Newark’s revitalization has been in the news quite a bit lately. Why? Because some are pegging it the “next Brooklyn.” To be fair, they’ve been saying that for a few years now. Heck, when I began researching my move here back in 2015, I found more than a couple of articles either making or refuting that claim.
But in the past few weeks, the assertion has come around once again. From a filler piece on Gothamist to a lifestyle article on Vogue.com to a vlog address from Mayor Ras Baraka, people can’t help but want to either insist that Newark is about to see positive headlines once again or it’s going to go to hell for anyone who’s lived here for years while the city was on the receiving end of many fearmongering punchlines. Perhaps even both.
As a new resident, I understand the apprehension. One of the many reasons I chose Newark over other cities in New Jersey when I relocated to the East Coast was its affordability. If Newark were to follow the path of Brooklyn, the “Yuppie & Hipster” invasion would make the cost of living incredibly difficult for most of us currently calling it home. And every time I hear someone insist that the exorbitant cost of living in New York is justified by what you get in return, I’m secretly grateful that I’m not so caught up in the desperate need to have others approve of my home address.
I like New York. I like working in the city. I like having the art scene in all its forms just a short 20-minute train ride away. I like the bookstores, the coffeeshops, the lectures and the parades. But I don’t like the high prices, the crippling homeless problem or the fetid stenches that waft past your nose at any given moment. I like the parks, but not the train delays. I like the architecture, but not the horrible customer service at every turn. New York is a mixed bag like any other city, but for some reason so many cling to the idea that living in New Jersey will rob them of some type of authenticity. So in that respect, I think Newark will never be Brooklyn.
Even though most of the people I know who live in BK have a commute to Manhattan that takes as long as mine via the PATH or train, they’ll always have their visceral need to claim Brooklyn (or the very least, New York). And that’s fine. I’m all for civic pride. The problem is when that pride comes at the cost of tearing down those who reside elsewhere, revealing a fragility that’s all too glaring. (For examples, see the comment section of that Gothamist piece.)
Now, I can’t say that I’ll ever be a true representative of the Newark identity, but Brick City works for me. It’s never tried to be something that it’s not. You have the grit and the polish all equidistant from each other, and a community so diverse it sometimes makes you wonder if anyone here has the same background.
From my perch here in the North Ward, I have it pretty good. I’m within a stone’s throw from Branch Brook Park where I walk and jog and people-watch to my heart’s content. I have access to a multi-pronged public transportation system that includes light rails, trains, buses and a robust Uber/Lyft/taxi community. Museums, galleries, co-working spaces, and a large college/university population intermingle effortlessly with bodegas, auto shops, barbershops, halal soul food restaurants and murals galore.
When I get on the elevator in my apartment building, I’m likely to hear everything from Spanish to Farsi to Chinese to Kreyol. Between NJPAC and the Prudential Center, I’m never at a loss for affordable entertainment from major national and international acts. Add to that the local flavor of poetry jams, comedy open-mic nights and a music scene that touches all genres of melody, I’m never bored. I also enjoy that elusive holy grail that New York City lost a long time ago: rent control.
Sure, I think it’s weird that a city this size literally only has one movie theater. And even though I prefer small bookstores — of which there are very few in Brick City, I’m absurdly excited we’re getting a Barnes & Noble and it’ll sit close to the motley crew of salons, discount shops, boutiques, and vegetarian eateries in University Heights. I don’t want a city brimming with $12 sandwich shops or dog bakeries, but I do want more than just Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts for my coffee options. I also hate that it’s so difficult to recycle here. Car break-ins and auto theft are a common fear for anyone daring to have that kind of autonomy. And I wish police accountability wasn’t one of the biggest issues gripping the community yet again … or shall I say … still.
But in the end, I suppose as Brooklynites say when they defend their stomping grounds, it all balances out.
For me, I get the best of both worlds. I have easy access to the amenities and opportunities in NYC, but Brick City is no slouch when it comes to poets, tech developers, restauranteurs, bankers, or musicians. So let’s be clear, I’m sharing that money on this side of the Hudson River as well. And since Newark’s art scene has produced more than a few notable names (Queen Latifah, Savion Glover, Ray Liotta, Michael B. Jordan, Sarah Vaughn, Whitney Houston, Philip Roth, to only name a few), clearly there’s no dearth of talent here or the atmosphere to cultivate it.
I’m not sure what lies ahead for Newark — or even the U.S. these days — but I know it can’t be tarnished with a Whole Foods and luxury apartments charging $1400 a month for a studio. Brick City is long overdue for some love and appreciation, but that should come regardless of whether or not the Yuppies & Hipsters do. Development and growth that includes all of us, not just those lucky enough to work for a Fortune 500 company or a tech start-up is what the Mayor is striving for. And I hope I get to stick around a little longer to see it all come to fruition.