Cory Booker is reviving a neglected city – and in the process the mayor of Newark has attracted the attention of influential people. With the same ‘yes we can’ attitude as Obama, he may one day even follow in the president’s footsteps.
Newark mayor Cory Booker is nothing if not a numbers man. Data, statistics, figures and ratings have defined the Booker administration since the New Jersey-raised former Rhodes scholar was elected in 2006 with 72 per cent of the vote. Since arriving at City Hall, Booker’s numbers have been equally impressive: Newark’s lowest murder rate in over 40 years; some $200m (€142m) in private-sector philanthropy; a 100 per cent increase in affordable housing; and more than a million Twitter followers. Not bad for a place Money magazine once called “the most dangerous city in America”.
Yet even Booker would concede that numbers tell only part of Newark’s story. Best known for its huge international airport, Newark is New Jersey’s largest city – a sprawling, river-front mini-metropolis 16km west of Manhattan. Towered over by Art Deco skyscrapers and dotted with Gothic cathedrals and Beaux-Arts municipal buildings, Newark still betrays the physical gravitas of its Second World War-era industrial might. But that boom then turned to blight following the city’s infamous 1967 riots, which ended with dozens dead and Newark stained as a symbol of urban unrest.
Four decades later, Booker took control of a Newark still reeling from decades of neglect. Having served as a Municipal City Council member from 1998 to 2002 – and having lived for eight years in a public housing estate – Booker was intimately familiar with Newark’s most pressing challenges. Rampant crime, a failing education system, scant private investment and government malfeasance kept Newark from maximising its potential as a key transport artery next to America’s most important economic engine. While the global downturn may have hit Newark hard, Booker is pushing forward with his ambitious municipal agenda. Along with wooing companies such as Panasonic, audible.com and kosher foods giant Manischewitz to relocate to Newark, Booker’s office is developing over 20 green spaces, hi-tech job-training centres and Newark’s first new hotels in 40 years.
Booker’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2009 he declined an offer by the Obama administration to lead the newly formed White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy, while last year City Hall received a $100m (€71m) donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to support education reform.
Although he’s still mulling a third mayoral term, Booker is already being touted as a potential governor, senator or perhaps even America’s second African-American president. With copies of the Bible, Torah, Koran and Bhagavad Gita by his side, Booker spoke to Monocle in his City Hall office about crime, innovation and whether colour still matters in post-Obama America.
Monocle: Does being so close to New York City help or hinder Newark?
Cory Booker: It’s a huge advantage. New York is America’s top media centre which ensures that things happening in Newark receive wide coverage. New York also offers a tremendous amount of wealth, which helps with philanthropy, business attraction and tourism; our Prudential Center Arena pulls people from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Isolated cities struggle because they’re islands unto themselves, but our position in this larger metropolitan region creates important dynamism and synergies.
M: You’ve spoken of transforming Newark into a major logistics/transport hub. What are the city’s competitive advantages in this area?
CB: Newark sits on the best transport superstructure in the northeastern seaboard – rail, airport, navigable waters. Companies in Newark can ship their goods to a third of America’s population in two to three hours. We are integrating and promoting these logistics advantages and the private sector is responding.
M: Public-private partnerships and investment have been a core component of your administration. Why should businesses step in where the government is lagging?
CB: Unlike the arts, technology and private sector, government has not always been great at innovating, and innovation is essential, especially during a period of contraction. Our goal is to find private sector partners to develop government innovations that can affect long-term public policy. We’re doing this with tax reform and prisoner re-entry programmes; IBM has given us pro-bono technology services. Beyond philanthropy, we want the private sector to stimulate change.
M: Two years into your first term the global economy nose-dived. How did this affect City Hall’s agenda?
CB: We were enormously affected. Big-box retailers and major developers all had plans to invest and then – boom! – everything slowed down. We went from running on an Olympic track to running knee-deep in water. We had to develop creative tax incentives and find new revenue streams to think our way out of this crisis.
M: Newark is the hometown of literary icons, including Paul Auster and Philip Roth, but people still associate it with crime and urban decay. Has the rest of the country woken up to the “new” Newark?
CB: People haven’t woken up, but they’re waking up; there’s still this Newark “shock” value when people flow into the city who normally wouldn’t visit. They don’t realise Newark hosts NCAA basketball tournaments, May’s Peace Education Summit with the Dalai Lama and North America’s largest poetry festival. Though the economy remains mostly frozen, we’re catching momentum as it thaws.
M: Which global cities do you admire and why?
CB: I am impressed with the progressive thinking in Curitiba, Brazil. They have invested heavily in public transport, infrastructure and environmental programmes. I am watching how London is proceeding as they prepare for the Olympics. And I also like what’s happening in Tel Aviv, where they are making impressive advances in the hi-tech and alternative- energies sectors. One of the greatest benefits of living in this connected world today is that good ideas don’t stay isolated; they go viral very quickly.
M: Combating crime – particularly violent crime – is one of your most notable successes. How were you able to make this happen?
CB: It wasn’t just one main strategy but a series of steps: prisoner re-entry programmes and comprehensive fugitive- apprehension teams; getting our gang task force detectives to work beyond Monday-Friday/nine-to-five, because gangs don’t keep office hours. Through philanthropy, the Newark Police Foundation was able to create New Jersey’s largest public-safety wireless network and now have a sophisticated detection system. Our overall recidivism rate is below 10 per cent, compared with state levels which are in the 60s. Simply keeping people from returning to crime was another important crime-lowering strategy.
M: Race has long been a contentious topic in Newark. How much of a role does race play in city politics?
CB: Unfortunately, more than I would like. We do not live in some post-racial reality just because America has a black president, but that does not mean we must act defensively in dealing with race. We want leaders of all colours to tell the truth about the racial complexities that still exist. Ongoing inequality has a massive impact on our GDP and our competitiveness as a nation. Should our solutions be race-based? I am not necessarily saying that. But we must work with our moral imagination when approaching these kinds of challenges.
M: Where do you want to see Newark progress in the next five years?
CB: I can give you a lot of clarity on that. In crime, we want to be back in the driver’s seat, leading the country in violent crime reduction. I want Newark to be the national model for education reform and change. And I hope it just takes two years to solve our budget crisis; so that we are no longer reliant upon one-year fixes but eliminate our entire structural budget deficit. Finally, I want to further raise the bar on economic opportunities in the city – from drawing in new companies to creating and growing our own locally based enterprises.
M: And where do you see Cory Booker in five years?
1969 Born in Washington, his parents were among the first black executives at IBM
1991 Graduates with a BA from Stanford University
1995 Moves to Newark in the summer before his second year at Yale Law School
1998 Becomes Newark’s central ward councilman, after serving as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center.
2002 Defeated in his first run for mayor of Newark, before making clear his intention to try again at the next election
2006 Re-runs for mayor and takes oath of office, aged 37
2010 Re-elected as mayor in a landslide victory