NEWARK, NJ — A look inside Off The Hanger and ANÉ, a combined decor studio and luxury fashion boutique on Linden Street in the heart of downtown Newark, immediately hits your eyes with a kaleidoscope of color working to serve the cause of commerce.
Amidst the combination of funky clothing and fashionable furniture for sale, Anita Dickens and Lynette Lashawn are the co-owners who preside over this hive of entrepreneurial activity between Halsey and Washington streets. Dickens and Lashawn don't hesitate to both show and tell you why Newark's creative class is ready to both make art, and get paid, while the city they love changes.
"We own several Newark-branded collections that are trademarked: Newark Excellence, Newark vs. Everybody, and the newest one - The Future Is Newark," said Lashawn alongside Dickens, who were both born and raised in Newark. "The thing about our shop is that we have unique things that you're not able to buy just anywhere. You have to come here to get it. One of the great things about having the Newark collection is that it forms a sort of an homage piece to the city, but also one that people can rally behind and be proud to say, 'I'm from Newark, I'm in Newark, I'm working in Newark. And I'm contributing to the fabric to make this city a better place for more people to come and visit, to treat as a destination, and to live, absolutely.'"
Nostalgia for the great retail giants of decades gone by - Bamberger's, Kresge, Hahne & Company, Macy's - won't make downtown Newark the undoubted economic Mecca of New Jersey again. Instead, people like Dickens and Lashawn are trying to drive a do-it-yourself economic narrative where Newark is indeed the future, a future in which creative-led small businesses will be able to survive and thrive among the tide of corporate redevelopment cash now surging into the city.
Linda McDonald Carter lived through the civil strife that tore Newark apart in 1967, a seminal event referred to as a riot by some people, a rebellion by others. She lived in the city's mostly African-American Central Ward, a center of black economic self-sufficiency. Pausing during her recent Saturday shopping at Off The Hanger and ANÉ for a moment, Carter noted the need for small businesses to be supported in the new Newark emerging from the old.
"Small businesses really hire the most people. They're more in touch with their communities," said Carter, director of paralegal studies at Essex County College, as well professor of American government and criminal justice. "Hopefully, similar to the way I grew up, most people are from the community who have the businesses who help sustain the community."
Ryan Monroe is the owner and creative director of his own commercial photography studio, RyArMo Photography Studio, a live-and-work commercial space close to the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Crane Street, not far from Linden Street. He spoke about how embedding himself in Newark is a key element to both his personal growth and overall economic success.
"I think the really important thing was just forging the right connections. [Executive Director] Jeremy Johnson of Newark Arts is one of the first connections I made before I moved to Newark and renovated my building to open my studio," said Monroe, who moved to Newark from Brooklyn in 2018. "I knew about the theme of Newark Arts Fest (held every October) early on, and I knew I had space and I didn't have to ask anyone's permission. I formed a collective of others who wanted to do the same and who wanted to be part of Newark Arts Fest and really made a concerted effort to use them as a marketing tool and vessel because that's what they do. Their job is to market and promote the arts, but I'm also part of a different narrative."
"I didn't come into Newark with a handout, I didn't come in expecting anything, I want to be a business that thrives. I want to work with other entrepreneurs, and I just want to connect with the right people, and I just made it a point to connect with all the right people," added Monroe, who rents out his studio to other creatives as well as other, more traditional entrepreneurs. "I want to be in Newark, I want to produce in Newark. I have clients outside of Newark. I have clients all along the East Coast, and I'm happy to promote the message that Newark is where it's at."
Monroe said he's noticed a recent of shift of creatives from Brooklyn who are thinking about Newark. "They're already seeing that the marketing is starting to slowly shift, the perception is starting to shift, and we're seeing arts, arts, arts roll to Newark. We're seeing creativity, and then what's going to happen is two to three years from now, the folks who've been saying 'It'll never happen in Newark' - they're gonna look up and say 'How did that all change?"' I just wish more people would listen to that, because the crowd is coming."
Talia Young, founder and C.E.O. of the 725 Standard, an event production and design firm based in Newark, noted how ultimately a joint investment of both the arts community and the city's corporate stalwart supporters can fuel the rebranding that will signify Newark's future civic success.
"Real corporate partnership is saying that Newark is art, including the idea of the industry of art. It's not just poor, struggling artists. There are international artists here - not just at the Newark Museum of Art, but literally we have international artists in our galleries. We not only have digital and tech artists that are coming here, but also the culture that follows them, that knows them, from all social media and written platforms. That's what's going to be the game-changer here in Newark," said Young.
"You have to have something that's going to bring culture and lifestyle to the city. The Newark Arts Festival did that, that's what the arts will do for a city," added Young. "But it has to be a collaboration and not just with a firm like Prudential, which stood by and stood with Newark for decades. It's all the corporations here, like Audible, for example. They invest in their employees to live there, but I don't think that they invest enough in the lifestyle of the city. So what's going to incentivize the employees to stay here? It's got to be culture."
Back at Off The Hanger and ANÉ on Linden Street, Anita Dickens expressed her vision of how creatively-minded small businesses can work with corporations and redevelopers to make a resurgent and revitalized Newark real, but without losing its art-fueled soul.
"If the larger companies want to be a part of the process of Newark's redevelopment, they should reach out to the small business owners like us and say 'Hey, we would like to collaborate with you guys, what do you think, how can we collaborate in terms of getting the exposure and making people feel comfortable enough to shop in downtown Newark?', Dickens said. "The big companies are good, but you're going in there for what - insurance? What about pleasure? What about happiness? What makes you happy? Shopping makes you happy. Having a nice meal makes you happy. Having a great apartment - now you have things to shop for in your apartment. You want some dope clothing, funky clothing, absolutely. It would be smart for them to partner with us, because we have a brand that we have already developed well."
Dickens soon stopped talking about business and went back to doing business. She helped another Saturday afternoon customer, Newark native and style maven Kenyatta Dasent, as he sought to create further sartorial splendor for himself by spending some of his hard-earned cash money in her shop.
Dasent not only liked what he saw for sale. He loved what he felt in his heart and soul as he looked to what he hopes to be the future of creative-run businesses in downtown Newark in the years to come.
"Besides the fashion itself, the style that they have, the energy they have, is so beautiful, and I like to be able to give back to our people. And when I say 'our people', I don't just mean people of color. I mean people of positive thoughts, positive energy, and great character," Dasent said. "This store will survive because art lives far beyond the artist. Think about it - Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, all these different artists - their artwork is still there and still alive, even though all of these people who created it are gone. I see what the owners are building in this store as part of what's going on now in downtown Newark. And this store, in particular, is definitely going to last, no matter how much downtown Newark grows and explodes. I'm spending my money here. And I would bet my money on Newark's future."