THE abandoned buildings and vacant lots here in Newark are a reminder of those days in 1967 when this city became a national symbol of racial unrest. Riots left little but smoking rubble on some streets. Now, block by block, many streets destroyed by the Newark riots are being lined with town-house condominiums. Society Hall, as it is called, is the first large development of nonsubsidized housing to be built in this city in 75 years.
In fact, the 1967 riots capped a decline that began after World War II, when industrial giants such as General Electric and Westinghouse closed their factories and moved elsewhere in search of cheaper labor.
Constant crime and chronic unemployment became the trademarks of Newark's once-proud ethnic middle-class neighborhoods. As in other large cities around the country, middle-class Irish, Italians, and Jews moved to the suburbs, leaving behind a population of mostly poor blacks and Hispanics.
``We've certainly had our share of problems,'' Newark Mayor Sharpe James acknowledges. ``But we're coming back, turning things around, and creating a new Newark.''
Several blocks away from his City Hall office, a new 20-story concrete-and-glass office building has opened. Six more office buildings are scheduled to be completed in the next three years.
But it is the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts that Mayor James sees as a catalyst for the city's rejuvenation. ``We've got to bring people back to the streets of Newark at night and on weekends,'' the mayor says. ``Right now, downtown closes up after the workday is over, because there's no reason for people to be there. There's not even a movie theater or a bowling alley.''
But getting finances for this arts center will not be easy. A nonprofit corporation was founded; it must raise a minimum of $142 million to fund the first phase of the project - a 2,500-seat concert hall to house the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. So far the corporation has received $20 million from a state Economic Development Authority bond issue and another $20 million in private contributions. James says a financing plan is being put together that will be shared by the city, the state, and private sectors.
Finding more money may prove difficult. Rutgers University urban-affairs expert George Sternlieb explains: ``The state has a budget gap of $1.9 billion this year. Taxes are being raised. In that kind of environment state money will be scarce. ... That leaves an awfully large amount of private donations that have to be raised.''
Critics of Mayor James, however, contend he is paying too much attention to downtown office projects and the arts center and not enough attention to the problems of Newark's poor.
One-third of the city's residents are on welfare. There are an estimated 13,000 homeless people in a city of 315,000 residents. And according to medical authorities, Newark has a relatively large number of people diagnosed as having AIDS - 1,500 - placing it fifth in the nation with the number of people infected.
Many residents live in run-down housing that is decaying rapidly. The city's half-empty high-rise housing projects are so dilapidated that Newark started tearing them down three years after determining they were not salvageable.
But the demolition plan is in limbo. It was blocked by the courts after a coalition of low-income families sued to stop it until the city develops adequate relocation plans for the families that would be displaced.
``I think all the city of Newark wants to do is get people like us out of here,'' says Vera Winns, a resident of Newark's Hays Housing project for the past 36 years. ``Then they can build more fancy condominiums like Society Hall all over the city.''
The 12-story buildings of the Hays project are 80 percent abandoned. Most of the windows that are not broken are boarded up. Drug dealers are everywhere.
``To get to your apartment you have to walk over the squatters living in the hallway,'' says Mrs. Winns. ``It's a living nightmare.''
Msgr. William Linder, a Roman Catholic Church official who runs Newark's New Community Corporation, the city's largest developer of nonprofit, low-income housing, says development can be concentrated in the downtown area for only a limited time before creating problems.
``Mayor James has to realize that Newark is terribly plagued by a lack of real health in the city overall,'' Monsignor Linder says.
But James says such social problems can be solved only by increased social aid from Washington. Says James: ``We go to Washington and Bush said, `Read my lips, no money.' We're not going to solve these national problems on a local level without more funding.''
Yet while most people focus on the problems of the poor, says James, they ignore the middle-class dwellers who have stuck by the city.
``If we don't provide the middle class with services and amenities, then they will have no reason to stay,'' James says. ``Newark and other cities across this nation will become urban ghettos, like literal walled cities isolated from the rest of society.''
He points to developments like Society Hall town-house condominiums as a sign of Newark's neighborhoods becoming healthier.
Society Hall residents like George Jones agree. Mr. Jones, who had lived in Newark since he was seven, moved to a nearby town 12 years ago after his apartment building began to attract tenants he considered undesirable. Now he is back in Newark.
``These town houses are beautiful,'' he says. ``There's a new pride that Newark is coming back. That feeling wasn't there when I moved out of the city. We have hope again.''