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