Is Newark the next Brooklyn?

Making a comeback Boston Public Library , CC BY-SA

In an expansive pair of articles about Newark and its mayor as well as an accompanying photo essay, Politico recently asked, “Is Newark the next Brooklyn?”

Much in these pieces is rightly encouraging. Yes, it is the case that 29% of Newark residents are living under the poverty level. But at the same time, it’s true that Newark’s downtown real-estate assets are now just beginning to attract attention from investors after long years of tepid investment, if not broad avoidance.

Additionally, new leadership in City Hall has made it clear that while attracting more residents downtown is a goal, it has to be complemented by other ingredients of city and neighborhood revitalization such as investing in the people who live there.

The fact is, however, that the Newark to Brooklyn comparison is a limiting one. The process through which American industrial-legacy cities struggle on their way back to economic relevancy is complicated and idiosyncratic.

The nature of urban and metropolitan development is our principal concern at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

While we are broadly interested in national and global trends in urban development, the city of Newark and the region in which it is embedded is a key focus of our applied research and policy development work.

So the question of whether the Newark is the new Brooklyn is one that is of deep interest to our work and mission.

The ingredients of Brooklyn’s success

First, let’s take the Brooklyn example off the table.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and like many others I have a deep primordial affinity for the borough. When I left to go to graduate school in the late 1970s, many parts of Brooklyn were on the ropes, including my neighborhood.

The magnificent brownstones on Jefferson Avenue, the place where I spent my formative years, were in disrepair and part of New York City’s inventory of abandoned buildings that were trying to sell cheaply under various homesteading program in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Many of those buildings that the city then wanted to sell for a pittance are now worth upwards of a million dollars.

So what happened? A number of things.

First and foremost, from the 1980s on, New York’s economy adjusted, shook off the vestiges of its manufacturing past, and embraced its future as the financial capital of the world.

Brooklyn’s downtown, specifically, transitioned from being just a retail hub and evolved into a place where financial, technology, and higher educational institutions converge in the MetroTech Center, the country’s largest urban university-industry science and technology park.

A two-day NYU-Poly hackathon at MetroTech. Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin, CC BY-SA

Based on the Silicon Valley model, this effort was enabled by and supported by public/private partnerships. It was leaders in the public and private sector whose vision brought it into being.

Adjacent neighborhoods also experienced their own resurgence, with a helping hand from the growth of nonprofit development corporations which took city-owned residential properties and renovated them, thereby increasing the supply of affordable housing and neighborhood vitality.

They did this with the help of banks, who, through their obligations to the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, learned that there were reliable deals in Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Bedford Stuyvesant, Fort Green, and East Flatbush.

Lastly, these neighborhoods were helped by America’s longstanding ability to draw strivers from different lands who want a new future for themselves and their children. Immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, Korea, and many others (including religious groups such as the Hasidim) took old places and breathed new life into them.

So the Brooklyn story that accentuates the infusion of the “creative class” is not quite appropriate here.

Brooklyn’s revitalization used a tried-and-true (yet unappreciated) recipe of leadership, anchor institutions, a strong regional economy, people power – and time.

And despite all of this, there are still many parts of Brooklyn that struggle with unemployment, poverty, and localized crime. Measures of success, in other words, should be fluid and contextual.

Newark’s special challenge

Newark has many of the ingredients that revitalized Brooklyn.

Newark’s Prudential Plaza. Hudconja, CC BY-SA

There are anchors in education (my own institution of Rutgers-Newark), medicine (St. Barnabas Medical Center) and corporations (from the Prudential Corporation to Amazon-owned Audible.com) that care a great deal about Newark.

There is a growing immigrant community. Neighborhood-based development corporations have done a yeoman’s job in the face of a stiff wind, and now private real-estate developers rightly see an opportunity in undervalued assets.

I have lived in and worked in and around Newark for as much time as I lived in Brooklyn, and so I say the following with deep interest and attachment.

Some key ingredients of the revitalization recipe still need to be addressed.

A significant challenge facing Newark is the limited participation of Newark residents not only in regional labor markets but also jobs in downtown Newark.

Newark – as part of the greater New York metropolitan area – is also part of one of the biggest job-generating regions in the world. But it is not able to exploit this potential because of uneven transportation links and, critically, a workforce that is not prepared to take jobs in an information-based economy.

Unleashing Newark’s significant people power is limited by the low post-secondary education attainment rate which hovers at 17%.

And by “post-secondary attainment” I don’t mean getting a BA. I mean getting any sort of post-secondary credential, including a certificate to be a locksmith, a medical technician, or a long-haul truck driver.

Encouraging collaboration for Newark’s future

What can be done for legacy cities – or former industrial powerhouses – with the kinds of challenges Newark faces?

While there are no easy answers, many cities have evolved networks of diverse stakeholders who can work together intentionally to analyze problems and use data to devise solutions.

This networked change model – usually referred to as “collective impact” – is yielding important results across the country. Strive Together, for example, is providing broad community support and action for more effective education in 90 different locations.

As an engaged anchor institution, Rutgers University-Newark is helping to build such a network.

Rutgers-Newark: in the heart of the city. Arthur Paxton, CC BY-SA

Two years ago, the Cornwall Center was asked by stakeholders in the public, private and non-profit sectors to build on an existing process to boost Newark’s post-secondary achievement rate from 17% to 25% by 2025.

In 2012, a new master plan for the City of Newark was enacted, stating that the city would intentionally focus on increasing the number of residents with college degrees for purposes of economic development.

The existing stakeholders saw this element in the plan as a way to galvanize more stakeholder communities in Newark to engage in the process of enabling their citizens to acquire training and a qualification beyond high school.

Then, in 2013, the City of Newark was invited to apply for entrance to the Lumina Foundation’s cohort of cities focused on collectively improving our nation’s post-secondary attainment rate. In preparation for the application to Lumina, more partners were invited to the table and formed the Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC).

Last year Newark was chosen as a Lumina city. This was an important achievement and not only because of the resources and know-how the Lumina strategy can provide.

Perhaps even more importantly, Newark stakeholders saw that they were capable of designing an organic, deliberative process that resulted in the creation of a powerful and sustainable network of institutions and individuals working on post-secondary attainment. That network, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC), is now based at Rutgers University-Newark.

Similar to what happened in the case of Brooklyn’s MetroTech, Newark’s institutional and community leaders have recognized that they have to invest in a collaborative process over time to build educational opportunity for Newark’s residents.

Newark students participate in a leadership workshop. Courtesy of the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project, Author provided

This will not be an easy process, and leaders will come and go, interest and participation will rise and wane. But now both a structure and a process are in place. They hold the promise of growing stronger as the move toward the goal proceeds.

So, to the question: Is Newark the next Brooklyn? To play on Shakespeare: that is not the question.

A better one is: can we collaborate in getting to the next Newark?