Dr. Molly Townsend came to Newark to work to further develop her career. What she did not expect is that she would be part of the inexorable redevelopment of the now-thriving heart of New Jersey's largest city.
And, like many in Newark, she is at times ambivalent about a change that cannot—and will not—be stopped, for better or for worse.
"I'm being seen as a voice for Newark, and I barely know Newark. Is that the right direction for Newark, and for those who have lived here for 20 years?" asked Townsend, 27, a postdoctoral researcher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) who moved to the city last summer. "That's a question that I wrestle with. Are these changes something that's reflecting what's the best for the neighborhood?"
Townsend was one of six Newark residents who gathered at a neighborhood potluck dinner at Kilkenny Alehouse on the corner of Halsey Street and Central Avenue organized by TAPintoNewark as part of the Voting Block project, a collaboration of newsrooms serving New Jersey, set up in the hope of helping to fix the fissures created by America's currently corrosive political culture.
The potluck is meant to provide a friendly forum, where neighbors can civilly discuss the critical issues affecting the Garden State before this year's gubernatorial election. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy has been leading Republican Kim Guadagno in the polls for most of the campaign.
Among the people who live on Halsey Street who came together at Kilkenny's, the consensus is clear about whoever occupies the Statehouse in Trenton for the next four years. The new governor must aid, not impede, Newark's ongoing revival.
The section of Halsey Street that bridges the Rutgers-Newark campus on Washington Street to the brand new Hahne's & Co. apartments, with an adjoining Whole Foods upscale market, on Broad Street, could be seen as the ground zero of downtown Newark's revival.
But Ana Ortega, a resident of Newark's largely Latino North Ward who takes public transportation to her job at a Cuban restaurant on New Street everyday, believes downtown Newark's recent growth explosion won't touch her neighborhood. Ortega also doesn't feel that either Murphy or Guadagno can reach her enough for her to care about who wins on Election Day.
"I don't see anybody that's worth my time. Because it's like they want to make a better Newark, but for people with money or for people who don't live in Newark," Ortega, 31, said. "The people who live in Newark are the ones paying for all of this new construction. Our taxpayer money is paying for everybody, and we basically get screwed over."
"They'll promise you this, that and everything," Ortega added. "They sell you rainbows and unicorns, but at the end of the day it's not only their word. So we won't get anything either way."
Derek Ware, a third-generation Newarker who lives downtown, is the president of the Historic James Street Neighborhood Association, a group that works to protect the character and integrity of an approximately 20-block area that contains some of the city's most beautiful brownstones.
Ware lauded the city government's efforts during the administration of then-mayor and now U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) for helping to create a Broad Street redevelopment plan that worked with community members to try to come up with common solutions to questions about the direction of redevelopment in the neighborhood.
Ware only had time to pick at the empanadas and falafel arrayed on a long table in the upstairs meeting hall of the Kilkenny. Instead, Ware, an economics professor at Essex County College, was about to march across the street to a meeting with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and other city officials. He had a bone to pick.
"Under the new administration, we're starting to see some of the old behaviors," said Ware, 43, referring to the time after Baraka became mayor in 2014. "Institutions are starting to corral in their own areas, looking out for their own self-interest and starting to forget the comprehensible arrangement that we had."
Before he left to meet Baraka, Ware examined Newark's voter engagement in the fast-approaching gubernatorial election by taking a closer look at the mores of city politics.
"In many cases, the local streets and blocks are not engaged, and they only come into elections at the time of elections. And in many cases in Newark, it's normally the payment of a dinner," said Ware, a comment on the tradition of city politicians giving away frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving time to curry voters' favor.
"So here, we're having true conversations about how the local politicians are providing services for the community, and then asking the real valid question: Are you going to do that, or just tell us what the deal is so that we understand what democracy is," Ware asked. "Is it for the people, or is it for the businesses that don't vote?"
It is the potential arrival of one particular business that could dramatically accelerate the continuing changes in downtown Newark's socioeconomic landscape.
Earlier this month, Gov. Chris Christie, standing side-by-side with Booker and Baraka, announced that he had selected Newark as the state's endorsed recommendation to the Seattle-based retail giant's second corporate headquarters.
The opportunity could bring 50,000 jobs and billions of dollars of private investment to the state. The potential economic epiphany of Amazon building its second headquarters in Newark could not only extinguish the fading memories of the 1967 riot, which almost destroyed the city's civic fabric. It could be Newark's biggest business boost in its more-than 350 years of existence.
Benjamin Weber, who helps run the Green Chicpea restaurant on Halsey Street with this family, believes that timing is everything when it comes to economic opportunity knocking. And for Weber, Newark's time is now, but only if the right political leadership is in place.
"We see this community growing, but how fast, in what direction, what does it need to continue to sustain that growth? Looking for that next key to open that next door is very important," said Weber, 26. "You have an increasing population, people building apartments, people wanting to live here, you have the schools, you have the businesses moving in. If you continue to help facilitate that, and continue that growth, I think it will just pour over into the rest of the state."
"Everything we do here is because we believe in this city," Weber added. "If we have a governor that doesn't believe, or isn't on the same track, that only takes away from our effort and our time and our money that we're putting in here to help grow something."
"I agree," said Townsend as she offered some of her homemade salad to Weber. "Hearing tonight about how Chris Christie was supporting Newark, in particular with getting New Jersey's bid for Amazon, that does highlight the importance and the influence that a governor can have over a community."
Eventually, Townsend and Weber went downstairs, where they met with with Chike Uzoka, another Halsey Street habitue. Uzoka, a graduate of NJIT who works in commercial real estate, was eating dinner at the bar. As Townsend tried to get him to eat some of her salad, Uzoka rhetorically arched his eyebrow when asked if the outcome of the 2017 New Jersey governor's race will really affect either Newark, or Halsey Street, or the people in his neighborhood, including him.
"I don't know. I don't think it does. Isn't the New Jersey state motto "Peace and love?'" said Uzoka, 34, a comment that induced laughter from his friends and neighbors who know the Garden State's reputation for rough-and-tumble politics.
But then Uzoka, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the black-and-white images of 1960s civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dick Gregory, paused. He presented his case as to why he believes that it's not politicians that are going to make Newark great. Instead, it is Newark's people that make the city shine, never mind the ballots cast on Election Day.
"Newark is going to be OK. I have hope and faith in my city. I do. I've been here too long to not," Uzoka said as he sampled Townsend's salad. "You have to know the city to have that feeling."