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.
Even so, a stream of urban pioneers -- including those priced out of a stratospheric New York City real estate market -- makes clear that Newark is showing once-unthinkable signs of life.
"We've reached a turning point," said Booker, a Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar, with the conviction of a pitchman. "This next chapter of Newark is not about survival, it's about prosperity."
That would sound like hype were there not a growing body of evidence to support it. The October inauguration of a new sports arena, which lured the New Jersey Devils professional hockey team to relocate from the Meadowlands, is bringing tens of thousands of fans into the city center each month.
Meanwhile, a burgeoning art scene and the largesse of its most celebrated natives are affording Newark an unexpected amount of cachet. Basketball great Shaquille O'Neal, city officials say, is set to invest in a multiuse commercial project here. And this summer, locally born Queen Latifah strutted down the red carpet at Newark's grand performing arts center, the site of a star-studded premiere for the hit film musical "Hairspray."
The newcomers include thousands of Brazilian immigrants who have settled along the old Portuguese Ironbound district in recent years, revitalizing it with new South American steak houses and caf¿s that have become a draw for patrons from across northern New Jersey. The rotting core of Newark is sprouting funky new eateries and artist lofts.
"Is Newark cool? Well, it's getting there," said Chris Sedita, who relocated with Ade, 29, nearly two years ago to join the arts scene here. "We went from paying a fortune for an apartment we could spit across in Manhattan to a place three times the size and half the price in Newark. Value is a pretty big motivator."
Though many are being lured here by prices half those of New York, five miles away, Newark's long-term prospects are likely to rest on larger developers who have long shunned the city.
The best evidence of change can be found inside the Eleven80 building in the heart of downtown. The long-abandoned art deco office tower, one of the city's tallest, is in the final stage of a $120 million renovation into an uber-luxurious apartment complex. It comes with a private bowling alley, in-house manicurists and steam rooms. The building is having no trouble drawing new tenants, including a few financial executives lured from Manhattan who are paying as little as $2,500 a month for two-bedroom units.
"For me, it wasn't so much about the rent, it was about wanting a city experience that was more real," said John Ryan, 48, managing director of a financial services company who moved into Eleven80 last December. "New York has become all tourists and Disneyish. Newark feels safer to me than I thought, but it also feels more like a city should."
Newark's potential as a less expensive alternative to nearby New York has assisted its budding revitalization in ways that other blighted cities such as Detroit could never hope to enjoy. City officials caution that it has a long way to go, but experts say there are lessons in urban renewal to be learned here, mostly from one of Newark's most recent victories -- reducing crime. Booker and his new police chief, former New York deputy police commissioner Garry F. McCarthy, have blitzed the streets with a "zero-tolerance" policy modeled on the one credited with cleaning up its far larger neighbor. Handing out infractions for minor offenses including loitering and public urination has helped find and track suspected gang members and drug dealers while getting more illegal guns off the street.
Notoriously corrupt itself, the Newark Police Department is in the midst of an upheaval after the departure of Sharpe James, Newark's former mayor of 22 years who is now fighting a 25-count criminal indictment. A new data-tracking system is holding commanders accountable for crimes committed in their precincts. For the first time in a city infamous as a drug hub, the department has established an integrated counter-narcotics division.
Now a year in office, Booker has also sought to reform the bloated budget, in part by eliminating a host of no-show employees from the city's payroll and offering 200 voluntary retirements. But in the process he has butted heads with powerful elements in the African American community.
While Newark's city center and Ironbound districts are showing visible signs of a comeback, black leaders say poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods have not been so fortunate.
"Cory has not endeared himself to the African American community," said the Rev. Jethro C. James Jr., pastor of Paradise Baptist Church and a community leader. He cited a May incident when, after a shooting near his church, police officers swiftly arrived and set up a checkpoint, allegedly questioning elderly parishioners on their way to Sunday services.
"We never had this kind of treatment before by the police," he said. "This is Cory's doing. He needs to ask himself if this treatment is in the best interest of his community."
Booker insists he is doing what Newark needs.
"An 8-year-old girl was recently shot here -- does her mother feel like Newark is changing? No, of course she doesn't," Booker said. "This isn't going to happen overnight. But we've started something big, and it's going to get bigger."