Mayor Ras Baraka Wins Praise for Trying to Unite Newark

By KATE ZERNIKE

THE NEW YORK TIMES

AUG. 30, 2015

Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, speaking at Occupy the City, an anti-violence rally and march, in August.

 

NEWARK — Mayor Ras J. Baraka came into office last summer practically taunting his doubters.

“Yeah,” he said in his inaugural address, “we need a mayor that’s radical.”

They had predicted he would be anti-business and anti-police, that Mr. Baraka, the son of Newark’s most famous black radical, would return a city dogged by a history of riots and white flight to division and disarray.

A year later, Mr. Baraka is showering attention on black and Latino neighborhoods, as he promised he would. But he is also winning praise from largely white leaders of the city’s businesses and institutions downtown. He struggles with crime – all mayors here do – but he has also championed both the Black Lives Matter movement and the police, winning praise for trying to ease their shared suspicion.

The radical now looks more like a radical pragmatist.

Newark is still stubbornly two cities: gleaming new glass towers downtown, block after block of abandoned plots and relentless poverty in its outer wards, with five killings within 36 hours this month. But for all the expectations that Mr. Baraka would divide the city, those on both sides of the spectrum say that he has so far managed to do what his predecessors could not: make both Newarks feel like he is their mayor.

Development proceeds are reaching into long-ignored neighborhoods. Projects stalled for years are moving forward, and new industries are taking root: a vertical farm, an incubator space and an investment fund for technology start-ups.

Mr. Baraka closed a $93 million hole in the city budget without layoffs. In June, Gov. Chris Christie agreed to start returning the schools to local control — something the governor had denied Cory A. Booker, Mr. Baraka’s more polished predecessor. The governor had denied Mr. Baraka’s bid for control a year ago, deeming him “kind of hostile.”

“He’s like the local boy who grew up and said, ‘I need to fix my city.’ How do you not get inspired by that? How do you not root for a guy like that?” said Joseph M. Taylor, the chief executive of Panasonic Corporation of North America, which was lured to Newark by Mr. Booker. “I didn’t think anybody could top Cory Booker, but if anybody can, it’s Mayor Baraka.”

Not everyone is on board. Some local politicians, even those who support Mr. Baraka, say the positive reception partly reflects the low expectations set during a nasty election last spring, in which outside groups spent at least $5 million trying to defeat him. They say the talent pool at City Hall is shallow, and that Mr. Baraka has surrounded himself with friends and family members — in particular, his brother, Amiri Baraka Jr., who serves as his chief of staff — who engage in a kind of street politics that have dragged Mr. Baraka into distracting feuds.

The candidate Mr. Baraka defeated, Shavar Jeffries, continues to criticize the mayor’s inability to stanch crime, dismissing Mr. Baraka’s anti-violence rallies as empty gimmicks. And presuming Mr. Baraka can complete the return of schools to local control, they remain some of the nation’s most troubled and low-performing.

But others point to changes large and small. The mayor had the walls painted and brighter light bulbs installed at City Hall. Residents welcomed his gestures like offering movie nights in Military Park, which is newly renovated with help from private groups and Prudential, whose sleek new headquarters opened this month across the street.

“These small things are what we need,” said Kourtney Awadalla, 28, an office worker who lives in the North Ward. She had come with her 7-year-old daughter to an Occupy the City rally the mayor held in early August, blocking off streets at the city’s crossroads for thousands of residents who marched against violence. “We’re used to them blocking off streets because someone got shot, not someone blocking off streets for a positive thing.”

The mayor has created a Civilian Complaint Review Board to address accusations of mistreatment by the police, and a municipal identification program. He also rewrote the zoning code for the first time in 60 years, and businesspeople praised him for speeding up the bureaucracy at City Hall.

Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive who leads the Democratic machine that lined up against Mr. Baraka in the nonpartisan elections last year, stood with him at a news conference in June and declared that he had made a mistake not supporting him.

“I thought he would be divisive, that’s where I was wrong,” Mr. DiVincenzo said in an interview.

 “A boy from Clinton Avenue and 10th Street,” as he describes himself, Mr. Baraka, 46, grew up in one of the more celebrated households of Newark. His father, Amiri Baraka, was a poet, playwright and black nationalist who returned to the city to help galvanize the black nationalist movement. Maya Angelou read poems to the young Ras Baraka; Nina Simone sang him lullabies.

As principal of Central High School, he pushed out gangs and raised test scores. And as a City Council member representing the South Ward – Newark’s largest and poorest – he styled himself as the anti-Booker, criticizing the mayor for too much time on television and travel and not enough tending to the needs at home. His campaign refrain: “When I become mayor, we all become mayor.”

Still, Mr. Baraka can seem uncomfortable with attention. Introduced warmly at a recent event to open a new community center in the West Ward, he looked up briefly to nod at the applause, then resumed staring at an indeterminate place on the floor.

About his city, he expresses emotion fiercely and openly. In May, after a spate of killings, he sent out an anguished email over the public alert system, describing his difficulty sleeping as he thought about the violence. He called for residents, especially Newark’s men (“the ladies” always show up, he said), to join him in “occupying” a different block each week, trying to push out illegal activities.

“Everybody has a responsibility,” he shouted to the thousands gathered at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets for Occupy the City, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “We Are Newark.”

“The mayor has a responsibility, yes,” he said. “The police have a responsibility, yes. But so do our fathers, so do our mothers, so do our brothers. The question is, are you living up to your responsibility?”

The stubborn poverty of Newark’s residents has long made the city reliant on its downtown corporate tenantsfor its tax base and prompted complaints that mayors lavish attention on them to the detriment of the rest of the city. (Mr. Baraka’s father was a leader of this charge.)

Downtown is largely a 9-to-5 population of whites who commute from the suburbs. Residents in other parts of the city are more likely to refer to the riots that convulsed the city in 1967 as “the rebellion,” an uprising against white oppression.

In the heart of downtown, the administration has pushed forward Triangle Park, a 24-acre parcel with a park and retail, residential and office space that will connect Penn Station, the restaurants of the Ironbound section, and the Prudential Center, an entertainment arena and home of the New Jersey Devils. The city conceived the project 10 years ago, but the much of the land has remained weedy lots. Construction is expected to begin next year.

“The progress that has been achieved in the last 90 days has been more than what was done in the last five years,” said Hugh Weber, the president of the Prudential Center and the Devils.

The city has also helped move along the construction of One Theater Square, a 22-story residential tower that was supposed to be built soon after the completion of the Performing Arts Center in 1997. The project, expected to complete its financing in October, will be the city’s first new market-rate housing in five decades.

A free-standing Starbucks – the city’s only one announced its closing in 2008 – will soon open in the new Prudential complex, as will a Nike store. Whole Foods is under construction in the old Hahne & Co. department store space nearby, and Rutgers will occupy 57,000 square feet there with university arts programs, gallery space and a community photo studio.

The Baraka administration passed an ordinance requiring developers who get tax abatements and companies with city contracts to hire Newark residents for 51 percent of their jobs.

This spring, Mr. Baraka designated two of the most blighted areas in the South and West Wards of the city “model neighborhoods,” flooding them with police and code enforcement officers to address problems like poor lighting and abandoned structures that can foster crime. He established nine “Centers of Hope” with social services and activities in abandoned community centers, and enlisted downtown institutions, such as the Devils and the Performing Arts Center, to bring programs to the neighborhoods. Well before Ferguson, Mo., drew attention to police-community relations, Mr. Baraka had begun leading groups of police officials and clergy members to walk and talk with residents in some of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Mr. Baraka meets often with his police director. But he has also set up street teams of residents to help defuse tensions that can escalate into shootings and death. In one recent case, a young man reported that someone was threatening to kill him because he owed $250. The team took money from a hardship fund and gave it to the man making the threat, but told him that if there was further trouble, he would be arrested.

Todd R. Clear, the provost and a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Newark, confessed to having worried about the new mayor coming in. “Now I’m really engaged, I’m all in,” he said, impressed by the mayor’s “phenomenal” energy in dealing with crime, his willingness to enlist help and push police and residents out of their traditional postures.

“I am as encouraged about what’s going on in Newark with public safety as I’ve ever been, and I’ve been here since 1979,” he said.

“He realizes that he can’t do this out of City Hall,” Mr. Clear said. “This is sort of like making everyone mayor.”

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