Wallenda sets high-wire record in Newark

October 15, 2008 5:53:44 PM PDT
Roommates Makhan Taylor and Tia Smith gazed up at Nik Wallenda, jaws agape, as the daredevil set a world record Wednesday outside Newark's Prudential Center arena for the longest bicycle passage on a wire - without a net. Until now, it was the closest thing to a traditional circus they've seen in Newark.

"I never expected to see something like this in Newark because just nothing ever came here," said Taylor, 27. "No circus, no nothing."

As children, Taylor and Smith, Newark natives, traveled to New York City's Madison Square Garden to see the circus because it didn't stop in their hometown, even though it's the largest city in New Jersey.

Though they now live in Perth Amboy, they say they'd consider moving back to Newark.

"We love what's happening in the city now and we'll definitely move back in the next few years if it continues," said Smith, 28.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spokeswoman Hillary Herskowitz said Wallenda's feat marks the circus' return to Newark after a 52-year absence. The 1-year-old Prudential Center arena, home to the New Jersey Devils hockey team, hosts the circus' Bellobration show, Oct. 16-19.

A few feet away from Taylor and Smith, Newark Mayor Cory Booker stood in front of a crowd of more than 400 onlookers. Booker stared up at Wallenda, willing the daredevil to a successful performance as Wallenda crossed a 235-long wire suspended 135 feet in the air between a crane and the roof of the Prudential Center.

Nik Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of a circus family that's gained fame as both "The Flying Wallendas" and "The Great Wallendas." The Wallendas have also lost at least three members to fatal accidents on the high wire during the past 46 years.

Allowing the attention-getting feat to be performed above downtown Newark during the morning commute is the latest gamble for the 39-year-old Booker, who spent nights in an RV parked at some of Newark's most dangerous street corners early in his political career to highlight neglected neighborhoods.

"We're doing everything we can to lift the city and it would have been tragic if he had fallen," Booker said.

Wallenda didn't. The daredevil, who performs in the Bellobration show, walked across Mulberry Street and returned via bicycle to set a mark with Guinness World Records for the longest distance ever traveled by a bike on the wire.

The stunt featured several frightening moments that left onlookers gasping, including a cell phone call placed halfway through the walk.

"He's getting a hot stock tip," quipped Todd Andrews, 44, of Elizabeth.

Wallenda was actually calling NBC's "Today" Show, which televised the stunt live.

The 29-year-old daredevil said he ran into several unscripted challenges, which included the rear rim on his tireless bicycle slipping toward the end of the ride as the wire angled upward to the roof. A set of brackets securing stabilizer wires to the main cable were too thick and also caused problems for him.

"They were like speed bumps," said Wallenda, who hopes to set another record by traversing the Grand Canyon on a high wire in the Spring.

Wallenda said he was cognizant of how much Newark had riding on his success and held the stunt here partly to draw attention to the progress being made by the Booker administration.

"That was one of the reasons I chose this area," Wallenda says. "It's a wonderful area. It's been cleaned up."

Taylor and Smith said Wallenda's feat has them thinking about how nice it would be to finally see the circus in Newark. Hakim Beasley, 42, had the same thought a few feet away.

"I'm going to take my grandson and nephew to see the circus," said Beasley as he stared up at Wallenda. "I've lived in Newark all my life and this is the first time I've seen something like this."

"It's a sign that the city is changing," Beasley. "Things are looking up."

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