Unlike most politicians, Newark Mayor Cory Booker doesn't have a brag wall inside his office.
There's no “grip and grin'' photo with President Barack Obama, even though Booker was an early and enthusiastic Obama supporter; no portrait of him with popular media magnate Oprah Winfrey, an admirer who recently donated $1.5 million to five charitable organizations in Newark; and no shot of him with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, another outspoken supporter.
Nearly three years after taking the helm of New Jersey's largest city, Booker remains focused on a bigger measure of his success: Transforming Newark from an icon of American urban decay into a vibrant, safe city where people want to live and work.
On Monday, Booker will deliver his annual “state of the city'' speech, where he's expected to highlight the gains made during his administration's first 32 months amid one of the deepest recessions in U.S. history. But notable strides in Newark's public safety and economic development have been partly offset by an unemployment rate that's climbed back into the double-digits and a credit crunch that's curtailed new projects.
“We're fighting on every corner and in every block and neighborhood to keep the vibrancy and momentum of Newark going,'' said Booker, a 39-year-old Democrat who took office on July 1, 2006.
Regional job losses pushed Newark's unemployment rate to 10 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest level since 2004. That compares with a New Jersey jobless rate of 7.1 percent. Two of the three hotel projects associated with the 16-month-old Prudential Center arena have been canceled.
Still, one political observer says Newark residents have hope and pride again -- something that's been missing for decades.
“For the first time in 40 years you can wear a Newark T-shirt without being embarrassed,'' said Steven Adubato, a community activist and lifelong Newark resident who was once a Booker critic.
Today, people are pouring into Newark's resurgent downtown business district to attend rock concerts and hockey games at the Prudential Center and watch plays and classical music concerts at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. But empty buildings and broken windows still abound in the city center, parts of which remain desolate and deserted after the city's 500,000 workers head home at day's end.
The city is demolishing abandoned homes and pushing a costly development strategy in outlying neighborhoods that attempts to stabilize them without pricing existing residents out. The strategy provides a financial incentive to developers who build affordable, quality housing on scattered lots in existing residential neighborhoods.
“People understand that Newark didn't get this way overnight and it won't be solved overnight,'' said Mildred Crump, president of the Newark Municipal Council.
Newark was often viewed as violent and unmanageable before Booker took over. The three mayors who ruled the city the preceding 44 years have all pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with their time in office.
Newark, which now has a population of about 280,000, lost 14 percent of its residents during the 1970s. Over a quarter of its remaining residents live below the poverty level. Newark's $17.9 billion tax base pales beside the $23.2 billion worth of taxable property in neighboring Jersey City, which has a 14 percent smaller population with 242,000 residents, according to Moody's Investors Service.
Newark's runaway murder rate prompted its teachers' union to post billboards in 2006 that read “HELP WANTED: Stop The Killings In Newark Now!'' There were 104 homicides that year.
Last year, the number of homicides fell to 67. Shootings fell to 343 from 502 and auto thefts plummeted to 3,911 from 5,154 during the same period. Crime statistics in all three categories are also down on a year-over-year basis.
“He's turned the corner on some of the fundamental issues,'' Corzine said of Booker. “He's doing an exceptional job of changing the image of the City of Newark. But more importantly, he's changing the reality on the streets.''
Booker's second full year in office in 2008 was also the first full year of operations for the Prudential Arena, which is home to the New Jersey Devils professional hockey team. The new downtown venue lured the circus back to Newark in October as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey returned from a 52-year absence.
It was a milestone for many Newark residents who were able to take their kids to see the circus without heading across the Hudson River to New York City.
Reanous Dove, 75, said she can see the improvement in the West Ward neighborhood where she's lived since 1984. Drug dealers no longer operate openly there as they did in past years, she said.
“Booker is doing a good job _ it's a better time,'' Dove said. “The drugs and the carjackings have begun to slow down the last year and a half.''
Despite progress, Newark continues to struggle with its reputation for violence and lawlessness.
Reductions in the murder rate were overshadowed by the gruesome execution style slayings of three college-bound friends in a school playground in 2007. Progress in curtailing the number of gun-related crimes was overshadowed by a string of October shootings that prompted neighboring high school football teams to cancel games and spurred Booker to scold reporters who used the word “drive-by'' at his press conferences.
The city's violent reputation led producers of the documentary-style TV show “DEA'' to advertise it as the setting for their second season, even though most of the arrests and seizures they filmed took place in other parts of northern New Jersey.
Police Director Garry McCarthy says he is not intimidated by the challenge, despite a surge in violence at the start of the new year that produced six homicides and 16 shootings through Feb. 1. That compares with two homicides and 15 shootings for the same period a year ago.
He said that he's reorganized the Newark Police Department into a meritocracy where advancement is based on performance.
“Nobody knows how low we can push crime,'' said McCarthy. “I like to say 'we're pleased, but not satisfied.' There's a lot more we can do.''
Booker has introduced programs to help former inmates turn their lives around, assist dropouts in returning to school and help former gang members learn marketable job skills in the construction industry.
The overarching principle? “No one is disposable,'' said Booker, a former Rhodes scholar, who is a graduate of both Stanford University and Yale Law School.
Booker has been characterized by some opponents as an ambitious outsider using Newark as a political springboard.
According to Adubato, the turning point in their relationship occurred immediately after Obama won the presidency in November, when Booker was mentioned as a possible presidential appointee.
“He doesn't have to be mayor of Newark,'' Adubato said. “He's been offered all kind of opportunities -- he wants to stay.''
Booker confirmed receiving feelers from the Obama campaign and being asked about New Jersey's new lieutenant governor position, but said he never considered leaving Newark. For a child of two civil right activists, the prospect of restoring the grandeur of a city that never recovered from the racial riots of the late 1960s represents a bigger challenge and a more significant accomplishment.
“People are often too concerned with position than purpose,'' Booker said. “What's best for me is to accomplish great things here. I believe that's a worthy accomplishment in itself.''