Sunday, November 16, 2008

Discipline of the Brothers

Much has been made of the magnificent discipline of the Barack Obama campaign apparatus in pursuit of the presidency. In all accounts, the adjectives were glowing. But little has been said about the amazing restraint displayed by potentially controversial Obama supporters. Their active or energetic verbal advocacy would have served as fertile grounds through which desperate detractors in search of the tiniest morsels of taint would certainly have trolled endlessly for contaminates.

Except for a lapse moment and an open microphone Reverend Jesse Jackson was mostly on good behavior throughout. It had been widely expected that Jesse would be unable to resist inappropriate entry into either the policy or political debate surrounding the campaign. Jackson stayed in his lane and was a net plus to the overall effort. All Obama supporters should be appreciative of the Reverends righteous behavior.

Even Reverend Al Sharpton was a bastion of cautionary aplomb. Big Al held down his position with notable distinction. While not taking a back seat on any issue of local injustice he steered clear of inserting himself into the national debate and as such offered no competition to Obama for the mantle of Black thought or antics. Throughout the campaign there were many instances when Obama opponents carelessly cruised the lanes of white racism where Reverend Al might ordinarily have pounced. But he laid quietly in the cut patiently awaiting November 4th. Big ups, Al. You have our absolute respect.

Then there was Louis. How hard the opposition worked and stoked to unearth Louis. Reverend Jeremiah Wright was on the grill being roundly basted and lambasted by the tormenting fires from the deepest hottest hells of republicanism. Searing the flesh of Wright was sweet for the opposition. Just the red meat they cried out for. And then came Father Flager. Oh how delicious—a serving of apostatic delicacy that could only have been divined in one’s deepest state of revivalist froth and delirium. This was just unbelievable. The republican base thrashed about salivating in a ritual anticipated to take on viral proportions amongst the general public leading to the undoing of Obama the Muslim. Not quite, some shouted…we need Louis. With Louis in the brew, the ultimate intoxication would be certain.

Reverend Jesse was too acceptable. And he had not stepped far enough out of bounds for a thorough public excoriation. And Reverend Al had skipped across his tightrope without so much as a stumble. Reverend Wright had erred badly and was thus offered up as a sacrificial lamb; Father Flager added fuel to the fire ignited by Wright. Flager made the fire “White” hot. The religious right had a bundle—but not quite enough to make its anti-G_D ergo anti-American argument. The deal closer was Minister Louis Farrakhan. Together with Wright and Flager, Farrakhan would complete Obama’s “Chicago Trinity of Sacrilege.” But Louis declined the invitation. He demurred with a charming smile. He simply would not play. And for his adversaries the silence was as painful. Surely Obama knew him. Surely they had met. Surely Obama had attended The Million Man March. Surely Farrakhan knew best what we all secretly whispered, “Obama is a Muslim.” Flushing out Louis represented the completion that never came.

Minister Louis Farrakhan was uncharacteristically disciplined. He shut right down. He said and did nothing that might be unfairly used as a weapon to upset Mr. Obama’s chances for success. And because he is known to be so unbridled and at times caustic and bombastic, his tepid actions conveyed a deep sense of concern and affection for both the candidate and the nation. Imagine that, Louis Farrakhan the patriot.

So what now? Will these leaders, Jackson, Sharpton and Farrakhan who stepped out of character for the good of the many be kept out of the new political picture? Will they be treated as outcasts to satisfy the lingering blood lust of hate mongers? Or will there be a path back to the family table for those who make huge contributions though not universally unendorsed. These leaders have followers and supporters who are every bit as, or more, humanistic and American as the self proclaimed stewards of piety who denounce them. These hypocrites should certainly not have the last word.

Answers to these questions will resound. Opening wide the doors of full participation to views other than one’s own are at the core of democracy seated right next to “Mr. Freedom of Religion.” A stern pronouncement that all of our freedoms are in tact and robustly protected by our government is one of the many changes we need now.

Mischievously, we are all left to wonder if Jesse, Al and Louis had executed the ultimate level of discipline and unity. Just imagine that after the dust ups of Wright and Flager they all got together and entered a pact of “Silence Until Victory.” Wow! Nah! Maybe?

November 16, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Muslim In America

It is a fascinating time to be Muslim in America. Making sure we do everything to keep our cool in the midst of not so subtle attacks on our faith and us. The emergence of Barack Obama in the high profile game of presidential politics has raised the stakes in the open expression of Islamophobia. Muslim haters who have long operated in the shadows have burst into the sunlight to link arms with the likes of Limbaugh and his minions. The thought of losing the White House to other than a White man is driving extremist Republicans crazy.

In 2008 the vaunted Republican political machine finds itself adrift without a coherent plan to capture the presidency. Absent a strategy, they have opted for a poorly conceived tactical battle rooted in fear mongering and divisiveness. And while their overall success seems dubious, they’ve achieved small thrusts forward when linking Obama to Muslims and terror. Unfortunately there are enough eager acolytes—Democrat and Republican—to make mischief for Obama by distorting the religion issue.

So here’s how it works: “Obama pals around with terrorists” —remember that? “Obama is a Muslim” —of course we remember that. “The greatest threat to our security is radical Islam” —we can never forget that. And the all-encompassing “Theorem of anti-terrorist rectitude”: Arab=Muslim=Terrorist. These well-sequenced mantras have been woven into an anti-intellectual fabric designed to shield ignorance against rational thought. As the adherents of Islamophobia contemplate the vortex to emerge from the “axis of evil” as God struggles mightly against satan, they never stray far from their security blankets. Again and yet again they recite their mantras. So certain are they. It is an inexplicable stupidity that holds just enough public sway to be very dangerous.

Many Americans of all political persuasions are suspicious of Muslims and antithetical towards Islam. The nature of world interconnectedness, however, beckons them to reality. Whether or not they respond depends on their willingness to accept the vulnerability of their own misunderstandings.

It is a poetic irony that the person who most boldly faced down the anti-Muslim crowd is General Colin Powell, a Black Republican Christian. He alone constructed an inescapable box around an anti-everything-else zealot Christian orthodoxy by proclaiming the right, and indeed hopes, that Muslim—and thus other— children will lay claim to the American presidency in their dreams. It was as though through his legitimated eyes and with his entitled throat he came face to face with each of them and said, “Yes You Can.” And in that moment of supreme humanity and ultra rationality, Powell endorsed Barack Obama.

George Bush has waged a war on Muslims and many Americans have enlisted as sympathizers. This war has been so vile and pervasive that Muslims all over America have been somewhat muted in their support for Barack Obama believing that a public outpouring might somehow hamper his quest for the presidency. How sad. But the end is near.

John McCain has attempted to take up the Bush banner against Terrorists/Muslims/Arabs. After thoroughly stoking the “Obama is cozy with terrorists” issue and firing up his supporters against William Ayres/Terrorists/Obama, one supporter told McCain that she feared Obama because he (Obama) was an Arab. McCain demurred, but the floodgates had already been broken open and it was clear to all of us in that moment the toxic entanglement of race and religion that impacts Arab Muslims could have profound consequences for international relations post November 4, 2008. Arab Muslims that I know are almost universally united in the belief that America has been waging war on Islam in the Middle East. And I suspect that notion is not lost on the Arab street. The election of John McBush might well concretize that notion to our detriment.

African American Muslims are uniquely suited to counter excessive anti-Muslim ravings. After all, we have survived both slavery and Jim Crow. For us the most rabid Islamophobia emanates from our own people, mostly Christian, though they have never accused us of being unpatriotic or terrorists. Having been prepared and instructed by history, it is natural for me to reject racist intimidation and, as well, religious intimidation. So as loudly and clearly as possible I exhort, Muslims are here to stay and Barack Obama for President. Insha Allah.

October 23, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

But this is Newark

When schools open this fall, Newark will have a new Superintendent at the helm. Dr. Clifford Janey will take over for retiring Marion Bolden as head of the state’s largest public school district. Janey seems highly capable but will be tested early. He will need all of our support and he will need to craft working relationships within Newark’s many varied constituencies and interest centers.

Janey emerged the winner in a contest that began with the review of 26 candidates and winnowed down to three finalists, Clifford Janey, Donnie Evans and Ross Danis, for the superintendent post. Janey and Evans are both Black and Danis is White. In an informal ranking, the overwhelming majority of the Superintendent Search Committee had Janey at the top of their list followed by Evans and then Danis. Furthermore Janey was accorded top candidate status by a majority if not all of the members of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board. None of this was secret and clearly found its way to the ears of the Governor. Against this background, it seems reasonable that Janey won the superintendency. While the Governor certainly had the final call, he was not operating without practical constraint. And it would have been virtually impossible for the near inevitability of the Janey selection to fall outside Cory Booker’s intellectual grasp. And while Booker had an opportunity to meet with each finalist, he took no position in favor of any candidate.

But this is Newark. And already folks are jockeying to shape the new superintendent’s perceptions and reality in an effort to favorably position themselves on Dr. Janey’s radar. His, after all, is a powerful position with a large budget. Access is key to power players. And what better way to gain or deny access than to manipulate perceptions.

So it is no wonder that someone planted a story in the “Auditor” section of the Star Ledger last Sunday designed to diminish and sour any influence that Newark Mayor Cory Booker would have with Superintendent Janey. By suggesting publicly that Booker was against Janey, and with a bold stroke aimed at demeaning Booker’s role and point of view in the superintendent selection process, detractors hoped to tarnish the mayor’s reputation on several fronts. It is a flawed strategy destined to fail simply because it does not square with the facts. But this great lie has taken root in some quarters and its masters are doing everything they can to make it viral. We can only hope the truth will provide sufficient inoculation.

The idea of the story was to feed an ongoing strategy to isolate Booker. By pitting him in a struggle with Governor Corzine over the selection of Janey as superintendent, Booker was to be portrayed as against the best interests of Newark school children. It also sought to fan contention between Mayor Booker and Steve Adubato, with whom Booker has had a series of recent dust-ups. Adubato is quoted in the Ledger piece as making a statement that has not been verified and is not likely to be verifiable. Nonetheless, the planted Booker/Corzine/anti-Janey feud story is being peddled all over town and Steve Adubato is now being blamed for it.

According to the story, Booker favored Ross Danis for the job. Steve is quoted as saying of the mayor, “Everybody knows he was with Danis….I don’t think it’s right to have a position and keep it a secret.” Now analyze Steve’s comment. It states a falsehood, accuses the mayor of wrongful behavior and condemns him for harboring a secret. This is pretty powerful stuff. And were it accurate, it might be damning. But it’s just dead wrong.

Put the question of Steve aside for the moment. He did not generate this story. His comments merely capitalized on its existence. There was support for Dr. Danis on the search committee. There was also the idea that Danis could be manipulated to emerge as the ultimate choice while his principal supporters remained hidden. Once it was publicized that Danis was the number three preference of the search committee, this became more complicated. The only possibility of success required making Booker responsible for Danis. That way you get Danis and slam Booker at the same time—hence the “Booker supports Danis” rumors. It was just another “thought-to-be-clever” move among many that surfaced over the selection process.

The “Booker supports Danis” story was circulated for about 3 weeks and generated serious concern in the Governor’s circle. They were assured early on that the assertion lacked credibility. And they were satisfied with those assurances.

But as we know, these things are rarely as simple as they seem. Once mischief-makers had created an opening for destabilization they were emboldened. Their motivation is always “Wedge Driving.” They had a very simple two-step plan: (1) Make the public believe that Booker is for the “White” guy even though he was ranked at the bottom, hopefully driving a wedge between Booker and both the Black and Latino communities; and (2) Signal to Janey that Booker is against his appointment thereby undermining their essential alliance and its unique potential for substantive positive change.

These carefully crafted machinations are, unfortunately, the palliative dispensed by proper people seeking to maintain the status quo. They and their kind are at work all the time. They need the maintenance of a victim class to exist. Strong, independent leadership is not in their interest. The constant manufacture of distraction is a clear strategy to further dependency. We must maintain a proper focus on the goal of creating productive schools with liberating curriculum. Getting caught up in a manufactured Corzine/Booker/Adubato/Janey drama is succumbing to a trick. We have real adversaries and obstacles—and not each other. Sometimes we mistakenly focus on the foil instead of the fault. We are less concerned with what Corzine or Adubato do than what we fail to do. We know the culprits that own this divisive moment and in time so will you.

June 17, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Pace of Change

Now that the Democratic Party Primary Elections are over, the real work to create and realize a Barack Obama presidency begins. Many people think that the issue of race will be major over the course of the campaign. We are not naïve but we think it will play far less a role than generation. The real change that is pushing at the fabric of America is generational change. The world is changing; it is getting younger, smarter and more interconnected. Globalization is not just economic; it is social and cultural as well.

The message of the Obama presidential nomination is a message essentially from younger people that the old paradigms are crumbling. Race driven behavior must ultimately give way to thought driven behavior. But the transition won’t be easy. Many of us have grown a wee bit too comfortable in our racial silos and believe the cocoon-like comfort they provide offers our best opportunity to survive and thrive. This widespread belief makes itself manifest in our daily cultural, social and political processes.

An Obama presidency threatens many old norms about race that are predominantly held by the generation preceding him. “Old people with old ideas” are sometimes reluctant to make the arrival of a new generation of leadership anything but a painful breach birth. This generational rift highlights a worrisome contradiction in the African American political community. On the one hand we are uniquely proud of what Senator Obama has accomplished and readily take ownership of his nomination. On the other hand we are fiercely resisting the emergence of young Black and Latino leaders in our midst. This kind of duplicity will always play itself out as increased powerlessness.

Just a week ago there was a struggle over who would be Chairman of the Essex County Democratic Party. The choices were clearly generational. Though feigning otherwise, most in the older generation were unwilling to consider hoisting the younger aspirants to leadership. Among us older African Americans considering a “change” in leadership, there was a clear, though unspoken, lack of confidence in the young folks, even though they were smart, experienced, well trained and well connected. The old folks supported themselves and each other. And despite much fiery rhetoric about systemic and institutional change, in the end the entire hubbub turned out to be about one job for one person. Our community is in the grips of an intellectually dishonest, ruthless, selfish group of politicians. Their political craft is incestuous.

It appears that we will be required to abide this abnormalism for a time yet, but the days of feeding on the futures of our young are nearing an end. It is sheer hypocrisy to be an ardent advocate for Barack Obama on the national scene and virulently against nearly all of his generation in our local community. It raises too many questions that beg for unavailable rational answers.

So here it is. More so than not, young White people are making the Obama phenomenon possible. They have decided to boldly step around stereotypicalism and embrace Barack. And they did so quicker and in larger numbers than did Blacks. And they continue to do so unabashedly and with great enthusiasm at the same moment that we are gobbling up the aspirations of our young. No one can deny the large critical support base that Black Americans provide Obama, but it was, at first, gingerly offered and late coming as though awaiting permission or fearing retribution—but better late than never. Again, it was the older Black generation that expressed the most reluctance and showed the least confidence in this young Black man. And while this truth might not be well received, were it not for the press of young White supporters, there would be no Democratic Nominee Barack Obama. Remember Iowa?

As President Obama reaches around the world to hammer out a reality that measures up to the change of his vision, it will require tough decisions. In Obama's words, “the work of change will be hard.” And we are doing little to prepare our youth to be partners in that work. They won’t get to the table just because they are Black. They will need the experience and track records that only we might care to give them. And we should not complain if they are passed over when we ourselves pass them over each and every day. Obama is on the fast track being propelled by a lot of well meaning Americans, a critical mass of which are young agents of change. Like it or not it is a generation coming of age. A generation bursting out of White America looking to “remake the world.” If political leadership in Black communities holds onto the reigns of opportunity too tightly for too long we will surely choke off opportunities for our youth.

In Newark we cannot remember a generational transfer of power in the African American community that did not leave a liberal pool of political blood on the floor. The “Power concedes nothing without demand” school of thought is taken to extremes with us. We routinely ostracize our babies or condemn them to political death. We have seen two African American mayors come and go without creating a single self-sustaining institution upon which their political progeny could build. Rather, the model that we’ve seen replicated is one of “perceived familial entitlement.” It has not served us well.

The generational struggle in Black and White communities will, no doubt, surge to the fore in the fall Obama presidential campaign. If we are not adequately prepared to fend off its worst consequences, unanticipated possibilities that have befallen us might never be realized. The challenge immediately before us is to open up and embrace a new “politics of inclusion,” beginning in our own community.

Young White people are working hard to throw off their fear and plunge into the future and define change with their behavior. And increasingly they have the support of their elders. What are we waiting for? Let’s stop holding our youth back. It’s time to push them into the pool.

June 4, 2008

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Age of Change

The American political scene is changing and observers are wondering whether Essex County and Newark will be left behind. On February 5th of this year Barack Obama stormed through Newark and scored a significant victory in “part one” of the Democratic Primary. Even though virtually all the political power brokers were lined up against him, he prevailed and defeated the 60-year-old Hillary Clinton in Newark and the rest of Essex County. The people wanted change and they made their voices heard at the polls. If all goes well they might just elect the 47-year-old Illinois Senator as its first African American President in just a few short months. Such an act would scream “CHANGE” all around the globe.

Two years ago Newark, NJ elected 37-year-old Cory Booker as its Mayor and swept into office with him a group of mostly young councilmen and women that made an unforgettable statement of “CHANGE” in Essex County and New Jersey. Booker defeated 60-year-old Ronald L. Rice and succeeded 70-year-old Sharpe James. This is not just change, it’s generational change.

Just weeks ago in Orange, New Jersey 28-year-old Eldridge Hawkins, Jr. earned the office of mayor by defeating two incumbent council members from his parents’ generation. 68-year-old Donald Page was his closest rival. Hawkins will be succeeding 66-year-old Mims Hackett. So what does it mean to us? It looks like the age of change.

The world and our nation are taking on new challenges, which require new ideas more likely to be found in new leadership. This is not to be mistaken with change for the sake of change. This is change born of necessity and conditions that demand attention and a different approach. More and more people are growing weary of the same tired failed approach. Citizens are increasingly recognizing that incumbency and longevity don’t add up to entitlement. Communities are making choices that are in their best interests. These choices are not personal choices, they are intelligent choices.

We are faced with such a choice in “part two” of New Jersey’s Democratic Primary being held on Tuesday, June 3rd. Again the issue we face is the need for change. Do we renew a six-year contract with Senator Frank Lautenberg who will be 91-years-old when his term is over, or do we opt for substantive change that happens to be generational and offer that contract to 50-year-old Congressman Rob Andrews? What is the intelligent choice?

We have examined where each candidate stands on the issues and Congressman Andrews has developed detailed approaches to complex issues that offer results and not just promises. Senator Lautenberg seems to gloss over critical points and favors canned comments to concrete plans. Andrews seems clearly better prepared to be New Jersey’s partner for the soon-to-be new president as we move out of the Bush/Cheney era and hopefully into an Obama presidency. Reshaping America, New Jersey, Essex County and Newark will require competence, creativity, energy, enthusiasm and a commitment to rigor. Nothing less than all these components will suffice. Rob Andrews is ready and up to the task.

Is chronological age a factor? If we judge by the attack Senator Lautenberg launched against his rival (Former U.S. Senator Millicent Fenwick), the answer is yes. When Lautenberg challenged Milicent Fenwick she was 72 and he was 58. He implied that she was too old to hold the Senate seat. Now at age 85, he claims that age is not an issue. Senator Lautenberg should be judged by his own words….that would be fair.

We say that 24 years as a United States senator is a great ride. But we also believe that in the face of a better candidate who will better serve our interests, 24 years is enough. If we take Senator Lautenberg at his word when he said that 72-years-old was too old, voters have granted the Senator a generous extension. In the June 3, 2008 Democratic Primary Election the voters of Essex County and Newark should welcome the age of change.

Representative Rob Andrews is smart, considerate, experienced and ready for the future. He has a well thought out plan and the energy to pursue it. Rob Andrews has the endorsement of citizens, elected officials and newspaper organizations up and down the state. Now it’s up to us to provide voter support next Tuesday. Rob Andrews for U.S. Senate.

May 28, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dull Claws and Soft Paws

The changing of the guard is occurring right before our eyes. It’s not as though change was not underway until this moment but it has clearly accelerated and it cannot be ignored.

The old lions are tired. Most are no longer able to compete in today’s jungle. Prey is increasingly scarce and technology is altering the terrain. And as is the case with all things dying, an element of sadness accompanies their exit. These once roaring beasts are barely capable of an occasional snarl and exhibit feeble behavior in their desperate struggle to hang onto power.

The cubs romp restlessly on the sideline showing respect to the dying breed. But this respect could very well spell the doom of the cubs themselves. They, however, are lost without leadership. They are the young lions who themselves exist at the mercy of packs of hyenas. They lack the courage to seize leadership, are without the stature to negotiate a transition and are held at bay by old lions blindly grasping for a last bone to nibble. It is heart breaking and it has surely broken our spirit.

The irony is that the old lions were themselves a feisty lot that challenged the status quo and agitated for progress and change. They created operational modalities and borrowed tactics from revolutionary thinkers. They were both brash and bold. Well, at least enough of them fit these descriptions to fashion movements that pushed reform. Having done that they latched onto a strained concept of power, which in reality was a surrender to process and trappings. They basked in psychic rays and supped on psychic income. It was a collective orgasm of vanity and perceived power that lasted so long that it has nearly rendered us impotent.

There was some feast, but there was mostly roar. And little if anything was brought home to the pride. The cubs were left starving to fend for themselves. They are still hungry. The old lions did not teach them how to hunt and have grown too weak to hunt for them. The vultures and hyenas are circling and prowling and decision-making time has arrived.

The choice is fight or die. It has been the choice of mankind since time. Whether it is fighting disease, crime, ignorance, poverty or corruption, sooner or later we must decide to fight or die. The old lions have not prepared us to fight well. We have witnessed them reaching out with a half-hearted slap now and again but some have been so comfortable for so long as absolute accommodationists that their claws have dulled and their paws have grown soft. The hunt is a long lost concept. They prefer the confinement of the zoo where meals are regular with no elusive prey to pursue. Many are simply holding on and marking time.

We went to celebrate the birthday of an old lion on Saturday past. He is 93 years old. And as we looked at his body taking on the inevitabilities of long life we remembered prowling the legal jungles with him more than 25 years ago. His swift agile attacks and defensive maneuvers were the stuff of legends. His claws were sharp and sure and his paws thundered when they hit the ground. He defended the greater pride and cut a path that all eager cubs could follow to success. He taught us to be fearless hunters. He taught us to protect the pride with our words and our deeds.

Raymond A. Brown was sitting there, 27 years later at 93 years old. The smile was just as infectious, the memory superb, the acidity just as raw and the profanity still eloquent. But above all, the towering intellect and courage were still in tact. This old lion could still roar. His bite remains lethal and the cutting slap of his still sharp claws is hampered only by the felony that nature has visited upon the quickness of his step. Yet there is no real lion that we know who would not on this day accompany him into battle. He still fights as all old lions should but he has taught so many cubs to protect the pride that he need not lead the charge any longer. He takes comfort in those he has prepared. He is a model for the old lions of politics. And he is also an exception. There will always be a few who perform extraordinarily well beyond their prime. But this should be a function of superior performance—not seniority. There is nothing wrong with staying as long as you can but it is always costly to stay beyond your time.

In generational terms, it is time for us old lions of politics to become teachers and the guardians of legacy. We should phase out willingly and refrain from shredding the future in a futile attempt to cling to what once was. Things are changing fast…moving forward. But we are holding back our cubs. And in so doing we are limiting their opportunities, crippling their efforts, dimming their potential and threatening our own survival.

Why don’t we just agree to teach the cubs everything we know about the hunt and take up our stations at the edge of the poli-jungle and roar with delight as we coach and watch them romp to success? It would be intelligent. It’s the lesson that we learn from what Ray Brown did with his pride.

Too often the old lions are not willing to acknowledge the end of their reign and the young lions turn on them out of necessity. It is completely legitimate to defend oneself against ineffective and/or corrupt leadership that threatens the survival of the pride. Particularly when the old lions have dull claws and soft paws.

May 7, 2008

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Port

Growing up in Newark’s Third Ward in the forties and fifties we all knew and looked up to people in our community who had the good jobs. There were those few professionals who lived just up or down the block but most were working-class and poor. A small number of schoolteachers were always in the mix but as professionals went they were not put in the same category as doctors, lawyers and dentists—these were the biggies. Among the working-class these were the dream jobs but some other jobs were equally cherished and vigorously sought after. They were viewed as pathways to retirement and pensions. And retirement with pension was the worthy achievement and sign of success.

The post office, for instance, was a great job to have. And though few and far between, police and fire were highly regarded opportunities. Also a handful of factories were status places to work. The breweries paid well and were steady. All these jobs offered a “stability status” because the pay was more than decent. At the time, municipal government jobs were virtually unheard of and most people landed in factories. General Electric and Westinghouse were plums and you weren’t doing badly at all if you wound up at Breyers Ice Cream Company, even for the summer. At some later point department store jobs were more common and construction trade barriers began to fall. It was all honest work at a level that paid the bills.

Even under the worst circumstances you could actually leave your house in the morning and walk along Frelinghuysen Avenue and have a good chance of finding some kind of a job before sundown. Some of these were the least desirable jobs but they were available if you wanted to work. And in those days, most people wanted to work.

But there was this other world about which we knew little then. It was the world of the Longshoreman. He worked at the Port—a place where strong men willing to work hard could make a lot of money. At least that’s how we kids saw it. But you had to be connected to get a spot at the Port. You couldn’t just walk on without knowing someone. You needed a hook-up. The Port was a place where tough guys with “serious jackets” could hold down a gig. It was its own prisoner re-entry program. Over the years the department stores, all but one brewery and the big factories either quit or died. They have all succumbed but the Port has both survived and thrived. It is bustling, robust and looking to the future. It is a city within a city sporting its exclusive culture and controlled by a unique breed of bureaucrat. Port Newark is the city’s most significant asset and Newarkers know little or nothing of its potential. Most have not even seen it up close. Its inner workings are cloaked in plain sight. As a result it is being largely mismanaged.

Over the next ten years Port Newark will grow dramatically with or without the help or direction of Newark residents and leaders. It is so large, rich and important to commerce in our region that development will be driven by growth, which is running on automatic. But that development might not be smart or best for Newark and its residents. Attention and effort must be concentrated and on making the right choices for Port development if we are to reap the benefits that rightly belong to us now and in the future. The Port and Port District represent Newark’s economic development future more so than any combination of development schema currently under consideration and Newarkers are mostly unaware of what that portends or how they might benefit.

What we do know is that we have gotten far less than a fair shake from the Port Authority for years. We know that there was a costly lawsuit that yielded a questionable settlement whose spoils were used for a private purpose with minimal public say. Such practices and behaviors are likely to continue unless and until the Port receives focused municipal attention. It is a grave error to believe we can take a “by the way” approach to Port development and somehow do what’s best for Newark. Our Port’s future will encompass trillions of dollars in materials, goods and transactions that can propel Newark to become a well off, economically stable city for as far as we can see into the future. It can also generate thousands of jobs and hundreds of significant business opportunities at an unprecedented pace and help Mayor Booker reach his stated goal of creating wealth in Newark’s indigenous community. Port related industries could even be planned to support critical re-entry needs. As such, Port Newark is poised to husband a genuine renaissance to help buttress Newarkers who have hung-in against the worst aspects and ominous threats of gentrification.

Neighborhoods have changed, businesses and industries have moved on and the lives and fortunes of Newark residents have been wildly jostled through it all. The good jobs are still out there but kids growing up in Newark today see fewer and fewer of them. Too many professionals are out of reach/touch in suburbs or urban enclaves. Too few opportunities for role modeling exist on kids’ doorsteps and the past cannot return. But the issues of constructive exposure and survival are as real as ever and the opportunity to address both is at our fingertips. The Port and all it offers can help fill the gaping hole left by the abandonment of Newark by business, industries and outwardly mobile individuals.

Savvy Port development in Newark is the best chance for our city to outpace the never-ending cost spiral that naturally flows from heavily subsidized inefficient government. It will provide the best opportunity to intelligently plan rather than haphazardly confront the gloomy economic realities in the offing. But none of this will be possible so long as the debate over how the Port shall be developed is dominated by efforts at control rather than genuine concern.

We will be hosting tours of the Port. We encourage all concerned/interested Newarkers to become intimate with this incredible asset so as to equip ourselves to guard against the squandering of vital opportunities and to ensure that we are not ripped off yet again.

It is likely that Port Newark will be a dynamic economic engine so long as any of us remain alive. Given what we have learned and know, and given the abuse we have borne in the past, allowing our Port to be treated cavalierly would be criminal.

May 7, 2008

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Death and Mayhem

The death and mayhem visited upon innocent young victims who are hard at work building positive lives has got to stop. Their flesh and dreams is now routinely being fed to the animals that are being raised by our community. It would be fratricidal to further ignore this epidemic of senseless horror and the cradle of fear that nurtures it in “the hood”. No man woman or child is safe so long as the “hood maws” are allowed to relentlessly feed on our innocent babies. They must be stopped at all cost. No risk is too great to take in pursuit of their elimination.

Many of us who grew up in what is now irreverently referred to as the “hood”, have youthful memories of criminals. We witnessed a degree of violence and antisocial behavior. But then, even the criminals were not scummy. There is evidence that even their worst behavior was guided by an ethic. For one thing, women and children were off limits. Senior citizens were generally respected. And activities like drug peddling or use were a back alley and underground reality. Gambling and numbers writing and playing were prominent in the culture and apparent, but drugs were almost universally frowned upon. Even the vilest amongst us tried to hide their filth and maintain a semi-respectable front. First class gangsters hid their cigarettes from senior citizens and stepped aside as the old folks strolled along the sidewalks. They operated with a hint of civility owing, perhaps, to a vague recollection of some distant character training. There was a code of basic decency even among criminals. They were crooked but not cruddy.

Today drugs flourish out in the open. They breed abusive, threatening and filthy behavior. People who report drug dealers or their crimes are likely to be targeted for retaliatory violence. Senior citizens are routinely intimidated, terrorized or victimized by the poison peddlers. In many quarters respect for the law has been supplanted by fear of the lawless. Against the backdrop of a war in Afghanistan where young people are sent to kill and die in the cause of “building and securing democracy” for others, kids in Newark are killing and dying over the profits from the harvests reaped in Afghan poppy fields. In other words we are fighting to save the lives of those who are growing the poison to kill us. We are “saving” our murderers.

For us, drugs and handguns are the “weapon of mass destruction”. And in many ways their ready availability is protected and encouraged by our leaders. They tell us we must support the world’s major drug dealing nations because it is in our national interest and we must do nothing to restrict the proliferation of handguns because “the right to bear arms” is protected by our constitution. In theory, following this advice is supposed to protect us but in reality it is killing us. With the appearance of a government collaborating against our safety and welfare, it is no wonder that we easily grow cozy with conspiracy theories.

But even given the ready availability of these weapons of mass destruction (drugs and handguns) we need not become their victims—because our condition is less a function of our environment than a result of our choices. Those choices begin with our choice of leadership (civic, moral, spiritual and political). It is precisely the collective collapse of this leadership that has nurtured a culture of malevolence in which violent crime has put down its roots and engulfed an entire community in a fearful death grip. It has to end! Leaders who don’t tell us the truth and refuse to step up to lead the fight against fratricide must be turned out and rejected. They are not leaders for our time. And ugly sacrifices might have to be made to restore the kind of civility that allows average citizens to pursue normal lives. Otherwise we will remain a captive community ruled and cowed by a ruthless mob. If we can kill and die in wars that save others and fatten the pockets of warmongers, we can certainly muster the will and courage to defend ourselves against “a real and present threat”.

We must be absolutely intolerant of the households among us that are raising and harboring children with animal minds. Too many are vampires who sleep by day and pillage by night. They are sucking the blood of our communities. Snuffing out the lives of children and others who want to make progress and live decent lives. They deserve no words of defense. They are worthy only of every assault that we can bring against their behavior. They must be given up to the authorities and maybe even given up on. Parents and others who turn a blind eye to their obvious criminality must be drawn into the fray. They are not innocent bystanders. They are enablers—plain and simple—enablers who must be held accountable for acts against civilized life. They are accessories to misery and need to be firmly dealt with as such. Anyone that condones and or harbors violent criminals and their acts is guilty.

What we now must have is courage and carefully crafted strategies to combat crime and protect the innocent. We don’t know exactly what that means yet but a collective view of the best approach must emerge from the community. This is not a law enforcement issue. Our enemy is depraved character, obsessive materialism, irrational fearlessness and a total lack of respect for all authority—even force. This is a formidable enemy but it must and can be overwhelmed. The question that the community must answer is at what price? There can be no peaceful coexistence with people who callously murder our babies and elderly. And there can be no war without casualty.

April 23, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Slavery

As a people, African Americans are the product of rape, pillage and savage brutality—a product that was made in America. But for our absolute obviousness we would be America’s dirty little secret.

Barack Obama has opened a dialogue about race that must be continued and concluded. This matter has been before us many times but has always receded to the background mainly because of the discomfort that accompanied it. Now the issue of race and race relations in America has been joined on a stage that has the attention of the world. We can no longer run or hide from it. America is being tested. Not for its military might but rather for her moral might.

In a calculated attempt to derail the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama a band of viperous conspirators unleashed a scheme to savage his reputation and call into question his judgment and patriotism. In a moment of desperation born of the realization that this Black American might actually become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America, they reached low into a deep chasm of filth and played their race card. Unable to saddle Obama with words and deeds of his own that met the ominous race test, they sought to ascribe to him the words and deeds of others.

After a period of respectful resistance, Obama took the bait. He rose to face his accusers, responded forthrightly to every attack and elevate the discussion of race to a level of dignity that offers America an opportunity to put the stain of human bestiality behind her once and for all. An in depth discussion of race will inevitably lead to an in depth discussion of slavery. America has avoided this discussion for far too long. And many Black Americans have been more reluctant to open this wound than Whites. As Obama so plainly put it, “Not This Time.”

Young Americans are dutifully ignorant about the internecine debilitations of slavery. Indeed they know little or nothing of the dreaded institution. That long shameful chapter in history has been mollified at best and ignored at worst. Children are told virtually nothing of slavery in school and, in large part, Black educators are uncomfortable with the idea of teaching about slavery. “Black History” which offers relatively shallow treatment of slavery has become the acceptable modality inoculating Americans against the most evil manifestation of humankind. It is no wonder that White youth feel no responsibility for anything that they did not accomplish with their own hands. They have not been told the brutal truth about how they achieved such enormous advantage.

Of course there are books and articles that set forth all these facts in detail. But they are easily avoided. And avoidance is often the action of choice when faced with a bitterly unpleasant truth. The only way to really get at this thing is to make teaching and learning about the details and history of slavery mandatory in our public school system in all of America. Nothing could be more disdainful than the virtual blotting out of hundreds of years of a people’s history in an effort to cover-up and escape the truth; particularly in a nation where self-righteous zealots routinely condemn one another for minor acts that offend Christian orthodoxy. But perhaps this can best be explained in the words of
Melvin R. Sylvester, Professor Emeritus, C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University as he wrote in SLAVERY AND RACE:

Many Europeans came to America to exercise their God fearing beliefs and to practice religious freedom. Slavery, on the other hand, was a form of persecution which, in the eyes of colonial America, had to be justified. Therefore, the black slave became an easily identifiable group targeted as being inferior, subhuman, and destined for servitude. The early Christian churches did not take up the cause of eliminating slavery until much later in the century. The famous Boston theologian, Cotton Mather, in 1693 included in his Rules for the Society of the Negroes the explanation that “Negroes were enslaved because they had sinned against God.” He later included a heavenly plan that “God would prepare a mansion in Heaven,” but little or no way for the end of forced slavery on earth was undertaken by most religious groups.


From the beginning, Africans were never intended to be Americans. As such, it is no wonder at all that such an uneasy relationship exists. We believe that all Americans and children in particular must be taught everything there is to know about American chattel slavery. Every intimate vile detail must be unearthed for review and study. We are owed the full truth about the origins of American racism so that we can agree on the necessary steps to end it. At the urging of mischievous protagonists the dialogue on race has been joined and it just might wind up to be the most important occurrence in this entire election cycle. In our humble opinion, entering onto a path that leads to the neutralization of the horrible stain of slavery in the fabric of America’s history is far more important than who is President of the United States. We believe that the universe has embraced Mr. Obama and propelled him on a course that he could not have imagined despite his bold agenda.

We believe that it is all but impossible for a fair mind to understand the full-throated realities of American slavery and its dependent injustices and still embrace racism. A thorough baptism in the entrails of our slave culture is just the cleansing that Americans need to divest our false sense of superiority as it relates to Black America and the entire non-white world.

March 19, 2008
Carl’s blog can be read at www.carlsharif.com.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The More Things Change

Power is poised to shift significantly in 2008 at all levels of government. Partly as the result of the national race for president where local factions were deeply divided and partially because of local races on the 2008 election calendar. We can expect a severe testing of political relationships that might lead to a series of interesting realignments. Certainly for political junkies and even for interested bystanders, wherever Newark ends up on the coming roller coaster of politics the ride is bound to be exciting.

Obama v. Clinton witnessed a split in the community that was so ward specific as to be unmistakable in its implications. Since that Tuesday, February 5th Democratic Primary race speculation as to how it will impact the future has been rampant. And we have seen signs of serious assessment taking place among the major local political camps. Many viewed the outcome as a test of strength for the camps; we viewed the results as predictable for the informed observer.

Reading too much into the results might create a reckless rambunctiousness among the heady setting the stage for a series of needless and counterproductive confrontations. But even cool heads will no doubt seize on the outcome to move toward strategic repositioning. Where everyone will wind up is anybody’s guess. And that is precisely what makes it worth watching. Will the Obamaization of the political landscape that has led to record turnout trickle down to school board and district leader races or will the general public reserve their concern and energy for the November elections?

Young people in Newark have not usually flexed their political muscle in the recent past. They have most often been passive observers offering critiques that serve up their reasons for non-participation in tones that alternate between elitism and nonsense. We can only hope that the Obama/Clinton fever pushes a little heat down to the local level where children and ordinary people need the best representation they can get.

All over the nation young people have sprung into action and made the statement that they are relevant. Now we get to judge their deeper interests and determine whether or not they are consistent. Once again remembering the adage that “all politics is local” we HOPE that when the smoke clears and however the new alignments stack up the sheer energy that falls out of a string of robust political encounters leaves us with a better represented community.

Some volley of activity we see reflects legitimate concern, some is mere posturing and some is insidious and calculating. The uninitiated have to be more careful than usual lest they find themselves entwined with plots and counterplots not of their making that might trigger astounding repercussions for those who get sucked in to this high stakes game. Caution is the watchword. Being too eager to be a player could lead to being played.

In some minds the rest of this political season is just the day-to-day scrimmage work that leads to the next round of municipal elections in 2010. Even so, now is a single moment amidst a never to be repeated history defining circumstance for a dynamic alteration of the political status quo. This is Newark’s period of political rebirth. The struggles are many but we see the generational struggle as most prominent.

On Tuesday February 5, 2008, Newark was portrayed as a dangerously divided city. Everything that happens politically going forward must sense the gravity of where we are. Every step forward must be intentional, thoughtful and aimed at mending the fissures that have long lurked beneath the surface but now rage in the open. It is better we know the truth of where we are than stumble around in a deep pretentious sleep. For sure we are headed for a political shake up. Newark just might realize the culmination of its political fate in 2008. We HOPE it is for the better.

February 27, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"TRUST" RESIDENTS

Former Atlanta Georgia Mayor Maynard Jackson is a legend in minority political circles because he so skillfully used the power and permission of municipal government to create wealth among African American businesspeople. You might think that with the emergence of Black mayors all over the nation the Jackson model would have been repeated over and over. Unfortunately that has not been the case. We don’t want to speculate as to the reason or even postulate whether or not the model is still relevant or appropriate. What we do know is that it was short lived and nothing effective has replaced it.

So what is happening in Newark? Initial steps are being taken to help establish minority builders and developers as an economic force. But much more can be done if we allow our creativity to blossom. It generally takes a very long time for a new developer to generate real wealth. And in today’s real estate market the prospects have dimmed considerably. Real estate development as a pathway to wealth is fraught with roadblocks. We must pursue other avenues if we want to give Newarkers a shot at the really big bucks.

In the meantime here is an idea that our community might pursue with municipal support: The creation of a “Resident Taxpayer Real Estate Trust” open to investment by resident taxpayers of Newark. Residents who would accumulate wealth through the development of their city would own such a “Trust.” As tax paying property owners, we are already investors in the development of our city. Particularly since new developers are frequently exempted from taxes as an inducement to develop. Whenever that happens taxpayers pick up some portion of the financial burdens created by these new developments. If the municipality would agree to use available incentives to encourage all developers to joint venture with the “Resident Taxpayer Real Estate Trust,” the development of Newark would necessarily benefit Newarkers. The legalities and details of how such a “Trust” would come about or operate rely upon details better left to experts. We are positors. Our idea would not generate gobs of cash for any individual. But it would provide real opportunity to cash in on the red hot redevelopment of their city, substantially increase overall community wealth and cause an uptick in resident commitment to Newark.

Imagine the energy that could be unleashed among citizens if they knew that they could literally own a piece of their city. With every skyscraper and shopping center that went up, their wealth would increase. Their investment in their city would lead to an increase in pride, concern and public participation. It is not likely that resident investors would harbor a casual attitude toward anti-social behavior or mediocre and failing institutions. The establishment of such a “Trust” could even trigger a burst of enlightened in-migration. More importantly residents might be motivated to invest and learn about how money works to drive development. Terms like capital formation and dividends might become commonplace among common people. Just suppose for a minute that the reality of ownership could tamp down consumer tendencies and give birth to notions of commercial productivity. With such luck, we could actually stumble into the creation of a class of entrepreneurs.

Surely some will say we can’t create a “Resident Taxpayer Real Estate Trust.” They will support their case with arguments that protect their interests. We believe there is a way to accomplish this idea. The application of serious thought fueled by the will to change creaky paradigms is all that is required.

Others will question: What of tenants who are not property owners? Our view is that they are second tier taxpayers and as such accommodations for their participation should exist.

A friend of ours recently reminded us that the residents of Green Bay own the Green Bay Packers. While mulling that over we wondered had there been a moment, during the negotiations that sent 220 million of Newark taxpayer dollars to the New Jersey Devils, when it occurred to someone that the arena might have provided an investment opportunity for residents?

A community trust could certainly emerge without the support of government but its potential potency would be far less likely to be realized. On the other hand if the government had the foresight to view supporting the development of a resident (community) based financial business as they might a local developer or construction company, we could turn an important page in the concept of wealth creation among indigenous Newarkers. We think it’s worth consideration.

February 13, 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Vote For Kids

Tuesday, February 5th was an incredible day for politics and the democratic process in Newark’s South Ward. Voters turned out in large numbers to vote in the primary election for President of the United States. It was impressive. Even early in the morning it was clear that the turnout would be good. We all have a right to be proud and encouraged by the solid participation. From what we heard, there was high voter enthusiasm all over the ward. Citizens were pumped up by the prospects of making history. Barack Obama was on the ballot and voters were determined to make their voices heard in this precedent setting contest among democrats to select their candidate for president.

But there was another and perhaps equally important process taking place for part of the day at one of the South Ward election polling sites. At Maple Avenue School from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm there was a public hearing to give all residents—voters and non-voters alike— an opportunity to make their voices heard on the question of who will be the next Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. The people who showed up to speak deserve the highest commendation and the gratitude of the entire South Ward community for demonstrating an increasingly rare level of civic responsibility. The problem is that for such an important matter, far too many residents opted out and passed on the opportunity to help shape the future of thousands of our children.

Because the hours of 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm happen to also be the height of the rush hour for residents who vote after work we could see them pouring into Maple Avenue School to cast their ballots. Unfortunately most left without ever even poking their heads into the auditorium where the Superintendent Search Committee was conducting the public hearings. It was painful to watch. We winced in frustration. Particularly knowing that many of those who breezed by the sign-in table are dissatisfied parents whose children attend Newark Public Schools. And it was not so much that there was only a modest turnout for something to benefit our children—that has come to be expected—it was painful because they were right there, just a few feet away and chose to walk on by.

What does this mean in the context of that old political adage that all politics is local? Here we are faced with perhaps our most important local decision in more than a decade, and a national issue, taking place at the same time in the same place, roundly thumped it. And of course we realize that people are caught up in the legitimate excitement of the Obama campaign but that is precisely the reason that the auditorium should have been jam-packed.

There is virtually nothing in our community that is not affected by the quality of our schools and their product. Crime, taxes, culture, public services, economic development and overall quality of life all tie back, in part, to what schools do or don’t do. And what schools do or don’t do ties back to parent and public participation. School success or failure cannot be viewed in isolation. We all have a hand in it. Walking away is not a viable option. Neither is any other avoidance mechanism. We have to get involved.

So it was Election Day and people were in line, most waiting to vote for Barack Obama. You could not help but recall the ringing oratory and inspiring vision of Barack Obama. It is compelling and tantalizing. But perhaps even more compelling is the presentation of Michelle Obama who herself is a tough act to follow. Her stump speech is every bit as good as her husband’s. Michelle talks about her childhood and how she attended the public school right around the corner. She calls it a good school without which she would not be where she is today. She goes on to say that these good neighborhood schools is what ordinary people want. Is she right? Michelle Obama tells us that making these good schools available to all parents is one of the reasons that Barack is running for president. Do we believe that? It is confusing trying to understand how people (voters at Maple Avenue School) who claim to buy into this vision turn a blind eye to the process set up to give us “ordinary people” a say in creating these “good schools” right here in Newark.

We have commented before that our children have reasons to doubt our sincerity when we say we love them and want the best for them. There are too many signs to the contrary. Caring is not a video game, clothes or pocket money. True concern is keeping children safe from harm, sending them to school with instructions to behave and learn, going to see the teacher, and “attending public hearings.” Well, it’s something like that. So we should not be surprised in the least when children for whom we have shown no concern show no concern for us. Much of their antisocial behavior should be anticipated.

There is no issue before us that is more important than the education of our society beginning with our kids. Getting our systems of public education under productive control and seeding them with the very best leadership is essential. Anti-intellectual pedestrianism and the corruption of standards have taken a heavy toll on public education. Any real hope of reversing the fortunes of public schooling is necessarily tethered to the best efforts of active citizens. No saviors will be arriving anytime soon. Not even Barack Obama. We are either our own best friends or worst enemies. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. It’s time to do for self. Our kids are depending on us to show up for them. They want our vote of confidence and interest. One certainty is that so long as we fail them they are much more likely to fail themselves and us.

A brilliant woman educator warned us of a scary possibility a few years back. She said that we were entering upon a generation of people wherein many parents don’t believe in the ability of their own kids to succeed. This sounds inconceivable. But is it? In any event, civilized society has a duty to rise above the lowest expectations and create schools that foster the highest. There are two more public hearings to allow citizens to make their voices heard about the kind of leadership we want for our public schools. Please.

February 6, 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New Life for Symphony Hall

When you enter the concert hall at Newark Symphony Hall you immediately feel the majesty that surrounds you. You immediately sense the greatness of all those who have adorned the stage. You almost share the delight of the countless audiences that filled the seats and no doubt over and over leapt to their feet with ovations of appreciation and homage. Newark Symphony Hall is the grand old cultural sanctuary of our city. It has been revered forever…but left under attended for way too long.

If you stand in the rear of the hall and are not completely hooked on its audacity, you need only mount the stage and look out into the empty seats. The still quiet splendor takes over your thoughts and the rest is pure delight. It is simply an amazing place.

Why then is this obvious jewel left to languish so thoughtlessly? How can it be that for years few suitors have come to call? What has this magnificent architectural feast ever done but feed us well? Now it is our turn and opportunity to give back to our city and our Hall, which has given so much for so long to so many. The revitalization of Newark Symphony Hall cannot wait any longer. A major sustained effort must get underway at once. And every morsel of available help and good will must be solicited in the cause.

New interest is bubbling about the future of the Hall. It is well positioned as a cultural bookend in the overall revitalization of downtown Newark’s main drag, which is currently underway. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) sits at one end of Broad Street. Several blocks away is the Prudential Center (The Rock) and several blocks further south is Symphony Hall. NJPAC and The Rock are relatively new players downtown. Newark Symphony Hall has been a vehicle for cultural expression since 1925. The significance of this venue and its history should be celebrated—not ignored.

What you may not know is that Newark Symphony Hall is much more than the main performance hall. The facility houses four floors of performance related, practice, meeting and office spaces. And for old timers there is still the Terrace Room to bring back memories that we cherish—some secretly. Those old wooden floors where the likes of Tommy Robinson, Alvin Johnson, Sylvester Dobson and Halim Nurullah (Chi Chi), Mannie Baker, John Griggs, Abe Tillman and Morris Donaldson spun and dipped are still there. They defined the Latin dance set on those well-shellacked floors. With the exception of a few boards that wilted under wear and water, we believe that every strip of flooring is exactly the same.

The sponsors of the now historical “Third Ward Reunion” have dutifully watched over the spirit of the old timers for years. Dee Johnson (DJ) and her crew have kept the Terrace Room a fond memory for all of us. And these are only memories of the African American community. As we stand in the Terrance Room thinking about DJ, members of the Latino community are setting up the room for church services that they regularly hold here. Just the other day we met an Italian Newark business executive named August LoBue who told us he had boxed an amateur match at Symphony Hall when he was 17 years old. We can only imagine how many people from how many backgrounds are in some way connected to the Hall.

It is obvious that in the Hall’s heyday it was the reigning stomping ground for Europeans. The space and rafters are well seasoned and flavored by nearly all cultures. If there is a single temple to Newark’s rich multicultural heritage that deserves preservation, it is Newark Symphony Hall. B.B King would most likely agree.

Symphony Hall has hosted nearly every people and every culture over a long period of time. We have all enjoyed the benefits of its existence. Now that it has fallen upon hard times it is appropriate that we step up and provide the support needed to honorably complete the cultural trek down Broad Street. NJPAC, Prudential Center and Symphony Hall—each should have prominence. Each would serve multiple needs and constituencies and each is deserving of maximum support. At the moment Newark Symphony Hall is least favored among these three entities. It is equal in potential and superior in historical stature. It has by virtue of its survival alone earned the right to revival. Indeed, NJPAC and Prudential ought to assist in that revival. But for the legacy of Newark Symphony Hall they might well not have found a climate of acceptance. Newark is a city well steeped in artistic and cultural expression and Symphony Hall sat at the center of that tradition. Symphony Hall had a major role in paving the way for what now exists and what is contemplated.

We are calling on all citizens and people who have experienced great moments at Newark Symphony Hall to join the revitalization effort. Your energy will count for much. The lift is sizable but clearly worth it. It is something we can all do. It is a rare apolitical opportunity in a community that is often pungent with rancid political overtones. Symphony Hall truly belongs to a community that encompasses but extends well beyond the borders of Newark and as such escapes the grips of narrow politics. It is a place where we can all work together for a clearly defined goal that benefits the present and the future. Please help.

Newark Symphony Hall has a history and tradition worthy of honor. The best way to bestow that honor is to restore the Hall. Perhaps even the New Jersey Symphony and Ballet can be coaxed back for special performances. Yes, they can go home again.

January 23, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Who Really Cares?

A process is underway to select a new Superintendent for Newark Public Schools. In many ways this selection is more important than the election of Newark’s public officials. Somehow we must combine our resources to get this message to the general public and make sure that it sinks in.

Unlike with our Mayor and Council, the public will not have an opportunity to vote for a new Superintendent. However, there will be an opportunity to register your opinion about what ought to be considered in the selection process. Five community forums to hear from the public have been scheduled around the city beginning on Tuesday, January 29th and concluding on Monday, February 11th. The forums will be held from 6:00 pm until 8:00 pm and are open to anyone who wants to attend and comment. Interested parties should call 973-353-3565 to find out where and when they will be held.

It is fascinating that one of the community forums happens to be taking place on the same day that many in Newark will be filing into polling places to vote in primary elections to determine the Democratic and Republican Party candidates for the presidency of the United States of America. February 5th is Presidential Primary Day in New Jersey. It is also the date of the community forum to be held at Maple Avenue School in the South Ward of Newark. The 6:00 to 8:00 pm time slot allotted for the forum coincides exactly with the peak after-work voting period at this polling site. And since some of the city’s heaviest voting districts are located inside Maple Avenue School, it is likely to be abuzz with activity.

The voting booths at Maple Avenue School will probably be but a short distance from the auditorium where the community forums will be held. It will be interesting to see if parents and residents are as eager to register their thoughts and opinions on who should lead the Newark Public Schools as they are on who should lead the nation. It will be a poetic referendum on the oft-stated adage that “All politics is local.”

Everyone who walks into Maple Avenue School on Tuesday, February 5th to stand in line to decide between Barack, Hillary, John and Dennis can walk around the corridor and speak up for Pookie, Shanaynay, Ernesto and Latisha. As well they should, since everyone who comes to vote is connected to our schools in one way or another. First, they are all residents….hopefully. Next, many are parents or relatives of children in our public schools (which include Charter Schools). And as homeowners or renters they pay direct or indirect taxes that fund our public schools. Everyone is connected so everyone is a stakeholder. But judging by past participation, we might fairly conclude that most don’t care.

February 5th at Maple Avenue School will be sort of a test. It won’t be scientific, of course, but interesting to observe nonetheless. After the forum and election are over, it will be easy to compare the list of those who voted to the list of those who spoke or signed up as attendees at the forum. If an overwhelming number of Maple Avenue voters also participate in the forum it could give rise to a number of useful interpretations.

If the community had at its disposal the kind of funding that political campaigns have to get out the votes on February 5th we might be able to guarantee a high turnout for the forums. But there is no such pot of money available. There will be no posters, sound trucks or phone banks. After all, this is just about the lives and futures of kids, the community’s quality of life and maybe our survival. That hardly compares to politics.

All of the community forums are critical and interested parties should call 973-353-3565 to find out where and when they will be held. We encourage all organizations to press their members to attend and participate. It is not enough to talk about what kids deserve but don’t get. We have to find ways to act on their behalf. These forums provide an opportunity for each of us to take a direct action to mold our own future. Will we do it?

Generations of politicians and organization leaders have risen to power espousing their love for our children. Some meant it but too many were just playing the game. Our children have been used and hustled for way too long. And decision makers wielding the power to force change are not hearing from enough folks with genuine concern for their welfare. These upcoming community forums provide an opportunity for everyone to put everything on the table once and for all. Let’s have a real discussion about our schools, our children and the community that they affect. It’s time for an intellectual struggle that wrestles common sense and progress out of confusion.

A community that professes love for its children yt knowingly leads them to anguish is a community that lies to itself and flirts with peril. No community can gain or maintain respect so long as that community’s able and intelligent residents roost along the sidelines witnessing the destruction of its progeny. Neither can we claim credibility while offering hand wringing and excuse making as defenses for inaction and incompetence. Mind murder is often a silent process that almost inevitably rages back at us with a seemingly incomprehensible vengeance—though we should understand. After all, it is our own handiwork. Please go to the community forums for the kids.

January 16, 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark is scheduled to receive an unmistakable makeover. The future calls for thousands of residential apartments and condos to spring up and seed an expected flourishing downtown lifestyle. Anticipation is that these new dwelling places will be extraordinarily attractive for current New York residents who crave the Big Apple but not its high cost of living space. Downtown Newark will offer a far cheaper rent bill just 30 minutes or less away from the many employment and lifestyle accoutrements offered just across the river. This is a great bargain for New Yorkers and others seeking quick access to New York and discount living. How Newark residents will benefit is far less clear.

No doubt the anticipated arrival of the crowds expected to come across to this side of the Hudson with the archetypical New York mindset and cultural appetite will open avenues of opportunity for business ventures in downtown Newark. Whether local residents will be positioned to capitalize on the expected boon is highly questionable and equally unlikely. Given the relative lack of business acumen and access to capital in the broad indigenous community, newly created downtown money making breaks will likely fall into the hands of a small circle of already well established land and business holders. New businesses will provide more revenue for the city. And while an increase of tax dollars into municipal coffers is always welcomed, the promise of opportunity for average Newarkers seems to be slipping farther into the distance as plans for the future are unveiled.

For sure, the downtown we now know is being readied for the dustbin. Vendors and even long established merchants will have to move along to areas more suitable for both their product and clientele. The view of the future is far more upscale in contemplation of both dwellers and shoppers. This is very simply one cost of the progress that comes with a new arena and focus on high-end housing. In fact, as we observed the traffic rerouting on Broad and other downtown streets as preparations for the arena opening were being made, it occurred to us that this might just be the forerunner of permanently pushing local commuters to back street routes. Think how nice our downtown would look if it was a bit more passive and “strolling pedestrian” friendly.

Too many long-time indigenous Newarkers are without the financial means to buy their way into what are destined to become Newark’s new designer neighborhoods. These pricy addresses have certain types in mind. But Newark can choose to reject ultra elitism in development of its scheme—downtown and otherwise. The city can rely on creativity to avoid succumbing to classism. People of varying means and wealth ought to be integrated into newly planned communities. This is likely the hope of well-intentioned professional planners. Yet developers with deep pockets and access might dictate something more sinister.

Where, and among whom, one lives can often lead to opportunity and success that is otherwise denied or unavailable. The mere exposure to circumstances, people and events sometimes offers motivation that propels and sustains the recipient. Simply not being well off should not necessarily roadblock these pathways to success and abundance.
How downtown Newark is developed can signal Newark’s intention to look at its citizenry through a single human lens. At least it presents leaders with an opportunity to be expansive in their considerations and planning. We should all hope they make the most of it.

If the city chooses a truly progressive approach to downtown development the community must provide support even though there will be painful dislocation and inevitable inequity. Major projects of this nature and magnitude are never completely fair to all involved. There will be winners and losers but government must work transparently to minimize the gap between the two. And government must also use its enormous powers to insure that reasonable opportunity is presented to small and minority businesses for overall involvement and substantial economic gain under any development regime.

With the changes that are likely downtown, there will be a perception of loss for existing players and indigenous Newarkers. This might well be the case but it need not be. In any event inconsideration and poor planning need not exacerbate the perception itself. Citizens are more likely to be accommodating to necessary change if they can identify with the winners even if they are not themselves among them.

Change is inevitable. For true success, in Newark, inclusive change is essential. Newark’s leaders should pledge allegiance to fundamental equity. Without such a pledge average Newark citizens will remain disadvantaged in the pursuit of opportunities born of their circumstances. Wouldn't that be a shame?

January 9, 2008

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Our Trek

On an average weekday, go to the corner of Raymond Boulevard and Mulberry Street and stand or sit in your car for a moment. Look carefully at everything that surrounds you, including the people walking by. After ten minutes or so stroll one block toward the new arena and make a right turn onto Commerce Street and walk slowly down Commerce carefully observing the surroundings, including the attitudes and expressions on the faces of the people walking by. Go all the way to Broad Street and stand on the corner. Look in all directions. Look back down Commerce from where you just came, look in both directions on Broad Street and look across the street to Academy. Spend five minutes at Broad and Commerce then turn south and head toward City Hall. Make sure you pay careful attention to everything and everyone you pass or encounter.

By the time you get to City Hall here is what you would have seen or missed: At Commerce and Mulberry you take in the Gateway complex. A number of office buildings rising out of the ground where thousands of workers come daily to earn the means to maintain their lives, families and homes—most come from somewhere outside the City of Newark. If you need proof of this stand on the same corner at eight in the morning or four in the afternoon, you will have to dodge the herd of humanity making its way to and from their worksites all over downtown Newark.

If you look closely at the faces of the passersby some are Asian, Latino and Black, but overwhelmingly, most are white. They appear eager, purposeful and more or less calm…people moving quickly with constructive things to do…people with a goal or objective in mind. As you turn up Commerce Street the scene changes. From side to side the street is dotted with small businesses (mostly food) and the newly renovated 1180 building is buzzing with activity to meet the needs of the upscale tenants who are creating a downtown living class that has increased shirtless jogging by more than 100%.

At the corner of Broad Street, looking north, you can see the spacious plaza in front of the PSE&G headquarters building. Military Park is in full view and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and marquee of the Robert Treat Hotel juts into view. But because there are a number of bus stops in this area the pedestrians are more Black and Latino. They also appear less calm. They look more stressed, and as a whole, more lethargic and less focused. Many are not going to jobs…they are looking for jobs.

And did you notice the sudden increase in homeless people and beggars. Their numbers grow steadily on the way up Commerce Street. And at Broad Street they become really apparent if you hang out there for a while.

When you turn to walk toward City Hall, all of a sudden there will be more foot traffic. And the people will be overwhelmingly Black and Latino. This begins the threshold of a major shopping district for poor and working class people. Some business types are mixed in but they only outnumber the locals at lunchtime when their number really swells. Up until this point your walk has probably been mainly serene—so far you have likely encountered mostly people who seem reasonably considerate with non-offensive attitudes except for one or two requests for handouts. Keep walking.

As you approach the corner of Broad and Market Streets you will be entering the major downtown shopping district and transportation hub for residents of Newark and rim communities. The stores themselves are not particularly inviting. Many express a dingy sameness that derives from lack of respect for the consumer base. You get the distinct feeling that the same store in another community might be bright and inviting. The people don’t demand more. You will also see peddlers hawking wares from a variety of carts and stands. They are representative of the Black downtown merchant. In the downtown business world they are the outsiders. Somehow you know that their days are numbered. And for many of these merchants, inside or out, there is the constant cat and mouse game with the cops. The big question always being just who is selling what? As you go through and really pay close attention to everything and everyone that you see it is a little surreal. In these few short blocks you can feel an increase in tension. Here, verbal confrontations can be commonplace and you might very well feel threatened—unless of course it is your regular routine or you have been otherwise anesthetized.

Then comes the new arena. You wonder if the fact that its back faces Broad Street is the result of the subconscious intention. After all Newark’s downtown has been moving north and east for sometime now. Somehow you know that major changes are coming. Your nagging sixth sense tells you that ambitious plans for radical reconfiguration are queued up and ready to go. As they sit neatly stacked in someone’s top drawer, in your gut you know that their execution will knowingly further marginalize little people. Your ability to define the future of your city is fading fast and you feel helpless to intervene. It doesn’t have to be this way. But the way forward is fraught with obstacles.

Finally you arrive at City Hall. And for everything you think you saw on the way, if you turn around and walk back you would notice twice as much to stir your insides—things that you have not offered your careful attention in the past. The ugly reality of the class and culture divide that has gripped our city and threatens to dominate the planning for our future is glaring along the trek from Raymond Boulevard and Mulberry Street to Newark City Hall where the people’s representatives contemplate what development best serves the people. Of course one critical concern is that poor and working class people have not developed or preserved the ability to leverage themselves into the power dynamic that controls urban communities. Over time and as a result of poor leadership at all levels, we have essentially become by-standing observers.

The street scene we have described is a function of collective failure and abandonment. No one is blameless but some are more responsible than others. Martin Luther King Jr.’s often repeated affirmation is, “We shall overcome”. Now more than 45 years later the quintessential query plaguing and menacing our survival is, “How shall we overcome?”

Keep walking south on Broad Street and you will come to Newark Symphony Hall. We believe this to be a critical component in the rehabilitation of our community. It is the single apolitical entity in Newark that has sustaining tendrils to past and present for untold groups, individuals, ethnicities and classes. Its potential as a magnet for progress and cooperation is inestimable. It is a jewel well worth polishing. It sits at the natural gateway to our city in more ways than one. And then there is Lincoln Park. Wow!

January 2, 2008