There Goes The Neighborhood

The Nets may be set to pave over a Newark community. Will the Yankees do the same in the Bronx?

If last week's media coverage is to be believed, the proposed merger of the Yankees and Nets is more than just an unprecedented (if unproven) business move. It's a chance for the Nets owners, especially Raymond Chambers and Lewis Katz, to sprinkle a little bit of their philanthropic fairy dust on Yankees owner George Steinbrenner— to turn the man who seemingly can't stand the Bronx into as big a booster of neglected urban neighborhoods as they supposedly are.

As New York Times columnist George Vecsey wrote, "The biggest clue about the future of the Yankees may come from the way the new owners of the Nets have talked of building an arena in the heart of Newark, as troubled as it may be."

Problem is, nobody's bothered to ask the people who make their home in the heart of Newark if they think their neighborhood is troubled. The answer is No. And they're angry enough to sue the city, challenging both the process it undertook recently in blighting the area and the designation of it as an "area in need of redevelopment."

Nets owner­ and- YankeeNet- partner­ Lewis Katz (hand over heart) says he wants to aid the inner city.
Pete Kuhn/ Courtesy of New York Magazine
Nets owner­ and- YankeeNet- partner­ Lewis Katz (hand over heart) says he wants to aid the inner city.

Since they bought the Nets last fall, the team's owners have made clear their desire to leave the Meadowlands and play in a new arena in downtown Newark. "It's very important," Katz told the Associated Press. "It's not just the move to Newark, it's the philosophy of what an arena will do for Newark above and beyond basketball."

The downtown area in question is in Newark's East Ward. The neighborhood is small, but it makes up in valuable location what it lacks in size— forty acres, ideally located only a few blocks southwest of Newark's Penn Station. Some 100 families have worked to turn the area into a true community— a community that may be leveled for a new arena. "Most of the families will have to move out of Newark," says Yoland Skeete, an artist who's been at the heart of the struggle to save the neighborhood. "I just think there are better places for an arena." (The Nets did not respond to repeated phone calls.)

Susan Kraham, an attorney with the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, who's been advising the neighborhood residents, says that in its push for revitalization, the city has ignored what the community itself has accomplished. "This is a community that in some part has really spontaneously regenerated," Kraham says. "In part because of its proximity to the railroad and its proximity to downtown. And the city wants to take that proximity without recognizing what this community has done for itself."

She points to city streets that have gone from seedy to safe. "They've really made a change in the drug presence in the neighborhood, no help from the city," Kraham explains. "They never got any attention from the city before, until the city wanted it."

It was just a few days before Christmas when area home and business owners received a notice from the city, informing them that a decision was about to be made as to whether to designate their neighborhood an area in need of redevelopment (what used to be called "blighting").

The news was an insult to many. The neighborhood is a tight-knit community of tidy two-and three-story houses, a smattering of businesses, and numerous parking lots. Its residents are mostly Latino, but the area is also home to some Portuguese, Asians (it was Newark's original Chinatown), African Americans, and an increasing number of artists of varying races seeking loft space cheaper than New York has to offer. It's a community that suffered from an ugly drug scene in the 1980s and turned itself around. It's a community that doesn't want to go.

Residents express bewilderment that they've done everything they could to become home owners and business operators, only to have their neighborhood threatened in the name of revitalization. "A couple of years ago, this area wasn't that safe," says Edwin Cordero, a driver for Federal Express who grew up in Newark and owns a home with his wife on one of the suddenly "blighted" blocks. "People wouldn't come around here like they do now, because they were afraid. The community got together, they started cleaning the area, now it's one of the best places to live. Now they're going to take that away from us?"

Carmen Tornes and her family opened a restaurant less than a year ago, attracted in part by the neighborhood's proximity to city hall and other government offices. Tornes describes a friendly community, almost small-town in its neighborliness. "Everybody helps each other here," said Tornes, who described herself and her new business as "the baby of the block."

Despite vocal neighborhood opposition, the city council voted overwhelmingly on January 6 to blight the neighborhood. The city's official position is that the declaration of redevelopment would be happening with or without the Nets coming to Newark. But Mayor Sharpe James made the city's emphasis perfectly clear when he spoke at a hastily arranged community meeting soon after residents received their notices of potential condemnation. "Do we want a city with professional sports?" he asked an overflow crowd jammed into the Sumei Multidisciplinary Arts Center. "Take Camden Yards and the waterfront out of Baltimore, there's no Baltimore."

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