Newark Among Cities Looking to Obama for Hope

Osman Sharif and his friends in central Newark say they have attended too many funerals.

For them, Barack Obama's election means the prospect of new jobs and new hope in the roughest neighborhoods of New Jersey's largest city, which continues to struggle with violent crime, unemployment and poverty. They say the jobs are necessary to blunt the lure of easy money from illegal drug sales and give their children and grandchildren a better future.

Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker calls the Obama win "a historic moment of opportunity for American cities." Sharif and his friends hope he's right. They say they're tired of the shootings, tired of burying young people before their time, and looking to the president-elect to help leaders like Booker break the cycle of inner-city violence.

"People are very hopeful, confident and positive," said Brian Wormley, a 43-year-old longshoreman at the Port of Newark. "But hey, we're still just coming from a funeral."

The funeral was for 35-year-old Tonya Worthy, who was raised in central Newark. The body of the DeVry University recruiter was found in her burning car Oct. 28, near Newark Liberty International Airport. Sharif and his friends attended her funeral at nearby Metropolitan Baptist Church on Nov. 5.

Despite Booker's efforts and vow to stay in Newark until it is no longer defined by shootings and violent crime, central Newark is still a dangerous place to live. City Police Director Garry McCarthy estimates that 99 percent of the city's violent crimes are related to illegal drugs.

One of the most violent areas is the central Newark neighborhood around the Pilgrim Baptist Village housing complex, not far from the 1-year-old Prudential Center arena and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Since Oct. 17, at least four people have died and two others have been injured in shootings within a 10-block radius of Pilgrim Baptist Village.

"Economic development will stop all of this because the main industry here is drugs," said Sharif, 70. "Obama's election is just the beginning. All of us have got to work together to address what's going on with the kids in the street and make sure there are good jobs available for them."

Even before Obama's win, downtown Newark was showing signs of economic growth. Ground was broken several weeks ago for the $150 million Liberty Plaza, which is expected to yield the city's largest premium office tower since 1992. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new loft conversions and apartment buildings have become a regular occurrence.

Booker and business leaders are pitching Newark as a low-cost alternative to living in and doing business in Manhattan. Last month, the circus returned to Newark for the first time in 56 years.

Despite signs of progress, Newark's reputation has suffered several blows over the last two years. In 2006, homicides in the city reached a high of 106, prompting the city's teachers' union to pay for billboards that screamed "HELP WANTED: Stop The Killings In Newark Now!" That compares with 55 homicides so far this year, according to police.

Last year, three college-bound friends were fatally shot in a school playground in a gruesome attack that drew national attention to the city.

Since then, there has been measurable progress under Booker and McCarthy, and the city is on track to have the fewest homicides this year since 2000.

However, the unemployment rate in Newark was 10.1 percent in September, nearly double the 5.6 percent statewide average and the 6 percent national rate, according to unadjusted data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The area around Pilgrim Baptist Village has missed out on some of the benefits of the city's comeback. People there still live in fear in a community where children have grown accustomed to the sight of yellow police tape fluttering in the wind.

Killings are still such a commonplace occurrence in central Newark that at least one of the city's T-shirt stores has begun carrying "R.I.P." T-shirts in its front window. The names on the "Rest In Peace" garments at the Oladejon Print Shop are filled in after they're purchased by survivors.

But Obama's election has given even the people of Newark's roughest community hope, according to 41-year-old Tariq Wells, owner of a local beauty supply business.

"I haven't seen anything like this since the Million Man March," Wells said, referring to the 1995 gathering in Washington. "It's a changing of the guard and I think it's going to motivate our children to be better than they are."

Booker, an Obama supporter and co-chairman of his successful New Jersey campaign, describes the election as a clear mandate for change.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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