NEWARK, NJ—(SBN)—Newark city officials say the city is prepared to build on such strengths as its port and transportation infrastructure, and a vibrant and growing arts and culture sector, but warn that the city is still recovering from poor planning and government policies discouraging urban investment put in place after World War II and a flight to the suburbs that accelerated after the city was wracked by the 1967 riots, which the mayor and some in the audience referred to as “the rebellion.”
Mayor Ras J. Baraka, two of his deputy mayors, a developer of affordable housing in the city, and the social investments manager for the city’s largest employer, Prudential Financial, discussed the challenges facing the city in a Town Hall meeting February 12 before a packed Victoria Theater crowd at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. SBN News Director Steve Lubetkin covered the Town Hall for our content partner, GlobeSt.com.
Joining the mayor on the Economic Development panel were Baye Adofo-Wilson, Newark’s director of housing and economic development; Rahman Muhammad, deputy mayor of Employment; Maria Yglesias, a principal with M&M Development; and Ommeed Sathe, Prudential Director of Social Investments. The panel moderator was Marcia Wilson Brown, associate dean for program development in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark.
Citing a litany of city strengths including the port, five universities with 50,000 students, and the quarter of a million rail travelers who pass daily through Newark Penn Station on the Northeast Corridor to New York and Washington, Brown asked the mayor why the city continues to struggle with poverty, unemployment, and disinvestment.
“We still haven’t fully recovered from the disinvestment that took place after World War II, when the Federal government started to subsidize the exodus out of Newark into surrounding communities,” said Mayor Baraka, noting that some scattered and uncoordinated development has been taking place. “I think our problem is that we have not been able to leverage all those resources simultaneously.”
Baraka noted that some developments in Newark used raised walkways overlooking city streets that allowed people to use Newark without actually being in Newark. He praised Prudential Financial for remaining in Newark and making a commitment to a new office tower in the city.
“What we are doing now is requiring that development projects hire local people,” said Adofo-Wilson. “For a long time the city was managing decay and blight. Now our shift is how do we manage prosperity, how do we manage growth?” He said the city is working with developers to train local residents so they can be employed on the coming construction projects.
Burgeoning development in Brooklyn and other areas signals that Newark is likely to be next, he said. “It’s cheaper than Brooklyn, Jersey City, Hoboken,” Adofo-Wilson said. “When they come here, they can live here and have a life that’s vibrant and exciting.”
The workforce in Newark is unskilled, acknowledged Muhammad. “We should have living wage jobs. All my life I fought for living wage jobs,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that when you don’t have any skills that’s not what they’re going to offer you. We have to get more training programs, get more people to become entrepreneurs and open businesses.”
“I do believe we are leading the tipping point for Newark,” said Yglesias, whose firm builds multifamily projects. “Five years ago, it didn’t look too good, but we built 51 units of housing. We did something very bold and exciting. We mixed special needs housing, affordable housing and market rate housing all within a few feet of each other. Nobody asked who was living next door. And this was so new and exciting to see a generation of people who don’t care about color, or how much money the neighbor next door has.”
Prudential has been in the city for about 140 years, said Sathe. In addition to social and cultural grants made by its foundation to community organizations, Prudential has been making investments he called “impact investing” to improve the city. The company released a white paper earlier this year describing urban investment opportunities, as previously reported by GlobeSt.com.
“We’ve been investing in over a dozen projects in Newark,” he said, citing charter schools, teacher housing, and technology incubators.
You can hear an audio podcast of the complete Town Hall meeting in the player below, or you can purchase an audio download in our online store.