One City: Newark, NJ

Newark’s children are more likely to fail in school and suffer from health problems than children living elsewhere in New Jersey.Photo courtesy of Kerrie Ocasio/ACNJ

Every day Gerard Joab receives calls from a church or group with “a great idea.” Inevitably, the caller wants to talk about starting a CDC to build housing in Newark. Joab is the program director for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) of Greater Newark and Jersey City, which provides funding and technical assistance for community development corporations.

“I will try my best to discourage them,” he says. Joab cites a tighter economy and diminished foundation support. “In this economy, funding is really tough.” Instead, he urges callers not to abandon their core services and to partner with another organization that has the expertise and resources. “You don’t have to become a developer to be a partner in bricks and mortar,” says Joab. For those who insist on building, his advice is explicit: Don’t assume you’ll make a ton of money with self-generating income, and don’t assume it will happen quickly. Land acquisition issues can cripple a development, he notes, and in Newark “the large contiguous lots are gone.”

“The biggest change is the presence of private developers,” he says. “They realized they can make money here and get federal subsidies, and they have more upfront money for land acquisition.” (See “A Changed Block.”) Nancy Zak puts it simply: “It’s a land grab.” Zak is director of community organizing for the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark’s crowded East Ward that is largely populated by Portuguese, Brazilians and Ecuadorians. Groups such as Ironbound Community Corp. are being outspent and outmaneuvered for land that Zak says the community needs reserved for schools and parks. “It takes a whole lot of land to build a school,” says Gus Heningburg, a longtime civic leader in Newark and the state. “The biggest shortage Newark has is empty land.” For CDCs that emphasized the development of empty land for housing and schools, it may be time to rethink their mission and find other ways to serve the Newark community.

The shortage of land is bittersweet news for Newark’s CDCs, which have kept many of the city’s neighborhoods afloat during the years when private investment evaporated. The Newark in the 21st Century Task Force (see sidebar) called the city’s CDCs and other community-based organizations “the operational backbone of community renewal in Newark.” For more than 30 years, New Community Corporation, La Casa de Don Pedro, the North Ward Center, Corinthian Housing Development, Unified Vailsburg Services and others have provided a wide array of social services including day care and job training. Many of these organizations were renovating or building housing long before the for-profit developers “discovered” Newark. “They have been around long enough and did the work sustaining neighborhood health and vitality during the years of disinvestment,” says Richard Roper, the executive director of the task force. “CDCs provided a holding action, keeping hope alive at the neighborhood level.” But the ground has shifted under Newark’s CDCs. They now face competition from investors eager to stake an interest in Newark’s future – a future that did not always look bright.

Newark is New Jersey’s largest city – about 272,537 people call the city home, according to the latest U.S. Census – and like many older U.S. cities, it experienced enormous changes over the last 50 years: the decline of industry, and with it good-paying blue-collar jobs and the exodus of the white and black middle class to the suburbs beginning in the 1950s. Power in the city shifted along with the population: from Jewish and Italian to majority African-American – 52 percent according to the last census, with a rapidly growing Hispanic population of 30 percent. As the population declined, many of those who remained had the fewest resources and the greatest needs – for affordable housing, adequate health care, jobs that paid well and schools that worked.

Kenneth T. Jackson, the urban historian, has cited six areas that affected Newark’s development: its failure to annex surrounding communities, which limited the city to some 23 square miles and left its coffers depleted as taxpayers – black and white – moved to the nearby suburbs; weak control over land use that allowed polluting industries to set up shop next to residential areas; redlining that occurred as early as 1939, that deprived residents of loans to buy and fix up their properties; poor governance, ranging from incompetence to corruption among city officials; the racial unrest of 1967; and Newark’s own attempts to help its neediest citizens. “…Newark’s problems became more severe because the city attempted to help poor and minority citizens and because it was a leader in civil rights, at least in comparison with the suburbs,” Jackson writes (his italics). He notes that Newark was one of the first cities to apply for public housing and built more units per capita than any other city in the U.S.

Even with renewed interest from private investors and developers, none but the most ardent cheerleader would call Newark’s current state “a renaissance,” especially for the city’s children. According to the 2002-2003 Newark Kids Count survey, Newark’s children are less likely to receive immunizations, more likely to fail in school and more likely to suffer from health problems than children living elsewhere in New Jersey. “The most meaningful indicators are around health, and the link to economic stability and access to health care and insurance,” says Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, which publishes Newark Kids Count. “Health connects to everything.” Not far from her office, she sees the changes in Newark’s landscape: a building that was vacant for years was just bought, and on Halsey St., outside her office, an art gallery and a manicure place have opened. “The changes along Halsey are amazing,” she says.

The Newark in the 21st Century Task Force gives Mayor Sharpe James credit for being “a very effective booster of the city’s resurgence.” James has been mayor since 1986, during which time the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (1997) and Riverfront Stadium for minor league baseball (1999) opened. In addition, numerous public housing towers have been demolished, and more market rate housing has been constructed. Still, the task force documented the overwhelming feeling among many Newark residents that the city’s comeback is about downtown, not about them or their neighborhoods.

“Newark is coming back but it’s not a revitalization that everyone sees themselves a part of,” says Roland Anglin, executive director of the New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute and an NHI board member. “It’s not a social economic revitalization of the entire infrastructure.” He takes to task the nonprofit sector, as well as the government and business sectors for failing to put aside their conflicting agendas in the interest of a greater goal. “There’s no working consensus. They’re smiling at each other, but not working together. It’s a game with no endgame in sight.” The endgame, he says, should be to make a better Newark.

Part of the problem is the machine politics that still rules Newark, as it has for decades. Anglin says that Newark’s machine, like many others, is based on self-interest, reciprocity and delivery of services. “I’m not sure that machine can be turned into an economic development machine,” he adds. “It’s neighborhood-based but not with a vision – it’s massing people for elections, that’s all.” Few who work on development issues in Newark – and who depend on the city’s favor for funding or access to information – would criticize the leadership of Sharpe James directly. “You have a mayor who remembers his political opponents,” says Elliott Lee, a New Jersey foundation program officer. The funding process for development projects places CDCs at the mercy of City Hall. “As long as they have to go through the city, they have to be careful,” says Lee. “That’s one of the structural flaws of the CDC model. If you’re afraid to speak truth to power, it makes it harder to organize and mobilize. It’s true across the country.”

Joab of LISC disagrees that the CDC model is flawed in any way, but believes that Newark’s organizations must adapt to the changes in the market. “The community development arena in Newark is going to change,” says Joab, who also foresees high-end condos and CDCs that pursue commercial ventures, job development and community planning. “Bricks and mortar will always be there, development is still their bread and butter, but it’s not necessarily residential and rental,” he says. In short, CDCs will need to re-imagine and reinvent themselves. “LISC won’t invest $150,000 simply to renovate one building without a grand vision,” he says. A multifaceted CDC has more options – as long as organizing isn’t one of them. Joab cites approvingly the creation of LC Builders, the for-profit affiliate construction company created by La Casa de Don Pedro, and the day care facility at Unified Vailsburg. He dismisses the idea of CDCs organizing: “CDCs don’t have resources for organizing. Funders count units. It’s hard to divert funding [for another purpose].” Joab pumps up the city and its commitment, with only the mildest of criticisms. “The city hasn’t taken advantage of the CDC expertise,” he says. “We lost time. But now we’re in the best place, where the city has administrators who understand CDCs. The mayor values it, and the CDCs have gotten better.”

Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “There’s no way we’re going to stop private development from coming in.”


Newark Facts

• Forty-five percent of Newark’s families with children have incomes below or near the poverty line.

• Forty-two percent of renter households pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

• Newark has the third-highest unemployment rate among large U.S. cities.

• The Newark metropolitan area is ethnically and racially divided: African Americans in the southern half of the city and its western suburbs; Hispanics in the northern half of the city and older suburbs to the north and south.

• Young adults aged 20 to 24 make up Newark’s largest age group.

• Over half of Newark’s foreign-born residents come from four countries: Portugal, Ecuador, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

Source: Newark in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000.

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