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.