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OPINION: As Newark changes, residents need to unite to protect their interests

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Ironbound Community Corp. Executive Director Joseph Della Fave.
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There has been a flurry of news recently about Newark, from the NY Times to Bloomberg News – and most of it has been good, thank goodness. 

Newark’s great assets and some recent incredible projects, like the Hahne’s building, have often been featured in writings about Newark’s revitalization. 

And while an article may occasionally be rather fluffy, some have also touched on the potential impact of revitalization on current residents, that is, the threat of gentrification, rising housing costs, and displacement of current residents. 

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Often, this (distasteful) question is put forward:  Is Newark the next Brooklyn?

The answer, of course, is a resounding NO.  We are Newark!  And we struggle to be our City that we all can believe in. 

Yet, every gentrified community thought it was once fixed in place.  If we are Newark and are to remain Newark, in heart and soul, we in Newark must ensure this. 

In places that have not succeeded, it has been largely unregulated market forces, assisted by a void in progressive public policy, an underutilized bully pulpit, and an unorganized, often disenfranchised community, that have determined a community’s course - and whether its residents, homeowners and tenants alike, had a viable choice in staying.

Maybe more so than anywhere else in the City, we in Ironbound, which has often been featured as an “attractive” neighborhood in articles, have a front row seat to the potential of a gentrified community. 

In the most densely populated section of Newark, where schools are severely overcrowded and all but one of six were built in the 1800’s, where streets flood regularly due to backed-up combined sewers, there have been more than 800 housing units quietly approved for development in recent years, with nearly all yet to be built. 

Only one of these developments will have any “affordable” units, these having been negotiated by Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) with a willing developer. 

Besides the obvious impact of overdevelopment on the infrastructure and community’s quality of life, which deeply concerns residents, we have seen a deeper, more emotional impact as more than one developer has proclaimed at Planning Board meetings that their project is for “men in suits from New York and Hoboken” who can pay twice or three times as much in rent than current residents.  People get the feeling rather quickly that their community is no longer meant for them. 

But then, nothing is like the emotional sways that residents of Terrell Homes have had to experience. 

Terrell Homes is a public housing complex on the Passaic, housing approximately 250 mostly African American families.  Authorities plan to close it, although residents and supporters, including ICC, are engaging with the Newark Housing Authority in hopes of creating plans that respect the dignity and dreams of tenants. 

The importance of mentioning this here is twofold. 

First, Terrell is adjacent to our new Riverfront Park, for which ICC and the community worked for more than 20 years, from planning it to raising nearly $3 million, as part of our vision of revitalization. 

Along with Terrell residents, we celebrated its opening.  But soon thereafter, a disenfranchised Terrell community is asked to leave.  Not only are the optics horrible in which African Americans are displaced from a largely non-African American community, this is just not the outcome that ICC envisioned in planning Riverfront Park. 

It was to be for all Newarkers and all Ironbounders/Down Neckers, including Terrell residents, pursuant to our East Ferry Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative vision established seven years ago: to support the development of a healthy, thriving, sustainable neighborhood that anyone would wish to live in and the residents of today can choose to remain in.

Second, the Terrell situation is another test for Newark in its revitalization: how will the poor be treated and housed?  We can assure everyone that ICC will continue to work with Terrell residents to uphold their dignity and housing interests and keeping justice and equity on the table in all discussions.

There is, we guess, great irony in what people in Ironbound are experiencing.  For generations, Ironbound has been a welcoming community to immigrants, from Poles and Germans to Irish and Italians, from African Americans to Portuguese and Spanish, from Brazilians to Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and more. 

If Ironbounders get pushed out, is not the rest of the City not far behind?  Gentrification has always established a beachhead and spread from there.

Downtown is another story.  The Hahne’s project is a near ideal one, with a majestic arcade and 40 percent affordable housing symbolizing revitalization and inclusivity, a new prosperity along with equity and justice.  This is how Newark should grow: with new housing for all incomes, attracting young professionals working at Audible and Prudential and young adults born and raised in Newark.

This is why ICC drafted and, along with our partners at Newark Community Development Network (NCDN), has been strongly advocating for an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that would require affordable units in large housing developments.  Without this, the City will grow exclusively, including from a Downtown beachhead, for higher incomes and this unregulated housing market will grow block by block into the neighborhoods.

Newark must revitalize and grow, but it must uplift, not uproot, its people in the process.  This is a yeoman’s task, and the City is facing up to it in many ways: demanding jobs as well as clean air at Port Newark; attracting Shop-Rite and Whole Foods and linking nonprofit’s workforce development with these new jobs; creating Model Neighborhood Initiatives in distressed areas and a City of Learning project to grow high school and college graduation; passing an Environmental Justice Ordinance to support a healthier Newark; Occupying Blocks to take back neighborhoods; and extending Riverfront Park for another two miles along downtown.

But there is always tension between encouraging investment and supporting residents, as illustrated in the recent weakening of the Rent Control Ordinance to encourage apartment upgrades – without true consultation with tenants.

From our perspective, to make the best effort at balanced revitalization, equity and justice must always be on the table and residents must always have a seat. 

In many ways, under Mayor Ras Baraka, Newark is closer to this equitable ideal than ever before: as a Councilman, the Mayor fronted strong rent control; he currently supports an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance; and he uses his bully pulpit to promote a Newark we ­all­ can believe in.

In the meantime, as the residents at Terrell have learned and indeed practiced, people need to unite and organize, organize, organize to protect their interests, strengthen and in some cases take back their neighborhoods, and push the forces that be to respond to their needs in the development of policy, plans, and investments of capital. 

How else will people remain to enjoy the riverfront parks of tomorrow?

Joseph Della Fave is the executive director of the Ironbound Community Corp.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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