A Revival Comes to Newark, but Some Worry It’s ‘Not for Us’

NEWARK — The old department store has been transformed into luxury apartments with high ceilings, bike parking and, as the developers boast, an opportunity to be in downtown Newark, a neighborhood “on the brink of something great.”

A Whole Foods has moved in, and Marcus Samuelsson, the celebrity chef, is opening a restaurant. A public park that recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation is a short stroll away, and a little farther another luxury apartment building is joining the skyline.

It has been a long time coming, but New Jersey’s largest city is finally turning a corner.

For decades, Newark has been a symbol of America’s decaying cities, with every box on the list of urban ills checked off: violence, entrenched poverty, vanishing jobs, struggling schools, blighted blocks. Those problems certainly persist, but they mask a sunnier view of the city: Newark’s slow but steady transformation into a hub for the arts and higher education and the growing vibrancy of its bustling ethnic neighborhoods.

“We are at a precipice,” Mayor Ras J. Baraka said. “This is our moment, and when you come here, people feel that.”

But it is also a tense moment, punctuated by fears that the renaissance could bypass, if not push out, many of those who have endured this city’s protracted period of distress. Now, Newark is wrestling with a problem faced by plenty of reviving urban centers before it: An influx of development is spreading unevenly, widening the disparity between the places where gleaming new towers have risen and the parts of the city where opportunity has yet to arrive.

“They’re coming back strong, but it’s basically not for us,” said Jerome Berry, who is in his 50s and has lived in Newark for much of his life. He waited to board a bus in the Central Ward between a busy new shopping center and grass-covered plots that have been bald since the bloody racial upheaval he remembered from his childhood that convulsed the city 50 years ago.

“The doors we kicked down, they’re walking through them,” Mr. Berry added. “We did a lot and kept Newark surviving.”

Those worries have been fueled by the consequences of gentrification that residents have seen nearby, in New York City, as well as on their side of the Hudson River, where real estate is booming along the riverbank, including in Jersey City and Hoboken. Descriptions of Newark as “the next Brooklyn” are bandied about regularly but just as often swatted down by city leaders, who say they have looked to other cities’ experiences not as potential road maps but as cautionary tales.

Mr. Baraka announced a set of initiatives this summer meant to encourage larger companies in the city to hire residents and buy from local businesses, extend development beyond downtown to the rest of the city’s five wards and persuade people who work in the city to move here. The centerpiece of the effort is a job program, Newark 2020, which aims to have 2,020 unemployed residents working full time and earning a living wage within the next three years. He has partnered with the largest employers in Newark, including Prudential, RWJBarnabas Health, United Airlines and Audible.

Poverty in Newark remains at a rate well above the national average, and only 18 percent of the people who hold jobs in Newark live here, according to a report from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; in other large cities that figure is often between 30 and 50 percent.

“We knew that, ultimately, in order to transform the city, we had to attack poverty and unemployment,” Mr. Baraka said. “I think we have an opportunity here, because everybody is at the table, and they probably haven’t been at the table in this magnitude in a very long time, if ever.”

Mr. Baraka is pushing the City Council to pass a measure requiring that at least 20 percent of large developments be set aside for affordable housing. One mixed-use development, Teachers Village, was built largely for educators in the city, and other projects are targeted at artists. The downtown development carrying the name of the long-closed department store it once housed, Hahne & Company, includes a 50,000-square-foot “arts incubator” run by Rutgers-Newark, as well as 64 units of affordable housing.

“We welcome everyone to the city,” said Kimberly McLain, the chief executive of the Newark Alliance, an organization focused on the city’s economic revitalization. “We want you to do business here, to visit, to live here. We also want it to be an inclusive place, so we’re not the next Brooklyn, so the people who are here are not edged out at the expense of opportunity.”

Newark’s new chapter also has a racial tinge: The city has been dominated by its large African-American population after decades of white residents leaving for the suburbs, but many of the people drawn by the city’s resurgence are white.

But some argue that there is plenty of room for newcomers, considering the city’s spacious footprint, the abandonment of many neighborhoods and that most development is focused downtown, where few people had lived and that essentially became deserted at the end of the business day. “I think it gives it a leg up in trying to do this kind of work,” Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, said of the city’s geography. “There’s so much empty, available real estate that, at least initially, the wave of development doesn’t require displacing people.”

Despite the progress Newark has made, many of the city’s troubles are resistant to solutions, having fermented over generations and likely to require nearly as long to overcome. “It’s going to take us a while to turn it around, and frankly, the residents of Newark have a right to hold us in some suspicion,’’ Ms. Cantor said.

The drain of the city’s white population started with the advent of the highway system and the rise of the suburbs. But the unrest in 1967, triggered by anger over racism and police brutality, with days of deadly demonstrations, intensified the exodus and cemented the negative view of Newark that it is still trying to shake.

Some credit the companies that maintained a presence in Newark even as others fled, such as Prudential, the insurance and financial services company whose name is a prominent fixture in the city, attached to its towering downtown headquarters, a sports arena and a performance hall.

But even the layout of infrastructure was meant to allay outsiders’ fears of Newark. Walkways were created to allow commuters to avoid the streets and an entrance to the sports arena was designed with easier access from the train station than city streets.

Those design choices “enabled them to stay in the city,” said Max Herman, an associate professor of sociology at New Jersey City University, who wrote an oral history on the 1967 riots in Newark and Detroit and studies gentrification. “But it did not contribute to the vitality of the city.”

Over the past decade, the city has recruited business such as Panasonic and Audible.com, the audiobook company, and major retail companies, including Nike, have moved into the city’s increasingly refurbished core. “There’s been a vast improvement,” Professor Herman said. “The downtown is a much safer place. It’s a much more interesting place.” But, he added, “The rest of Newark has not benefited.”

Mr. Baraka, a native of Newark who is the son of the radical poet Amiri Baraka, has become a popular figure as he straddles a delicate line between helping fulfill the needs of developers and businesses and maintaining his base of support in the city’s wards. “He’s a practical progressive,” said John Schreiber, the president and chief executive of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. “He’s as at ease in a neighborhood town hall as he is with the chairman of Prudential.”

The Performing Arts Center, a sprawling complex with about 450 events a year, has been an anchor downtown since 1997 and was designed without walkways connecting a parking structure to the center, forcing visitors to walk on the streets. Now, the center is involved in the development of a 22-story project called One Theater Square, which will include 245 housing units and ground-floor retail space. Mr. Schreiber, a veteran film and music producter, said Newark had the potential to become more of a destination, where opportunities for growth loom larger than its difficult past.

“We are a city with a long, long history,” Mr. Schreiber said from his corner office with a sweeping view of downtown, “but we are on the brink of becoming.”

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