Conscious of its historic past and its potential future, members of the Jewish community from within and outside the Greater MetroWest area weighed in at a June 15 town hall discussion on “Renaissance or Gentrification: How Do We Discuss Redevelopment in Newark?”
The forum at the Victoria Theater in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center was sponsored by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media.
The six community leaders and journalists on the panel discussed how high-profile changes in the city — including luxury apartments and plans to turn the former Hahne’s department store into a mixed-use complex with a Whole Foods supermarket — are perceived by the public and the media.
Newark’s Jewish history, which flourished in the decades preceding a migration to the western suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s, was on the minds of many of the Jews in the audience.
Debra Galant of Glen Ridge, associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media, spoke to a reporter about Newark’s “very storied Jewish past.”
“It was a time when it was an eclectic mix with all kinds of neighborhoods and nationalities. What this event is about is: Is Newark coming back and if it does come back, what happens to the current stakeholders? I am trying to curate a conversation about that,” said Galant. “Is it for landlords? Is it for people to make money? Is it for the people in the projects? Those are all stakeholders. There is a subtext of bringing white people — Jews and others — back to live in Newark.”
Before the town hall session began, NJJN asked Newark Mayor Ras Baraka whether he could foresee the return of a vibrant Jewish community to his city.
“There are people in the Jewish community who never left,” he said. “There is room for everybody to come back to the city of Newark…. We want people to come and join the community that exists here. We welcome everybody to be a part of what we have.”
Susan Cole, the president of MSU, answered a reporter’s question in the context of a wider attempt to connect city and suburbs.
“Why is this good for the Jews?” she asked. “Montclair State University is an institution that cares deeply about the society its serves. We are here for the people of New Jersey, so whether it is the Newark community or any other community, if we can help with the development, the improvement of the motion forward for any community, that is what we do. And when we do that for any community, it is good for everybody else.”
Jim Schachter, a Summit resident who is vice president of news at radio station WNYC, described the challenges of attracting a middle- and upper-middle class to a city associated with hard times.
Asked whether he could foresee the rebirth of a vibrant Jewish community in Newark, Schachter said, “What are the triggers? What comes first? Do you make the schools better? Do you appeal to the people not wanting to commute to the suburbs? Do we have to deal with public safety? Why wouldn’t people want to live here and commute to New York City? What is stopping us? I don’t know.”
Steve Waldman, an entrepreneur who is collaborating with MSU on what he called “an AmeriCorps-type army of local journalists,” compared the potential revitalization of Newark to that of other cities.
“I live in Brooklyn, which 15 years ago had the same reputation that Newark does now, and now Brooklyn is Paris. If Brooklyn can have its renaissance, Newark can,” he said.
Craig Aaron, a resident of Washington, DC, runs a project called Free Press, which is trying to ensure wide public access to the Internet. He is considering setting up shop in Newark, New Brunswick, Morristown, and Atlantic City.
“Jews are very interested in history. Given the right set of opportunities, as Newark does its thing, that could be an element of the growth of the city,” Aaron said. “A lot of Jews can trace their roots to this part of the country, and maybe it’s time they take another look at Newark.”
But a local filmmaker and magazine editor had a more critical view of the discussion about Newark’s future. To Akintola Hanif, creator of the on-line Hycide magazine, “gentrification” meant an outside population usurping local residents, driving up rents, and merely displacing, not solving, local problems.
“The revitalization and gentrification, where we’re at to me, we are in the middle of a lie,” Hanif told fellow panelists. “There is a revitalization of the economic community and the artistic community and the retail community, but there is no social renaissance happening…. Anybody with half a brain knows that gentrification and revitalization are happening simultaneously…. When I look around where we’re at, it is a predominantly white audience in a predominantly black town. I do not say that in a racist way, but the people in the community just aren’t being included in this conversation.”
The only Jewish panelist was Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter and author of a forthcoming book about Facebook developer Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the Newark public schools.
The town hall was part of “Engage Local,” a two-day conference hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media.