Project U.S.E. is no stranger to Newark children from North Star Academy and Link Community School. However, to be completely worthy of its name (Urban Suburban Environment), the 38-year-old experiential education program opened its University Heights Learning Hub in Newark on the evening of October 8. In addition to extended expeditions for school children to natural environments in Newark and far beyond, the Hub will help young men transition from a highly structured incarcerated environment to a productive and independent life.
At the corner of Central Avenue and Golden Street, the Learning Hub occupies a newly- renovated old warehouse: bright, spacious, and cheerful, with a pleasant smell of fresh paint. “Learning from the past, living in the present, looking to the future” is the program’s motto.
From its big windows, I could see not only moonlit Central Avenue and Sussex Street, but also the past of Newark. Only one block from Morris Canal, the area was the beginning of Newark’s industrial revolution over 100 years ago. The dozens of leather tanning companies, including T.P. Howell, Hugh Smith, and Charles Smyth, not only supplied the nation, and even Europe, with high quality patent leather, but also literally decided who would be elected to the offices of Essex County. This exact block, however, was home to humble Newarkers, including a corset maker, a fireman, a music teacher, a bartender, and a wire weaver, who witnessed the city’s decline after the Great Depression. From the 1940’s, the Newark Housing Authority under Louis Danzig struggled in its urban renewal effort from his office across street. After five days of shooting in July 1967, the last National Guard soldiers leaving the city passed by this building. With the thorough urban destruction, those left behind in Newark, particularly badly deprived children, have paid a heavy price with their unimaginable suffering.
On Wednesday night, a few Project U.S.E. youth educators joined Newark’s children, living in the present of this coming-back city. Danise Cavallaro, the director of the Hub, who grew up in suburban Wayne and encountered Newark only in passing on her way to school, could not conceal her joy about the new beginning. The building includes high ceiling spaces for boat building and a carpentry workshop to teach social and life skills to juvenile offenders re-entering into society. On walls and the floor of the workshop, spaces planned for a drill table, a rip saw, a sander, and an exhaust fan are marked by blue tape with prices, desperately calling for financial support. In the hallway, Newark students’ photographs are telling compelling stories of their urban lives, their loneliness and anger, as well as their joy and happiness. Living in the present is never an easy walk in Newark. A young man writes for his self-portrait, “Always remember: There is nothing closer to you than your shadow.”
Around 7 o’clock, the cheerful music stopped. Mayor Booker walked to the microphone. “I am here to celebrate the transformation of this building. While we are talking about an environmental movement in the city to deal with limited natural resources, we should not forget a magic resource, which is equally distributed around the nation, the resource and genius in every child.” For the development of “divinity in each individual,” Booker welcomes Project U.S.E. to join us in Newark. According to Bill Mikesell, the architect for the building, the future of the Hub will need “a lot of money and a little imagination.” However, I have to warn these enthusiastic newcomers that Newark, with its past, present, and future, is a highly contagious place that demands a lot of endurance, courage, and idealism. Welcome to Newark, Project U.S.E.
(University Heights Learning Hub, 185 Central Avenue, www.projectuse.org)