Newark Throws Arts Party, Hoping to Spark Renewal

Can Beethoven and Wynton Marsalis be an antidote to inner-city crime, drugs, and poverty?

Newark's city fathers are counting on it.

In constructing the $180 million New Jersey Performing Arts Center set to open in October, city officials hope to spark a downtown renaissance, luring restaurants, shops, and apartments in to replace strip clubs and decrepit buildings. The NJPAC's 2,750-seat main music hall and 500-seat concert hall will be home to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Its first season includes violinist Itzhak Perlman, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and Mr. Marsalis, a jazz and classical trumpeter.

By being a cultural resource for New Jersey's biggest and most-troubled city, says Newark Mayor Sharpe James: "This will allow a youth to step over the crack vials and onto the stage."

Resurrecting a downtown by throwing a performing-arts party has been tried elsewhere - with success and failure.

In Cleveland a refurbished theater and performing-arts district, called Playhouse Square, along with the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a new baseball stadium, have become anchors of a reborn downtown that buzzes with night life. Dayton, Ohio, and Pittsburgh are struggling to follow a similar plan. But in Detroit, the Renaissance Center hasn't replicated Cleveland's magic, nor has the Brooklyn Academy of Music spurred a rejuvenation of its surrounding neighborhood.

Still, because many New Jerseyans now travel to New York or Philadelphia for their cultural adventures, Newark hopes its downtown arts center will provide cultural enrichment that's nearby.

How will it play in the 'burbs?

The major test facing the center is whether suburbanites will bring their bulging wallets to the long-abandoned downtown.

Like other cities that have seen their job and tax bases move to the suburbs, Newark is a shell of its former itself. Though a few major employers are still based here, the city's population dropped from nearly 500,000 in 1967 - when the city's infamous race riots scared many residents into the suburbs - to 275,000 today.

Mayor James says the proliferation of sports stadiums such as Giants Stadium - built beside the New Jersey Turnpike in a former swamp - and other arts centers in the suburbs, were emblematic of New Jersey turning its back on its inner cities.

"We have not sustained a night life in our urban centers," James says. "We have let our cultural centers move out to the boondocks. And then we wonder why our cities die after dark."

Safe, easy access

To make it easier for today's wary suburbanites to get to the NJPAC, New Jersey kicked in $7 million for a new exit ramp off nearby I-280, which terminates at the center's parking garage. The state, with corporate aid, is improving traffic signs to help people get in and out without getting lost.

Already there are signs of success. New restaurants and jazz clubs are opening near the NJPAC. Lofts in former factory buildings are being bought and renovated by artists.

But some detractors criticize spending $180 million - much of it privately raised - on a concert hall in a city that needs to fund schools, police, and the poor.

Lawrence Goldman, president and Chief Executive Officer of NJPAC, retorts that the center isn't just for suburbanites. It will give Newark and its Portuguese, black, Hispanic, and white communities what they haven't had for decades: common ground.

"We're trying to break down barriers," Mr. Goldman says. "That's why this site was chosen. It's right in the heart of downtown."

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