You’ve got to love Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s latest move in the continuing marathon to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to his city.
The mayor wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, the newspaper owned by Amazon gazillionare Jeff Bezos. In it, he makes yet another pitch for Newark, and thereby giving his emerging city a national stage.
Maybe now, people in his own state will notice.
Each time I wrote a column about Newark in my old job, the anonymous commenters would spew forth their limited vocabulary of four-letter and six-letter words. Dump. Slum. Ghetto. They were stuck in the decades following 1967.
No new life, no new building will ever change their minds. Not the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, not the Prudential Arena, not the luxury apartment conversion of the downtown’s highest and most historic buildings or the construction of new residential towers. Not the newer campuses of the New Jersey Institute of Technology or the Rutgers Business or Law Schools. Not Whole Foods in the renovated Hahne’s Building, not the charter schools or Teacher’s Village.
Why waste your breath?
The reason of course is crime.
For some reason, New Jerseyans can not accept that Newark has many, many redeeming qualities and it’s unfair to only identify the city by its violence. That doesn’t happen to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago or other violence-plagued cities. We should ask ourselves, why here? Maybe it’s the old Jersey self-hating thing.
We should remember Newark was once an American industrial powerhouse. It brought in the country’s greatest architects to design its public buildings and spaces. The prolific Cass Gilbert, whose highlights included the Woolworth Building and the U.S. Supreme Court, designed the Essex County Historic Courthouse.
The firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, best known for New York’s Central Park, did Newark’s Branch Brook and Weequahic.
Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame has two massive sculptures in Newark; the Seated Lincoln outside the courthouse and the Wars of America in Military Park.
What’s in store for the city, and everyone in its metro area, if it becomes an e-commerce giant?
We all know what Amazon offers: 25,000 jobs in their offices, plus another tens of thousands of indirect jobs and opportunity to create businesses to support and serve Amazon and their employees. That economic ripple in the pond will extend to the surrounding communities in Essex, Union, Morris, Somerset, Passaic, Bergen and Middlesex counties, just in real estate values alone.
In his editorial, Baraka speaks of the government, corporate and education institution partnership that have already brokered an influx of business and development. That fact that Amazon even seriously considered Newark shows amazing improvement in the city. If Amazon comes, more will follow. And again, that’s not just good for Newark. That’s good for all of us.
What sunk Amazon in Long Island City was controversy over tax breaks and the fear of gentrification, with white collar workers forcing out the blues. Why make the rich richer?
In a pretty deft editorial move, Baraka cites “real challenges inherent to the policies and systems (say, tax breaks) that allow wealth to be concentrated in a few hands — especially within development and investment,” but counters that by saying “equally irresponsible and privileged is refusing to entertain how we can bring jobs and wealth to communities that suffer from serious, decades-long problems.”
In other words, sometimes you must court the rich to help the poor. To not do that and stand on unwavering principle only hurts the poor.
In the homestretch of Amazon’s decision-making process just over a year ago, I wrote about Newark and New Jersey’s many attributes that made sense for Amazon. Our roads, our ports, our airport, our technology (Newark is one of the country’s best wired cities), our tech universities, and the facts that Amazon-owned Audible already calls Newark home and the millions upon millions of warehouse square-footage Amazon already owns along the Jersey Turnpike.
“But perhaps Newark's most alluring attribute is an intangible -- a social element,” I wrote. “It's an opportunity for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to single-handedly help shape the future of the city … Newark could be Amazon's company town.”
Around that time, Bezos surpassed Bill Gates as America's wealthiest man, but was criticized that he was a little stingy on philanthropy.
“Making a huge investment in Newark might take the sting out of that criticism,” I wrote.
This remains true.
In his editorial, Baraka listed the opportunities Newark would give Amazon to “do good,” from supporting city school STEM education to sending employees out into the community for lunch, from helping their employees launch satellite businesses to investing in services for the homeless. He plots a course of equitable wages and affordable housing.
Just Capital, a nonprofit that ranks corporations based upon on their community impact, puts Amazon at No. 30. But their report from last October said by simply selecting Newark and implementing basic good neighbor policies, Amazon would make the Top 10.
That’s a win-win for the city and Bezos. Let’s hope he sees it that way.