Newark's Next Mayor Faces Longstanding Problems

Voters in Newark, N.J., choose a new mayor Tuesday. During Sharpe James' 20 years at the helm an arts center and a basketball arena arose and some of the city's worst public housing disappeared. But crime and poverty persist.

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This Tuesday, voters in Newark, New Jersey, will elect a new mayor for the first time in 20 years. Five-term incumbent Sharpe James is not running for reelection, and his 2002 rival, Corey Booker, has a huge lead in the polls.

When James took over the mayor's office in 1986, storefronts were boarded up, large tracts of land were reduced to rubble, and banks would not lend money for new investments. Much has changed since then, but the next mayor will face a daunting challenge: how to expand downtown developments so Newark citizens are no longer among the poorest in the nation.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

Like many places, there are two sides to Newark, but here you can see the vision of an affluent future smack up against the poverty and devastation that plagues the city's present.

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SOLOMON: A packed house watches the HMS Pinafore in the dazzling modern New Jersey Performing Arts Center. But when the opera lovers file out the Sunday matinee, they make a beeline for the parking garages, leaving the streetscape desolate.

The theatre opened in 1997 and was supposed to kick start a Newark renaissance, but the restaurants and shops that were expected to provide jobs for Newark residents have yet to materialize.

Mr. RICHARD ROPER (Newark City Government Worker): The downtown renaissance has largely benefited those who come into the city to work or for entertainment purposes and to leave the city after the close of business.

SOLOMON: Richard Roper worked in Newark city government and is now widely viewed as an expert in urban renewal. He calls the new developments, like the minor league ballpark or office towers a mini-renaissance. But the new mayor will have bring relief to the city's residential neighborhoods, where the murder rate is six times the national average.

Mr. TANIEL ISAACS(ph): For me, every day, I get up in the morning, walking to school, I kind of feel unsafe.

SOLOMON: Sixteen-year-old Taniel Isaacs is a junior at Malcolm X Shabazz High School.

Mr. ISAACS: Somebody might come up to me or try to rob me, you know. And there's so many killing happen around here. At Malcolm X Shabazz, you know, people got stabbed and shot up. They need to put more security guards inside of the schools and more policemen on the streets.

SOLOMON: Without safer streets, most of those who can afford to live elsewhere move away. The city's population has shrunk to half of what it once was. Since the riots of 1967 when whole blocks burned to the ground, the one thing Newark has had in abundance is vacant land. The city has sold off much of it to private developers who have built handsome new townhouses, but many now have bright orange for rent signs on them.

Thirty-year-old Ruben Perez grew up in this north Newark neighborhood. He says he's happy to see new construction, but most of it isn't affordable.

Mr. RUBEN PEREZ (Newark Resident): A lot of politics talks about bringing Newark back to life, but it's not for the low-income family. It's for the middle class and upper class people of Newark. It's not for the lower, you know, minority groups.

SOLOMON: But when you're talking about Newark, that's who lives here, right?

Mr. PEREZ: Exactly. But you know politics.

SOLOMON: The mayor's critics say he gave away too much city land to private developers without requiring that housing remain affordable or new businesses interview Newark citizens when hiring. They also Sharpe James relied on political patronage rather than professionalism to run the city.

Those who defend the mayor say he fought for Newark when nobody else would. Al Koeppe heads The Newark Alliance, a non-profit group of business leaders working to improve the city's schools and economy. He says the rebuilding plan just needs more time to succeed.

Mr. AL KOEPPE (Head of The Newark Alliance): Sharpe James did the very best that he could do. If you can have significant development in the downtown district because private investors are willing to take a chance, you will see the tide rise in adjacent areas.

SOLOMON: So far that hasn't happened. 45% of Newark residents have incomes below the poverty line and the city has the third highest unemployment rate in the country. Yet New Jersey's largest city sits on what should be extremely valuable property. It's 11 miles from New York and has an airport, a major rail line, five universities and one of the largest ports in North America.

Mr. RICHARD CAMERERI(ph) (Newark Resident): So something is not linking up here.

SOLOMON: Richard Camereri is a lifelong resident of Newark who works for a non-profit community group in the city. He says the downtown projects haven't improved the lives of Newark residents.

Mr. CAMERERI: By my definition of development, that ain't development. It's growth, but it's not development. Where there's no real self-sustaining growth, we're still dependent primarily on outside interests for, you know, economic resources. And that's something that, you know, has never been addressed in any coherent way by any of our elected officials.

SOLOMON: It's not hard to imagine gentrification sweeping the city. After all, it's just a 20-minute subway ride to Manhattan. But it will be much more difficult to lead a renaissance, not just for the residents who someday might come, but for those who are already here.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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