Newark mayor urges citizens to sustain progress

February 9, 2009 9:42:36 PM PST
Newark Mayor Cory Booker called on residents Monday to rise above the recession to continue the task of rebuilding New Jersey's largest city. In a State of the City speech that was alternately a policy briefing, pep rally and church sermon, the 39-year-old mayor cited progress in public safety and development and the challenges posed by the housing and banking crises, which have pushed the city unemployment rate to 10 percent. He spoke to a full house at the Newark Symphony Hall, which included Gov. Jon Corzine.

"We are unequivocally in a state of severe crisis," Booker said of the economy. "This will be a hard time for our city, but in the face of this hard time Newark will not lie down."

Booker cited Newark's declining homicide rate, which fell 36 percent in 2008 - to 67 homicides, down from 104 in 2006 when he won office. Shootings declined 32 percent to 343 during the same period and auto thefts plummeted 24 percent to 3,911.

Meanwhile, the city's tax base is headed in the other direction.

It has expanded 8.5 percent to $17.9 billion from June to January, according to Moody's Investors Services.

However, the shrinking economy has contributed to the cancellation of two hotels projects associated with the Prudential Center arena. A downtown office project also remains in limbo.

"We're all afraid of losing our homes and losing our jobs," Steve Adubato, a community organizer and former Booker opponent, said after the speech. "It's the worst of times, but I still feel hope."

Newark, which now has a population of about 280,000, lost 14 percent of its residents during the 1970s. The city has regained some residents since 2000, but continues to struggle with its reputation for violence and illegal drug sales.

Booker's has attracted a slew of celebrities to Newark, including actor Forest Whitaker, who is producing a documentary about the city's recovery.

He cited some of the others Monday and the projects they're engaged in. The list include singer Jon Bon Jovi, who is part of a project to build 51-residential units for people with special needs; media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who has donated $1.5 million to Newark charities; and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, who is involved in projects to build a 25-story luxury tower and upgrade a movie complex.

Corzine said Booker is transforming the way Newarkers view themselves and their city.

"This guy has created a whole different self-image of where the city is and where it's going," Corzine said. "The facts on the ground are dramatically better."

Booker, a Rhodes scholar who was not raised in Newark, remains a source of discussion among many longtime Newark residents.

Gerry Salme, 32, said public safety remains a problem despite recent improvements. He said he would prefer a mayor who knows what it's like to live without a safety net. Booker was raised in the affluent northern New Jersey community of Harrington Park.

"Every vehicle I have ever had in Newark - and I've had four - has been broken into at least once," Salme said. "My current car has been broken into four times. For all the taxes we pay I expect better."

Judy Goss, 27, said the city is getting better and Booker is responsible for that.

"He's for the people and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty," she said.