In Newark, Reversing 40 Years Of Neighborhood Neglect

Jun 7, 2015
Originally published on June 9, 2015 11:37 am

In cities with high crime rates, like Newark, N.J., figuring out the right balance of police engagement is especially hard.

In 2013, Newark had 40 homicides per 100,000 residents, the third-highest homicide rate in the country.

Last fall, the new mayor, Ras Baraka, announced a plan to tackle the crime and neglect that have plagued the city's worst neighborhoods. He started by focusing on two of the toughest: Clinton Hill and the Lower West Ward. I asked him in January how he'll know the program is working.

"It doesn't mean that all crime in the neighborhood is going to disappear," he said at the time. "What it does mean, however, is that we've got a handle over what's happening in that community. If people report to us that they feel safer six months later than they did when we first started, then I would look at that as a victory."

This week on For the Record: Fixing Newark. Six months after the mayor began his initiative, four Clinton Hill residents tell us how much has changed.


Bertha Martin

Bertha's Martin's home on Chadwick Avenue is part of a row of new colonial-style houses, packed tightly together, each with a little patch of manicured yard in the front. The row stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the street, lined with boarded-up, run-down homes, some abandoned.

The city refurbished Martin's house. Officials say 30 houses have either been rebuilt or are in the process of being renovated, and another 80 lots have been tapped for redevelopment.

Martin's new house has given her a new start in life. She has more room for her family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

At her old place, she had to pull her barbeque grill inside at night because dealers would hide their drugs in it. She has noticed an increased police presence in the neighborhood.

However, the police don't always come when she needs them.

"You call them, they don't respond," she says. "You call back and say, 'Nobody ever showed up. What's going on?' 'Oh, we had an emergency more important than that.' ... Act like we're human, act like you're here to serve."

"She's right," says Baraka on a tour of Martin's neighborhood. "I mean, with the fact that you have small amounts of police officers, they're going to come on priority calls. It's a challenge."

The key, the mayor says, is getting police to do more than just come in, sweep up the bad guys and leave. He wants them to be part of the community and build relationships with residents and shop owners.

Newark has spent millions in this neighborhood in the past six months. Under Baraka's program, the city has built new houses and planted trees, and store owners are doing a better job of keeping their businesses up to code. But the real test is what happens when the mayor's program shifts its focus to new neighborhoods and all this attention goes away.

Monique Baptiste-Good, director of the Strong, Healthy Communities Initiative

One street over is Mildred Helms Park, where a couple kids play on a small playground. Monique Baptiste-Good lives a few blocks away with her husband and two kids, but she doesn't bring them to the playground.

"This park, during the daytime, is really an asset, as you can see, for the community," she says. "But at nighttime, it is a terror zone. ... All types of activities turn up in the park — drug activities, gang activities. Actually, last year they found two bodies in the park."

Baptiste-Good has been working to improve this neighborhood for years and supports the mayor's effort, but she says it's not enough.

"When we first were starting this model block project, we spoke to some property owners who were saying, 'Can you guys help us find some money to fix our siding,' and they started pointing out all the bullet holes that were still in the siding," she says. "So we are talking about families and residents who have been dealing with some really traumatic situations for a pretty significant period of time. Six months of city hall investment is not going to undo that."

Robin Elliott and Richard Delee, next-door neighbors

A couple blocks away, on Seymour Street, Robin Elliott and Richard Delee talk about a recent shooting and how close it came to Elliott's young son.

"The bullets outside hit my windows, and the house, and luckily the baby wasn't playing in his truck, because he would've got shot," she says.

Delee says they don't know other residents on their street. They also don't know much about the mayor's plan to rehabilitate their neighborhood, although they point out a sapling the city planted a few months ago in front of Elliott's house.

But if Baraka's plan is going to work, he needs residents like Elliott and Delee to start to raise their own expectations for what's possible in this neighborhood.

"You're talking about people not having attention for 40, 50 years," Baraka says. "You know, I just had it dawn on me that six months of attention will never match 40 years of neglect."

Baptiste-Good says the mayor can start to chip away at that neglect by asking for their buy-in.

"Probably the greatest challenge that the mayor has is actually responding to residents and their feedback," she says.

I ask Baptiste-Good how she will know the neighborhood has really changed.

"I think when I see how mothers and their children are behaving in their neighborhood," she says. "If I can come back here by next summer, say, and this park is full, is just teeming with local kids playing and laughing, I know that we've made a difference."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is For The Record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. MARTIN: There's been a lot of attention on how police engage with the populations they are charged to protect. In cities with bad crime rates, like Newark, N.J., figuring out the right balance of police engagement is especially hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: 2013 was one of the bloodiest on record for New Jersey's largest municipality. There were 40 homicides per 100,000 people.

R. MARTIN: Last fall, the new mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, announced a plan to tackle the crime and neglect that have plagued the city's worst neighborhoods. He started by focusing on two of the toughest - Clinton Hill and the lower West Ward. I interviewed him in January about the program. And I asked him how he'll know when it's been successful. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAS BARAKA: It doesn't mean that all crime in the neighborhood is going to disappear. What it does mean, however, is that we've got a handle over what's happening in that community. And if people report to us that they feel safer, six months later, than they did when we first started, then I would look at that as a victory.

R. MARTIN: Now, six months after the program began, we went to Newark to see how much has changed. For The Record today, fixing Newark, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. MARTIN: We're going to bring you three different perspectives from residents in the neighborhood of Clinton Hill. First, Bertha Martin.

Hi, Ms. Martin. I'm Rachel Martin.

BERTHA MARTIN: Oh, Rachel (laughter).

R. MARTIN: Maybe long-lost cousins.

We meet her at her home on Chadwick Avenue. It's part of a row of new colonial-style houses packed tightly together, each with a little patch of manicured yard in the front.

It looks lovely.

B. MARTIN: And it looks beautiful outside. I like the way it looks. I like the light. I like the grass.

R. MARTIN: Her house stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the street, lined with boarded-up, abandoned homes, many with signs on them saying, property of the city of Newark. Some of the houses are occupied, but they are really run down. The city refurbished the house Bertha Martin is living in. Officials say 30 houses have either been rebuilt or are in the process of being renovated. And another 80 lots have been tapped for redevelopment. Bertha Martin's life has most definitely changed in the last six months. This house has given her a new start. She's got more room for her family, and she's got a big one.

Do you live here by yourself?

B. MARTIN: No, I have grandchildren that I'm raising.

R. MARTIN: How old are they?

B. MARTIN: Well, I got one...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I'm 14 now.

R. MARTIN: Fourteen?

B. MARTIN: And my great-grand, I have two.

R. MARTIN: You have two great-grandchildren who are also with you?

B. MARTIN: Yes.

R. MARTIN: Martin tells me that at her old place, she had to pull her barbecue grill inside at night because dealers would hide their drugs in there. Even before she moved to this new house, she noticed an increased police presence in the neighborhood, more cop cars on the corner. And every once in a while, they come in and do a sweep.

B. MARTIN: Sweep means the police will come. The narcotics will come. And they just come and sweep; put them up; throw them in the van, and remove them. And it did help because my big mouth was - always says, hey, now, I'm going to call the police. You ain't got to wonder which house called the police; it will be me. So when you all see them police come, don't try to find out which one of us called. It's going to be me. And so they got to going. They said, OK, Ms. Martin. We walking, Ms. Martin. See us going on down? I said, yeah, just keep on going, baby.

R. MARTIN: However, just because she calls the police doesn't mean they'll always come.

B. MARTIN: You call them. They don't respond. You call back; say, well, nobody never showed up. What's going on? Oh, we had an emergency more important than that. Unless you call and lie on the phone and say, they got a gun - every car in Newark would be at your door. Why do we have to do that? Why do we have to lie to you, saying they've got a gun? You know, act like we're human. Act like you're here to serve.

R. MARTIN: Mayor Ras Baraka stands outside Bertha Martin's house. He's been showing us around the neighborhood, and he brought us to this block to point to a success story. I told him what Bertha Martin said about the police not showing up.

BARAKA: She's right. I mean, you know, with the fact that you have small amounts of police officers, they're going to come to priority calls. It' a challenge.

R. MARTIN: The key, he says, is getting police to do more than just come in, sweep up the bad guys and leave. He wants them to be part of the community, build relationships with residents and shop owners. That's important because he's also ordered police officers to crack down.

BARAKA: Code enforcement - so we bring code enforcement over here.

R. MARTIN: What - tell me what that means.

BARAKA: The inspectors come. They deal with the store owners. They make people clean up. They deal with the houses. They deal with the - all kind of things that take place. So some of this stuff seems small, but it's huge to neighborhoods that have never had that attention.

R. MARTIN: We continue walking out of the residential streets and onto the main drag. On one side of the block, there's a boarded-up furniture store. On the other, there's a Laundromat and a deli. As the mayor is talking about getting business owners to take more responsibility, a small, elderly woman comes out of a beauty supply shop and starts to sweep up some trash in front of her store. Mayor Baraka looks at me, raises his eyebrows and smirks as if to say, you see what I'm talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, everybody. How are you?

BARAKA: I'm glad you're cleaning up. Oh, you do that every day. We've got to get this - keep this clean every day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you, OK.

BARAKA: All right.

R. MARTIN: Mayor Baraka has spent millions of dollars in this neighborhood in the past six months. Under his program, the city has built new houses, like the one Bertha Martin lives in. The streets are lined with newly planted trees. Store owners are doing a better job of keeping their businesses up to code. The real test, though, is what happens when the mayor's program shifts its focus to new neighborhoods and all this attention goes away?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Laughter).

R. MARTIN: One street over is the Mildred Helms Park. There's a small playground where a couple of kids are running around and a long stretch of green grass with a wall of trees on either side. This is where we meet our next resident with a different view of the situation.

MONIQUE BAPTISTE-GOOD: This park, during the daytime, is really an asset, as you can see, for the community. But at nighttime, it is a terror zone.

R. MARTIN: Her name is Monique Baptiste-Good. She's the director of a group called Strong and Healthy Community Initiative. She also lives just a few blocks away with her husband and two kids. But she doesn't bring them to this park.

BAPTISTE-GOOD: It's enclosed, and you can only get to it through these really long blocks. What ends up happening is that all types of activities turn up in the park - drug activities, gang activities. Actually, last year, they found two bodies in the park.

R. MARTIN: Baptiste-Good has been working to improve this neighborhood for years as a community organizer. And she supports what the mayor is trying to do. But she says it is simply not enough.

BAPTISTE-GOOD: When we first were starting this model block project, we spoke to some property owners who were saying, you know, can you guys help us find some money to fix our siding because - and they started pointing out all the bullet holes that were still in the siding. So we're talking about families and residents who have been dealing with some really traumatic situations.

ROBIN ELLIOTT: It was in the evening.

RICHARD DELEE: Early evening.

ELLIOTT: Early evening.

DELEE: Yeah. They were shooting at some people.

ELLIOTT: And they were shooting out here, and...

R. MARTIN: This is Robin Elliott and Richard Delee, next-door neighbors who live on Seymour Street, just a couple blocks away from the park.

ELLIOTT: My baby have a four-wheeler truck. And the bullet came through my window, underneath his truck. And then the bullets outside hit my windows and the house. And luckily, the baby wasn't playing in his truck 'cause he would've got shot.

R. MARTIN: Elliott was sweeping her front walkway when we spoke, her young son running around the yard. I ask if they are close with their other neighbors.

DELEE: We are all right, you know, as far as us neighbors, yeah.

R. MARTIN: They point to the houses right across the street.

DELEE: Right in here, we try to look out for each other, you know, as much as we could. You know what I'm saying?

ELLIOTT: Everybody else, they do their own thing.

R. MARTIN: Monique Baptist-Good says that's part of the problem. People here feel cut off, from the rest of the city but even from each other.

BAPTISTE-GOOD: We've had community meetings where there will literally be residents who live across the street from each other who have never met, never exchanged each other's names, didn't even know that that's who was living in the house across the street. And so the fabric of the community is really, really eroded.

R. MARTIN: I asked Robin Elliott and Richard Delee if they knew about the mayor's program to rehabilitate their neighborhood.

DELEE: Nobody around here know anything.

R. MARTIN: And how - so...

DELEE: It's like we - we are in the dark when it comes - all we do, we see them coming through here.

ELLIOTT: That's it.

R. MARTIN: The mayor?

DELEE: You know, and they looking at the house - yeah. And they looking at the houses. That's all we know. You know, nobody came by, dropped no flyers, no letters...

ELLIOTT: That's all we see.

DELEE: And let us know what's going on or none of that, you know?

ELLIOTT: And that's it.

R. MARTIN: You haven't seen - have you seen any change over the past six months?

ELLIOTT: No.

DELEE: No.

ELLIOTT: We said it at the same time (laughter). No.

DELEE: (Laughter) No.

R. MARTIN: It's not exactly true. They point to a sapling in the front of Robin Elliott's house that the city planted a few months ago as part of the beautification program. But if the mayor's plan is going to work, he says he needs residents like Elliott and Delee to start to raise their own expectations for what's possible in this neighborhood.

BARAKA: And so you're talking about people not having attention for 40, 50 years. You know, I just had it dawn on me that six months of attention will never match 40 years of neglect.

R. MARTIN: Monique Baptiste-Good says the mayor can start to chip away at that neglect by asking for their buy-in.

BAPTISTE-GOOD: Probably the greatest challenge that the mayor has is actually responding to residents and their feedback.

R. MARTIN: They have to believe that things can change.

BAPTISTE-GOOD: They have to believe it. They have to believe it. And they can't be convinced; they have to feel it. This is not something that you can convince somebody that's happening, right? If they feel it, they'll believe it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Laughter).

R. MARTIN: A couple more kids have showed up at the park to play on the slide. There's a young mom feeding her baby on a bench. Some adult men and women hang out under a metal pavilion. No kids with them, they're just kind of surveying the scene. Monique Baptiste-Good sits at a concrete table in a shaded area of the park, a hand on her pregnant belly. She's expecting her third child in August. When I ask her how she will know when things have really changed here, she says she looks to other moms.

BAPTISTE-GOOD: I think when I see how mothers and their children are behaving in their neighborhood... If I can come back here in - by next summer, let's say, and this park is full, is just teeming with local kids playing and laughing, I know that we've made a difference.

R. MARTIN: That was Monique Baptiste-Good, Robin Elliott, Richard Delee and Bertha Martin, residents of the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Newark, N.J. We also heard from the mayor of that city, Ras Baraka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.