Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Step Up or Step Off

After a weekend of applause celebrating the opening of the new Newark sports arena it is time to look deeper into just what it means to Newark residents. We have been told that hundreds of jobs at the arena have gone to Newarkers. We have not been told how that breaks down into hours to be worked or dollars to be earned. For some, that does not matter...but we think it is crucial.

The New Jersey Devils is a business enterprise. They are concerned with making money. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise thinks little of your intelligence. As is the case with all businesses, the primary concern of the Devils is their "Bottom Line" (how much money they can put into the pockets of the owners and players. In other words, it is their obligation and intention to look out for themselves. So who will look out for us?

From the way the arena deal was structured in the beginning it is clear that whomever was looking out for us was at best looking through just one eye. It was not the best deal the residents of Newark could have gotten. In fact we would wager that had Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek been negotiating for the City of Newark he would not have signed the deal that we wound up with. He would have been tougher and gotten more for his side.

Be that as it may, we move on. Just what is the "Bottom Line" for our side? What are we getting out of the arena deal? Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. That is what we are told. There are also a few food concessions in the arena. Not much more. During the construction phase residents got very little and based on what we have seen thus far in the post construction phase, it can be expected that not much will be coming in the future. To whom can we turn to guarantee our fair shake? We must know the answer and be prepared to hold someone accountable.

Remember the discussion and derisive commentary about Newark not having a "Luxury Box" in the arena? By mocking and dismissing the notion, spin masters distracted us all from a serious point. Here it is: Except by extraordinary happenstance, most Newark residents will never savor the delicious lifestyle experience of a "Luxury Box." This fact would not be noteworthy but for the obscenity of what is likely to be "our more than " $310 million contribution to building those boxes when the counting finally stops. We might have built schools, parks or other things that average Newarkers could experience in the normal course of community life.

So let us reframe the "Luxury Box" issue and propose a just course of action. Here's what the Devils could do: Designate a "Luxury Box" for community use. Allow registered Newark voters to place their names in an on-line lottery. Conduct a drawing and allow the winners to sit in the box at arena events. Remove the names of winners from the list of those eligible for future drawings. With an expected 300 events a year and some 20 to 25 people per box, a lot of residents will get in. And it's a small return on our investment. It might even be an incentive for voter registration.

Far more important is who will benefit from the enormous economic swirl that will be created by the arena development. Will residents who have held fast during many years of downward spiral be rewarded for their tenacity and loyalty to Newark? Or will they be callously brushed aside to make way for a favored class? This is the question. It has been the question since the conceptualization of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which can now be appropriately described as a cultural BETA in a long-term gentrification study. The arena is the next phase. And its development is under girded by the same self-righteous hypocrisy that characterizes most insidious social experimentation. The basic unarticulated critical question surrounding the arena is: Will White people come to Newark in huge numbers for essentially White activities? The events of the past week provide a resounding yes so long as security is extraordinary.

Be sure, the gentrification of Newark now has a full head of steam. Much substantial economic activity and opportunity lies ahead. But future deals must be better than the arena deal. We can never permit a similar economic travesty to take place in our city.

It is a bittersweet irony that Mayor Sharpe James accused candidate Cory Booker of having a strategy to return White people to Newark. Having witnessed the arena opening no one can deny that history will credit Sharpe James with bringing more White people to Newark than Cory Booker could have ever engineered on his own. And it can all work to the benefit of Residents if the leaders display courage and creativity. But who will lead on this critical point? Be sure, it won't be the Devils. And it won't be the business community. They have an astounding record of walking away from critical institutional realities that negatively affect minority Newarkers. Public education tops the list.

African American businesses and business people along with other minorities must be leveraged into the "New Newark" economic game right now. Any talk of "eventually" is an unacceptable stall designed to fake out an entire community. We recommend that the Mayor convene groups of minority economic and business types to help him develop appropriate strategies to insure the parallel development of economic prosperity in Newark. We further recommend that individuals and organizations ready themselves to support and defend the recommendations that come from our economic experts.

Going forward in Newark's immediate future cannot rely upon political leadership alone from the African American community. We desperately need input from our business leadership, a robust entrepreneurial spirit, social and cultural discipline all guided by a steady moral compass. Anything less will breed more dysfunction and hopelessness.

The arena is here and so are the White people. Get over it. We have talked over and over about "Doing for Self," and others are quietly wondering if we will ever get it. Whether political or other leaders act in our behalf or not we are obligated to act on our own. Our moment of decision has arrived. If we are to be a viable sector of Newark's society and economy, we have to get busy. No one is waiting for us and we can no longer wait for each other. Those who are ready must go. We pray that those who are not can catch up or be rescued. In the inimitable words of the hood, it time to "Step Up or Step Off."

October 29, 2007

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