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.