Mayor faces complexities of poverty, crime in reviving N.J.'s largest city

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 25, 2015 7:02 AM

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - A handful of streets in New Jersey's largest city boast glistening apartment towers with floor-to-ceiling views of the Manhattan skyline, but much of the rest of Newark bears the scars of stubbornly high crime rates and persistent poverty.

The complexities of life in Newark are reflected in graffiti, boarded-up houses and shattered car windows, stark reminders for Mayor Ras Baraka of the challenges he faces to attract people and investment to his hometown.

Little more than 10 miles from New York City, Newark has one of the highest murder rates in the United States, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, and one in four residents live in poverty.

In his first year in office, Baraka has tackled tough urban issues with efforts to improve public health, defuse gangs and improve relations between residents and police.

Supporters see signs of success. Teachers Village, a mix of rental housing, retail, and charter schools, is coming to fruition; a 20-story office building by Prudential is due to open this summer and the city's performing arts center and sports arena are regularly packed.

Baraka has a long way to go to mend the city's infrastructure and psyche, which have suffered since Newark was torn apart by race riots a half-century ago.

"Newark has its assets, and I think it's really taking advantage of them," said James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. But, he said, addressing crime in the city of 278,000 people is "a precondition" to building up its residential base.

Newark had 34 murders as of early June, down from 38 a year earlier, according to the city's police department. Auto thefts were down slightly to 1,089 from 1,160, though the number of reported rapes had more than doubled to 33.

Walking along a street marred by parked cars with smashed-in windows, Kelvin Roberson, a healthcare worker who recently moved out of Newark, said he was saddened to see that his old neighborhood was still plagued by familiar crimes.

"I used to see that happen all the time over the years that I lived there, and it's still continually happening," he said.

COUNCILMAN, PRINCIPAL AND POET

Baraka, the son of poet and activist Amiri Baraka, will have been in office one year as of July 1. He succeeded Cory Booker, who went to the U.S. Senate.

A former city councilman, high school principal and poet, Baraka's collection "Black Girls Learn Love Hard" is dedicated to his sister, who was murdered.

Newark-born and bred, Baraka seems to have won the confidence of the city's residents, State Senator Ron Rice said.

"You don't hear people complaining the way they used to," said Rice. "They're being patient about the things that the mayor cannot do right now because of resources."

Baraka appeared to gain ground this week in his fight to regain control of the city's schools, which were taken over by the state two decades ago, when Superintendent Cami Anderson said she would step down. Baraka had been highly critical of Anderson.

The mayor inherited a police department that was found by federal investigators to have a pattern of unconstitutional practices, including stop-and-frisk tactics that overwhelmingly targeted black residents.

In an effort to repair relations, Baraka created a civilian complaint review board with the power to conduct investigations, question witnesses and issue subpoenas.

DECADES OF DECLINE

Once a bustling port and manufacturing center, Newark's social fabric was torn apart by violent riots in 1967. There followed decades of suburban white flight and political corruption.

Five-term Mayor Sharpe James went to federal prison for fraud in 2008.

His successor, Booker, became a national celebrity who attracted billions of dollars in investment that critics said failed to reach Newark's most desperate neighborhoods. Residents complained the Ivy League-educated Booker was an outsider.

In contrast, Baraka is Newark through and through, said Pastor Willie Tolbert, a lifelong resident of the city.

"When you have roots, you bring forth more fruit," Tolbert said. "He has roots."

The Baraka administration recently launched a program to encourage local municipal workers and teachers to buy homes with forgivable loans as incentive.

"If we want to help the tax base, the poverty, we need people to purchase property in the city," Baraka told a town hall meeting.

Baraka's office declined requests for an interview.

On a visit to Newark earlier this month, civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson said Baraka was doing "an outstanding job."

But, he said, the city needs a plan to end the sort of persistent, grinding poverty that contributes to the violence in U.S. cities.

"All these cities are tinder boxes," Jackson said. "Why not be on the front side?"

(Editing by Scott Malone, Toni Reinhold)