Between the Lines

By Carrie Stetler and Akintola Hanif

The stigma of Newark breeds its own vicious cycle. Racist stereotypes and negative media coverage instill fear. Outsiders stay away or limit themselves to the downtown comfort zones deemed safe for visitors and commuters.

Because they avoid the city, or see such a small part of it, they have little reason to question Newark’s public image as a place where out-of-towners get shot if they venture a few blocks in the wrong direction—despite the fact that crimes against visitors are rare.  

Portrayals of Newark as the ultimate suburban nightmare are so pervasive they were deployed in an ad campaign by South Jersey Republicans in November.  “If you don’t want  Burlington County to turn into THIS part of North Jersey….vote for the people who make our county a special place to live,’’ urged local GOPs. A map with a red push pin through Newark illustrated the message.

In response, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the NJ Black Mayors Alliance for Social Justice issued a statement. “The not so subtle message is that Newark and its suburbs are all that white voters fear in a community: Black, Latino, Poor, Dangerous, and Blighted.’’

Somewhere in between the hype pegging Newark as the next Brooklyn and news briefs on the latest killing, complete with updated body counts  (“This is the 67th homicide in the city this year”), are the communities that comprise Newark’s five wards.

The lines between them are artificial—bureaucratic designations that govern voting districts and trash collection. But they are also an essential part of what it means to be from Newark. “It’s about people having an allegiance to their communities and where they were born and raised,” says Baraka. “There is a long history of attachment.’’

His father, Amiri Baraka, renowned author, activist, and devout Newarker, put it this way in his 1984 autobiography: “….Despite our various lives somehow there was a collective passion, a collective life, generated by our presence together on those streets, in that playground, and in that school….they needed to be talked about. Why? Because they had something to do with it – the shaping, the answering – of the question, How did you get to be you?”

The dehumanizing clichés surrounding Newark do something more insidious than drive people away. They help ensure that visitors view the city through a narrow, distorted lens. The reality of Newark, in all of its dimensions and complexity, and the soul and identity of Newark residents, are endlessly obscured.

Newark is 26 square miles, smaller than many cities, but it is incredibly diverse. There are golf courses,  mosques, mansions, lofts, immigrants from Peru, Sri Lanka, Africa and the Ukraine. It’s also home to a thriving art scene, several college campuses, and an ever-growing business district, as well as city and community cultural institutions.

The people of Newark know that there is beauty and dignity amid struggle—and that not everyone is struggling. Even in communities where violence is pervasive, oftentimes around the corner are neighborhoods that are calm and stable. Newark is filled with light, depth, talent and resilience. But there aren’t many platforms for residents to tell their own stories and see themselves and their communities reflected in all their diversity.

HYCIDE | The 5 Wards is that place.