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I Love Newark

Get ready. The city America loves to mock is starting to blossom.

By Jeff Sypeck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 19, 2000; Page E01

It's a pleasant spring morning. You're going to the theater tonight, but in the meantime, you may want to take in a museum exhibit. Then again, a tour of the cathedral is only a subway ride away. But it's too nice to stay indoors, so you plan a trip to one of America's largest cherry blossom displays and follow it up with dinner at an ethnic restaurant.

Sounds like a nice day in Washington--except that you're in Newark. Known to most travelers for its loud, smelly airport, or as a bit of urban marginalia on the northernmost end of the New Jersey Turnpike, Newark has dwelt under the acetylene cloud of a bad reputation for decades. It hasn't always been undeserved; even within New Jersey, Newark is the butt of jokes normally reserved for the entire state. But despite the dual specters of crime and urban decay, Newark is making a slow, steady comeback. You won't want to spend a week's vacation there, but if you're willing to take the same precautions you'd take in any unfamiliar city, you'll find that Newark is an unexpectedly rich day trip from same-old, same-old Manhattan--for only a buck on a commuter train.

One of the nation's oldest cities, Newark grew from its founding by Puritans around 1665 into a 19th-century industrial powerhouse. The city was devastated in the 20th century, and the legacy of the 1960s riots is still far too apparent on some eerily quiet streets. Redevelopment hasn't always been an option; the city's churches, museums, schools and public buildings contribute to a shocking rate of tax exemption--about 70 percent--that has kept Newark's coffers chronically empty. But 275,000 residents, five colleges and universities, and numerous corporations all have a vested interest in a renaissance--not to mention in promoting the little-known attractions that have been there all along.

Start your day trip at Penn Station, the city's well-maintained art deco landmark, and you'll have easy, safe access to first-class performing arts centers and museums, a vintage subway, one of the largest cathedrals in North America, the unique Portuguese district--and yes, at the right time of year, the most diverse cherry blossom display in the nation, which peaks in early April.

Head for Penn Station's west exit and you're just a couple of blocks from the up-and-coming riverfront--and its star attraction, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Gracing 12 acres along the Passaic River, the NJPAC won praise when it opened in October 1997, and it's easy to see why. The center's red-brick facade belongs to an earlier age, but the bold jumble of cylinders and rectangles that gives the center form is unmistakably modern. Far from being cold or monolithic, the NJPAC is a rare triumph of contemporary architecture, accessible and inviting. The glass lobby and incredible theaters are breathtaking, but it's the NJPAC's arts programs that justify early comparisons to New York's Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center. From operas and musicals to dance performances and Kwanzaa celebrations, the NJPAC meets its stated goal of cultural inclusion with an effortless modern flourish. Some Manhattanites even cross the Hudson to see shows here--just don't expect them to admit it.

Not into shows? Last year, the minor league baseball team, the Newark Bears, returned to town for the first time since 1950 and found a 6,000-seat stadium waiting for them. Nicknamed "The Den," Riverfront Stadium may remind you of a smaller Camden Yards, with its homey red brick and easy downtown access. In the future, it may also serve as the cornerstone for a tremendous (and controversial) riverfront park, which would include a new stadium for the New Jersey Nets, a soccer stadium and restaurants, hotels and office buildings. The industrial mishmash along the Passaic shows no sign of disappearing, but the future could be a different story.

From the riverfront, head west to Broad Street, the heart of Newark's downtown. Broad Street is a bustle of activity, a long boulevard crowded with countless discount shops. Many local businesses are packed, but there's a noticeable absence of the big chain stores usually found in other cities' downtowns. Dilapidated storefronts within sight of Beaux-Arts masterpieces like Newark City Hall are reminders that renewal is still a work in progress.

But just to the north, clustered around Broad Street and the impressive statuary of Newark's downtown parks, colorful banners point the way to the "arts district." Tempted to snicker? Prepare to be silenced by the Newark Museum.

The museum will impress even the most jaded Smithsonian veteran. Founded in 1909, it occupies a sprawling compound that includes an 1885 brick-and-limestone mansion stylishly restored to its orginal opulence, the recently renovated Dreyfuss Planetarium and a zoo with more than 100 animals. The museum doesn't appear very large from the outside, but don't be deceived. Stroll through the long, sleek hallways and cavernous galleries and with each turn you'll find new treasures: a wide-ranging collection of American art, samples of ancient glass, fine antiquities from Greece and Rome, even an Egyptian sarcophagus. You'll also find what the museum proudly calls "the most extraordinary collection of Tibetan art in the Western Hemisphere." It's not exaggerating: Eight galleries house a collection that began in 1911. It shouldn't be missed.

You may also want to check out the shows at two of Newark's other downtown cultural centers. Behind its Italian Renaissance facade, the beautiful Newark Public Library offers regular exhibitions, from African American history to World War I recruitment posters. Just down the block, the New Jersey Historical Society also serves up lovingly prepared exhibits, including a colorful celebration of local cuisine--from Indian curries to church cookouts--that pays more than a passing tribute to that classic New Jersey institution, the diner.

"Excuse me." Two visiting Brits are wandering through Penn Station, bewildered. "We're looking for the City Subway." What? Two British tourists have forsaken Manhattan for Newark's subway?

Newark does have a subway, and it's worth a ride. Built in an old canal bed as a WPA project in the 1930s, the Newark City Subway is one of the nation's few rapid-transit systems to use trolley cars. It covers the complete 3.8-mile trip above and below ground in a modest 11 minutes, speeding through stations decorated with tile murals. The City Subway is undergoing renovations during evenings and weekends. Soon, alas, comfortable new cars will replace the sturdy old trolleys.

The subway will take you right to Newark's next surprise: Branch Brook Park, 360 acres of grassy hills and curving roads designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the legendary landscape architect behind New York's Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds. Each spring, a festival and a marathon accompany the blossoming of Newark's 3,500 cherry trees--that's almost as many as at D.C.'s Tidal Basin, and with 28 varieties, Newark's are considerably more diverse. This sea of color at the core of one of the nation's least-respected cities is an eye-popping irony, not only for visiting Washingtonians but also for New York area residents--many of whom don't even know it's here.

Alongside Branch Brook Park, the spires of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart cast incongruent medieval shadows on the neighborhood's low, nondescript row houses. Incepted in 1859 and dedicated in 1954, the French Gothic masterpiece is the fifth-largest cathedral in North America, and closely resembles the great cathedrals at Chartres and Rheims. Arrive during a concert and the vaulted ceilings will resound with choral or chamber music; come on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, and you may have the cathedral all to yourself. As you stand alone in the vast, empty dimness, the unblinking eyes of the cathedral's three rose windows watch your every move.

End your day trip among America's largest community of Portuguese immigrants: the Ironbound neighborhood.

Named for the network of train tracks that border the neighborhood on three sides, the Ironbound begins right outside Penn Station at its main drag, Ferry Street. Although 30,000 Portuguese Americans live here, the Ironbound isn't a tourist spot. Don't expect to be swept away by calculated Iberian charm. Unabashedly American music blares from speakers on lampposts (especially around the holidays), and the long, low rows of slightly crooked storefronts that house all the signs of a new, self-sufficient community--clothing stores, travel agents and furniture dealers--could never be mistaken for Lisbon. But as three generations of Portuguese Americans press their faces to a store window to study a soccer game on TV, it's clear that the Ironbound isn't just any American neighborhood either.

Patrons of the NJPAC often find their way to the Ironbound's numerous restaurants, but locals aren't really going out of their way to meet the cultural expectations of outsiders. The most expensive restaurants aren't necessarily the best. Don't be surprised when your bread basket is lined with the same brand of paper towels you just saw in the men's room, and don't expect too much from those pitchers of house sangria that taste suspiciously like supermarket wine. Instead, enjoy the Saturday-night rush of locals packing the restaurants for overflowing plates of fresh seafood. And if a mariachi band stops near your table to sing a Portuguese tune or a heavily accented "Happy Birthday," sip your sangria and enjoy.

The Ironbound's best meal deals are its cafes and bakeries. There are several on each block, all of them excellent. Enjoy a pastry and a mug of deep, dark coffee while next to you a local man in an overcoat quietly eats a cheese sandwich. There are sandwiches on the menu--or rather, on the smeared dry-erase board covered with slanting, illegible Portuguese. Never fear--at any of the Ironbound's countless patisseries, you'll get a friendly smile and gracious service even as you point awkwardly at your selection. Split the bill with a member of the opposite sex and an older shopkeeper may shoot you an undisguised look of Old World confusion. But remember, Newark's not a tourist town--so smile graciously, drink your cappuccino and enjoy being a befuddled guest of the East Coast's most unassuming immigrant neighborhood.

With other cities outside of New York City rapidly gentrifying, Newark may be next. Easy access to Manhattan, a solid mass-transit system, a developing riverfront and a fertile real estate market could all add up to the same profusion of sports bars and candle shops that overwhelm yuppie neighborhoods everywhere. But maybe not. There's enough here to suggest that Newark may develop in its own idiosyncratic, unpredictable way--with or without its bad reputation.

That reputation, which has kept visitors away from Newark for years, is also what makes it one of the best and most unexpected day trips from New York City. The next time you're in Manhattan, take the 35-minute train ride and be pleasantly surprised. Just don't bother trying to explain it to your friends. "You're going where?" they'll ask incredulously. "Take a bodyguard!" Instead, tell them you're going to see the cherry blossoms, and let them think you're spending the day in Washington. They probably wouldn't believe you anyway.

Jeff Sypeck last wrote for Travel about searching for the land of King Arthur in contemporary England.

DETAILS: Newark, N.J.

Newark's Cherry Blossom Festival is April 9, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., in Branch Brook Park, with Japanese cultural performances and demonstrations, traditional dances and more (free; 973-268-3500). The 2000 Cherry Blossom Run, sponsored by Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Jersey, kicks off at the park on April 16 and includes a children's run at 9 a.m., a 10K run at 10 and a disabled run at 10:10. Call 973-376-0231 for registration information.

Note: Although Newark is safer than it was, visitors should still take care in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Walking around the city after dark, except in the Ironbound, is not recommended.

GETTING THERE: Newark is about 235 miles from the Beltway. Take I-95 north through Maryland and Delaware, following signs for the Delaware Memorial Bridge. After the bridge, follow signs for the New Jersey Turnpike. Take the turnpike to Exit 13A. After the tollbooth, the road leads to Route 1 north. Exit on Rte. 21 to McCarter Highway; drive on McCarter for about 10 minutes. Turn right onto Market Street. On weekends, parking near Penn Station and the Ironbound costs about $6 for the day.

Nearly all of Amtrak's trains from D.C. stop in Newark's Penn Station before continuing on to Manhattan. The best bet, however, is to take a PATH commuter train from Manhattan. PATH trains run to Newark's Penn Station 24 hours a day, seven days a week; the trip takes about 35 minutes and costs $1. Information: 1-800-234-PATH, or www.njtransit.state.nj.us/mainsub.htm

GETTING AROUND: Take the Newark City Subway (973-491-9400, or www.njtransit.state. nj.us/mainsub.htm). The subway is closed evenings and weekends through 2000 for renovation. Call first.

LOOP shuttle buses run daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a regular schedule, and every 10 minutes from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Stops include Broad Street Station, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark Museum, Penn Station and the Ironbound.

WHAT TO DO:

* The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (1 Center St., 1-888-GO-NJPAC, www.njpac.org) is a brief walk from Penn Station or a quick ride on the LOOP shuttle.

* Riverfront Stadium (973-483-6900, www.newarkbears.com) is at the intersection of Route 280 and McCarter Highway (Route 21). Opening day is April 28.

* The Newark Museum (49 Washington St., 1-800-7MUSEUM, www.newarkmuseum.org) has tours daily. Admission is free; donations welcome.

* The Newark Public Library (5 Washington St., 973-733-7784, www.npl.org).

* The New Jersey Historical Society (52 Park Place, 973-596-8500) is on the southeast edge of Military Park, across from Broad Street and one block from the NJPAC.

* The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart (89 Ridge St., 973-484-4600, www.cathedralbasilica.org) offers tours the first Sunday of every month following noon mass, or by appointment. Visitors are welcome at other times; enter through the Rectory on Ridge Street.

* To get to the Ironbound, take Penn Station's east exit, cross the street toward 2 Ferry St. and continue one block on Ferry.

WHERE TO EAT: The Cafe Del'Rey, at the corner of Ferry and Jackson streets, offers excellent meat-and-potatoes lunches and other Brazilian fare for less than $7. Iberia and Iberian Peninsula, both near Penn Station, are popular Portuguese dinner spots. The Ironbound's cafes, bakeries and restaurants are too numerous to name--explore and discover.

INFORMATION: New Jersey Tourism Office, 609-292-2470, www.ci.newark.nj.us or www.visitnj.org

--Jeff Sypeck


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