As Newark’s deputy mayor, Adam Zipkin carries with him three generations of family ties to the city where he now lives and works.
That link began at the turn of the 20th century, when his paternal grandparents emigrated from Russia to become potato farmers in the New Jersey town of Dayton, near South Brunswick. They relocated to Newark in 1930 to sell their wares at the Miller Street Market.
Both of Zipkin’s parents were born at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and lived in the city’s predominately Jewish Weequahic section.
Adam was born at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, and spent his childhood in South Plainfield.
But in his youth, the boy heard frequent stories of “a close-knit Jewish community in Newark that really seemed to be nurturing for my parents to have grown up in. My other takeaways from it were the educational and employment opportunities that Newark presented to my family.”
Now, as a deputy mayor and director of Newark’s department of economic and housing development, Zipkin said his core goal “is about creating job, housing, and educational opportunities for Newark’s residents — a Newark that offers the opportunities for current residents that it had for my family for generations.”
Despite years of urban unrest, Zipkin senses within the state’s Jewish community “a lot of love toward Newark, a lot of positive memories of Newark, and a lot of desire to see Newark thrive again. I think it very well could be increasing over time.”
Zipkin returned to his roots “organically,” he said, after he began attending law school at Seton Hall University’s Newark campus.
“It was never my intention to be the returning son,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 22 telephone interview.
Soon after receiving his law degree in 1993, Zipkin opened a small general practice firm on Academy Street. After six years, “I realized what I did not want to do was work with so much focus on billable hours,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to give back and a more nourishing way to practice.”
The opportunity came when he met a young gadfly named Cory Booker, who had just been elected to a City Council seat from the Central Ward.
Booker’s outspokenness and his social conscience lured Zipkin away from his law partnership and into a job where he provided pro bono legal help for Newark residents, often battling slumlords in landlord-tenant cases.
In 2002, after Booker tried and failed in his first run for mayor, Zipkin joined him at a nonprofit organization known as Newark Now. Zipkin served as a lawyer and consultant to needy people and community groups.
When Booker managed to oust Sharpe James from office in 2006, Zipkin joined his administration to work on economic development issues. Zipkin was sworn in as deputy mayor on Nov. 15.
‘For the better’
As a resident of the city’s Ironbound section, Zipkin sees a strong indicator of continued Jewish involvement in the city in Congregation Ahavas Sholom, the 105-year-old Conservative congregation in Newark.
“The suburban connection to the shul has certainly increased during the 10 years I’ve been a member,” he said. “When I first started going it was really struggling to just get a minyan. Now, to a huge extent on the holidays but even on a typical Sabbath, people are coming from outside Newark to the shul.”
Similarly, he believes the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center Arena have lured multiracial audiences to the inner city.
“Having millions of people over the years come and see Newark has gone a long way to changing people’s perceptions for the better,” he told NJJN.
The success of those two cultural institutions has also had an impact on the business community.
A variety of corporations — from Manischewitz to the Bartlett Dairy to the Damascus Bakery — have relocated in Newark. Two luxury hotels, a high-rise office tower, and several residential loft complexes are under way downtown. Parking lots on Halsey Street will be developed as housing for teachers at a charter school complex. Retail stores are to be built nearby.
In 2011 alone, he said, building projects will bring some $700 million in new investment, as well as some 2,500 construction jobs and an equal number of permanent positions to the city.
“Our neighborhoods will continue to revitalize,” he said. “We have invested a significant amount of energy and resources into reclaiming foreclosed and abandoned properties. We are conveying them to local minority developers who are hiring residents to do the rehab work and turn them into affordable housing,”
What could be major impediments to Zipkin’s optimistic designs are two vexing problems Newark has faced for decades — high crime and unemployment.
He must face both issues as part of his large portfolio, which includes programs in job creation and reentry programs for released criminal offenders.
Approximately 15 percent of the city’s residents — nearly twice the national average of 8.6 percent — are jobless.
One weapon at his disposal is the demand that corporations seeking tax breaks provide specific numbers of construction and permanent jobs to low-income and minority residents. Another is a prisoner reentry program he oversees.
Zipkin called it “a national model for working with ex-offenders as soon as they come out of prison, featuring “a rapid attachment to work to break the cycle of recidivism.”
In the last three years the program has helped more than 1,000 of its 1,400 graduates find permanent employment.
“We have seen the recidivism rate drop significantly, by roughly 25 percent,” he said.
To Zipkin, “Newark is experiencing a renaissance we are seeing the beginning of.”
His message to the suburban Essex County Jewish community is one of “thanks for their support of Newark and hope that they continue to come back to see what is happening here. I think that they will be happy and proud as the city continues to transform.”