The State of the City

Former governor of New Jersey

Former Governor Tom Kean

Tom Kean was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990. At Friday’s NJ Spotlight on Cities conference he talked about his experience talking to urban mayors and residents. They wanted three things: safe streets, jobs, and decent schools.

Just last month a Rutgers-Eagleton poll asked the question what is the “most important thing to make NJ cities better places to live.” The top three answers were jobs, public safety and quality schools.

Has nothing changed in the last three decades? Most think our cities are in somewhat better shape than they were when Kean took office. And there is some optimism fueled by the fact that Americans in their 20’s and 30’s are showing a distinct preference for living in more urban environments. That is what prompted Tom Byrne, the son of another former governor Brendan Byrne, to exclaim: “Thank God for the millennials!”

Another of the conference’s speakers, Kim Fortunato of the Campbell Soup Foundation, said of Camden, “we’re not as heartbreaking these days, there are a lot of bright spots.”

I lived in downtown Jersey City in the 90’s and the early 2000’s. I watched as the waterfront office buildings filled up with the back office operations of Wall Street firms. I then watched as they were circled with luxury apartments and condos. The restaurants, bars and coffee shops soon followed. By now downtown Jersey City has become an almost trendy place to live. The price tag has gone up accordingly.

The plan to build a world-class performing arts center in Newark (NJPAC) came to fruition while Kean was governor. Newark has since added a first class sports arena and gained an NHL franchise. Prudential, which has been in Newark for 140 years, built a new 20-story headquarters in 2014. Audible moved to the city in 2007 and Panasonic moved their headquarters there in 2013. Downtown Newark now has a Nike store and a Starbucks, and a brand new Whole Foods is on its way.

Ras Baraka at NJ Spotlight on Cities

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

But as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka pointed out, “there is a mixed view of the city depending on where you live.” Many of the city’s residents have no access to the finance and the commerce of the central business district. For both Newark and Jersey City, the downtown Renaissance has not been felt in other parts of those cities and has priced out residents of other neighborhoods.

So while there are many statistics that can be cited that show people migrating to instead of away from cities, Kresge Foundation Senior Fellow Carol Coletta, noted: “Outside the spotlight the number of people living in concentrated poverty is increasing.”

There was nary a person at the conference who didn’t think education was a key ingredient to any imrpovement in our cities. Yet current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has advocated a change in school funding that would be based on providing the exact same amount of money for every student no matter where that student went to school. The result of that plan would be to pull millions of dollars in educational funding out of the city schools and into the suburban schools, many of which are already vastly superior to their urban counterparts. Christie’s goal is to reduce property taxes in the suburbs.

In a state that is already substantially segregated, the likely result would be a further separation. Baraka, who at one time was a school principal in Newark, believes that “funding schools through property taxes is inherently unequal.” When it comes to the cities he added, “You’re going to spend the money anyway. You can spend it on hospitals, on social services, on incarceration. Or you can spend it on education.” Fortunately, Christie’s approval ratings have fallen through the floor and there is likely no chance he could ever win an election in New Jersey again.

Mayor of Perth Amboy, N.J.

Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz

New Jersey is as diverse as it gets in the U.S. And most of that diversity is in the state’s cities. There are 2 million immigrants in New Jersey, out of a total population of 9 million. About 400,000 to 500,000 of those are undocumented. Jersey City alone has some 50 different ethnic groups. But if you look at the photo at the bottom of this post of the state’s gubernatorial hopefuls, they are all white men.

One of the conference speakers, Wilda Diaz, is the mayor of Perth Amboy, a city of 51,000 that is 70% Latino. She is the only Latina mayor in New Jersey, a state with 565 municipalities. Khader Ken Abuassab of the American Arab Civic Organization commented that while Arabs make up 25% of the population of the city of Paterson, they have no representation at the city or county level.

The conference ended with a panel of four gubernatorial hopefuls for the 2017 election. Refreshingly, there were no personal attacks. They talked about issues: jobs, schools and safety. The same issues the gubernatorial hopefuls of 1982 likely talked about.

Future governor?

Lee Keough of NJ Spotlight sits in the middle of four New Jersey gubernatorial hopefuls. They are, from left, John Wisniewski, Phil Murphy, Jack Ciattarelli and Tom Byrne.

A video of the NJ Spotlight On Cities event is available here.

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16 Responses to The State of the City

  1. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting look at the state of the city. It would be nice to find a balance between inner city renewal and affordability for residents. i like that the panel focused on the issues and didn’t descend into personal attacks.


  2. pjlazos says:

    One would think that since the “revitalization” of Atlantic City plunged all but the boardwalk into deeper poverty that city planners would come up with a different development model rather than to keep repeating their failure. After awhile you start to wonder if it isn’t intentional in addition to being impractical. I heard on NPR that the disparity between rich and poor schools is between $6K and &14k. I would think leveling it out might actually improve some schools under that scenario, but perhaps I’m wrong about the methodology.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      I hadn’t thought of it before but it’s interesting that at this all-day conference with a few hundred people who are involved in local or state government in one way or another I didn’t hear Atlantic City mentioned once.


  3. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, interesting post. I agree that education is the key to reducing poverty. Every student, no matter what race, should have equal access to quality education. I think Ras Baraka has it right – spend the money on education and you’ll need to spend less on health care and social services. Rather interesting that 35 years later, the same issues are being discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I once had an interview for a PR position in Jersey City, working for the Mayor.
    Some of the information you provided me reminds me of that interview. It seemed my position was to break down the police force union, so a new contract more beneficial to the city could be obtained. Lets, just say I did not take the job.
    The redistribution for educational money looks fine on paper, but you always have to look into the details. Usually, urban areas have more troubled youths, or children of immigrants, this mean more money is needed to be spent on that area, than a rural one.


  5. Phoenicia says:

    I have visited New Jersey years ago and noticed the vast difference in one neighbourhood (think Desperate Housewives) to another (think Boys n Da Hood). The neighbourhoods were less than 20 minutes apart from each other.

    Education would reduce rather than eradicate poverty. Of course, citizens should want education. How do you encourage and inspire people who have no confidence or care for education?


  6. heraldmarty says:

    Funny how when I read the sentence “most important thing to make NJ cities better places to live” the first thing that popped into my head was “Get a new governor.” It’s been over a decade since I last visited New Jersey and it seems little has changed, but despite all the challenges at least the conference was carried out without name calling or hysterics, which is obviously more than we can hope for in the current campaign season.


  7. I’ve never been to New Jersey, but the things many one would want in a good city run across the board from place to place. The illusive pursuit of better schools is one that always gets to me. The system is in desperate need of change, but change comes so slowly.


  8. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. We went to Camden recently and I noticed a huge change in development there too. I love seeing places become more modernized and updated. When money is invested back into cities, it makes the people who live there feel better about themselves and their surroundings.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s essential to improve education and reduce poverty in the United States. Trump should be a wake-up call for all Americans. Mind you, if the Donald is elected the situation will deteriorate enormously with only people like him, the top 1%, getting a better life.


  10. Erica says:

    I remember going through Newark when I lived on the East coast and the city did seem to be struggling. I’m amazed to even hear of a Whole Foods in the city. I think education will always be a big issue. Underfunded schools just struggle. And haven spoke to teacher who work for the Los Angeles School District (which is horribly underfunded), it is impossible for them to do a proper job when put in such a tight situation. I’m sure they’ll still be talking about this 200 years from now.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Emily says:

    I am from Australia so I cannot see this firsthand but it is interesting to hear about and learn something about what is happening on the other side of the world.


  12. susht says:

    Good post & well descriptive. Never have been to the United States, but agree & can say education just like here is a must to help eradicate poverty!


  13. Andy says:

    I’m all for spending money on hospitals (accidents and emergencies can and do occur, after all) and on social services (there will always be people who need help over and above what they get from their families) and of course on education. Incarceration should be reserved for only violent criminals, however; find some other way to punish other offenders and clean out the jails.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      I think the point Baraka was trying to make is that if you don’t invest in education, you’re going to end up spending the money anyway, but it will be on things like hospitals, social services and jails.

      Liked by 1 person

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