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From the Archives: ‘Confidence Man,’ Next City’s 2009 Profile of Cory Booker

A profile of Cory Booker, originally published in Next American City magazine in 2009.

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In light of the news that Cory Booker has won the Democratic primary in the New Jersey senate race, Next City is republishing a profile of the Newark mayor that ran in our old print magazine four years ago. This article was originally published in Issue No. 23 of Next American City magazine, summer 2009.

If cities were classified like patients, then Newark, N.J., to many outsiders, would be quadriplegic. You can make the patient comfortable, improve his quality of life and buy a high-end wheelchair, but the sad fact is he will never walk again.

Since race riots devastated it in 1967, the nation’s third-oldest city has spent much of its existence atop lists no city wants to be anywhere near: most dangerous, poorest, even fewest on-time arrivals at its airport. In 1975, Harper’s magazine wrote a particularly damning pronouncement: “The City of Newark stands without serious challenge as the worst city of all.” Today, however, first-time visitors who walk worriedly out of Newark Penn Station see that Newark’s downtown is clean, polished and, around rush hour, absolutely packed with people. Perhaps they work there, at Prudential Insurance Company, a downtown institution, or at Cablevision, or at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. Perhaps they live there, in a new development or in Eleven80, a refurbished Art Deco tower built during Newark’s ’30s heyday. Perhaps they study at Seton Hall Law School, or Rutgers University’s Newark campus, or Essex County College. They might be seeing a New Jersey Devils game at the Prudential Center or the London Symphony Orchestra at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which visitors can connect to via a sleek light rail line.

But it takes only a short walk from downtown to see symptoms of persistent problems. Check-cashing storefronts vastly outnumber those of actual banks. Even if Newarkers had a lot of money — about a quarter of them live in poverty — they would have few places to spend it, as national chains have largely eschewed the city and even grocery stores are scarce. Blight, in the form of defaced property and boarded-up buildings, consumes swaths of neighborhoods; many public parks are decayed. Violent crime, long the most stubborn monkey on Newark’s back, remains six times as high as the national per-capita rate and is apparent in the frequent sounds of sirens and the eerily empty streets of the most afflicted wards.

Still, it’s decidedly out of vogue these days to call Newark America’s worst city. With troubled Camden soaring toward the top of the latest “most dangerous cities” list, you could even say Newark isn’t the worst city in New Jersey anymore. Indeed, there is optimism in Newark, which flows largely from a man who is a tireless wellspring of the stuff: the 40-year-old mayor Cory Booker.

The charismatic politician has bolted to the forefront of not only Newark politics, but American politics, as he makes the rounds proclaiming Newark’s resurrection. His promises and proclamations can at times seem quixotic, but at least people are finally listening. “He’s really doing a good job to change perceptions of the city,” says Ken Walker, whose “Daily Newarker” blog has tracked the city’s news since 2005.

Indeed, Booker’s celebrity has become his most valuable asset. In a city where the last mayor went to prison for doing favors for his friends, Booker has leveraged his fame to reach outside the city for help, to enlist newcomers instead of cronies in his fight to make Newark a proud place instead of a punchline.

The Man, The Plan

It’s January, and Cory Booker is nearly hitting his head on the ceiling of a classroom in a Newark church basement. He’s holding his semi-monthly ”open office hours,” during which residents can come talk to him about whatever compels them, whether it’s crime, tax issues or just a desire to meet him — which is not all that uncommon a motive. Dozens of people — black, white, old, young — wait patiently in an adjacent function room. A group of young volunteer lawyers sits around a table, representing a Booker initiative called ”ReLeSe,” which helps ex-cons reenter society. Across the room, two women offer career counseling, and dozens of pamphlets line the floor, explaining how to get snow cleared, recycle or get a child into summer camp. One by one, guests enter the classroom, where they sit at small tables and explain their problems to Booker’s aides.

Each time Booker arrives at a new table, he lifts an empty chair and places it as close to his guest as he can, then listens to that person’s concerns attentively, looking comically large (he is 6 foot 3 and his physique still hints at having played as a tight end at Stanford). An elderly woman speaks loudly of “folks who need their food.” Another woman points to photographs documenting the decrepit state of her apartment, which an absentee landlord has left to rot. A woman accompanied by two teenage children explains that her fiance can’t find a job, though he would like to work as a policeman. Booker refers her to one of several police officials present, and then asks her children where they attend school. Both mumble a response. Booker asks one of them to remove his hood. He asks again where he’s at school, and the boy offers a slightly louder response. “Say hello to somebody some time,” the mayor says before rising and summoning another aide to assist the family.

Cory Booker’s high expectations for young Newarkers match those his parents had for him. They themselves were active in the civil rights movement before becoming among the first African-American executives at IBM. After growing up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, Booker went to Stanford, then to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and then to Yale Law. Along the way he collected friends with influence, a number of whom would later join his administration. He also developed a knack for elegiac language: “I entered public service,” he writes on his official website, “because I believe in the city of Newark, because I feel a profound sense of connection to this community and in large part because I feel a profound sense of connection to the large unfolding story of America — a story that is playing out in brilliant fashion in this sacred city.”

But the assortment of complaints at the open office hours shows that serious problems still plague Newark, problems Booker learned about immediately when came to town, in 1998, to run for City Council. He drew attention through a series of dramatic efforts that some derided as stunts: Soon after being elected councilman, he went on a 10-day hunger strike outside a drug-infested housing complex to protest the dire conditions inside. (At one point, residents hurled feces at his tent.) For eight years — even after he became mayor — he lived in Brick Towers, considered one of the most decrepit and dangerous housing projects in the nation until it was razed in late 2007. His first brush with national celebrity came when the Academy Award-nominated documentary Street Fight covered the bitterness of his 2002 run against longtime incumbent Sharpe James, who employed an array of rumors to ultimately defeat the newcomer: Booker was gay, he wasn’t really black, he was a carpetbagger. James currently sits in prison for corruption felonies he committed while in office.

Booker was elected in a 2006 landslide, and his fame has skyrocketed since. The single, vegetarian teetotaler frequently leaves his city to speak, campaign and accept awards. Somewhere along the way, it seems, he recognized he could use his celebrity to draw attention to his city. ”Cory has attracted a wealth of intellectual capital,” says friend and developer Baye Adofo-Wilson, ”people who are interested in trying to figure out how you can revitalize a city that had a corrupt administration, that went through an upheaval and now an economic recession.”

These days, it’s almost trendy to invest in Newark. Celebrity names littered Booker’s January “State of the City” speech, most notably Oprah Winfrey, who recently gave more than $1 million to city projects. Tiki Barber is donating equipment to parks, and the Heinz Family Philanthropies, headed by Teresa Heinz Kerry, is partnering with the city to help uninsured citizens gain access to pharmaceuticals. Local-boy-turned superstar Shaquille O’Neal is following up a significant housing investment with the rehabilitation of a movie theater. Brad Pitt swung by City Hall in March, and Forest Whitaker is producing a documentary series about the city for the Sundance Channel. Cory Booker is, of course, the star.

Partnering for Progress

While the celebrity partnerships are glamorous, they’re hardly the only ones powering Newark’s resurgence. ”Almost everything we do involves a partnership with another entity,” says Stefan Pryor, a Booker friend from Yale who now works as deputy mayor for economic development. Indeed, in his “State of the City” address, Booker used the terms ”coalition” and ”partnerships” some 28 times.

Some of these partnerships are with national groups like the Gates Foundation, Wal-Mart’s charitable arm and the National League of Cities, but many are homegrown. To help spur economic development in a city where unemployment is above 13 percent and a third of children live in poverty, Booker’s team created the Brick City Development Corporation, a nonprofit that acts as Newark’s economic development arm. It reaches out to national and international companies looking for office space, helps developers locate land and obtain building permits, and provides loans to minority business owners.

Partnerships fuel more than business. Take parks: The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation organization, has partnered with the city in the Parks for People program, which has already led to the creation of seven new parks and playgrounds. Many more are under development, including two that will be the largest owned and operated by the city and another that’s intended to be the centerpiece of redevelopment of a desolate stretch of land along the Passaic River. ”They’re real, substantial partners,” says Rose Harvey, national director of urban programs for TPL, of the Booker administration. ”It’s easy for politicians to make good speeches, but it’s harder to go beyond that and make sure that it really happens.”

There was no formal city planning department prior to Booker’s election, and you can tell. A Manhattan Institute fellow recently wrote that “Newark is a living laboratory for nearly every bad planning idea of the 20th century.” Superblocks destroyed city grids. Expanded roadways made for easy escape to the suburbs. Newark indulged in massive housing projects like Brick Towers, which created havens for crime and discouraged diversity. But infrastructure-wise, Newark has plenty going for it: It’s 10 miles from Manhattan, and is home to the 10th-busiest airport in the country, as well as a massive seaport.

Credit: Rachel Barrett

Newark lost some 100,000 people in the 40 years following the riots, but from 2002 to 2006 its population climbed 3 percent, to nearly 300,000, making it the country’s fastest-growing. Part of the influx can be attributed to the city’s recent concerted efforts to increase the availability of mixed-income housing: The mayor, who is frequently photographed holding a shovel, says the number of affordable housing units doubled between 2006 and 2008, and units in development tripled.

Still, mending the broken seams of Newark’s neighborhoods is tricky. Deputy Mayor Pryor points out that the continued revitalization of downtown is critical to the city’s overall health: ”We want to convert our central business district into a 24/7 community that enables people to live where they work, and which feels like a neighborhood,” Pryor says. The next and more difficult step is connecting downtown to the rest of the city, something Baye Adofo-Wilson has been working on for a decade. The urban planner is executive director of Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District, a planned area that connects downtown with an impoverished residential neighborhood. Adofo-Wilson and his team decided to make African-American heritage the centerpiece of their work — fitting, since the neighborhood, like New York’s Harlem, was the epicenter of black culture and entertainment in the rollicking ’20s and ’30s. The group founded a music festival, which last year drew 40,000 guests, and is simultaneously building housing and a museum of African-American music, which will be affiliated with the Smithsonian.

“We figured we could use music to bring people together, acknowledging and highlighting the artists and creativity that have come out of Newark over these years,” Adofo-Wilson says. “And also just have a good time.” The group finished its first 18-unit mixed-use, mixed-income housing development last year, and plans to complete another this year. “With the previous administration,” Adofo-Wilson says, “they weren’t really dealing with the concepts of green and sustainability. It’s refreshing to have that kind of conversation with the current administration.”

“Affordable” housing isn’t a simple concept in Newark, where many residents are hobbled not just by poverty but by problems such as illness, addiction or a criminal past. This reality informed the development of Newark Genesis Apartments, a housing complex with both market-rate apartments and those reserved for people living with HIV/AIDS, who will receive support services. Genesis Apartments represents another of Booker’s blockbuster partnerships, this time with a nonprofit, a private developer and a celebrity. In 2006 HELP USA, a nonprofit developer of supportive-service housing for homeless, low-income and special-needs individuals, honored Jon Bon Jovi, who’s done a number of charitable works through his Philadelphia Soul Foundation. Bon Jovi mentioned he wanted to do a project in New Jersey, and the group began to scout locations. They first looked in Camden, but found little reception. “Once we got into Newark,” HELP USA president Larry Belinsky says, ”Mayor Booker was extremely engaging and very excited. He and his administration embraced the idea and the concept of what we were trying to do.” (Booker outed himself as a Bon Jovi fan in January when he used lyrics to praise the singer, saying he “doesn’t give love a bad name, he gives it a good name.”)

With the city’s guidance, HELP USA identified and purchased land for the four-story building, which has a number of green components and community spaces, and is slated to open this fall. “It will be a building,” Belinsky says, “that people will look to and say, ‘I can’t believe this is in Newark.’”

An Old Villain, and a New One

Booker’s words are almost exclusively positive, and he relies heavily on quotes from the likes of Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr. Just as easily, though, he can get angry: After Esquire published a profile of him in 2008 in which, among other things, the writer expressed his profound gratitude that he did not live in Newark, the mayor penned an impassioned four-page letter to the editor, calling the article a “narrow, cliched, and grossly insulting misinterpretation of Newark.”

But he reserves particular anger for Newark’s most pressing problem: crime. Booker has said a number of times that his administration will “live or die on public safety.” Crime’s lingering imprint was apparent at the open office hours, where inside, ex-cons lined up for help, and outside, a police officer shouted into a phone, asking for details about a shooting in the South Ward.

Things are improving: In 2008 the city recorded 67 homicides, well below the 1985-2005 average of 97. Booker has attributed some of the progress to technological advancements in policing, such as better computerization and 109 cameras, which thus far have captured more than 5,000 “events” and led to dozens of arrests. In February, however, crime reared its head again when 15 people were shot in a week.

The uptick may be linked to a new villain: the recession. Even there, of course, Booker and his staff are optimistic. “There may be a silver — or a bronze — lining to this scenario,” Pryor says. “It used to be that a corporate address that carried status was a priority. Now it might be that companies are looking for cost-effectiveness over status. They’re looking for vibrant areas. If that’s the case, then Newark is very well positioned.”

But with so much of Newark’s recovery agenda pegged to development — which is in turn pegged to the availability of capital — it remains to be seen whether Booker can maintain Newark’s momentum. Coping with the recession, and the cutbacks and compromises it will necessitate, might require a political ruthlessness that Booker seems to lack. One of the few criticisms you hear of him is that he has no management experience, which has at times led to frustration for partners navigating the city bureaucracy. “Government is government,” Baye Adofo-Wilson says. “He’s made changes, but he’s still working with an apparatus that has to be navigated to get projects completed. That part isn’t much different.” Increasingly hamstrung finances have already begun to interfere with Booker’s bold vision: In early April, city workers grumbled when he proposed that they take furloughs to help close a budget deficit.

And there is small-scale frustration aplenty, apparent at the open office hours. Even if people do not hold Booker responsible for creating their problems, they may soon wonder why he hasn’t yet fixed them. “There’s a difference between personal popularity and policy popularity,” says Douglas Muzzio, a political analyst and professor at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. “The dangers of extreme popularity are excessive expectations that can’t be met, which leads to disillusionment – and loss of elections. You’ve got to deliver in the face of, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”

Still, Booker’s been a Newark politician for a decade, and so far he’s shown no signs of devolving into Sharpe James, or even of moving into an upscale neighborhood or taking the time to get married, which he insists he’ll do. To see him in person is to realize that he’s always “on”; frustration seems only to catapult him into more action. If his optimism sometimes mutates into hyperbole, it hasn’t much affected his standing in the public — or the political — realm. So far, it seems, he’s on track for an easy reelection in 2010. There was a short-lived, minuscule effort to recall him in 2007, spearheaded by disgruntled James supporters; it has long since fizzled, and nothing along the lines of coherent opposition has formed since. As of mid-March, his approval ratings hovered around 80 percent. “Booker’s popularity and lack of organized opposition at this point is healthy,” Muzzio says, “given the immense problems he and the city are confronting.”

And his national, and even international, celebrity is only increasing. The headline of a recent profile of Booker in the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper asked: “The Next President of the United States?” While Booker’s charisma mirrors that of Obama, his ambition seems not to: In March he turned down an overture from Gov. Jon Corzine to join his reelection campaign as lieutenant governor. For now, Booker’s intent on realizing his vision of Newark, recession — and sleep, it seems — be damned.

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