As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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The election-night victory party for Ras Baraka, the new mayor of Newark, New Jersey, took place on May 13, at a hotel in the city’s gradually reviving downtown. Jubilant union volunteers in blue T-shirts from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) flooded the ballroom. High-schoolers from the Newark Students Union, who are at war with an unpopular, state-appointed school superintendent, clustered at tables with their organizer-chaperones. At the podium, former New Jersey governor Richard Codey and the mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, stood close to Baraka, basking in the vindication of their gamble to back him, in calculated defiance of the state’s Democratic machine power brokers.
On each table, meanwhile, someone had placed copies of a special edition of Unity & Struggle, the pamphlet started by Baraka’s father, the author and activist Amiri Baraka, who died on January 9. “POET ON!” screamed the headline, above a sharp late text by the elder Baraka excoriating white supremacy as the “real terrorism.”
The forces in the ballroom that evening gave a good indication of the energies that drove Baraka’s insurgent campaign and the expectations that greet him as he takes office on July 1. Newark is New Jersey’s largest city, with 280,000 residents, and one of New York City’s closest satellites. Tucked in the Jersey marshes, just eight miles from Manhattan, the city faces issues of poverty, crime and corruption that have marred its reputation for decades. The administration of Cory Booker, from 2006 to 2013, drew national attention but disappointed Newark progressives. Working with New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the telegenic Booker helped attract development and corporate offices to Newark’s downtown, and convinced Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to gift $100 million to the schools.
But for all Booker’s enthusiasm, Newark remains a city in crisis. The child poverty rate is 43 percent. There were 111 homicides in 2013, the highest level since 1990 and one-quarter of the state total. The mortgage crisis has left 55 percent of homes underwater. The budget deficit is $93 million, and the state has dangled the threat of fiscal takeover. And although Booker, who stepped down in 2013 upon his election to the US Senate, was the first Newark mayor in decades to avoid indictment, he left a major graft scandal at the city’s water agency.
Baraka, 44, represents a radical alternative to Booker’s boosterish, corporate-friendly approach. He ran on a platform of job growth, neighborhood services and opposition to school privatization and closures. He is himself a high school principal who went on leave from his post at Newark’s Central High School to run for mayor. He has also served since 2009 as city council member for the South Ward, home to the Barakas, Jameses, Paynes and other lines of Newark’s black political nobility. Baraka is most of all an activist: he first ran for mayor at 24, and he regularly led rallies against Booker’s policies, emerging as the most prominent thorn in the former mayor’s side.