Newark’s Queen returns home to build housing on a troubled block

Published: Apr. 26, 2022

Queen Latifah returned home to Newark on Tuesday, warmly welcomed by fans, family and public officials at a groundbreaking ceremony for a mixed-use project she is partnering with local developers to build in the city’s South Ward.

“I was born here, St. Michael’s Hospital, so this is definitely my home,” said Latifah, 52, who spent some of her early years in neighboring East Orange and Irvington. But getting back to Newark, she added, “This is where Sarah Vaughn is from, so I’m proud to be from here.”

Latifah, an award-winning rapper, singer, and actor who stars in “The Equalizer” on CBS, appeared before a crowd of about 150 people gathered at the site of the RISE mixed-use project at Springfield and 19th Avenues.

The project will include 60 two- and three-bedroom market-rate apartments in four townhouse clusters, and 16 affordable units in a separate building. It will also have space for healthcare or other professional offices and nonprofit organizations.

Rent for the market-rate units will start at around $1,800 a month, said officials of GonSosa Development, the company headed by Alberto and Yacinda Goncalves and Ricardo Sosa that is partnering with Latifah’s development company, Blue Sugar, on the project. Blue Sugar’s CEO is her longtime friend and fellow Newarker Tammy Hammond.

Construction began this winter on the first phase of the project, a dozen market-rate apartments in a three-story building designed to look like a townhouse cluster, which is expected to be completed this summer. Additional phases will be finished gradually, including the affordable units sometime in 2023, with the entire project done by early 2024.

Latifah first thought of the project in 2006, when she drove past the partially vacant lot where RISE is now rising during one of her occasional visits to her old hometown, she told NJ Advance Media in her first interview about the project in August 2020.

After weathering setbacks that included the 2008 Great Recession, she began acquiring properties and teamed up with Goncalvez and Sosa. In 2020, the project got a boost from the City Council, which granted the project a tax abatement with payments that would grow with rental income.

On Tuesday, Latifah credited her longtime partner and Flavor Unit Entertainment cofounder Shakim as “the power behind me, the strength in my spine,” and the person who shared her vision and inspired her to make it a reality.

“We always thought about real estate and design and ideas, and anytime we get an idea, we think, how can we make it happen? All we need is a spark, and once we get that spark, then it’s off to the races.”

As if she were a seasoned veteran of development projects, Latifah was careful to thank a long list of people connected with the project and even some who weren’t: Hammond, Goncalvez, Sosa and their staffs; city economic development officials; and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

Oliver, a Newarker who knows Latifah’s family and spoke at Tuesday’s event, referred to the international music, film and television star by her birth name, Dana Owens, daughter of a school teacher and Newark police officer, Rita and Lancelot Owens. RISE is an acronym for Rita Is Still Everywhere, honoring Latifah’s late mother, in the same way the star named a college scholarship after her late bother, Lancelot H. Owens, who died in a motorcycle accident 30 years ago. Latifah also rides motorcycles, and some of her biker friends were on hand Tuesday, as was her sister, Raven Owens.

She thanked “the lady across the street, who planted the sunflowers,” that were a sign of beauty and perseverance on the otherwise downtrodden block where RISE is finally taking shape, helping sustain Latifah’s belief in the project through years of fits and starts, recession and pandemic.

Latifah also thanked Mayor Ras Baraka, a fellow Newark native who is her age and whose parents, political activists and literary figures Amina and Amiri Baraka, were family friends. “Ras’ and our parents, they knew each other, so this is family. That’s how I look at it,” she said. “Mayor Baraka, we know we’ll be doing this again.” Latifah and the mayor recalled the same dark moment from the RISE location’s past, when a 14-year-old boy, Al-Shakeem Woodson, was shot to death on the block in 2015.

Baraka, an author and spoken word artist, said he was excited that Hammond and Latifah, African-American women, who were chiefly responsible for the RISE project, which he said would be “a lynchpin for so much development that’s going to happen in this community.”

Latifah said she was among those “blessed to have god have his way over our lives and to put the right people in our paths and to allow us to be able to know that we can dream, and not only dream, but to bring those dreams to fruition.”

Away from the official celebrating, residents of the neighborhood said they were proud that Latifah had put her time and effort into making something happen in the neighborhood.

Demetrick Sheppard, 37, a bus driver who lives in the neighborhood, said it was no secret that the three-story building under construction was Latifah’s doing.

“Everybody knows,” said Sheppard. “Homegrown.”

Ben Akoto, 43, who works in a phone store, said he hoped to move into one of the new apartments once they’re available, though he didn’t know what the rents would be.

“A new place, a new environment,” Akoto said. “We hope it’s not gonna be just for the rich.”

Dylan Powell, 32, a warehouse worker who lives on 19th Avenue, said RISE and Latifah’s involvement were welcome additions to the block.

“Newark needs people to do stuff like that, especially because she’s from the community,” said Powell. “A lot of people who get famous, they don’t come back to their neighborhood.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-04-27 05:40:36 -0700