J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Brick City Hope

Once, Newark featured a nightlife scene that compared favorably to New York’s, with venues like the Kinney Club, the Boston Plaza, the Alcazar, the Nest Club, and the Manor. Those days are gone. Can Newark pull out of its decades-long economic depression and endemic political corruption? That is the task facing new Mayor Cory Booker, interviewed in the October issue of Vibe. (Ordinarily I leave Jersey blogging to the Cranford Pundit, but I doubt he subscribes.)

Mayor Booker, a Democrat, has some interesting things to say. Interviewer Aliya S. King asks him bluntly about his past support for school vouchers, to which he responded:

“I think every poor child in America should have the freedom to go to whatever school they want to go to. I’m poor? Education is my way out? I need to get the best education. But it’s a pipe dream. It’s not happening in New Jersey. So I’m not expending my energy to fight for vouchers. I am supporting the public school system and charter schools. We have the highest performing charter schools in the nation.”

Such notions have led to friction with the state teacher’s cartel. According to Vibe: “a third of Newark’s 278,000 residents live in poverty, and the murder rate is five times that of New York City.” Why are things so bad for New York, particularly when compared to neighboring New York? King mentions the 1967 riots (which surely did not help), but New York has a long history of rioting, from the 1863 Draft Riots through the 1991 Crown Heights riots, and including most applicably, the 1977 blackout riots.

At times, King provides incomplete or even misleading background. She quotes a Booker critic, one Ras Baraka, identified as a school principal and former city councilman turned out by Booker’s election, saying:

“He’s not just from another city,” says Baraka, “he’s from a different place.” [her italics]

Given the abject corruption of the prior administration, Newark should be looking for a mayor metaphorically coming from a different place. Yet a little context on Baraka would be helpful. He is the son of avowed Marxist poet-activist (and jazz critic) Amiri Baraka, who was a vocal ally of former Mayor Kenneth Gibson, setting the tone for that administration when he wrote: "We will nationalize the city's institutions, as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola." Steve Malanga summarizes the impact of an administration born of such radicalism:

By 1986, after 16 years under Gibson, the city’s unemployment rate had risen nearly 50 percent, its population had continued dropping, it had no movie theaters and only one supermarket left, and only two-thirds of its high school students were earning diplomas.

That the Barakas continue to wield influence in Newark politics should begin to explain why the city’s economic stagnation has been so persistent. Unlike Newark, New York has rebounded from all manner of disasters because it had leadership at key moments. Brick City needs a Giuliani. It may at least have an Ed Koch in Booker, which would be a distinct improvement. Like Koch, Mayor Booker (support for educational choice not withstanding) is a mainstream liberal. He has however put the city’s well-being above ideology, pursuing quality of life crimes and educational reform. Despite Vibe’s thinly cloaked skepticism, Booker’s administration shows early promise, and can only gain from comparison to his predecessors.

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