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Newark’s Revival Is Finally Real. So Is Its Latest Problem.

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05.11.2018

Can a beaten-down downtown find a way to thrive without getting pummeled by gentrification? Can longtime residents who have paid their dues in suffering welcome newcomers without losing their sense of home? Can a once handsome but dilapidated center rebuild without resorting to shiny ugliness? One of the unlikeliest places to come looking for a yes to each of these questions may be Newark, New Jersey’s Central Ward, where forlorn history and frantic optimism mix in a distinctive local brew. There’s a snap of fresh money in the air these days. Cranes are doing slow-mo pirouettes above the skyline. Clusters of New York developers stroll up and down Broad Street, scouting sites and counting future residents. Glossy renderings circulate again, and this time they’re coming to fruition.

There are also toxic chemicals in the drinking water: lead in some buildings with corroded pipes and high levels of a possible carcinogen, haloacetic acid, at eight different testing sites, including one downtown. You could hardly ask for a starker example of the bifurcation that is plaguing American cities: a glass tower on one block, poisoned water on the next. As faucets in Flint, Michigan, and subways in New York have proven, in a nation with an old and brittle infrastructure, the most basic services can be levers of inequality.

Even aside from the drip of distrust over the taps, Newark boosters face a long history of justified skepticism. Downtown was on the verge of a comeback a dozen years ago, too, when a freshly renovated Art Deco office building at 1180 Raymond Boulevard had just supplied the Central Ward with its first new apartments in decades. The newly elected mayor, Cory Booker, convened experts and neighborhood groups to rustle together a sweeping redevelopment plan. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit.

Or you can scroll back further to the 1980s, when a Trump-like developer named Harry Grant, who enjoyed publicity, superlatives, flash (he paid to gild City Hall’s dome), dodgy businesses, and sexual assault, promised to build a downtown mall with a 121-story tower above. Grant’s company went bankrupt, leaving the unfinished shell of something called the Renaissance Mall. “That was the renaissance to us,” Newark’s current mayor, Ras Baraka, says drily.

This time, he says, is different. A flood tide of investment money is looking for somewhere to go, and renters are, too. As the need for affordable housing has overflowed Manhattan and Brooklyn, tearing through Hoboken and Jersey City, Newark’s handsome but chronically depressed downtown looks a bargain. The pressure has created a critical mass of projects, each feeding on the other. The time for promises and one-offs is past; these days, Baraka can tot up $4 billion in actual, honest-to-goodness construction remaking the city right outside his office window.

His challenge is to spread the benefits, not just ball up wealth into a few developers’ fists. Last year, he cut the ribbon on the first from-the-ground-up residential development in downtown Newark in nearly half a century — not a luxury tower, but four low-rise blocks inhabited mostly by teachers. One of the last projects that the celebrity architect Richard Meier completed before effectively retiring in #MeToo disgrace, Teachers Village contains the first batch of roughly 11,000 apartments springing up in downtown Newark. The city has subsidized all of them, hoping that the market will strengthen enough so that developers will start building on their own. But success brings dangers. “Once the market turns, it’s like an avalanche,” Baraka says. “We can protect ourselves, but we can’t stop it.”

A storm of prosperity has roared through city after American city, replacing parking lots with a monoculture of new towers and national chains. Developers dangle the promise of round-the-clock downtowns, where a short stroll leads from apartment to office or yoga class to brunch. Like indiscriminate weed killer, this spray-on affluence suppresses drug marts and homeless encampments, taking with it a whole urban ecosystem that the poor and immigrants depend on and that makes a city feel spirited and democratic: bodegas, pawnshops, discount sneaker outlets, dollar stores, greasy spoons, storefront notaries, hair-braiding salons.

Newark still retains that biodiversity, partly because it has been so slow to emerge from a 50-year funk that you could shoot a Nixon-era period piece on just about any block and change little besides the cars. At times, as I track downtown’s future, I........

© Daily Intelligencer