Andrew Rothman has been around Rutgers University's Newark campus since the late 1980s. As the dean for student affairs of the law school he graduated from since the mid-1990s, he has a unique vantage point of the city that surrounds the academic community known as University Heights.
Rutgers Law School Dean Andrew Rothman has been giving tours of Newark for incoming students for the last decade.
But now, at the moment when New Jersey's largest city could finally emerge from decades of decline, Rothman took time out during a walking tour of the blocks buttressing Rutgers-Newark at the start of the semester to address a certain visible change both mundane and meaningful.
"See that building right there? It isn't just the future home of new apartments and a new Rutgers arts center. It's soon going to be the home of a new Whole Foods," said Rothman as audible ooohs and aaahs arose from a crowd of about 40 first-year Rutgers Law students when he mentioned the impending arrival of the upscale organic supermarket just two blocks from the school.
"And what does a supermarket mean? It helps create a vibrant neighborhood. It means investment in the neighborhood. It's a symbol of new life,” Rothman said, answering his own question.
Rothman, 60, has led the tour around Newark's Central Ward, where Rutgers-Newark lies, for about a decade. The excursion, snaking over five miles through the neighborhood's streets, weaves a web of Newark's past, present and future for the city's fledgling denizens, capturing them with stories of a city at a critical crossroads.
The tour went up Halsey Street, once nearly empty and now laced with entrepreneurial restaurants, coffee houses and bars. It went in and out of the new Rutgers dorm at 15 Washington Street, remembered by Rothman as a former home of Rutgers Law, which now offers residents sweeping views of New Jersey and the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It ducked into the marbled Newark Public Library, a Beaux-Arts architectural gem right next door.
Rothman reminded the law students how the library can fit into their three of years of study ahead.
"This library is yours, too. This is your city. Make full use of it," Rothman said. "Why not? It's all in front of you."
Rebecca Schaefer, of River Edge, looked at a garden behind the Newark Museum and wondered why some of her Bergen County hometown neighbors tried to warn her off from coming to school in Newark.
“Look, this is Newark, not Camden. You can see this place is improving," said Schaefer, 25. "It's so green in back of the museum. It makes me want to live around here."
Deana Eraiba, another Bergen County native who graduated from equally urban Barnard College in New York City, took a more cautious yet optimistic approach to living in Newark.
“From what I've seen, Newark is improving, which is a good thing for all of us," said Eraiba, 24, of Franklin Lakes, who just moved in to 15 Washington Street and is seeking out local grocery options. “But I just moved here, and I'm still learning about the area. We'll see.”
Jeremy Bunyaner, the grandson of Russian immigrants who live in Brooklyn but who grew up in the Jersey suburbs, took a metropolitan view of where Newark fits in the East Coast's constellation of cities.
“Maybe New York's money, closeness and its living costs have helped Newark to be better than I thought it was,” said Bunyaner, 24, of Berkeley Heights. “The development is clearly happening, and downtown is cleaner than I remembered."
For Nathan Orr, a law student straight out of Sussex County, New Jersey's most rural region, the culture shock was palpable, but not altogether unpleasant.
“Where I come from, it's all forest with trees, deer and an occasional bear. Here, it's all bricks and steel going up everywhere,” said Orr, 23, of Branchville, as the tour went past the new Prudential office tower, gleaming commandingly over downtown's Military Park. “The news media talks a lot about shootings, drugs and gun violence here. But today, I saw another side of Newark, a place very different than the one they talk about back in Sussex County.”
The news from Newark's streets is far from all good. Crime remains a stubborn stain on the city's reputation, hard to completely wash clean. Pockets of deep poverty and despair exist, an accelerant to the drug trade with its accompanying murderous turf wars.
While leading his one-man, open-air civics lesson, Rothman was unafraid to dip into the darker parts of Newark's landscape.
Standing in front of a busy halal butcher shop, he pointed across the street to the gutted former Westinghouse Electric plant, its broken brick pile a reminder of the PCB contamination that dimmed development north of the Broad Street train station.
At the Gateway Center, the modernist commercial complex adjoining Newark's Art Deco-style Penn Station, he noted how the complex architecturally isolated its mostly suburban workers from the city's local population.
Yet Rothman also told the story about how Gateway gave Newark's anchor business institutions that backed its construction, Prudential and PSE&G, firms that refused to flee after the fiery 1967 civil disturbances, a beachhead on which to build a new and then unforeseen better future.
But in the end, Rothman revealed his requited romance with the city to tour members.
At T.M. Ward Coffee Co. on Broad Street, a city fixture since 1869, Rothman tossed bags of warm roasted peanuts through the air to the students. And at the end of the long march around town, he left the group with a thought designed to win over their hearts and minds about Newark.
“You might not have found Ward's Coffee if you hadn't come along today. Feel this community and its people. You'll only be uncomfortable if you're ignorant about where you are now,” Rothman said. “Explore. I hope you do. I love this city. I really, really do.”