Is the City of Newark undergoing a Renaissance? Maybe. Is it benefiting the people who live in the city? Maybe not.
Those were the key questions Monday night at the town hall discussion sponsored by the Center for Cooperative Media of Montclair State University. “Renaissance or Gentrification – How Do We Discuss Redevelopment in Newark” took place appropriately at one of the most significant landmarks of the new Newark, NJPAC.
The case for a revitalized downtown is based on new residential communities, new hotels opening for the first time in decades, a world-class performing arts center and a best of breed hockey arena. Audible and Panasonic have chosen to headquarter in downtown Newark and Prudential remains the rock of the downtown economy. There’s even a Whole Foods being built.
But Newark being Newark, most are a little wary of waving the flag of triumph. Dale Russakoff, a former journalist who is about to publish a book about Mark Zuckerberg’s $100k donation to Newark schools, noted, “This is the 3rd time that public conversation has been that Newark is about to come back.” Local real estate attorney Frank Giantomasi commented that “Newark’s renaissance is part of the expansion of Manhattan.” That means that if the economy goes south, development retracts back to New York.
It was Akintola Hanif, prominent Newark artist and founder of Hycide Magazine, who succinctly raised the issue of how little this all might mean to most of the people who live in Newark. “We’re in the middle of a lie. No social renaissance is happening. The people of the community aren’t being included in the conversation.”
Giantomasi stated it another way: “As a Newarker a lot of things haven’t changed. From a business perspective we are seeing a renaissance.”
Deputy Mayor Baye Adofo-Wilson talked about how the administration is trying to address the needs of the community. He emphasized the importance of jobs and stated that developers who are building downtown are required to fill 51% percent of jobs with Newark residents. He also talked about initiatives to support home ownership in model neighborhoods and how the administration is trying to use eminent domain to take back foreclosed properties from the banks.
But there is no shortage of problems in Newark’s neighborhoods and members of the audience were quick to point some of them out:
- Over 50% of mortgages in Newark are underwater.
- The highest paid positions are held by people who work in Newark but don’t live there.
- There’s a long history of heroin in the city.
- The rental structure doesn’t support the cost of construction.
- Newark’s many colleges and universities graduate 10,000 a year, but few stay in the city.
And the state of the media in the city is itself a problem. Merrill Brown, director of the School of Communication and Media at MSU, commented that “media has never been as weak and limited as it is today.”
Although not mentioned by name part of the reason for that is the once viable Newark Star-Ledger newspaper has been decimated by cutbacks and most of the staff has been moved out of Newark by owner Advance Media which centralized the newsroom for the Ledger, other papers it owns and its Web sites at a suburban location in Woodbridge.
The lack of vibrant local media was cited by the panelists as one of the reasons why the issues discussed at the town hall are not being widely debated. Derek Ware, publisher of GlocallyNewark.com, emphasized the lack of good stories being reported about Newark.
So what was the good story to come out of the discussion? That there are a lot of people in the city who are proud to call Newark home and want to make it better.