campaign stump speeches or television sound bites for which the mayor is known.
Newark still bears the scars of the 1967 riots that cleaved it. Poverty and crime are endemic. Lately, however, parts of the city have doggedly improved. Artists, new residents and businesses have moved in. There’s a palpable energy downtown. Parks are being overhauled. There’s a building boom, from supermarkets to a residential high-rise to mixed-use developments.
But what will happen now? Will the businesses Booker helped attract stay? Will they help alleviate the high jobless rate? Will violence ebb? Will the attention and money lavished on this city during the Booker administration remain? And, most of all: Will Newark achieve the potential that Booker thinks it has?
“The city feels to me that it’s at a crossroads,” said Clement A. Price, a professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark who is considered the city’s historian. “A lot of people worry when Cory pulls out of Newark it will default to its lowest instincts.”
When Cory Booker bought property on Newark’s Court Street, he had big plans. The mayor paid $175,000 for the attached home; he intended to fix the building up and move in. He even hired an architect.
Four years later, a “no loitering” sign hangs above the entrance and plywood stands in place of windows. A thicket of overgrowth blankets the backyard. Booker donated the property to a charity earlier this year, he said, as a way to give back to Newark.
Robert El lives down the block. He said he doesn’t consider Booker to be a good neighbor.
There are those who say that the story of Booker and the house on Court Street parallels the story of Booker and the city he led — that he made a lot of noise, arrived with good intentions, but in the end did not transform Newark as promised.
El is 80 years old. He remembers a time when he could walk into one of many downtown nightclubs and see Nat King Cole sing, when work was plentiful as a tool- and die-maker and bustling shops were almost everywhere. Now he’s stopped taking his morning walks because he’s worried about drug dealing and violence.
“It breaks my heart that I was born here and I know what it looked like when I was born and to see it now, it’s just disappointing,” El said. “I think there’s been some improvement but not that much that would make someone who lives in Newark proud.”
There are others, though, who say that the improvement is real — that Booker may not have solved all of a troubled city’s troubles since he became mayor in 2006, but he set the stage for a Newark renaissance and is leaving behind a vastly improved city.
When Citi Medina told his family and friends in Brooklyn he was moving his marketing company from New York to Newark, they all thought he was crazy. But Medina said he saw promise in a downtown filled with space and an innovative, creative spirit that comes from people who feel in the vanguard of something big. Five years later, his business has grown and he’s opening up a space for entrepreneurs and creative types to work and share ideas.
“I feel a kindred spirit with this city,” he said.
It’s hard to argue that against the assertion that Newark’s downtown has been revitalized. Security officers ride Segways past vendors selling T-shirts and incense. Pounding jackhammers pervade a part of downtown where Prudential Financial Inc. is building a new headquarters. Across the street, dilapidated Military Park is getting a makeover spearheaded by the designer who rehabbed New York City’s Bryant Park. A gleaming new park on the Passaic River opened this summer, opening up the long-neglected waterfront.
Restaurants selling homemade hummus and gourmet macaroni and cheese have opened in the past year. Patrons can be heard discussing business deals and tenure track positions at nearby Rutgers University-Newark. A Whole Foods is scheduled to open in 2016. Booker and ex-NBA player Shaquille O’Neal cut the ribbon last month on Newark’s first high-rise residential tower in decades.
“Newark is going through its biggest economic boom since the 1950s and ’60s,” Booker said at a groundbreaking for a supermarket and mixed-use development Thursday. It happened, he said, from a city government working together and people who thought New Jersey’s biggest city “should go from a city of reputational challenges to a city of reputational glory.”
Booker made his national profile in this city. Newark is where he accumulated 1.4 million Twitter followers, was dubbed a “rock star mayor” by Oprah Winfrey and hosted dignitaries like British Prime Minister David Cameron. At his instigation, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark schools, half of which was used to fund a new teacher’s contract. He also set a new standard for probity; his three immediate predecessors all were indicted.
It’s a place he holds up as a model of urban renewal, though he says that there is still much work to be done. Many residents, however, feel the version of the city he touts doesn’t square with their daily lives.
“It’s like a Facebook status,” said resident Kyma Gilchrist of her relationship with her city and mayor. “It’s complicated.”
As is often the case with cities that look to improve their fortunes by first turning around their downtowns, residents in outlying neighborhoods said they see no ebb of crime or poverty. Blighted homes and vacant lots dot neighborhoods.
Glendale Bar-Lewis walked around her block as rain spit from the sky. She dodged trash, waved to the young men she said she sees deal drugs every day and pointed out a memorial of tall votive candles and liquor bottles erected after a fatal shooting.
Bar-Lewis, 47, has lived in Newark most of her life. She would prefer to move to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she envisions gazing out the window at palmetto trees each morning. But she stays in this neighborhood because her elderly mother lives around the corner and she doesn’t want to leave her alone.
Bar-Lewis and her husband moved to the top floor of a three-apartment building in Newark’s Central Ward 20 months ago. The people on the first floor were selling drugs, she said, and dealers squatted there when the renters moved out. They’re now gone, but she remembers smelling the crack and marijuana smoke that wafted through the stairwell up to her apartment and listening to people come and go well into the night. When her husband went to work Bar-Lewis would walk to her mother’s house, afraid of being alone.
Murders dropped dramatically during Booker’s first term, from 107 in 2006 to 68 in 2009. But crime spiked after 162 police officers were laid off in 2010 and the city’s budget was slashed; there were 90 murders in 2010, 94 in 2011 and 96 in 2012.
“Newark is a much safer city today than it was five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” Newark Police Chief Samuel DeMaio said in an interview. “There are open-air drug markets on a lot less corners today than there were five years ago.”
Violent crime, including car thefts and rape, dropped over the past few years. Nonfatal shootings are down. Carjackings, however, have skyrocketed, and robberies are up by nearly 23 percent this year, driven mostly by iPhone snatchings, a problem that is not unique to Newark.
Newark’s unemployment rate stands at 14.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New Jersey’s unemployment rate is 8.5 percent.
Half of Newark’s 277,000 residents live below the poverty level, according to a 2013 report from Legal Services of New Jersey. About a quarter of Newark children under age 5 live in “extreme poverty,” according to a report from New Jersey Kids Count, a child advocacy organization. Per-capita income for Newark residents is $17,617, according to the U.S. Census. The high school dropout rate is just under 40 percent, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.
“There’s no jobs here,” said Taurean Fleming, 27, who said he has been job hunting for more than two years after catering work dried up. He said he pounds the pavement and goes to employment offices. He said his girlfriend is also waiting for a job after passing a civil service examination, but there have been no opportunities.
Others, though, believe a new Newark is rising. Panasonic Corp. moved its North American headquarters here this summer. Prudential is building a massive new building. Groups of young entrepreneurs and artists have landed in Newark, lured by relatively cheap (for the New York City metro area) rents and a community with an artistic bent.
In a huge loft space downtown, walls are adorned with murals and graffiti art. There are slick, fixed-gear bikes. One artist rearranges his paintings. Another sits behind a fully-stocked bar, typing away on his computer. DJ equipment stands in a corner.
Two of the men run The Kanek, a skateboard shop that closed its downtown brick-and-mortar store and now operates out of the loft. They’re trying to make it into a place for people interested in art, music and skateboard culture. It doubles as a performance space.
Cory Shomo, who goes by Premo, was born and raised on the Jersey Shore and wanted to settle in his home state. He draws parallels between downtown Newark and downtown Los Angeles; both have stately, gorgeous buildings that have been vacant for years. Downtown Los Angeles has been reborn, and Shomo sees the same path for Newark.
“It’s like the hidden jewel. That’s the value of it,” Shomo said. “You have to take these resources and run with it. I’m 200,000 percent committed to Newark.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Jarmaro “Dilettante” Bass, a 35-year-old running for city council.
He walked around downtown Newark, shaking hands with or hugging pretty much everyone he passed. He rattled off the local businesses that have opened in the past few years — a barber shop with exposed brick walls where men talk about the youth football team they coach, a glass blowing studio, a women’s clothing shop, a hair salon with a spacious backyard for parties. Some are wedged between vacant storefronts and all are just a few blocks from rows of dollar stores and pawn shops, but Bass sees them shifting the balance of downtown.
“If you’re smart or strategic you can benefit,” he said.
He thinks the city needs to foster creativity and the arts and bring in small entrepreneurs, instead of focusing on big corporations. Bass thinks Newark needs to embrace sustainability and become a magnet for green companies. He wants Newark to take lessons from neighborhoods in Brooklyn that have revitalized from the ground up.
“Some of these people are stuck in a time warp,” he said of Newark residents. “They need new ideas.”
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