What’s the Matter With Newark?

For the community economic development organizations that have spent decades trying to keep Newark's neighborhoods afloat, the promise of a new mayor has only managed to throw the city's paradoxes into sharper relief.

New Jersey Devils fans walk through downtown Newark on their way to the opening night of NHL hockey at the Prudential Center. Photo by AP/Mike Derer

A predictable narrative emerges from press accounts of Newark, New Jersey, reported with regularity in the 41 years since the 1967 riot: one of a renaissance amid the ruins. Some have stressed the city’s manifest improvements. Others focus on the all-too-evident wreckage. But the descriptions are consistent: Newark, on the cusp of a hoped-for revival, remains an exemplar of late 20th-century urban decline. It suffered from municipal corruption, a troubled public school system, unemployment rates double the state average, dilapidated public housing, and high crime rates, even as its downtown began to boast new investment: office buildings, a performing arts center, a stadium, and an arena.

The contrast plays out for visitors who travel along Springfield Ave., the corridor of the uprising, or enter the city by train: bulldozers rumble by rows of new homes, and lots where public housing towers once stood have been cleared for construction. The Newark Star-Ledger and The New York Times note the appealing restaurants and loft apartments that could make downtown more amenable to wealthier residents and tempt commuters to stay later in the city. New Yorkers priced out of their housing market and immigrants from Central and Latin America have replenished Newark’s population, which increased from 273,546 in 1990 to an estimated 281,000 in 2006, reversing a 50-year decline. But a closer look at these changes from the perspective of the community economic development organizations that have operated in the city for four decades shifts this familiar Newark narrative: the question is not whether Newark has experienced revitalization, but who benefits from it, how long it will last, and where the city’s older CDCs fit in this changing landscape.

Across New Jersey, the rising costs of suburban development and transportation, anti-sprawl regulations, falling crime rates, and a gradual improvement in cities’ reputations have sparked what the Ironbound Community Corporation’s Nancy Zak, in a 2004 series of Shelterforce articles on Newark, called a “land grab” that priced CDCs out of the market even as the need for their services and low-income housing grew. As Linda Ocasio noted in these pages, “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 had evaporated.”

The uneven recovery of cities such as Newark has ambiguous consequences for community economic development professionals, neighborhood organizers, and the residents for whom they advocate. In a 2006 study by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (HCDNNJ), authors Alan Mallach, Amanda Frazier, and Diane Sterner identified an “urban paradox” in the state’s older cities. Many experienced physical renewal in the form of rapid residential and commercial construction, while increases in state aid — largely through an infusion of court-mandated funding for public schools — has combined with climbing property values to yield a level of fiscal stability that had long eluded them. Despite these welcome developments, the study found that the “residents continue to suffer from severe social and economic disadvantages, many of which are becoming worse.”

Older cities may have regained some population and a degree of fiscal health, but many of their poor and low-income residents are squeezed ever tighter as public-housing units are demolished, housing prices soar, their levels of education lag significantly behind those of their wealthier neighbors, and many local jobs remain out of reach. In Newark, over a quarter of the population lives in poverty, while 2008 National Low Income Housing Coalition statistics show that 61 percent of residents earn too little to afford a market-rate apartment. Meanwhile, the foreclosure crisis, which has affected 1,400 Newark homeowners, is the latest development to bring the urban paradox into focus for the city’s CDCs.

Newark faces these challenges with a new mayor, 39-year-old Cory Booker, intent on transforming the city’s government and its civil society. Booker’s predecessor, Sharpe James, served five terms and was convicted in May of selling city properties to a girlfriend for a fraction of their worth. It was a sour end to the career of a mayor whose stalwart promotion of his city endeared him to many and is acknowledged even by his enemies. James’s machine-propelled opportunism and vindictiveness deadened civic life and bred suspicion among neighborhood activists. Booker, whose youth, Rhodes Scholar pedigree, and bitter 2002 mayoral battle with James drew national attention, is now mentioned in the same company with Barack Obama, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, and other African-American politicians who promise a post-racial agenda of technocratic skill, government transparency, and a break with machine politics.

Toni Caldwell, CEO and executive director of Tri-City Development Corporation, described Booker’s 2006 victory as “a huge opportunity to realign the resources to benefit the community.” Leaders such as Caldwell were also heartened by Booker’s promise to implement revisions to the city’s Land Use Master Plan, which CDC leaders have advocated for years.

But Booker’s star shines much brighter in the national press than it does at home, where he was threatened with a recall campaign in the first year of his administration and has faced accusations of favoring friends for city contracts. Although CDC leaders hesitate to pass definitive judgment on Booker’s performance thus far, some sense that despite his high-profile attempts to promote accountability, he has distanced himself from the neighborhood-based activism that nurtured his early political aspirations, sustained a single-minded emphasis on downtown at the expense of neighborhoods, and sidelined established organizations.

CDCs’ wary stance toward municipal government is deeply entrenched in the city’s turbulent recent history. Newark’s first-generation CDCs emerged between 1966 and 1972, seeking to stem the departure of people and jobs, while securing residents’ voice in local development policies. The history of these organizations — influenced by the civil-rights and black-power movements, as well as the rise of ethnic nationalism — is instructive for understanding what kind of relationship Newark’s community economic development organizations are likely to have with the new administration and what sort of role they will play in the city’s future.

Booker’s 2006 victory and James’s 2008 conviction book-ended the fortieth anniversary of the riot. Sparked by the beating of a black cab driver by two white policemen on July 12, 1967, the six-day conflict ranked among the most deadly and destructive of the 1960s urban uprisings. Twenty-six people died; nearly all were killed by police or National Guardsmen, and nearly all were African-American.

At the time, Newark was in the midst of a demographic shift from a white to a black majority, while protests against racial discrimination in employment, housing, and education gained force across the city. Shortly before the riot, then-mayor Hugh J. Addonizio had announced plans by state and municipal officials to build a teaching and research hospital, New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry (now called University of Medicine and Dentistry or UMDNJ), in Newark. Slated to occupy more than 100 acres, this centerpiece of Addonizio’s urban-renewal agenda threatened to displace mostly poor and working-class African-American residents of the Central Ward, who were excluded by price and discrimination from the surrounding communities. After the riot, residents fought the development through a coalition of groups — Committee Against Black and Puerto Rican Removal, SNCC, CORE, and others — and successfully negotiated with state, city, and federal authorities to reduce the building’s acreage, increase relocation aid, and insure that local residents would be hired by the school.

The achievement and enforcement of the medical school agreement rested on the work of a web of connections at different levels of government that offered many points of leverage. It provided a tentative model for ordinary residents’ involvement in development politics and contributed to the pivotal moment when the city’s first generation of CDCs took root.

Early CDCs sought holistic strategies for organizing residents, mitigating the consequences of disinvestment and urban renewal, and overcoming the political marginalization of African-Americans. Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City residents who recognized their cities’ common problems founded Tri-City People’s Union for Economic Progress in 1966. The Newark branch of Tri-City endured, while the others folded. Critical of the wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, Tri-City purchased and rehabilitated three-story wood-frame homes in West Side Park, using the process to train local residents in construction. Their rehabilitation effort — called Amity Village — aimed to preserve housing stock in the former Ukrainian enclave and foster pride and self-determination among newer African-American residents.

Other fledgling CDCs emerged in response to the pattern of redlining and blockbusting that had reconfigured Newark’s neighborhoods. Unified Vailsburg Service Organization (UVSO) started in 1972 when two organizations — one of clergy and another of youth — merged to address the perception that public services had declined in this neighborhood on the city’s western border. Vailsburg was over 90 percent white, and according to UVSO’s executive director, Mike Farley, the group’s founders “knew that change was inevitable and wanted to prepare for rather than fight it.”

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

UVSO’s position distinguished it from other block associations that opposed the influx of African-Americans into Vailsburg and even considered seceding from Newark. UVSO eventually persuaded white block associations to pursue collaboration rather than confrontation. Ultimately, many white homeowners left the community and, during the 1970s, Vailsburg’s population shifted swiftly to a black majority. But while other parts of the city shrank, Vailsburg remained at a more or less consistent 35,000.

During the 1970s and 1980s, UVSO provided an expanding array of services to children, teenagers, and seniors, while remaining alert to evidence of redlining in the neighborhood, high rates of turnover among homeowners, and upticks in the number of abandoned homes. UVSO financed its first home rehabilitation in the early 1980s. At that time, Farley recalls, “USVO’s housing program was just a drawer in my desk.” But the organization grew steadily, building or rehabilitating more than 150 units between 1994 and 2004.

Newark’s first-generation CDCs emerged alongside the larger political transition underway in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A diverse group of established African-American leaders and younger activists unified around the goal of electing black candidates. Their support for the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention enabled new alliances between the two groups and challenged the Addonizio administration, electing Newark’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, in 1970.

Race and ethnicity shaped Newark residents’ lives in complicated ways. Racial tension remained raw, as many white residents’ hostility toward increasing African-American and Hispanic political clout played out in ways both explosive and subtle at City Hall, on the streets, and in the schools. But residents were also divided by neighborhood affiliation and class, and bound by fears about their future in a city that the rest of the state — and the federal government — seemed to have abandoned.

Emerging CDCs in the 1970s both reflected and sought to transcend the city’s racial and ethnic politics. Some forged a tradition of multiracial organizing that acknowledged the power of racial or ethnic solidarity, but they also built trans-racial coalitions. For example, organizers at Tri-City People’s Corporation recognized that West Side Park’s African-American and Hispanic residents had to speak with one another before they could solve neighborhood problems. In a renovated Ukranian Church they named the People’s Center, Tri-City activists taught children about African and Puerto Rican history, offered Spanish-language courses, and trained African-American and Puerto Rican women as community health advocates. In a neighborhood with few public-health facilities, women taught other women about nutrition and reproductive health, encouraged neighbors to look out for one another, and emboldened them to ask tough questions of doctors.

Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) organized its diverse neighborhood through the tri-lingual Ironbound Voices, a monthly newspaper in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Started in 1969, ICC addressed residents’ complaints about housing violations and inaccessible healthcare, while providing recreation programs for children and meals for the elderly. Ironbound was — and remains — the city’s most industrialized ward, and ICC’s mission soon expanded to advance environmental justice, focusing on dioxin contamination at former factory sites, noise pollution, and strict enforcement of environmental testing and clean-up standards.

While Newark’s first-generation CDCs often sought to bridge divisions between neighbors, the New Community Corporation (NCC) — Newark’s best-known CDC — also sought to forge relationships between city and suburban residents. NCC emerged out of urgent discussions about the city among an interracial group of parishioners, priests, and suburban Catholics gathered at Queen of Angels Church in the Central Ward shortly after the riot. In 1968, Queen of Angels members and the fledgling NCC led a “Walk for Understanding.” Planned for Palm Sunday over the reservations of then-mayor Addonizio, the walk turned into a memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been killed the week before. A crowd of 25,000 people marched through the Central Ward, and NCC’s founders attempted to translate this momentum into support for the new organization.

Long before the language of “stakeholders” became commonplace in community economic development parlance, NCC sold symbolic “shares” in the Central Ward to residents of Newark and the surrounding suburbs. At a time when suburbanites recoiled from Newark, this fundraising scheme rested on the idea that thriving cities were both an asset to and a responsibility for all New Jersey residents.

Both the election of a new mayor in 1970 and the formation of early CDCs and other civic groups reflected residents’ determination to save their city and their guarded hopes for the future. But rivalry and tension frequently characterized the relationship between Newark’s CDCs and the municipal government. Kenneth Gibson originally sat on NCC’s board and was elected mayor with a groundswell of support from civic organizations formed in the uprising’s aftermath. In 1978, however, he told a White House Conference on Balanced National Growth and Economic Development that “citizen participation” was a “bugaboo” and a distraction from the demands of governance.

Under Sharpe James’s tenure in the 1980s and ’90s, CDCs’ dependence on municipal approval for zoning, some contracts, and the distribution of CDGB funds was enforced by an administration that cultivated wariness and suspicion. One activist recalled that James vilified his critics by verbally attacking them and grossly mischaracterizing their positions on issues ranging from tax reevaluation to the preservation of a community park (James served simultaneously as mayor and state senator). The City Council also curbed residents’ input with a 1997 ordinance that dramatically limited participation at meetings. “When power to speak was gone,” the ICC’s Zak says, “there was a lack of dialogue and I don’t think we’ve recovered from that.” (Under Booker, speaking rules have been liberalized somewhat.)

Roland Anglin, executive director of Rutgers University’s Center for Race and Ethnicity and former deputy director of the Community Development Resource Unit of the Ford Foundation, says that Newark’s political climate inhibited a Ford-funded project he oversaw in the 1990s to increase local nonprofits’ capacity through collaboration with corporations and foundations. Cooperation from the city and approval for large-scale projects was “always a fight and a question,” Anglin recalls, in part because “everything in Newark is political.” Anglin says that officials were unable to act on the principle of “public good apart from and distinct from electoral politics.”

The HCDNNJ’s Sterner, who previously worked for community development groups in Newark and other cities, also notes that Newark’s political life impeded the relationship among CDCs in ways that differed from other New Jersey cities. In equally troubled Camden, which also suffered from disinvestment and municipal corruption, Sterner said, “the dynamic with the mayor and city government has brought people together — not because it’s a better situation — but the groups have stronger bonds and have been united in dealing with the challenges, while Camden’s mayor was not well-enough organized like the James machine, so it didn’t pull people apart.”

Newark community organizer and veteran activist Richard Cammarieri says he is frequently asked about Newark’s distinctiveness. “I always get that,” he says, “ ‘Why do people put up with all they put up with in Newark?’ I mean, two mayors in 36 years! … But I’m not an essentialist when it comes to Newark. The issues are the same as every other city. People are pretty much the same. But one thing that is unique about Newark is the geography: It’s just so damn small, only 23 square miles.”

Cammarieri attributes some of Newark’s enduring problems to the fact that the residents who comprise the backbone of grass-roots organizations “either work for City Hall, work for the Board of Education, for the Housing Authority and are vulnerable to all sorts of political pressure. I really think that contributed to part of the difficulty of organizing in Newark and producing some kind of counterpoint to the mainstream.” In this climate, Cammarieri notes, many CDCs prioritized development over organizing in ways that ultimately reinforced their own silence. “[T]he CDCs became institutionalized over the years, and instead of speaking out and being outspoken advocates, as they got more CDBG money, more contracts with the county, they became more dependent on government funding. They didn’t generate the kind of protective community organizing with grass-roots residents that would have distanced them or isolated them from reprisals. They began to be quieter and quieter.”

For years, Cammarieri’s employer, New Community Corporation, was something of an exception. Like many early CDCs, NCC had ambitious plans for businesses and housing developments that would help subsidize their other goals and promote self-sufficiency. Many of these goals seemed to come to fruition as its early successes earned the organization a national reputation as an innovator in the field. NCC’s founding leaders Monsignor William Linder and Queen of Angels member Joseph Chaneyfield oversaw the organization’s initial housing developments in the early 1970s, while Mary Smith forged the first network of licensed childcare centers in the city to accept infants. NCC expanded its reach exponentially over the next two decades and by the mid-1990s, it housed more than 7,000 residents and ranked second only to the Newark Housing Authority as a provider of low-income housing. In the early 1990s, NCC opened a Pathmark supermarket in the Central Ward, where for 20 years residents had had to rely on street vendors and overpriced convenience stores, or travel hours to do their shopping.

Linder has consistently criticized the limited reach of downtown development policies. His steadfast realism about the conditions of Newark’s neighborhoods — he told The New York Times in 1995 “We train people for jobs that don’t exist” — no doubt resonated with residents who had yet to see the benefits of downtown construction, such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in their own lives. NCC’s size and significance in Newark allowed Linder freedom to criticize the James administration.

Linder’s reputation for tenacity extends far back. In 1969, he joined the “Newark 20,” a group of priests who published a searing denouncement of racism in the Newark Archdiocese. A colleague once admiringly described him as a “junkyard dog” when it came to defending NCC. Robert Zdenek, president of New Jersey Community Capital, who worked for New Community Corporation and wrote his dissertation on the group, said, “Father Linder has a lot of integrity but also a very aggressive side to him.” A management style shaped by these characteristics served Linder well during the 1980s and 1990s, fueling NCC’s growth into one of Newark’s largest private employers. But questions remain about whether Linder’s strategies are sustainable and whether his 40-year dominance over the organization and clashes with James may have also damaged NCC.

After NCC favored Booker in his failed 2002 mayoral bid, the James administration rejected the group’s proposal for a $35,000 community block grant that it had previously received. Municipal interference also killed a $100,000 federal grant for NCC’s transitional housing program. Zdenek describes NCC as “a growth model built around borrowing, leveraging, and the developing fee that is a huge part of the revenue stream for NCC.” “When the pipeline slowed down,” Zdenek said, the giant organization faltered, and the city’s actions compounded NCC’s internal difficulties. NCC’s debt was mounting; and, after decades of skilled but firm administration, NCC lacked a deep bench of alternative leadership that could deflect James’ backlash. The strain showed, and in 2006, PSE&G sued NCC for $1.8 million in unpaid utility bills. NCC’s challenge, Zdenek says, is to devise a “contraction model” that allows the organization to adapt to a new climate of diminished opportunities while continuing to serve the tens of thousands of very low-income residents who depend on its services.

Julio Colon, director of community and economic development for La Casa de Don Pedro (LCDP), says that NCC’s experience served as a warning to other CDCs and nonprofits about the pitfalls of political engagement. LCDP was founded in 1972 by a group of civic leaders that included Ramon Rivera, a former member of the Young Lords who had been at the forefront of the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention that helped elect Gibson.

At a time when the polarization between black and white residents dominated Newark politics, LCDP brought the needs and political vitality of the city’s growing Hispanic population into focus. At the same time, Colon attributes LCDP’s success to “senior management that has an ability to get things done and — to be candid — to be apolitical.” Colon says that LCDP encourages political participation through voter registration programs, but does not “take on allegiances with politicians.” Colon says, “I think that’s what to a great extent maintained some stability for the organization.”

LCDP has more than doubled in size over the past decade and is now involved in nearly $35 million in construction, including a 19-unit housing development, a new office and retail complex on Broad Street that is financed with a New Markets Tax Credit, and a partnership with UVSO to build a combined senior housing and adult daycare facility in Vailsburg.

Newark’s CDCs have faced many obstacles to collaboration and political reform, but they have also persisted in trying to coordinate action across the borders of ward and neighborhood. Since the late 1970s, organizations have come together in what is now called the Newark Community Development Network (NCDN). The need for coherent planning in Newark — frequently cited by scholars of the city and its residents — is of deep concern to NCDN members. Inconsistent standards and outdated zoning regulations have proven vulnerable to political manipulation, resulting in haphazard development, selective enforcement, and, in some cases, insufficient (or nonexistent) environmental protections.

In 1997, the James administration began revising the city’s Master Land Use Plan, which hadn’t been substantively updated in decades. CDCs in the NCDN responded by forming the Master Plan Working Group and pressed for public hearings that brought thousands of residents into the process. Some of their recommendations were incorporated into the revisions approved by city officials in 2004. But four years later, persistent delays and the city’s failure to pass necessary ordinances have stalled the implementation of the plan and left nearly a decade of work by municipal officials and community activists in what Zak called “a legal limbo,” while construction continues unchecked.

The Booker administration appears to have made comprehensive planning a priority, hiring Stefan Pryor, formerly of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, as Deputy Mayor for Community and Economic Development and Toni Griffin as planning director. Griffin, Tri-City’s Caldwell says, “understands community development. She comes to NCDN meetings, Master Plan Working Group meetings, tells us what she’s planning to do; she’s been on a tour with us, so she could get a better sense of the community.”

Zak agrees. “The city has a planner now — that’s good — and some planning staff.” But as long as the master-plan implementation remains in a holding pattern, she fears changes will come too late to protect the Ironbound from overdevelopment. “It’s moving slowly, and new development proposals are being approved left and right.”

At the same time, Newark’s CDCs have found themselves at ground zero of the foreclosure crisis. UVSO, LCDP, and Tri-City all provide foreclosure counseling, although Tri-City offers the most extensive, HUD-certified program. Caldwell said she and other Tri-City leaders could see the crisis coming. “…[W]hen all the development was going on people were becoming overleveraged just to own a home. Not just in West Side Park, all of Newark,” says Caldwell. “The worst of it is not over. Newark gave five-year tax abatements that are going to expire. And people are already overleveraged. Even if it ends up being an extra $200 to $300 a month, you just don’t have it. We’re very happy with the physical change in West Side Park, what were vacant lots now have structures…. Our concern is that 10 years down the road these may have to be demolished or they’ll be abandoned because people can’t afford them.”

In both his campaigns, Booker leaned heavily on a familiarity with Newark’s vulnerable neighborhoods he had gained not through lifelong residency but by tirelessly canvassing the streets and living in public housing. Booker’s administration has promoted Super Neighborhoods, an adaptation of a program created in Houston, Tex. that aimed to streamline city responses to quality-of-life issues. Super Neighborhoods calls for block associations, nonprofits, and other grass-roots groups to draw up a covenant with the city government that ranks the urgency of problems and specifies the solutions each party — neighborhood residents and municipal officials — will try.

Zak calls Super Neighborhoods “positive as a networking thing,” but Caldwell recalls that some community leaders were at first puzzled because “Super Neighborhoods was not discussed with any other community development organizations before it became an initiative. There was a press release, everything was out there before anything was said to a community development group…. You have to talk to the people that are there, or all the initiatives they’re creating are going to fade away once he’s [Booker] out of office.”

In the case of the Ironbound, Zak says, “when the decision was made by the city to implement Super Neighborhoods, we stayed in the middle, wrote the application, and invited everyone that needed to be there.” But Zak noted “vast differences among Super Neighborhoods in different parts of the city. Some are getting stuff done and others are not.” A few of the original neighborhood designations presented by the city used outdated maps, while others “were just too geographically large to be a good Super Neighborhood.” The challenge now, according to Zak, is to make Super Neighborhoods function consistently and effectively across Newark.

Super Neighborhoods attempts to fulfill Booker’s promises to unite residents around a larger vision for their neighborhoods and enable them to solve everyday problems. It also offers his administration a means of regaining residents’ trust in City Hall — after all, James was the third in a succession of three mayors to end their terms with indictments on charges that included conspiracy, misconduct, fraud, and corruption (Gibson was the only one to be acquitted of the most serious charges.) And Super Neighborhoods gives Booker a chance to strengthen his political base, offering supporters a means of building a citywide network to replace the James machine.

During James’s five terms in office, Newark’s veteran CDCs established what amounts to a parallel government at the frontlines of poor and working-class families’ struggle for jobs, dependable services, and affordable housing. It remains to be seen where these organizations will fit in the new political and economic reality of Newark — one marked by promise, as well as longstanding paradoxes that constrict the possibilities for the city’s residents.

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Julia Rabig earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and currently teaches at the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African- American Studies at the University of Rochester. Her dissertation explores the history of community economic development efforts in Newark since the 1950s.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I was surprised and dismayed by Mr. Colon’s comments in this article because La Casa de Don Pedro does not have a partnership with UVSO to build “a combined senior housing and adult day care facility” or anything else in Vailsburg, or anywhere. This is at best wishful thinking, and at worst a straight out lie.
    Mike Farley
    Executive Director
    UVSO

  2. I received a note today from Julia Rabig indicating that she was mistaken in quoting Julio Colon, and that the housing partnership Mr. Colon referenced in his remarks is with the Ivy Hill Senior Care Corporation, and not with UVSO. I apologize to Mr. Colon for the disparaging remarks, and wish he and La Casa every continuing success in their work to build a better Newark.
    Mike Farley
    Executive Director
    UVSO

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