After the fire? Nothing.
Nothing in Newark ever again.
-- Philip Roth, "American Pastoral"
NEWARK -- Cory Booker, 38, has not read Roth's superb novel, which turns on the race riots that raged for six days and took 24 lives 40 years ago this summer. But Booker is bullish on Newark. Roth is a writer of social realism. Obdurate optimism is part of the job description of mayor of this battered city, which was a plaything of the mob before mobs burned it.
Once America's most industrialized city, Newark attracted the attentions of New York City mobsters (the movie "On the Waterfront" was filmed on New Jersey docks) whose depredations contributed to the flight of industry just as blacks were arriving from the South. Partly because of the cost that organized crime added to many city contracts, Newark spent twice as much per citizen as did other midsize cities. And the riots came, (redundant) evidence of the problematic nature of attempts to spend one's way to domestic tranquility.
Even 20 years later, according to Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute, Newark had no movie theater and just one grocery store. And it had a surfeit of politicians such as George "You got me" Branch, whose nickname was his exclamation during an unpleasant encounter with law enforcement. Booker took away Branch's city council seat in 1998.
Booker is an African-American whose father was born to a single mother in North Carolina in 1936. By the time Booker was an adolescent in an affluent northern New Jersey community, both his parents were IBM executives. After being a high school football All-American, Booker earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford (he was a Rhodes Scholar) and Yale Law School. In 2002, he ran against the incumbent mayor, Sharpe James, another urban boss in the fragrant tradition of some northern New Jersey cities. Booker almost won; James prudently decided not to run in 2006, when Booker won with 72 percent of the vote.
Nattily dressed, with his gleaming shaved head and athlete's build and bearing, Booker radiates confidence in Newark, largely because of its transportation infrastructure: It sits near the intersection of Interstates 95 and 78; its port is the nation's third largest in the volume of goods moved through it; the airport is the nation's 16th busiest. You can, Booker says, get to Wall Street quicker from Newark than from Manhattan's Upper East Side. Furthermore, every mayor, Booker says, understands the importance of "eds and meds" -- educational and medical institutions, of which Newark has many.