One City

Visiting a big city for the first time can be overwhelming. Where to look first? And what experience is quintessential, without which you cannot say you truly were there?

New York is more than Times Square, and Los Angeles is certainly more than Hollywood. Yet those landmarks, for better or worse, epitomize their cities for many people. Some visitors do a little research and go off the beaten path to discover a neighborhood, a long-forgotten monument or a restaurant frequented by locals. There is satisfaction that a wall has been breached, and the traveler imagines that he has gotten a taste of “what it’s really like to live there.” The locals would disagree, but no matter. Insider and outsider alike cling to certain sharp and often contradictory images of those cities.

The photograph on the cover of this issue might serve as a litmus test for our readers in this regard. What do you see? For some, it’s a city that looks vaguely familiar. Others may experience a pleasant shock of recognition and start identifying buildings within the frame and even locate sites outside of it.

Newark, NJ, like so many others, is not an easy city to capture in one photograph. Something is always missing. Something – by its very selection or placement – is given more weight than another. In the introductory essay to Imaging the City, Sam Bass Warner, Jr., the urban historian, and Lawrence J. Vale, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, describe the questions that inform their volume of essays about the “blizzard of visual and verbal images” that shape what we know – or think we know – about cities: “What images are being advanced, and who is proposing them? What happens when images come into conflict?” The authors pose these questions on behalf of city planners, but they are questions we must ask ourselves, too. Images, after all, are powerful political tools. And that is especially true in a city like Newark.

The historian Clement Price has noted that, “The very mention of Newark now conjures powerful emotions mostly having to do with social status, memory, race and location. Perhaps Newark is, and has been for well over a century, a socially constructed image that mirrors deeper fears about urban life in a socially Balkanized society.”

A kaleidoscope of Newark would present an array of starkly different images competing for our attention: the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the empty public housing buildings awaiting demolition, the new homes going up on empty lots, the discount stores of Market and Broad streets, the lively Ironbound section with its Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants, the Newark Museum, an overcrowded school, the commuters who have jobs in Newark, the residents who don’t. Each image alone would not tell the full story. But there is an important piece of the Newark story in each of those pictures.

Starting with this issue, Shelterforce will attempt to bring Newark into sharper focus by examining how CDCs and other community-based organizations are addressing the needs of Newark’s residents for housing, jobs, school reform and clean open spaces. We open with an essay that provides a snapshot of where Newark’s community development activists, builders and analysts see the city at the start of 2004. In addition, Associate Editor Nichole Brown describes the transformation she observed in “one block” of the city where new homes began to sprout among houses that were boarded up. We believe that the efforts to spur a true revitalization in Newark’s neighborhoods hold lessons for other communities. Newark may be one city, but it is not alone.

Also in this issue
CDCs can make a difference in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, according to Bob Van Meter, executive director of the Allston Brighton CDC in Boston: but it’s a matter of organizing and using resources in targeted areas. Van Meter provides examples from the Allston Brighton experience and other Boston area CDCs that adapted to the changes in their communities. Monica Steigerwald describes how ten CDCs pooled their resources to build their own “community of practice,” which has so far proved to be an effective learning model for the organizations. And Gail Schechter deconstructs “affordability” and finds that it’s a word with elastic meaning – depending on who is using it, and where. She explains how housing activists and developers can restore affordability in word and deed by building diverse communities that exemplify our highest principles.

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