How Can Jersey’s Urban Citizens Organize if They Have No Place to Meet?

As the online articles of summertime shootings in New Jersey’s neglected, jobless and isolated inner cities begin to ramp up, so do the ignorant, hostile comments that adjoin them. To many Internet readers, these forums are either wholly ignored or regarded as more or less useless – being the sum total of random ranters with too much time on their hands. But even from a non-scientific point of view, they do matter, because in some form, they represent documented, and occasionally comprehensive reactions and discussions from concerned Garden State citizens of all kinds.

One kind of comment, however, seems to be more common than all the others. For within the collections of comments that state things like “a tragedy for a girl who had her whole life ahead of her,” and “minorities continue to ruin places where we used to leave the doors unlocked,” there is one that is worth genuine analysis. It varies, but usually states something like “This violence will continue until the people of Newark/Camden/Trenton/Paterson etc. no longer tolerate it.”

It’s an interesting assumption, because not only have I come across it often on sites like NJ.com and NorthJersey.com but I’ve heard it countless times in other places. Apparently, according to a sizable minority of those willing to publish their opinions on the issue, crime in New Jersey’s cities is a result of a lack of civic awareness, pride, activity or organization on the part of our urban dwellers – or all of those things combined.  

It’s interesting. Though most posters do not identify where they’re writing from, I think it’s safe to assume that many, if not all of them, do not live in these depressing cities, rife with crime and poverty. These posters have little idea of the places they’re talking about. That’s too bad, because you no longer have to physically go to Trenton, Newark, Camden or anywhere in New Jersey to get a feel for its topography. You can simply visit Google Maps and take a virtual walk around the streets, and witness the extent of the devastation firsthand. And if one has even more time on their hands, I believe they can even use Google Maps to view a series of photos of the same places over time, to see how a specific neighborhood, lot, etc. has changed.

The problems of New Jersey’s urban centers are complex, of course, and go back decades. But as a former Newark Central Ward teacher and resident, I have to be honest here: if you’re going to accuse Newark or Camden’s people of a lack of civic spirit or capability to organize, you need to look at the physical geography of such places. In short, what kinds of conditions and structures are present that could enable people to organize and, say, challenge poverty, crime and corruption in such cities?

It’s a good question, because it matters. America’s Revolutionaries had their taverns, where they passionately debated and organized against British rule. Abolitionists and later Civil Rights leaders had their Churches, which functioned as vital incubators of organization and leadership. Newark’s former Jewish community had huge, active community centers, especially along what was once High Street (Now MLK Blvd.)  

All of these institutions – and that’s what they were – required time, energy, funding and organization – and space. And now, for the most part, they’re gone. Swept away in a tide of history and drowned out by poverty. Aside from their homes and places of employment, most of our state’s urban residents lack a “Third Place,” where they can simply socialize, which in a free society is the first step in tackling any problem as a community.

Think about it another way. Say you’re a Newark Central Ward resident, and you want to start some sort of council or club or action group. Where would you meet? Really, where?

In the 1920’s and 30’s, many of Newark’s great community gatherings took place in its schools. But under the regime of State Superintendent Cami Anderson, whose contempt for all forms of democracy and civic expression is well known, today this is almost an impossibility. In fact, some parent organizers have even been arrested for posting material on school grounds. It’s a tragedy, because much of the city’s finest physical structures are completely off limits, or nearly impossible to attain, for meeting, debating and organizing.

Okay, so what about other publicly oriented businesses like cafes and coffeehouses? Well you can forget about these too. The last coffeehouse in the Central Ward – a Starbucks – closed in 2009. The event was regarded as so devastating that it was even covered by the New York Times.

And what about the Churches? Yes, there are still some churches active in our inner cities, but aside from Sunday services, they offer few other services for even their own parishioners. And from a practical perspective, from my years and years of walking around Newark and Paterson, I’d say that most Church buildings are locked and sealed shut during the week.

So how are the people of our urban areas supposed to organize if they cannot even find a place to congregate?

I hope there are some meaningful replies to this blog…am I completely wrong here? Am I on to something?  

Comment (1)

  1. Bill Orr

    It’s a problem that has plagued Newark for many years. Its previous two mayors have been master politicians – one dishonest whose over-riding concern was re-election at all cost but did little to encourage civic engagement while ignoring the disenfranchised, and another who helped the downtown area, who spoke like a preacher, acted like a rock star, was never embraced by the residents, spent energy seeking higher office, and in spite of good will and hope proved unable to change the life of most residents or form an activist movement. Maybe Ras Baraka will be different. Another leader Congressman Donald Payne Jr. has retains concern and interest in Newark but acts and speaks out on lofty Washington issues.  

    Most people forget the sheer physical size of Newark that encompasses an airport, a huge shipping dock, and five diverse wards. There are public busses and a subway but getting from point A to point B is time-consuming for people who don’t have a car. A central activist location is downtown around City Hall, but dangers lurk for some people in the evening returning to their homes.

    In the case of the Central Ward there is no lack of bars or taverns but they don’t act as a “third place.” The wards become a hotbed for political action during elections but afterward the politicians have little interest in organizing the constituents in broader causes. Different groups as far ranging as New Community Corporation, churches, and the LGBT center have sought with limited success to raise civic engagement.

    Even with all the poverty most Newarkers have access to the internet and as you point out do use it to make comments. Residents disgusted with Cami Anderson and the direction of Newark education have used the internet to further their cause. Maybe the internet will become the “third place.”  

           

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