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March Madness In Newark A First For Mayor Booker

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Cities around the U.S. play host to the biggest month in college basketball. For first-time host Newark, New Jersey it's a chance to revive the city's long-lost spirit. Newark's Mayor Cory Booker talks about what the NCAA basketball tournament means for the city's economy, people and spirit.


The second weekend of March Madness tips off tomorrow, and the tournament shift to new arenas in new cities. NPR's Joe Pesca will join us to look ahead to the Sweet 16s in a few minutes, but first, to what some might consider an unlikely host city. Newark, New Jersey, fights a lingering reputation as a hub of crime and urban decay. Mayor Cory Booker campaigns to reverse that perception, and the city want its first-ever opportunity to host one of the round of 16 in the men's tournament. Mayor Booker joins us now from his office at City Hall.

And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Democrat, Newark, New Jersey): It's so great to be here on a show that I listen to, so it's good to be connected.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that. And what does this tournament mean for Newark?

Mayor BOOKER: You know, it's tremendous. I'm calling it sort of icing on top of a really good cake, and what I mean by that is we have had so much momentum for our city recently, from new hotels being built in our downtown for the first time in 40 years, companies choosing to move here, our population now growing in leaps and bounds, our commuter campuses and our colleges used to be commuter campuses, but now, they're building dorms.

We're just seeing a lot of energy, a lot of excitement in the city. And now, we're hosting everything from the globe's peace conference with the Dalai Lama to the biggest poetry festival in North America to the NBA draft.

But the NCAA tournament is really a seminal every year, and it's extraordinary that the elite eight are coming here to play.

CONAN: And, well, they will be down to the elite eight after the first couple of rounds of games. As you look ahead to this, the opening of the Prudential Center, where these games are going to be held, that was a key point for downtown Newark.

Mayor BOOKER: It was. And, you know, we hoped it would be an engine for business creation, job development, and it's really been just that. We are now seeing bars and restaurants and art galleries all opening around the arena. And as I mentioned before, even two hotels under development right now, right there.

So it's become a great momentum builder for our city, and along with some other good things going on in Newark, it's helping our city begin to shed that - as you called it - lingering reputation and to tell the truth of who we are.

CONAN: And it's interesting. The reputation, well, the crime statistics of late have been up a little bit but way down over the past several years.

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah. When I came in, it was - we were really in a bad way, but we've dramatically brought shootings and murders and crime down. Like many cities, from New York to Newark, we've had a little bit of an uptick last year, but nothing like it used to be. So we're feeling good.

I mean, Newarkers are really feeling like we're just catching momentum now. As you know, we're doing a lot around education and trying to take on the challenge of dramatically reforming our public schools.

So from, you know, the biggest parks expansion in the city, 45 new acres of parks all around our neighborhoods, to the doubling of affordable housing with partnerships with everybody from Bon Jovi to Brad Pitt, the city is really feeling energized and hopeful. And, you know, we call it now Newark shock. When people come to our city, they're just shocked at what they're seeing going on.

CONAN: It was unfortunate comment. One of the commentators on the first Devil's broadcast on network TV out of that new Prudential Center said it's a wonderful building but you don't want to go outside.

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah. Which is really unfortunate because it reflected in ignorance about our city. You know, this year we have literally zero crimes around our arena. It's one of the safest arenas in the nation, and yet, people come with that perception.

And this was a guy that actually wasn't doing the announcing from the arena. He was doing it from an ESPN studio far away. So he didn't even experience what the city was about, but it felt like he could just sort of mouth off about our reputation.

And honestly, that's what we're fighting - from late night talk show hosts. You know, we had a big kerfuffle with Conan O'Brien to others. It's just an easy joke to make, but we're struggling to get people to understand what the truth is. And now that we'll have millions of Americans watching Newark and tens of thousands visiting Newark this weekend, we know that it will be a chance for us to show the truth of who we are.

CONAN: I have to say I had the opportunity to visit Newark several times when I was doing play-by-play for a team that was in the same league as the Newark Bears, just down the street from the Prudential arena. And so I got to visit the city quite a bit and visit the great restaurants in the Ironbound District. But as a Jersey guy growing up, I can't tell you how important it is to some people to have the teams that play in that arena be the New Jersey Nets and the New Jersey Devils.

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah, well, I'm a Jersey guy, and so I have a big Jersey chip on my shoulder that we don't get the credit. You know, we're one of the top 10 most populous states in the nation. We make such profound contributions to this country in arts, and entertainment and definitely professional sports. But, you know, the Giants and the Jets play here but, yet they claim the moniker of being a New York team. But we claim them because the truth of the matter is so that much of our sports in this region our played in New Jersey and now in Newark. And we want to flex a little bit and let people know that, the Jersey pride. And if you can play the Bruce Springsteen in the background...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor BOOKER: This is the time to cue Bruce, but the Jersey pride is storming back.

CONAN: OK. And you attended Stanford, which did not make the men's tournament this year, so who are you going to be rooting for?

Mayor BOOKER: You know, I've got Duke in the Final Four as well as, hopefully, Kentucky, but we'll see. It's going to be a tough bracket that we're in here in Newark. I think Ohio State is going to, maybe, surprise a lot of folks or not surprise. I think they're the favorite actually.

CONAN: I think they are, yeah.

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah. So it's going to be a tough bracket for one of those teams, but I still like Duke overall and maybe Kansas as well, seeing them in the final game.

CONAN: Mayor Booker, thanks again for your time. Appreciate it.

Mayor BOOKER: Thank you. All of the best.

CONAN: Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He joins us by phone from his office at city hall.

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