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Newark Considers What Life Will Be Like After Cory Booker

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, formerly mayor of Newark, N.J., arrives in the Old Senate Chamber on Thursday for an oath-of-office ceremony.
J. Scott Applewhite
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, formerly mayor of Newark, N.J., arrives in the Old Senate Chamber on Thursday for an oath-of-office ceremony.

For years, Newark, N.J., had the reputation of being a crime-ridden, low-income city. Former Mayor Cory Booker helped change that perception.

Thursday, the Democrat was sworn in as a U.S. senator, and it's unclear what that means for the city's future.

While Booker brought attention — and funding — to Newark, he couldn't completely tackle the violence that has persisted for years. As mayoral candidates begin making their cases, crime is a common theme.

'Now A City Of Hope'

Booker convinced companies that Newark was a good place to do business. This year he brought in $1 billion in economic development projects and another $350 million in philanthropic aid.

Booker says he will be remembered as an entrepreneurial mayor.

"Taking a city from decline to now a city of hope and promise, a city that's turned the corner — a lot more work to do, but clearly Newark now is on the road to success," he says.

Walking the city's downtown, you can hear the distant sounds of bulldozers and electric saws as workers build the first new office and residential towers in the city in decades.

Three grocery stores opened in neighborhoods that didn't have one for 20 years. He expanded farmers markets and urban gardens in an effort to address food deserts.

But unemployment in the city is still above 14 percent. About a third of the population still lives below the poverty line. And crime is on at the forefront of the minds of many Newark residents, including Jerry Minter.

"Killing in the South Ward, there's killing in the Central Ward, killing in the North Ward, West Ward," Minter says. "It's all over the city of Newark."

Debating The Violence

When Booker first took office in 2006, violence in Newark dropped sharply. But the number of shootings and gun injuries has been creeping back up in the past few years. There have been 78 murders so far this year — about half of them occurred in one of the city's wards.

Those hoping to become the next mayor of Newark are already campaigning around the issue.

The election to replace Booker isn't for another nine months, but hundreds of Newarkers are already cramming into auditoriums to hear how the candidates would combat violence.

The city cut its police force by almost half with the economic downturn. And still, crime overall is lower.

But mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries says the smaller police force is part of the problem.

"You don't lay off 170 cops and then don't expect these consequences," Jeffries says.

Another candidate, Ras Baraka, a current City Council member, takes a stance that Booker has long taken.

"Police is not the answer to reducing this kind of violent culture that we have," Baraka says. "Ninety percent of the violent crime in the city occurs in the South and the West Ward, where the most poverty and unemployment exists, not because we have less cops."

'Newark Will Survive'

Baraka says you have to invest in people. But residents — and people outside of the city — worry Newark will get less money and attention now that Booker's gone.

Dan O'Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia University, says that perception isn't good for the city.

"It's not good for the people who own businesses in the city," O'Flaherty says. "It's not good for the people who own houses in the city to have the rest of the world expecting a cataclysm to fall on them."

He says it prevents investors from seeing Newark as a good investment.

"Newark is the transportation hub of the East Coast," O'Flaherty says. "Newark has great universities. Newark has great people. Newark will survive after Cory Booker."

Booker is leaving Newark with another $2 billion in economic development projects set to be completed next year. All the companies on these projects promise to interview Newark residents first to fill the new jobs.

Copyright 2021 New Jersey Public Radio. To see more, visit New Jersey Public Radio.

Sarah Gonzalez is the multimedia education reporter for WLRN's StateImpact Florida project. She comes from NPR in D.C. where she was a national desk reporter, web and show producer as an NPR Kroc Fellow. The San Diego native has worked as a reporter and producer for KPBS in San Diego and KALW in San Francisco, covering under-reported issues like youth violence, food insecurity and public education. Her work has been awarded an SPJ Sigma Delta Chi and regional Edward R. Murrow awards. She graduated from Mills College in 2009 with a bachelorâ