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 Timescolumnist 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."

James insisted that the loss of a commu- nity was a necessary part of turning a town around. "Relocation is nothing strange to the city of Newark," he told the often-raucous crowd. "We've been relocating people for years. We have been blighting for years. . . . Thousands of people have been relocated. Not one unhappy person."

But the East Ward neighborhood is filled with unhappy people right now. "I want to stay here," says Carmen Cordero, Edwin's wife. "I want my home. And if he wants my home, he's going to have to really pay me to leave here. If not, he's going to have to build the arena and my house will be in the middle. We'll go to the Corderos' house at halftime."

"This is what I do," says Rui Freitas, who runs an autobody shop that's been in the neighborhood for 15 years. "What am I going to do after if I can't find a place? I have kids, I have a mortgage to pay. That's my biggest concern. I have bills to pay."

Freitas's frustration is principally at a process that's left him and others in the dark. "The residents were never given the opportunity to present any evidence as to why they believed that their neighborhood didn't meet the standard [for being blighted]," says Rutgers's Kraham.

In just under three months' time local residents have been told that what they thought was a successful neighborhood is in fact worthy of condemnation and prime pickings for a basketball team many could care less about. Their homes and livelihoods have been put on notice, and their suggestions and concerns completely ignored.

"This is what environmental justice is all about," adds Kraham. "The fact that it's a minority community living in a minority city doesn't make it any less egregious that they've been excluded from a participatory process."

Of course, it's hard not to think of the Bronx when talk turns to neighborhoods ignored. It is unclear exactly how participatory any potential process of rebuilding Yankee Stadium and the surrounding South Bronx neighborhood will be. "Make as big a stink as you can," Newark resident Hal Laeissig advises residents of the South Bronx, "because otherwise, nobody knows that you're there."

Some sort of local redevelopment is pretty much a certainty if the Yankees do stay in the Bronx. Yankee spokesman Howard Rubinstein says that without it, the team "would have less interest" in staying put. But Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer has already introduced a Yankee Village plan that would redevelop the area surrounding the existing ballpark. Clint Roswell, a spokesperson for the Ferrer, says he believes "The borough president has been very careful about displacement. . . .We know where the community is on this thing. We're quite certain the community would welcome this with open arms. But I don't think they would jump at the idea of having a new stadium built. The borough president doesn't think that's necessary." The Yankees have yet to respond to the Ferrer plan.

Meanwhile, the residents of Newark's East Ward remain in limbo. Troy West, a Newark architect who's housed his business in the community for 25 years, spoke for a fiercely proud neighborhood when he addressed the crowd at the first community meeting. "The people in this room have done something that Ray Chambers could never do," he said. "With your own individual sweat, your own individual neighboring, you have created the most desirable piece of Newark, and so now Ray Chambers wants to come in and take this."

"You've already built it," West said. "You've already made this a beautiful neighborhood. Ten years ago you couldn't come here without being afraid. Now, walk down the street and see the beautiful brownstones. . . . This was done by you. You folks are worth a hundred Ray Chambers."

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