That scared some people.
“He came in with a skeptical outlook from many forces in the state and in the county,” said Domingo Morel, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark.
Essex County leaders and the business community supported his opponent, Morel said, fearing Baraka would be hostile. But four years later, Baraka has become part of the political establishment: He is running with a unified slate of long-serving council members, he has the support of the Essex County executive, the governor and even Senator Cory Booker, who he used to mock and villainize.
“This is just the politics of it,” Morel said. “But then when you also take into account the business side of it, the development side of it, there also seems to be a type of partnership and relationship building there that has surprised many people.”
One can get a clear view of those partnerships on the rooftop of One Rector Street, Newark’s first brand new luxury residential high rise since the 1960’s. It’s still under construction, and on a recent tour, real estate development consultant Anthony Marchetta pointed at the old Hahne & Co. building, a swanky department store that closed in the mid 80’s and stayed vacant for almost three decades.
Now, the building is home to Newark’s first Whole Foods, a Petco and 160 apartments — all part of a downtown landscape that’s drastically changing.
“For years, Newark stayed fallow when Jersey City and Hoboken were starting to come back. New Brunswick was starting to come back, and it was really [the] Booker administration that got it started and Ras Baraka is doing a great job in extending it and expanding it,” said Marchetta, who also served as executive director for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
Waseem Boraie, the developer behind One Rector street, said Booker laid some of the groundwork for redevelopment in Newark and courted business giants like Audible. But he said many projects languished during the Booker years. His own high-rise sat on Booker’s desk for two years before getting approved in 2008.
“I came because of guys like Cory Booker bringing excitement to Newark and my project got done because of Ras Baraka’s administration,” Boraie said.
Baraka has boasted about attending ceremonial ribbon cuttings every other week. At a recent groundbreaking at the shuttered St. Michael’s Hospital, Baraka gave an unscripted but practiced speech praising for the city and its promise.
“I have had the opportunity to be in at least two or three spaces this week that were old spaces, spaces of the past, 20, 40 years, abandoned even. Spaces that were retreads of old Newark,” he told a crowd of artists and community advocates.
Newark is almost 50 percent black and more than 30 percent Hispanic. It’s a city with a tiny middle class, the median household income is $37,000 a year, that’s about $30,000 less than the statewide figure. Most Newarkers rent, and a recent Rutgers report found median rents have gone up 20 percent while incomes have fallen 10 percent.
Some locals worry that Newark’s revitalization is not for them, and could eventually price them out of their city.
“Down here, you got the cosmetic stuff. But the real issues is where the real people live, and that’s up the hill,” said 56-year-old Amarette Grisham.
She has lived in the West Ward most of her life. There, Grisham said, she still deals with potholes and streets that go unswept for weeks. The changes downtown, like the new Whole Foods, don’t feel like they’re for her.
“Oh my God, I haven’t been in there,” Grisham said of grocery store, as she stood on the sidewalk outside of it. “Because I don’t have the money for that, I just don’t.”
The challenge of bringing development without displacing Newark’s residents led Baraka to seek advice from David Troutt, a Rutgers Law School professor who studies structural inequality, and author of the report that found a rise in Newark rent.
“He was specifically concerned about that woman outside of Whole Foods feeling like the changes in the city, the cultural attractions, the shiny new objects would not be made available to them and that she would be followed by an increased police presence and her children would not be made to feel welcome,” Troutt said.
Troutt has been at Rutgers 22 years and he said it’s the first time a mayor has reached out for this kind of help. And Baraka needs it. Troutt said Newark has to attract a middle class to build a robust tax base, but fear still keeps people away.
“This is a despised city,” he said. “I mean, it’s important to understand the level of hatred that is directed at the city of Newark in the various narratives that are used to describe it.” The only stories told are about high crime, poverty and blight.
But in his latest state of the city address, Baraka said his administration is changing that narrative and the proof is in the numbers: more than $2 billion spent in downtown development; the unemployment rate is down from 12 percent when he first took office, to eight percent; crime is at a 50-year low; and Newark is among the 20 cities shortlisted for Amazon’s second headquarters.
“The headlines about Newark are changing, and anyone that tries to tell you other than that is trying to tell you lies,” Baraka, who is running against Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, told the crowd at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
According to Troutt, if Baraka gets another four years in office and manages to transform the city while not pricing out its current residents, that would be radical.
“Then what Newark represents is really scary, because it represents the triumph of black political leadership over what are primarily black and brown lives,” Troutt said. “It just has not been done before
by Rebeca Ibarra