NPR logo Newark, N.J. and Southeast D.C.: A Violent Tale Of Two Cities

Crime & Punishment

Newark, N.J. and Southeast D.C.: A Violent Tale Of Two Cities

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., was our guest in our Political Chat today. This March, for the first time in 44 years, his city went a full calendar month without a homicide.

As Newark celebrates — if that's the right word — a murder-free month, Washington, D.C., is still reeling from a shooting this week that was the deadliest in years, leaving four people dead and five others wounded. It happened in an area that people warn strangers to avoid: Southeast Washington, the place where I was born.

Not to say I'm really FROM Southeast D.C. My parents left that neighborhood when I was 2-years-old, and settled in the suburbs. But that was long before people worried about getting shot there. I know of plenty of nice neighborhoods in Southeast D.C.; I still have relatives there. When I lived in D.C., I'd travel to that part of town a couple of Sundays a month to go to my family church.

I'd hop in a taxi, but when I would give the address, cabbies would get sour. They'd ask for the fare up front; some would make up an excuse about why they couldn't go. Others would say — flat out — they wouldn't drive to Southeast.

Even years later that still makes me angry, but there's no way I would move to Southeast. Because I know that even if you have streets and streets full of good people, all it takes is a handful of armed thugs, bystanders who are complicit or just too scared to say anything and city leaders who can't figure it out — or can't be bothered — for your neighborhood to turn into a ghetto.

"No thanks."

That's what a lot of middle class black people say. That's what I've said. Yes, it's terrible that so many people live there, lots of fine people, and many others who are guilty of no crime greater than having bad judgment and not having family members who can afford to buy their way out of it.

And yet, when someone you love lives in the inner city, or a child you know in that neighborhood shows promise, your heartfelt advice to them most often is GET OUT. And I don't just mean leave. I mean, GET THE (choice of expletive here) OUT.

Visit once in a while — in daylight — and then get back to someplace safe.

This is why Cory Booker is a hero to a lot of Americans, particularly to middle class blacks like me. He's got an Ivy League education, charisma and connections and he's willing to put all that to work to make Newark a better place. Not much glamour, no big money, lots of doubters, haters and folks who couldn't care less.

On a grand scale, Booker does what many of us — black and white — SAY we would like to do if we had time or enough money to put our kids in a private school or a state-of-the-art security system.

We want to save the city, or rather, we want the city to be saved. But by who? Superman? The "system," the politicians, cops and institutions that let those neighborhoods fall apart in the first place?

No. It takes dedicated people who are willing to risk getting mocked, mugged or even killed to save cities many of us believe are hopeless.

I know plenty of people dismiss Booker as another slick political prodigy, using Newark as a stepping stone to a bigger gig.

And they say that the low expectations so many people have of that city make it easy for him to be a superstar there.

But there are people alive in Newark this month who may not have been if Booker hadn't believed change was possible. And if he's only doing that to climb the ladder into Congress, the Governor's Mansion or — someday — the White House, I've got two words for him: climb on.