I've been in Newark for barely a week, but I've already learned that Newarkers, like denizens of many East Coast cities, can be blunt, which is not the same as being rude or unkind.
There have been no shortage of smiles, fist bumps, tips for coffee shops, or offers for a light for your cigarette when I ask passersby for the time or for directions.
But I've quickly learned when you do something rude, you’ll hear about it. And when you do, it might sound a bit like what a stranger yelled to me my first morning here as I stood in the middle of the sidewalk on Broad Street, snapping a picture on my cell phone of the old Hahne’s department store, now being converted to a Whole Foods.
“Move it, kid! You ain’t no Spielberg!”
When I graduated high school in the leafy suburbs of Bergen County, I’d had enough of the Garden State;
I’d figured 18 years qualified as “the ol’ college try” in anyone’s book. So, I left, chasing expensive colleges, odd jobs, and half-baked semi-opportunities in Cleveland, then in Europe, then Israel, then in Washington, DC.
When I told a friend, who’s now pursuing her master’s in Mathematics at Drexel, that I’d be returning to my home state to become a staff writer at NewarkInc, she seemed thoroughly nonplussed at my triumphant tone.
I admitted to her that I had doubts of my own, and shared my skepticism of the broad proclamations of Newark’s “renaissance.” After all, real urban revitalization always seemed to me to come from the bottom up, and not from the top down.
I was mistaken. On my walk to work each morning, I’m amazed at how far the city’s come since Newark-born author Philip Roth observed that the “liquor store, pizza stand, and seedy storefront church” were the only buildings on every street not boarded up.
On and around Halsey Street there are bars, salons, spas, offices, and a vibrant and colorfully diverse array of ethnic restaurants and services, from an old-fashioned Jewish delis to a Turkish lunch counter to a West Indian grocery.
Josh Frank outside of the former Hahne & Co. department store on Halsey Street.
Newark’s challenges, more than its fair share, are plain to see, and have been exposed and analyzed in a painfully public manner by everyone from Harper’s magazine to the city’s former mayor, Kenneth Gibson, the first African-American elected to the office, who famously admitted the city was “the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation.”
But the scars of the past seem to me to add pride, not gloom, and there’s a palpable sense in the air each day I walk up Springfield or Central avenues that this city’s moment has finally come.
If you had asked me before I’d come to Newark what put the city ahead of Detroit, Cleveland, or New Orleans in the race to shake off the post-industrial rust, I’d have likely identified the city’s proximity to New York, the most expensive real estate market in the nation, and its abundance of relatively inexpensive places to do business.
But seeing the Brick City for myself didn’t bring the Big Apple to mind; instead, I was reminded of the neighborhoods of Oakland, California still on the cusp of gentrification, or the on-island suburbs of Montréal, whose Haitian, West African, and Jewish communities thrive side-by-side in residential communities indistinguishable at some angles from the Central Ward, bustling from my office window on Academy Street.
Comparisons with its big brother across the Hudson would ignore the city’s improvement in its own right, particularly in quality of life for its citizens - still concentrated in a relatively small area, but rising rapidly and noticeably. Many of Newark's downtown parks and green spaces are, dare I say, beautiful.
On a walk the other day from my office, I encountered the Judith Shipley Urban Environmental Center, an unlikely sanctuary of green surrounded by townhouses, a stone’s throw from the Essex County Courthouse, which, as Director of Programs Michele Robinson proudly told me, grows and distributes more than 65,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to local students each year.
A short drive or train ride away is Branch Brook Park, the nation’s oldest county park, which boasts the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the country - larger even than the one in Washington, DC, by which it’s cruelly and unfairly overshadowed.
At the end of my first day on the beat, to to speak, I handed my parking ticket to a lot attendant who told me he had immigrated from Cameroon and settled in Newark during the worst years of the city’s economic woes. He shared with me a proverb: The darkness of night cannot stop the light of morning.
“Change,” he told me, “comes in a circle.” He smiled, puffing on a cheap cigar, as I traded a few dollars’ tip for my keys. “It rewards those who are patient first.”