State of the City Spindown: It’s All About Momentum

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I stood along the wall on the first mezzanine of the NJ Performing Arts Center, surveying the buzzing crowd as it filed into the theater. The mood in the room was upbeat for Mayor Booker’s second annual State of the City address. Press crowded behind the soundboards at the back of the auditorium, forced to stand because of the demand for seats. Newark’s top officials were arrayed on stage: members of the city council, City Hall, and top brass at the police and fire departments. Blackberries clicked and palms pressed while we waited for the Mayor to take the stage.

Pastor Carmelo Roman of Temple Rock Church gave the invocation and set the tone for the evening: “Newark is on the move,” he said. Indeed, we returned again and again to the theme of Newark’s momentum. Pastor Roman lauded Booker’s commitment to the city and emphasized the need to “stay the course” and support the Mayor, even through Newark’s tragedies — no doubt a reference to the gang-related deaths of three college students last summer, and high incidence of murder throughout 2007.

A video followed the pledge of allegiance and national anthem — performed by a Newark Police Officer, and so good it drew a quip from the MC about American Idol — which prefaced Booker’s speech, highlighting Newark’s progress and achievements in four main areas: Children & Families, Public Safety, Government Efficiency and Accountability, and Economic Development.

The spin on crime reduction was particularly interesting to me: while crime in Newark since Booker took office has declined in almost every category across the board, and often in double digits, the high murder rate (which actually increased in 2006 when he took office) has been a desperate problem for the city and a political gadfly to the Mayor. The rate did decline in 2007, though not by double-digits, but was reported as the first decline in the murder rate since 2002 — a clever twist that points to a growing problem that existed a full four years before Booker was elected.

Booker was introduced to thunderous applause, and took command of the stage with his typical enthusiasm. Here are some highlights:

  • 2007 was a year of hardship and hope. Newark experienced some of its greatest triumphs and trials in 2007, but so too for the nation at large. Booker noted and revisited that economic progress (income growth), was made in a time of disastrous financial markets (subprime) and recession. The city experienced a massive decrease in crime despite a high incidence of murder at a local and national scale. Despite cuts in federal support for cities (NHA among them) and rising state and county taxes, Newark was able to tighten its budget and remain in the black while cutting municipal taxes.
  • Families, children and seniors were mentioned throughout the speech, with particular emphasis on the commitment of seniors to the city, many of whom toughed out world wars, the depression, the ’67 riots and the list goes on. Over 10% of the city’s children are being raised by their grandparents, so Newark has launched a support program for Grandparents Parenting Children to provide referral services for food, clothing, shelter and other needs. Family success centers have been created throughout the city with similar goals. An initiative to train, support and encourage fathers was met with applause. Booker encouraged residents to step up and mentor a child, which he and his entire staff are doing now.
  • Public safety is being brought from the age of the Flintstones to the era of the Jetsons — an actual quote. Crime down double-digits in most categories, including a 22% drop in shootings. Video surveillance is saving lives and saving money. Booker noted that some police continue to underperform (complacent cops on notice), which struck me as a shocking point to include in this speech. Two new precincts coming. Even with the accomplishments, Booker continues to push for transformative — as opposed to incremental — change. The tip-line exists for residents to report crimes: if you see something, say something.
  • A $40 million fund for funding for parks, public spaces will rehabilitate parks throughout the city, using $19 million in the city budget and money raised through public/private ventures. When I asked Booker after his speech if we should expect new parks as a result, he explained: “When my staff took pictures of every park in the city, the pictures they showed me were an embarrassment.” He described empty lots and triangle parks in disrepair, even noting the triangular practice field off of McCarter highway that “has high fences and a couch sitting in it.” These spaces will be overhauled with the money — which I’d personally welcome.
  • Economic and cultural development builds the case for Newark as a destination city. Expansion at the Newark Museum and Public Library. A new NJ Childrens’ Museum will be placed in downtown Newark (exact location TBD). Thousands of jobs created for Newarkers with companies like Continental, Cablevision, and Verizon. New office space being created. The Broad Street Station area will be revitalized with retail and living space. Plans for a high-end hotel with 10,000 square footage of retail space is in the works for the Prudential Arena area, as well as the creation of lofts from a nearby industrial building. (Notably, Booker pointed out in the press conference the Oprah’s “people” had considered traveling to Newark for a story, but ultimately declined because of the city’s lack of a four- or five-star hotel). Additional companies are bringing their industries to the airport and seaport districts and hiring local talent.

…and there’s more to come, Booker claimed, before concluding with a rallying cry to believe in the City of Newark.

The paradigm has started to shift in referring to Newark’s long-awaited renaissance from “potential” to “momentum”. When Booker took office 19 months ago, he spoke of the vast resources of the city and their underutilization or disrepair. He was keen to point out that Newark is closer in commute time to downtown Manhattan than the Upper West Side. The talking points for this State of the City pointed to progress along Booker’s key initiatives: family, safety, government and jobs, jobs, jobs.

While the city has faced its challenges — and public safety continues to consume the consciousness of residents — there’s a palpable change in the air. Hope is coming back to Newark and its residents, and there’s every reason to believe that 2008 will be a great year for this city.

Photos

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Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Newarker, PCA Elder, Business Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

10 thoughts on “State of the City Spindown: It’s All About Momentum”

  1. Maybe I’m a hopeless, shameless, starry eyed optimist or something, but I was elated to hear Booker run down all of his, the council’s and the city’s accomplishments in the last year. The mood in Victoria Hall last night was really electric, especially when the mayor went over his initiatives for promoting strong family life here. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when the right, talented people are put into place and when they cleave to a mission of uplifting the city, not their personal bank accounts, like some former leaders who shall remain nameless.The city should have been run like this all along.

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  2. This report provides a much needed cheerful light, that one might miss from a computer podcast. Looking at what have happened in Harrison, Elizabeth, Oranges, and even Bayonne, one might be concerned that the same location and transportation advantages have turned into some positive development elsewhere. Historically, everything took much longer time here, except the Bayonne Box developers’ effective gorilla warfare. Go, Newark, go!

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  3. I am continually annoyed at the unwillingness of some people to give credit where credit is due, but who continue to disparage the James Administration despite its massive achievements. I suspect that 20 years from now, these people will have rewritten history to say that Newark was sinking in a morass until our savior, Cory Booker, arrived.+
    Have these people forgotten that Booker wanted to CANCEL the Arena? — and in fact set lawyers to the task of finding out how to void the contracts, even after the initial steelwork went up — which Booker was actually willing to TEAR DOWN? The anti-James people who are so gungho for Booker wouldn’t be so optimistic about the city’s future if there were no Arena. A decline in crime rates WITHOUT a Prudential Center and a decline in crime rates WITH a Prudential Center are two EXTREMELY different things. And why would anyone build a luxury hotel in Downtown Newark if there weren’t a Prudential Center nearby? In fact, a point not mentioned, creation of a hotel and an office building, as the Devils’ responsibiity, was an absolutely integral part of the deal crafted by SHARPE JAMES. This is one Sharpe deal with the Devil(s) we are profiting mightily from.
    +
    I’m a relative newcomer, in Newark 7 1/2 years. In recent years, long before Booker took charge, I was startled to see building sites everywhere I went, as new houses popped up in all parts of the city like mushrooms in a field after a rainy nite. That was Mayor James’s doing. Why are so many people insistent on REFUSING to acknowledge that? Ingratitude is a very ugly trait.
    +
    Cory Booker himself, to his credit, repented his sins and praised Mayor James at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Prudential Center. The courts will deal with Mayor James’s misdeeds. Let us, however, praise his deeds.

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  4. Craig, it’s fair to point out that Mayor James made contributions to the city while in office, and one need only search the blog to find my previous commentary.
    But comparing James to Booker is like saying that night kind of reminds you of the day. Booker is bringing massive change to he city in the form of fiscal responsibility, transparency, crime reduction, jobs, and support for Newarkers. He’s been able to do more for Newark on under two years what James couldn’t accomplish on twenty.
    And to say that the Prudential Center was planned by James and nearly shut down by Booker is only half the story: Booker was able to leverage the threat of pulling out of the deal into more jobs for Newarkers. With the budget on the verge of financial collapse, the James administration committed millions of dollars in taxpayer money to a strategy that has had mixed results in other urban areas throughout the country. The result has made the Arena tax-free for the next several years, leaving you and me to carry the tax burden.
    Sharpe James removed himself from the conversation about Newark, and he did it with decisions he made a long time ago. His reputation for supporting the city was forever tarnished when we realized how he and his privleged inner circle were lavished upon at he expense of Newarkers like those Di Ionno interviewed for the article I just blogged. I wouldn’t expect to see much disappointment when he’s sent to prison, nor many people reflecting on his contributions to be city.

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  5. It is a simplistic observation to attribute any or all accomplishments between 1986 to 2006 to the city’s number one cheerleader. A functional city has never been built by cheerleaders. Furthermore, if one looks at newspaper front pages of those years, one can find a very complicated picture of who built what, and of the often contentious relationship among the city administration, the business establishment, and neighborhood communities. Not many business and community leaders, who survived those years, would be so generous as to give all credit to a politician with a shameless habit of taking credit for everything under the sun. Most of all, in those 20 miserable years, the city had badly lagged behind most of cities, large and small, in the state and the region. Even with the NJPAC and the Prudential Center, Newark missed the most favorable period of economic developmemt since World War II. I suggest that any unconvinced person read Columbia economist Brendon O’Flaherty’s paper, “Newark’s Non-Renaissance and Beyond” at http://www.columbia.edu/bo2/newark. We have a lot catch-up to do.

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  6. Thanks, zemin. That should be required reading for anyone on this blog, as well as in city hall. Would be interesting to see how more contemporary numbers would change this researcher’s perspective, say, after Booker’s term is up.

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