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


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