By Grace Chung, PLACES Fellow and Senior Community Development Officer, LISC New York City

Going PLACES is an occasional blog series featuring the voices and experiences of TFN’s PLACES Fellows. For more information on the fellowship, and to read past blog posts from our fellows, visit here.

When I got off the PATH station at Harrison, a suburb of Newark, I arrived in an almost unrecognizable neighborhood. Everything seemed to be either under construction or built in the last five years, including a new PATH station, multiple gated luxury housing complexes, and an artisan “boutique” coffee shop.

I had gone to college near Newark and returned almost a decade later through the PLACES Fellowship, which teaches people in philanthropy how to incorporate racial equity into their work through the lens of four site visits around the country. As we drove through downtown Newark, I learned that changes weren’t limited to the city’s periphery. New companies had moved in—like Panasonic, Whole Foods, and Audible—and existing companies like Prudential had expanded, bringing new jobs with it. Housing construction was booming, along with a restaurant scene, which attracted celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson.

The physical transformation of Newark is striking, but as I learned during the three-day PLACES visit, the rising tide of economic growth has not benefited residents evenly. Far from it. In a panel about workforce and economic development, local experts rattled off the daunting statistics: the average income is $34,000 and poverty rate is still above the national average. There are more jobs, but Newark residents hold only about 18% of them (far lower than other major cities) and limited affordable homeownership options continue to be a barrier to wealth building. Only about 22% of Newark residents are homeowners—which one speaker pointed out is about the same as in the 1960s. The rest of Newark residents are renters, who are increasingly feeling pressure as rents have risen over the past decade.

In another panel on arts and culture, we learned that “the arts is selling Newark” to real estate developers and newcomers (and was even a carrot featured in Newark’s video to attract Amazon’s HQ2). But at the same time, long-time local artists are finding it harder to remain in place. Just recently two black-owned art galleries closed down. Unable to afford local rent, nonprofits like Newark Arts, have turned to cajoling private developers to try to offer up space to house local art. When a fellow asked local poet, Khalil Murrel, if he plans to stay in Newark, he half-joked that he will stay, so long as he can afford the rent. 

One explanation for persistent poverty in the face of Newark’s economic growth that many still come back to is “the riots”—referring to five days of unrest between residents and police in 1967 which left 26 dead and hundreds injured. The Newark-born writer and economist Richard Florida describes the “riots” as a turning point, which signaled the start of an “urban crisis” in which “middle-class people and jobs were fleeing cities like Newark for the suburbs, leaving their economies hollowed out.” White people and their companies left, and those that stayed found ways to isolate themselves through fortress architecture exemplified in the Gateway Center (which one of my fellow PLACES colleagues explained, uses elevated “skyway” tunnels to connect office workers to the train station so that they wouldn’t have to interact with people on the streets.)

A visit with the electric, white haired Junius Williams, nicknamed “the historian of Newark” by the Mayor, provided more to the complex story.  “If one has to push the foot off their neck, that’s a rebellion, not a riot,” said Williams who was a law student at the time. Now an educator at Rutgers University, Williams developed a website which he showed us called RiseUpNewark which pieces together oral history and photos which bring Newark history to life. It shows that well before 1967, the relationship between (majority white) police and black community were tense because of repeated incidents of police violence. And even before the so-called “urban crisis”, white families (like Richard Florida’s) were already leaving Newark because they could. As factories closed, white families with access to loans through the GI bill moved freely to suburbs to buy homes without discrimination. Meanwhile, essentially all of Newark was redlined – referring to a federally sanctioned practice in which lenders would draw red lines around communities deemed too “risky” for loans because of the high concentration of people of color.

This historic context illuminates that the events of 1967 did not “just happen” over a few days but were catalyzed by decades of policies and practices. What is equally important though, Williams is quick to point out, is what happened after the rebellion. As white people abandoned the city, Williams and hundreds of others took to work in community organizing and rebuilding what was left. Reflecting on that time, some of his proudest memories of Newark include organizing alongside neighbors for new affordable housing, establishing a workforce program, and in 1970, taking on the Democratic party to elect Newark’s first black mayor through an entirely grassroots campaign. Early on, neighbors and local churches pitched in resources to support these movements, artists re-opened abandoned spaces, and later in the 1980s, LISC Newark—a nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI)—was opened, going on to finance thousands of units of affordable housing and community spaces. After years of disempowerment, first by slavery, then by racist policies and practices, black Newark residents were shaping their future.

In 2017, the New York Times approvingly declared “New Jersey’s largest city is finally turning a corner”, transforming into a “hub for the arts and higher education and the growing vibrancy of its bustling ethnic neighborhoods”. The revitalization has not gone unnoticed by the real estate industry and large corporations. Now the question is, will long-time Newark residents get to stay and benefit? There is reason to be hopeful. Newark residents have taken pre-emptive measures to secure protections such as tightening rent control laws, inclusionary zoning which requires a 20-30% affordable housing set aside for new housing construction, and most recently, right to counsel legislation. But these movements will need sustained support in order for Newark’s growth to be shared equitably.

In PLACES, we learn that powerful questions are essential to disrupt that status quo of whiteness that perpetuates the professional world—including in philanthropy—and move us toward racial equity. These are two that emerged from my visit to Newark, which have stuck with me:

  • Instead of asking, “What is lacking in communities of color?” we must constantly be asking, ‘what are the systemic and historic reasons that have led to racial disparities?”
  • Instead of asking, “How can we help communities of color?” we must ask, “how do we direct more resources to communities so that they can be at the center of creating their own solutions?

My visit to Newark left me with the conviction that—now more than ever before—it is necessary for philanthropy to support residents so that they can continue to have a voice in determining their own future. For Judith Thompson Morris, one way that LISC Newark is doing this is through the Newark Resident Leadership Academy, which provides leadership training for residents and small grants to implement neighborhood-driven initiatives, and in the process build up local networks. For Williams, what is most essential is supporting the grassroots organizing which rebuilt Newark in the first place. Both Morris and Williams agree: charity will not help Newark; only sustained support for community led initiatives will bring about long-term systemic change.

As Williams told me after our visit, “If donors want to see change in America, they have to be willing to invest in the people who are willing to bring about that change—people willing to take risks, to take a stand and make sure others come to understand that they too have the power to make change.” 

A photo inside a new development, Harrison Urby, off the Harrison PATH stop which opened in 2017.


About the Author

Grace Chung is the Senior Community Development Officer for LISC New York City. She is a current fellow in the 2019 PLACES class.