NEWARK Mayor Sharpe James sees a certain poetic justice in the fact that his city, once "kicked, stepped on, and laughed at," is now an award-winner. This summer, on its 325th anniversary, Newark is taking home what Mayor James calls the "triple crown." The US Environmental Protection Agency awarded Newark for its recycling program, the National Civic League made it one of 10 finalists for its All-American City award, and the US Conference of Mayors gave it a "City Livability Award." James was cited for his leadership in a "true renaissance." For many Americans, the televised image of a Newark in flames during the fierce riots of 1967 remains vivid, but this predominately black and Hispanic city has come a long way since then. James, who is himself black, and who was reelected without opposition last year to his second term, is the first to admit Newark has a long way to go. "To be a senior city and be recognized for our progress, I think, is the most important message you can send. The test of Newark is the test of America. Can [older] urban centers survive and grow?" New Jersey's largest city, long known as an insurance and banking town, is showing many signs of revival: huge office structures, 7,500 units of new and rehabilitated affordable housing, a performing arts center, and its first legitimate movie house in 50 years. "There's a construction boom here which has no parallel for a city of this size," says Norman Samuels, provost of Rutgers University's Newark Campus.
Corporations helped Much of the credit for Newark's revival is given to the decision by Prudential Insurance Company officials not only to keep and expand the headquarters here but to encourage four other corporations to stay. Prudential has also built extra office space for lease to others and has channeled vital dollars into social projects. "Prudential provided a sense of confidence," says Rutgers's Mr. Samuels. Analysts view Newark's prime location - just 10 miles east of New York City - and strong transportation network, as key to the city's rebound. Aggressive city marketing and savvy use of tax lures also figure. "Without the ability to offer tax abatements, 99 percent of what we've built in the last 15 years wouldn't have been built," insists Alfred Faiella, head of the Newark Economic Development Corporation. Steady cooperative efforts by business, government, and community leaders have also helped turn Newark around. Leaders of the four public institutions of higher education here meet regularly to help each other and the city. The academic community has sponsored new housing, worked closely with the public schools, and is currently planning a new science park develop-ment. One university runs the city hospital system. Alex Plinio, former president of the Prudential Foundation and once in charge of the company's community relations, says he thinks a shift in attitude about Newark's problems has been an important part of the change. In his view the city "bottomed out" in the late 1970s and early '80s. Some of Newark's revitalization - though many would argue not nearly enough - has spilled into its neighborhoods. The Ironbound section, where many Portugese-Americans live, draws a steady stream of tourists. Air Portugal is planning to move its US headquarters there. One of the most highly acclaimed neighborhood efforts has occurred in the heart of the riot area. (See accompanying story). "I often hear people say, 'Nothing's happening in the neighborhoods - it's all downtown, says Richard Cammarieri, a lifelong Newark resident and executive director of the Newark Coalition for Neighborhoods. "There have definitely been improvements in some neighborhoods, but ... there are just so many problems left." "It's my job to make sure that all residents benefit from the renaissance," James insists. "Whether we really put a feather in our cap ... will depend on [improvement of] the quality of life in our neighborhoods." The mayor has made public safety a high priority. He says he recently "took a beating" for going outside the city to pick a new police director. James says he chose William Celester, a former deputy superintendent in charge of a high-crime area in Boston, because "he is a street fighter" and community activist. Still, the challenge for Mayor James and Newark remains steep. The city's population of 275,000 is 33 percent smaller than it was two decades ago. One-third of that population relies on some form of public assistance. The city has a particularly high auto theft rate and the usual array of urban problems including AIDS, drugs, homelessness, and high unemployment. Though the average salary of private-sector jobs in Newark (often skilled jobs filled by commuters) is about 9 percent higher than the state average, the income for a family of four living in Newark is less than half the state average.
Social cooperation Still, Newark has more helping hands with regard to its social problems than many cities. One mechanism of public-private partnership here, focused on improvement of everything from child care to safety, is the Newark Collaboration Group Inc. Founded in the early '80s by Mr. Plinio, it gives business, government, the academic community, and community representatives an equal voice in decisions. "It's important not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems," says Dr. Paulette Coleman, executive director of the group. "The challenges are difficult but not impossible." Meanwhile, congratulatory letters are stacking up in Mayor James's office; some from former residents who left during hard times. Others are from mayors such as Dave Smith, of Newark, Calif., who once wanted to change the name of his town because he thought Newark, N.J.'s gritty reputation hurt his town.