THE ECONOMIST HAILS MAYOR BARAKA FOR CITY’S ECONOMIC TURNAROUND
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Baraka and roll Newark’s rebound
Ras Baraka, a mayor who initially alarmed businesses, is doing a grand job
WHEN Ras Baraka was elected Newark’s mayor in 2014, the business world was worried. He had brokered peace between the Crips and the Bloods, two fierce rival gangs, and is Newark royalty—his father, Amir Baraka, was a famous activist poet. But he was no fan of corporate America. Mr Baraka once compared the business community’s relationship to Newarkers to that of a master and slave. In office he has proved more pragmatic than expected, and his rhetoric might nowadays be mistaken for a management consultant’s. “We can’t get to where we want to be unless everyone takes accountability and is at the table,” says the former school principal.
Large swathes of the 26-square-mile city were wrecked during the 1967 unrest sparked by the police beating of a black cab driver. For years, Newark was one of the country’s most dangerous cities and one of its poorest. The former industrial powerhouse has endured decades of disinvestment, but this is changing.
Prudential, a Fortune 500 company founded in Newark in 1875, lent the city an expert to help it balance its books. Mr Baraka inherited a $93m deficit in 2014, but has piled up surpluses in the past two budgets. Prudential once walled itself off from the city’s streets with skywalks. But it built a new downtown office tower in 2015 and its staff now buy lunch in local restaurants. Panasonic, which moved its North American headquarters to Newark in 2013, donated $350,000 for police body cameras. Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon, is paying a year’s rent for employees living in the recently renovated Hahne building. Local universities have supplied criminologists to improve policing.
About $2 billion-worth of construction is under way, including in the city’s long-neglected Wards (neighbourhoods). The area destroyed in the rebellion, as Newarkers call the 1967 unrest, is being redeveloped. It is now home to part of Rutgers University’s campus, new apartments and the first supermarket built in the area in decades. The city intends to transform a boarded-up Victorian mansion, once owned by the first black woman in Newark to become a millionaire, into space for startups.
Of course not all this is Mr Baraka’s doing. Low unemployment and low violent crime are national phenomena. Newark’s proximity to New York helps. The current mayor benefits from groundwork done by his predecessor, Cory Booker. But Mr Baraka deserves the credit he is getting. Success is creating a new problem for Newark: nowadays Mr Baraka must spend time reassuring people that redevelopment will not come at Newarkers’ expense. To head off gentrification, the city may soon mandate that 20% of large housing be set aside for low- and moderate-income households.