NEWARK, NJ - Kenyon Taylor, a New York City subway conductor from the Bronx, came to downtown Newark on Saturday afternoon as part of a quest to see if he wants to move to New Jersey's largest city.
"You have to come visit, you have to do the footwork," said Taylor, 40, sitting next to his girlfriend on a bus tour of various sites in the city's downtown, designed to draw in those from around the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area who are considering a shift of domiciles.
"You have to see for yourself, and I saw more than I needed to see," Taylor said. "These places we're looking at are to lease. I want to get in on the ground floor. I want to buy."
The tour, sponsored by the non-profit Newark Downtown District, the city's special improvement district of the central business area, drew approximately 700 people, according to the organization.
The exploration included live music events at established downtown Newark cultural institutions such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and the Newark Museum, as well as open houses at the numerous art galleries dotting downtown. But the tour focused on the many new apartments in new and renovated buildings that have sprung up in Newark, particularly over the last five years.
"We are so excited to see so much interest in living, working and playing in Newark," said Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins. "The Central Ward continues to be the engine and the gateway for Newark. Where the Central Ward goes, Newark goes."
One relatively well-known stop on the tour was the Hahne & Co. Building apartments above the brand-new Whole Foods high-end supermarket on Broad Street. Another stop on the tour was the Richardson Lofts on Columbia Street, located one block away from the Prudential Center and diagonally across from the site of Mulberry Commons, a planned public park with a scheduled groundbreaking this summer. Members of the tour walked up a steel spiral staircase to the roof to take in the view of Manhattan before they checked out apartments.
Sheikia "Purple" Norris, a Newark resident, lives in the Society Hill development but is considering a move downtown. Standing in a duplex apartment with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a den with a rental rate of $2450 a month, she admired the new kitchen and the high ceilings. Norris, however, sees something else coming to the city.
"I love the city's transformation, but where do people go when three bedroom apartments turn into four bedrooms and the rent gets higher?" said Norris, the artistic director of a non-profit hip-hop education program that works in schools around New Jersey.
"The people who have lived here for decades have toughed it out," Norris said. "I have to think about the role I'm playing in all this. And we won't get a different narrative if we don't think about that."
Tonnie Rozier's narrative is told best not by words, but by the smell of freshly baked cupcakes wafting out the door of his brand-new bakery, Tonnie's Minis on Halsey Street.
Rozier has a great commute: he lives across the street in the Teachers Village apartment complex with his wife and two younger children. He was also having a great morning: more than 30 people, part of the downtown tour, were lined up outside.
"I live here, I work here, and we're doing business like this after being open a month with no marketing," said Rozier, 47, holding up a tray of lemon and strawberry cupcakes just out of the oven.
"I had a store in Harlem, and I got priced out," he said. "I can see the changes coming here, and they have to make sure that this doesn't become Brooklyn. It's going to be up to the city, meaning Mayor [Ras] Baraka, to handle the changes and make sure the changes are for the people here already."
Inside Teachers Village, the halls were jammed with people looking at brand-new one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. Prices range from $1,600 to $2,400 a month for the largest apartments, with discounts available for educators.
Among those touring Teachers Village were Julia Zeppi and Vicki Salz, life-long friends who grew up in Newark's Vailsburg neighborhood. Members of the city's West Side High School Class of 1961, they remember the 1967 civil disturbances, a riot to some, a rebellion to others.
Standing outside of Teachers Village, just blocks away from what was an urban war zone 50 years ago, Julia and Vicki felt like they were getting a re-education about their home town.
"This is not the Newark that we ever knew," said Zeppi, who now lives in West Orange. "We took the bus to the corner of Broad and Market today just to have a look at what's going on. I was a typist for the Newark Police Department, and I wish some of the guys were alive so I could call them up and tell them what I'm seeing. It's shocking."
"Downtown Newark has great potential, but the rest of it I'm less hopeful, we'll have to see," said Salz, who lives in East Brunswick. "But I loved what I saw downtown. I'm not going to sell my house. But if somebody asks me what I saw today, I'm going to say it was fabulous."