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Booker's Newark: How has it fared?

His star power is clear. The city's story is one of both hope and struggles.

Newark, NJ on July 25, 2013.  Here, a shopper at the Food Depot. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )
Newark, NJ on July 25, 2013. Here, a shopper at the Food Depot. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )Read more

NEWARK, N.J. - In seven years as mayor, Cory Booker has added touches of luster here in the Brick City.

Amid still-gritty streets, he has brought name-brand businesses and restaurants, loft apartments, and a glass office tower. His wealthy admirers are writing checks to city causes, and last year British Prime Minister David Cameron visited to glean ideas for reviving rusted industrial cities.

But in any close analysis of Newark's famous mayor, a fundamental question looms: Behind the undeniable flash, is there deep-rooted substance to match?

Booker, 44, said he has built momentum that puts Newark on a path toward revitalization, building interest unseen in decades. As a U.S. senator, he says, he would work to bring similar progress to other hard-hit New Jersey cities such as Camden, Paterson, and Asbury Park.

"The reputation of Newark was a place to stay away from," Booker said last week in a telephone interview. "Now the city is really a place where hope is literally springing from the ground in terms of parks and housing."

But as he campaigns to move from City Hall to the Capitol, Booker's standout moments clash with indicators that show many long-standing ills remain.

Poverty and unemployment, each jolted by the recession, are widespread, significantly more so than when Booker took office. Nearby new hotels and offices, stretches of Newark streets are marked by rundown shops. Graffiti-covered security gates guard empty storefronts. After falling sharply, murder counts are rising again.

Despite the "rock star" status bestowed by Oprah Winfrey and other starry supporters who view Newark from afar, those who work, sleep, and raise children in this city of 277,000 see a more mixed picture.

"The city has plenty of problems, and I'm not sure if any leader could have solved them, especially in a handful of years," said Brad Tuttle, author of How Newark Became Newark: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American City.

Grow, grow, grow

Booker's work has impressed enough people statewide, and across the country, that polls show him with a commanding lead over Democrats Frank Pallone, Rush Holt, and Sheila Oliver in the Aug. 13 Senate primary. The winner will face Republican Steve Lonegan or Alieta Eck in a special general election Oct. 16.

Booker vaulted into the mayor's office in July 2006 with a burst of optimism but has faced immense obstacles. He took over a city with a long history of poverty, crime, and corruption, and has been at the helm during a historic recession and halting recovery.

The kinetic mayor made it his mission to change the city's image, pushing to attract new residents, jobs, and employers.

On a recent summer day, a construction team put the finishing touches on a gleaming, 13-story office building that will soon become home to Panasonic, lured by the mayor and $102 million in state tax incentives.

Nearby is the slick headquarters of the audiobook-maker, which arrived from the suburbs in 2007 with 125 employees and expects to have 600 by year's end.

"He's inserted a level of true hopefulness," said Don Katz, the company's chief executive. "Without Cory Booker leading with his vision of the possible . . . we wouldn't be on a road to return."

Three new grocery stores have opened. Prudential, long based in Newark, is moving forward with a new 20-story tower, and vacant buildings are being turned into apartments. Some already have a waiting list as Newark's 2010 Census showed it added slightly more residents than it lost for the first time in 60 years.

Booker said that if he had predicted 20 years ago that New Yorkers would be eager to move here, "you would have thought I was smoking something that used to be sold in downtown Newark - smoking crack."

The city will soon open a walking path along the Passaic River, part of 40 acres of new or refurbished parkland.

The momentum will build the city's tax base and create economic opportunity that lasts beyond his term, Booker said.

"Grow, grow grow," he said. "It's how America is as a country - we move people from poverty to the middle class. It's how Newark will do it as well."

With aid from heavy state subsidies (Booker has clung tightly to Gov. Christie), one-third of New Jersey's commercial and multifamily construction projects are being built in Newark, when measured by square footage.

"He's drawn attention to Newark that the city has not had in nearly a generation," said Clement Price, a historian at Rutgers' Newark campus. "That will be his legacy."

Booker banners around Newark read: "Building a stronger, safer, prouder city."

But the benefits have been uneven.

Despite some big additions, the number of jobless Newark residents has grown by 4,700 since Booker came into office.

Many of the jobs coming to the city are being relocated from elsewhere and won't offer new openings, though the incoming workers will contribute to the city's economy.

Unemployment fell early in Booker's term but stood at 13.7 percent in May, compared with 8.6 percent statewide. (Newark's rate has long been higher than the state average and has dropped from 16.2 percent one year ago.)

Roughly 32 percent of Newark residents and 44 percent of its children live in poverty, according to the latest Census data.

On crime, there are hope and concern. Murders are down from 105 in 2006. But after dropping to 67 in 2008, they have ticked steadily upward, to 95 last year, according to preliminary FBI data.

Rapes and aggravated assaults have fallen significantly since Booker took office. But robberies rose so fast that the overall violent crime rate, as measured by the FBI, was sharply up last year compared with the start of his tenure.

Faced with long-running deficits, Booker slashed city spending and controversially laid off 163 police officers, part of 900 job cut from the city payroll. He raised property taxes 48 percent through 2012, before proposing a cut this month.

Booker has championed Newark's charter schools - whose test scores in many cases beat the New Jersey average - but the traditional public schools, controlled by the state, still lag.

Look more uptown

The picture in neighborhoods is equally mixed.

In the Central Ward sits a Food Depot, the area's first new, full-service grocery store in more than 20 years, according to Booker's staff.

The inviting store has colorful fruit displays featuring kiwis, mangoes, and apples. Outside one recent afternoon, a young man in braids, working in the searing July heat, collected shopping carts.

Across the street is a neighborhood of new, well-kept homes with neat lawns. But mingled among them are others with plywood over the windows.

Ask shoppers about Booker and the reactions are mostly critical, even as they laud the new store.

The downtown development helps only outsiders, others say. Booker was just here to advance his own career. "I don't see what he's done for the poor people," says one customer, who, like most, declines to give her name.

As Tawana Johnson loads groceries into her SUV, she raves about her son's charter school but has harsh words about the mayor's attentiveness to her neighborhood.

She bought a new home, but it's next door to an abandoned, overgrown lot. Johnson tried to buy it but has been stopped by red tape. Safety concerns mean she rarely lets her son play outside. All while taxes rise.

"I'm not saying he's a bad mayor," Johnson said, "but I think he needs to look more to uptown."

Praise and criticism

Half of the $1 billion in development the last two years has been outside downtown, Booker answered in an interview, and he said new grocery stores, restaurants, and warehouses offer middle class, "middle skill" jobs to go along with those in the glimmering offices.

(His office could not provide a firm count of the permanent jobs he has created.)

Even in the heart of the city, progress is patchy.

By City Hall, a newly opened Courtyard Marriott is the first new downtown hotel in 40 years, and the boutique chain Hotel Indigo is set to open soon as well. On the Courtyard's ground floor, workers in hard hats and dust-covered boots recently worked on adding a Joe's Crab Shack.

Directly across Broad Street was a different picture. Awnings had holes in them. Letters had long-since fallen off marquees, leaving signs for "Jea s" and "Snea ers." A pawnshop's flashing sign advertised check-cashing and jewelry "bought and sold at wholesale prices."

Business leaders and City Council members have increasingly complained that Booker's attention has centered on glamorous events outside the city, national television appearances, and higher office.

The result, they argue, is too little focus on day-to-day governing and acclaim that outpaces accomplishments. One prominent example: While Booker made national headlines by personally shoveling out neighbors in a 2010 blizzard, many streets were impassable for days because of a sluggish city response.

"He was never here to lead. He only came here for photo-ops," said State Sen. Ron Rice, a longtime adversary. Campaigning last week for Oliver, Rice said Booker should "go back to Hollywood."

For all his excitement about new projects, Booker is eyeing an exit before seeing them through.

Booker, long cast as an outsider by Newark's black old guard, downplayed recent clashes with the City Council, which include one meeting that ended in a near-riot, and said his travels have helped promote the city.

"To do all the things we've accomplished, you can't sit behind a desk in Newark and wait for opportunity to come to you," he said.

His lobbying has brought nearly $300 million in private donations to Newark, including $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to help schools.

And in a city with a reputation for inside dealing, Booker could be the first mayor in more than 50 years to leave office without being indicted.

As he tries to move on, he acknowledged that problems remain.

"We didn't just flip a switch and the entire city is suddenly rainbows and sunshine," he said. "You can't turn a city around in every single neighborhood in seven years."