A native son leads New Jersey’s largest city into A better tomorrow
by Gilda Rogers• Photos by Robert Nuzzi
Good news keeps coming out of the city of Newark in Essex County, and that will continue whether or not Amazon selects the city for the company’s second headquarters. In October, outgoing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the state would go all out to land the $5 billion project, and he selected Newark as its top prospect. Amazon’s decision will be announced early next year.
Newark isn’t resting on its laurels, or cooling its heels, until then. Neither is its leader, Ras Baraka, the city’s 40th mayor, who took office in 2014. A year later, he was named the country’s “Most Valuable Mayor” by The Nation, an independent magazine that’s been published since 1865. Baraka was also named to Ebonymagazine’s “Power 100” and made the front page of The New York Times for “defying expectations” during his first year and a half in office.
Baraka’s swearing in came on the heels of his father’s death, in January 2014, which to many served as a symbolic passing of the torch from one Newark native son to the next. The mayor, one of six siblings, is less fiery than his celebrated father, the former writer, activist, and state poet laureate Amiri Baraka. Instead he projects an unassuming air that helps him connect with regular people.
When Baraka took office, Newark was facing a $93 million deficit. In his first 100 days in office, he balanced the city’s budget without furloughing any municipal employees. He has since hired 400 police officers, making it clear that public safety is a top priority. Today, in a city with a reputation for being unsafe, crime is down.
Newark’s unemployment rate has gone down from 11 percent to 7 percent, and it is expected to drop further because of the jobs resulting from the commercial revitalization occurring down town and elsewhere in the city. Baraka’s Newark 2020 initiative aims to hire 2,020 city residents by the year 2020.
Then there are the 50,000 or so jobs that would be created if Amazon comes to town. The odds are admittedly steep—238 other locales have submitted proposals. Still, Baraka, who will run for reelection in 2018, made a strong pitch to Amazon, stressing that the city is home to the second largest port in the country. He also touted its proximity to Newark Liberty International Airport and Manhattan.
The mayor makes his rounds through Newark with the gravitas of a natural born leader greeting constituents with his mantra, “Forward ever, backward never,” a quote he borrowed from Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, who led the African nation to independence in 1957. The city, which is comprised of five wards, was once known for manufacturing and innovation. With the opening of AeroFarms, located in the Ironbound (East Ward) section, the city is regaining its stride. The 69,000 square foot vertical farming facility employs local residents, and this innovative method of urban farming produces fresh produce, supporting a healthier lifestyle for residents.
With the opening of a Whole Foods Market last March in the former Hahne’s Department Store building, along with a ShopRite Supermarket that opened on Springfield Avenue (Central Ward), Newark is no longer labeled a “food desert.”
Hahne’s, once a high end retail store, closed in 1987. For years, the building stood empty, an eyesore along the high profile Broad Street corridor. Today, however, the site has become one of the city’s most progressive redevelopment projects. Located near the architecturally acclaimed New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1997, the mixed use site makes a pleasing complement to the NJPAC.
Creating more buzz for the project is a proposed restaurant venture with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, along with a Barnes and Noble bookstore. However, the project’s cap stone especially in this era of gentrification is its mixed income housing. There are 160 rental apartments, 65 of them designated as low to moderate income affordable. The building will also have a public atrium and rooftop garden.
“A lot of these projects were at least envisioned or thought about a long time ago,” Baraka said. “Often a new administration comes in and scraps what the last administration was doing. We came in and got them completed.” Some of the work was begun by Baraka’s mayoral predecessor, now U.S. Senator Cory Booker. “We were able to get them over the finish line,” Baraka said.
It is evident that the mayor is intent on remaking Newark as a marquee city. Consider the recent opening of the Grammy Museum at the Prudential Center, which is also home to the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils.
“It [the Grammy Museum] was initially slated to go to New York,” he said. “We sold them on the idea that we had a big audacious plan as a new burgeoning city.” Plus Newark, as the hometown of so many musical icons seven time Grammy Award winner Whitney Houston, jazz singer Sarah Vaughn, saxophonist James Moody was a natural fit.
Baraka, 47, received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University in political science and history. He has been a member of the Newark City Council since 2002, and was the city’s deputy mayor from 2002 to 2005.
Clearly, “Brick City,” as it’s known, is in good hands. Baraka understands that progressive ideas must intersect with housing, job creation, and making Newark a good place to live. Which is why the recently passed Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance stipulates that 20 percent of all new housing projects with more than 30 units must be affordable. This way, low income residents can benefit from the area’s economic boom.
Take One Theater Square, a 22 story, mixed use luxury apartment building directly across from the NJPAC. While some rents in the building will top $4,000, 26 of the site’s 245 units are set aside as affordable housing. The $116 million project should be completed in mid 2018.
Baraka, the father of three daughters, is also a poet, and the author of a volume of verse entitled Black Girls Learn Love Hard (Moore Black Press, 2006). He has a master’s in education supervision from St. Peters University in Jersey City, and was the principal of Newark’s Central High for six years.
Consequently, Baraka supported the unique Teacher’s Village project, located along five blocks in the city’s walkable downtown and started under Cory Booker. The $150 million project includes three charter schools, a daycare facility, retail space, and 206 apartments that cater to educators.
Baraka was pleased to announce that after more than 20 years, Newark will soon take back control of its public schools, which have been in the hands of the state since 1995. “Come this May, there will be a referendum on the ballot about whether to elect a new school board or appoint one,” he said.
The mayor credits his mother, Amina, also a poet, and his father for setting the direction of his life.
“My mother and father were both activists and artists,” he reflected. “What I’m doing is following their example. That’s where I get my love for community, equality, and justice.”
Ras J. Baraka
Office of the Mayor, 920 Broad Street, No. 200, Newark
973.733.6400 / newarknj.gov