Newark's Revival: It's No Joke

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

NEWARK -- "You're going to get killed!"

That -- along with a "you're crazy" and "nice knowing you" or two -- was the kind of half-joking response that Chris and Ade Sedita heard from their Manhattan friends when the couple announced their plans to move from glittering New York to, of all places, Newark.

But as the pair sipped wine and nibbled cheese during an exhibit opening at their new art gallery in central Newark, they insisted they were crazy like a fox.

"They just didn't get it," said Chris Sedita, 28. "Something is finally happening in Newark. This place is coming alive again."

Harper's Magazine once ranked it the worst place to live in America; Money Magazine called it the most dangerous. And then there are the jokes.

But Newark just may have the last laugh. The city America loves to humiliate is on the cusp of a renaissance -- one that is taking a town that has been synonymous with crime, drugs and inner-city blight and transforming it into the nation's least likely symbol of urban renewal.

Forty years after the 1967 race riots marked the unofficial start of its steep decline, Newark is now the fastest-growing big city in the Northeast. After shedding more than 100,000 people in four decades, its population jumped nearly 3 percent, to 281,402, from 2000 to 2006, according to new U.S. Census data. That growth beat Boston, the District and New York while outpacing some cities out West such as San Diego and Long Beach.

Newark is reemerging at a time when its energetic new mayor, Cory Booker, 38, is winning some major battles in his war against entrenched corruption and crime. Part of a fresh generation of young, media-savvy black politicians, including the District's Adrian Fenty, Booker has come under heavy fire from the African American community for largely eschewing the black old guard in favor of young advisers of myriad races.

Booker has fought to win street credibility in other ways. He moved into a $1,200-a-month apartment in the gang-ridden South Ward. More importantly, he has pushed through major police initiatives that helped cut crime in half through the first half of 2007.

To be sure, Newark remains one of the nation's most violent cities, with a homicide rate three times as high as New York's. That reputation was underscored by the harrowing murders in August, when two teenagers and two 20-year-olds -- all said to be "good kids" by police -- were lined up in a schoolyard and shot execution-style. Three of the young people were killed, while the fourth survived.

Yet the number of murders in 2007 is down slightly from last year's record high of 106, and shootings have dropped significantly.

Meanwhile, the Passaic River, fouled and malodorous, still pungently flows alongside abandoned factories and violent housing projects in a city where more than a quarter of the residents live in poverty.

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