When Simeon Hunte studied at Arts High School in his hometown of Newark, he knew he wanted to be an artist and he ended up doing that in the little free time he had during his deployment to Iraq as an Army specialist, just before he was killed.
The war has taken more than young people from Newark, who sought something beyond the gangs and the worst influences of their crime-plagued city. In a self-portrait he mailed home to his wife, Tara, and their two children shortly before he was killed, Specialist Hunte depicted himself palming the world like a basketball and slam-dunking it into the stars.
"More than anything, the people in my city crave hope," says Mayor Cory Booker.
Now as the city contends with a lack of federal funds most notably for schools – in part a function of the fact that New Jersey has the highest per capita income in the country and as such does not qualify for substantial federal dollars; in part because of the $8 billion-a-month war drain – and as the city faces depleted funds for public safety, which it was able to access during the 1990s, Newark’s old radicals again see the system as the problem and participants in local elected office as capitalism’s erstwhile helpmates.
Newark has always been a city of radicals. The most radical of American Revolutionaries, Tom Paine, wrote the Crisis Papers in Trinity Churchyard before the diminished U.S. forces pressed on to a key victory in Trenton. While the Victorian Henry James was writing about lady’s drawing rooms, Newark-born Stephen Crane forced the country to take a look at "Maggie, Girl of the Streets," the country’s first fiction expose of urban poverty. Then there was the Socialist Party of America – founded in Newark – where else – and the consolidation of Black Power that rose out of the 1967 Newark riots.
For many of the radicals who came of political age in the wake of the riots, nothing short of socialism to solve the city’s economic ills will work, and now they’re confronted with a young mayor and his council whose all-hands-on-deck message of citizenship jars with some basic precepts about their city and The Man.
"You have people who want to take dollars and redistribute the wealth, but the trouble now is that Newark is at a point where we spend more than we take in," says West Ward Newark City Councilman Ron Rice, Jr., elected as part of the young wave of Newark’s next generation to buck the old era of Mayor Sharpe James. "We have a structural deficit. Tough choices were not made in the past, and if we don’t deal with the $180 million deficit, in two years the state will run the City of Newark."
The older generation who’ve watched other big city "miracles" result in African-American populations routed by eminent domain and redevelopment schemes, don’t want a Giuliani solution here, and they read Mayor Booker’s big money backing, and his first year rewarding of jobs to campaign contributors as alarm bells. They get the fiscal crisis, and get the old Democratic Party patronage system: when one team wins the other team’s old human infrastructure gets gutted, but the threat of as many as 1,000 job layoffs when Newark still has an anemic jobs base allows them to set Booker and his allies up as the bad guys.
"I was one of Sharpe’s critics, sure," says the radical poet Amiri Baraka of the former long-serving mayor, who is now facing 33 counts of corruption in federal court. "Mostly I criticized him for doing business with the capitalists who ended up indicting him."
Now Baraka sees Booker as an all-out "comprador."
But Booker, Rice and the council see 30% of the population under the poverty line and a high school graduation rate of 40%. They see 20% home ownership in City of Newark coupled with universities, hospitals, churches that are not taxable, and a local government that is the largest employer in the city – and they’re willing to try to outradicalize the old radicals.
While federal resources are depleted, and the state faces its own structural budget deficit and the resulting angry stares of a middle class in the hinterlands already overburdened with property taxes and bitterly opposed to paying more, Booker, Rice and the council keep going back to Newarkers. Of a City Hall cadre of nay-sayers intent on magnifying Booker’s first-year stumbles, Rice says, "Those people coming to the meetings should be on those boards and commissions. They need to be part of the solution. I tell them, ‘I need you to step up.’"
At a council meeting earlier this month, senior resident Wilburt Kornegay reminded the council that there’s an ordinance on the books requiring contractors to make a best effort toward employing 40% of their workforce with Newark residents at prevailing wages. Kornegay told the council he frequently passes construction sites and is unconvinced any of the union workers are Newarkers.
"The problem with that ordinance is it’s not enforced," he told the governing body, and he started to walk away, when East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador interjected.
"Any entity that receives a city tax exemption must have in place the 40% rule," said Amador, and he urged the community to watch specific construction sites whenever they can to help the city. They will enforce the rule, Amador said, if they know exactly where the problems exist.
"This is the fruit of our labor," Amador told Kornegay. "When you come to us and beat us up, you’re right, but at least give us credit."
The new administration has created 1,250 permanent jobs over the course of the past year, according to Rice. But the likely downsizing at City Hall plays havoc with a city population already on the lookout for jobs that often are not there.
In addition, the state releases between 14,000 and 16,000 prisoners each years, and a full 30% of New Jersey’s ex-cons live in Newark or Camden, according to Nancy Fishman of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
"We have between 1,500 and 2,000 ex-cons coming home to Newark each year," says Fishman.
"The mayor has put prison re-entry front and center and demanded a real inventory of resources and gaps."
On the campaign trail for his state legislative candidates in the29th district, Booker’s called for laws to expunge the records of non-violent offenders to give them an opportunity to move beyond the stigma of early life crimes. The Newark City Council at its last meeting also authorized the mayor to enter into a $16,837 contract with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice to help synthesize "the scope and scale of existing reentry-related services and resources in Newark."
Whatever comes of the assessment will no doubt include an appeal to stepped-up citizen involvement.
The new administration created the Brick City Development Corporation to coax new businesses to Newark and funded with $14.4 million from the city’s land trust fund; and they’re eyeballing redevelopment of the seaport to create jobs. In the south ward, the St. Peter’s Recreation Space is a brand new facility, paid for with capital improvement fund dollars the city never had before Booker. And the new administration put 137 new cops on the streets to beat down a murder rate that stands at 50 deaths in 2007.
But as with Amador’s call for volunteer watchdogs on work sites, it’s not simply the police that need to get out there on the streets with a reinvigorated sense of mission.
In his West Ward,following the county's recentfacelift ofVailsburg Park with his support, Rice is now getting residents to partner with him to make sure the park does not fall into disrepair, with creation of the Vailsburg Park Association, a group of neighborhood volunteers who will be tasked with being stewards of the park. Rice is also bolstering the West Ward Education Fund, a parent-run organization that will raise money to help pay for end-of-the year trips and tutorial services, and couple with teachers to create incentive programs for students.
There is not a program or facility in the new radicalism of Newark that is unaccompanied by an effort to reinforce what government does with volunteers. There are few issues the council considers without trying to get young Newarkers involved.
But it’s still slow.
"Each council person was given 50 applications for summer employment," says Rice. "I gave all of mine out and only three people returned them. A lot of people are too ashamed to ask for help."
On a July evening, there’s a pickup basketball game going down at the Boylan Recreation Center not far from where Rice grew up. Today the councilman walks under a sign that says, "Have a Super Summer" as he heads into the building that a year ago was a dank blockhouse with poor lighting, bad roofs and inadequate bathrooms. The city council poured $500,000 into the rehabilitation of Boylan, and this year the pool at the center opened on time. There are games in the game room, books lining the walls, and a large, newly renovated room Rice says he wants residents to use as a meeting hall.
Outside the children frolic in the Olympic-sized pool and when someone snaps a picture, some of the children’s hands make the "C" sign, "C" for Crips, who are active in the West Ward.
"No gang signs," Rice tells the children. "No gang signs."
He went to nearby Alexander School, walked to this recreation center himself as a child, swam and played here, left the city to go to private high school, and to college and law school, before coming back to the alliance with Booker, and this summer at Boylan.
"I run by all the time," says the first-year councilman, who calls the center "his baby."
"At the end of the day," Rice admits, "government has to empower people to empower themselves. We have to tell the drug dealers and the gang bangers that this is sacred. This is hallowed ground."
The old radicals of Newark will not easily accept a commission assignment or a volunteer post that contributes to the sense the administration is advancing the city, without some assurance that the game is not rigged, the re-development of Newark not an in-your-face throw-down to their version of Newark.
But the street activists want the most parochial of their numbers to remember that whether or not the infusion of dollars into the city is corporate, or the administration’s attempts wherever possible to offset the absence of public funds with private resources, the crisis right now goes beyond the city and its local elected officials.
"The war is the over-arching interest for us," says Larry Hamm, of the People’s Organization for Progress, which has planned a People’s March for Peace in Lincoln Park on Aug. 25th. "The resources for this city are being drained for this war. The budget for the veteran’s administration hospital, and care for seniors. What we’re trying to do is keep the focus on Bush, and the failures of this administration."
At City Hall, Booker and Rice want the community to know they can’t win, none of them, unless they employ a new kind of Newark radicalism, intent not on breaking the system but on making it work for the people – and, critically, by them.