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

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