'We prayed on this': Newark celebrates former housing project's transformation

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 07, 2015


NEWARK — Decades ago, the area around the Douglas-Harrison homes was among the most desirable in Newark, home to a tightknit community of middle-class African-American families.

Soon, however, jobs began leaving the city in droves, taking their employees with them. Before long, the seemingly endless row of four-story high-rise brick buildings became a symbol of urban decay, home to open-air drug and prostitution markets that drew little attention from police.

"There was a big red line drawn around this community that did not witness the kind of development and upkeep that it needed, for a very, very long time," said Mayor Ras Baraka.

Today, however, the area once littered with shell casings and broken glass is now home to Harrison Park Square, a 56-unit building that will provide affordable housing to seniors and a small number of homeless veterans.

Baraka and other officials held a ribbon-cutting Tuesday morning to celebrate the $18 million complex, which was financed through a private-public partnership with Marlton-based Michaels Development Company, largely with equity created through the sale of low-income housing tax credits.

The one and two-bedroom units are equipped with energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and common areas include dedicated rooms for computer use, games and a health suite.

The senior housing building is the first phase of the development, which will eventually also include Somerset Brownstones, an affordable family housing complex, and a large park on the former Douglass-Harrison site between Spruce Street and Muhammad Ali Avenue.

Among the news residents was Constance Epps, who moved into one of the new units with her sister Pauline Dunnell last week.

Epps said the pair came from another Central Ward housing complex, New Community Homes, where they were subjected to brutally freezing winters and other poor conditions for the last 15 years.

"We prayed on this, and through the grace of God and our mayor and some people that work in housing, we were blessed to be able to move in here. We are elated," she said.

Several speakers at the ribbon-cutting also acknowledged the overall progress of the Central Ward neighborhood, which is home to other newly constructed and renovated complexes including Spruce Gardens and High Park Gardens.

Among them was John Murray, chief of credit and business development for the state's Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, who said the area was virtually unrecognizable since the Douglass-Harrison homes were demolished in 2010.

"We know what was here before, and we're very proud to involved in what's here now," he said.

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