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 feel like I’m already looking at its past. Two storied institutions dominate the corner of Halsey Street and Branford Place: Hobby’s Deli, where the corned beef is tender and the pickles tart, and Dan’s Hats & Caps, which will fit you with the perfect Borsalino and complement it with a pair of handmade two-toned eel-skin wingtips. A relative newcomer to the third corner, Sugar Daddy’s, delivers high-quality southern comfort food in deliberately charmless décor. Across the street is another kind of throwback: Gentleman’s Quarter III, an old-fashioned men’s apparel store sporting a flapping plastic banner that reads “Buy 1 Suit for $120, get a 2nd suit for .99¢.” That intersection of the authentic, the bespoke, the new, the local, and the cheap has become a rarity in American downtowns, a retail mixture that’s difficult to safeguard and impossible to reproduce. The retail crisis that has shuttered stores in Manhattan’s ultragentrified precincts may actually help in Newark, keeping commercial rents from rocketing into the self-defeating range.
Newark is a straggler in the urban revitalization sweepstakes, so it’s learning from other cities’ mistakes. Sensing the avalanche at his shoulders, Baraka has muscled a broad affordable-housing bill into law, and is working to strengthen it. Following New York’s example, he’s pushing another bill that would provide free legal advice to low-income residents who face eviction. Newark remains intractably poor, with attendant urban ills, such as high crime and dubious water. But in the swath of downtown that stretches from NJ Transit’s Broad Street Station to Penn Station, you can see the city’s former prosperity rousing itself for another round. Facing Washington Park, for instance, is the old New Jersey Bell Building, an Art Deco telecommunications temple designed by Ralph Walker in 1929 and now being renovated into 265 apartments, 53 of them set aside for households with incomes of roughly $40,000 for a family of four.
A few blocks away, the Hahne & Co. building is a microcosm of Newark’s downtown dreams. The defunct department store, designed by Goldwin Starrett and opened in 1901, once anchored the genteel city. Now that you can buy a whole wardrobe without even getting out of bed, it’s hard to remember that department-store shopping was once a time-consuming form of social leisure. And nowhere was it more leisurely or more luxurious than at Hahne & Co. An army of 1,200 employees catered to the needs of customers, without badgering them to buy. Instead, the building seduced them into lingering, offering a nursery and carousel, an art gallery, a men’s smoking room, lounges, a restaurant, a soda fountain, and even that amazing futuristic technology, a “moving staircase.” Hahne’s moved out to the suburbs in the 1980s, shut its flagship, and soon went out of business. The building stood vacant for 30 years.
An empty building on a downtown block is more than just a waste of space; it’s an emblem of hopelessness, a container of fading memories, and a brutal reproach to the present. Where people once bumped into friends, ate lunch, spritzed cologne, ran up debts, dragged their embarrassed kids through the lingerie department, and generally enjoyed America’s material abundance, now there was nothing but mold, damp, and rats. The New York–based developer L+M rescued the building from total collapse, and used it to jump-start the city’s future. From the street, it looks largely the same as it did in its heyday, an industrial-age chateau with brick piers, limestone trim, and a row of porthole windows above an assertive cornice. Inside, sunshine flows through an immense skylight onto the white-and-wrought-iron interior, giving the interior back some of the old Gilded Age glamour, though little of its commercial bustle. The designers, Inglese Architecture, inserted two floors of airy apartments into the upper levels and more in a new tower at the back. The result is a sensitive renovation that packs a lot of uses under one roof and can seed the neighborhood all around. Whole Foods anchors the most prominent corner on Broad Street. Around the back, on quieter Halsey Street, the celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson recently opened a comfort-food magnet, Marcus B&P. A black hole has become a destination.
Newark’s revival is coming block by block, and also in a couple of massive chunks. The most ambitious is Lotus Development’s project Riverfront Square. On a 12-acre site next to Broad Street Station, PAU, the New York–based architecture and planning firm run by Vishaan Chakrabarti, has mapped out what amounts to a blank-slate neighborhood. Apartments, offices, stores, playgrounds, a beer garden and bocce court, a hotel and conference center — all would cluster and intertwine, inserting a new pocket of urban intensity and lively architecture into an area that now feels weedy and bleak. Such mixed-use megadevelopments can quickly devolve into deluxe enclaves, subliminally signaling that all are welcome but some are more welcome than others. Riverfront Square takes that danger seriously: Chakrabarti has designed a long, snaking apartment bloc jacked up above a supermarket and a hall for taco stands and brisket trucks. If there’s one way to coax neighbors and outsiders into mingling, it’s with the promise of good, cheap food.
If a city geek could wave a wand and cause only wise urban changes, that spell would place apartments, stores, offices, and entertainment within walking distance from one another and close to public transportation; make sure that housing isn’t just for the rich and that pedestrians feel safe from both traffic and crime; whittle away at excess parking; reuse old buildings and build some new; fill in empty lots before building too far up or too far out; protect independent stores, hire locals; improve schools; fix up parks and program outdoor activities there; and provide cheap food options along with festive restaurants. Many cities are chipping away at a few of those goals; Newark is tackling them all, with a mixture of policy, legislation, and incentives. So long as builders need subsidies and permissions, the mayor wields power and demands a measure of trust, so that every chance to make a buck gets rolled up with a nugget of social good. “Developers don’t have to figure out what I want. They know it’s about housing and employment,” Baraka says. “And they know we’re going to help them get their project over the line. We’re not going to try to cut their legs out from under them.”
More important, all the haggling is taking place now, while the market is still sluggish and the future inchoate. “By the time New York, San Francisco, and Washington focused on the reality of widespread displacement, the train had left the station,” says David Troutt, a Rutgers law professor who runs the university’s Center on Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity. Newark, he says, is more vigilant. “This is not a city of victims. It’s a city of people who feel strongly about who they are and where they are, and community-based organizations demand a seat at the table. We’ve been down so long we have to get it right.”
Baraka took office in 2014 facing a wall of doubt. The former school principal and son of the poet Amiri Baraka did not have the management chops to revive a dysfunctional city, his critics said. Four years later, he was reelected with 77 percent of the vote, and has won praise from community activists, businesses, and real-estate developers for banging heads together and helping them see where their interests overlap. “We agree to argue,” Baraka chuckles. The centrality of his role makes his handling of the water supply that much more devastating. His administration spent nearly a year and a half playing down the threat of lead in the pipes, and began handing out free filters only in recent weeks. For now, the press treats him warmly and his approval ratings remain high, but that good will depends heavily on how nimbly he manages the water crisis. If he suddenly found himself more popular with out-of-town developers than his own voters, all the talk of equity would start to sound false.
Newark has some distinctive advantages over troubled cities in other parts of the country: a busy international airport, a major seaport, and a vast labor pool that stretches from Connecticut to Pennsylvania. It also has an abundance of fiber-optic cable running through the heart of the city: the defunct Bamberger’s (later Macy’s) department store, a dignified gray pile fancified by neo-Gothic windows is now packed with data servers.
Businesses have noticed. Audible, which has had its headquarters on Broad Street since 2007, recently started subsidizing the rent for employees who choose to live in Newark. AeroFarms, a hydroponic vertical farming company, moved into an abandoned steel factory in the Ironbound. And Edison Properties is transforming a 100-year-old concrete warehouse into an office complex called Ironside, where Mars Wrigley plans to move in 2020, its decision lubricated by a $31 million in incentives from the state. Newark is nominally on Amazon’s short list as a site for its second headquarters, though its odds of winning that urban gladiatorial tournament are low. But the mere fact that a corporate colossus condescended to take a close look can bolster other companies’ faith.
Even in successful cities, companies, universities, and cultural organizations often wall themselves off from troubled urban locations with walls, cafeterias, and underground garages. Employees can practically shuttle back and forth from home to desk without ever setting foot on a public sidewalk or spending a dime in a downtown store. In the past, Newark’s major institutions did the same. New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened in 1997, relying on nearby Penn Station and the parking buried beneath Military Park to whisk audiences in and shoot them back out to the suburbs. Prudential Center, the home of the New Jersey Devils hockey team, opened a decade later, its entrance turned towards huge expanses of surface parking.
Now, though, the institutional heavy-hitters are doing more to knit themselves into the city’s fabric. Rutgers is expanding its Newark campus. Prudential, a longtime mainstay, opened a new office tower on Broad Street last year. Two glass slabs sandwich a set of glass-walled bridges, fronting onto a landscaped plaza and a freshly renovated Military Park. If that tower, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, were in midtown Manhattan, it would be just one more handsomely generic component of the corporate cityscape. Here, it’s transformative, reminding employees that there’s a whole city out there, right through the revolving doors.
Opening that building has had a visible effect on the streets. “That was a big-bang moment,” says Eric Schechter, a federal employee who has worked in the Central Ward for almost 30 years and watched the tower rise from a few blocks away. “It used to be that once a month I’d walk the half-mile to Hobby’s for lunch and I wouldn’t pass anyone.” Now, Prudential’s move has seeded the streets with office workers, creating the kinds of problems Schechter pined for, such as lunchtime crowds at the Green Chicpea on Halsey Street. “It’s just a falafel place, but to walk over there and not to be able to find a seat and have to wait and be inconvenienced — that’s a great thing!”
Prudential’s fingers extend well beyond its own office space. On a blistering summer day, I walked around with Ommeed Sathe, who as the head of Prudential’s $800 million Impact Investment Fund, pumps money into real-estate projects that bring social, as well as financial returns. (Sathe’s fund helped L+M finance the Hahne’s renovation.) He pointed out the new flowerbeds and renovated fountain in Military Park. Prudential paid for the construction, then recruited Dan Biederman, the guru of Bryant Park, to manage the new green. Kids wearing the matching T-shirts of a local summer camp were organizing a ball game in the shade.
If corporate developers confined themselves to building luxury towers and prettifying parks for the tenants they hope to draw, then all the hopes for an equitable city would seem delusional. But a ten-minute drive into the Fairmount neighborhood from Military Park took me to Georgia King Village, a complex of low-income towers and townhouses that Sathe’s fund helped L+M buy and rehab. Until recently, residents lived in extravagantly dilapidated apartments, and parents forbade children from playing outside for fear they’d be caught in the drug dealers’ crossfire. Now, for the first time in decades, the elevators work, the halls are clean, ceilings stay up, and the picnic tables are full. “Our main problem now is too many kids biking around here,” the security chief told me in proud disbelief.
Maybe all of this — the virtuous intentions, the well-aimed spigots of money, the prudent rules, and architectural ambition — will fail. Perhaps the Trump administration’s steel tariffs will raise the price of construction enough to wreck the math for affordable housing. The avalanche of money Baraka is bracing for could veer off course, or dissipate: “A recession everywhere else means a major depression here,” he points out.
Or maybe the market will heat up and follow its usual ruthless logic, sweeping away compassion and well-meaning policy. For now, though, Newark has a shot at getting the urban future right, a prospect that excites even the jaded. “Everybody’s cynical, including me,” says Troutt, the Rutgers law professor. “But we have so much to worry about in this country that it’s a joy to focus all that anxiety on doing things right for people we can see and touch and talk to.”
*A version of this article appears in the November 12, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!