A Safe Haven in Central Newark

NEAL R. PEIRCE

April 20, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Newark, New Jersey. -- Msgr. William Linder has witnessed scorched-earth devastation and human misery since he moved into Newark's Central Ward 29 years ago.

But this graying, soft-spoken Roman Catholic priest turns super-promoter as he escorts a visitor through the spiffy new Pathmark supermarket his New Community Corporation fought for and, against all odds, opened in summer 1990.

''Here's the produce department,'' says Monsignor Linder, passing displays of handsome fruits and vegetables. ''Our surveys show it's the most popular in the entire store.'' And then the fish department -- ''It's second most valued by our customers.''

Father Linder is out to destroy the stereotype that inner-city people viscerally go for soft drinks, junk food and high-fat meats. He also tells a visitor that the supermarket's trade is 20 percent ahead of initial projections: ''We're making a lot of money on this.''

The opening of the Pathmark store freed Central Ward residents from buying groceries at small, high-priced convenience markets, or taking buses or taxis to markets in the suburbs. Surveys show they're saving 38 percent on their grocery bills.

Every supermarket-bereft inner-city neighborhood -- and there are hundreds of them across the nation -- could use a market like this. Indeed, every beleaguered ghetto or barrio could use a New Community Corporation.

Founded by Father Linder right after Newark's 1968 race riots, New Community has become a veritable city within a city, a refuge of decent housing and day care centers, shelters, stores and restaurants, of employment and stability.

New Community gives direct employment to 1,400 Newark residents, has an annual budget of some $100 million and has proven an aggressive borrower (from banks and insurance firms). It earns a lot from the state government for services it runs, but receives few if any foundation grants.

Amazingly, New Community manages to do all these things in a neighborhood still beset by deep poverty, by ravaged public-housing structures, vast empty lots, graffiti, weeds and chicken wire fencing.

The secret seems to be continuity of effort and an incessant push for maximum feasible independence from the outside. Monsignor Linder is convinced American society has historically been, and remains, ''anti-black, anti-urban and anti-poor.'' City governments chronically try to bargain favors for votes; state and federal governments instinctively try to dictate conditions of aid.

So while bidding for outside investment (a $7 million loan from Prudential Insurance for the supermarket), New Community has a majority black, neighborhood-controlled board. It concentrates on building financial independence and developing divisions with mutually supportive skills.

New Community's biggest single investment area has been housing. Over two decades, it has built 2,500 units of housing for poor and working-class residents of the Central Ward -- 10 developments, with 6,000 residents in all. The buildings are clean and graffiti-free. New Community is New Jersey's biggest nonprofit housing operation, and one of the country's biggest.

Then there's day care: five Babyland centers (with a sixth soon to come), serving 500 kids including 15 children in a special facility for HIV-infected infants.

Harmony House offers transitional shelter for 102 homeless families who otherwise would be in infamously expensive welfare hotels or out on the street. Each family (generally a woman with children) has to agree to a negotiated plan aimed at self-sufficiency.

A block away, at the New Community Extended Care Facility, the elderly are offered senior day care, and there is Medicaid-funded nursing home care for 180 patients.

New Community also runs a job-training program and job-placement effort that has located 4,000 permanent jobs for Newark residents.

And then there's New Community's link with the ''outside'' world. It is St. Joseph Plaza, a $2.5 million project in the shell of an old Catholic church. In it are New Community's headquarters and finance staff, a quality restaurant, a sandwich shop, a medical clinic, a credit unit and spa.

It is small wonder that, with probably the most impressive achievements of any of America's 2,000-plus community development corporations, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation gave Father Linder one of its famous (''genius'' award) fellowships

One can dismiss Father Linder's work as a marginal incursion into an inner city in which urban rot, disease and crime levels are among the worst in the First World or even the Third.

But for the thousands of Central Ward residents, New Community offers what Monsignor Linder describes as ''a network of care,'' a network that families believe they can call their own.

To help those families and others, Monsignor Linder sees massive new challenges in job training, in creating alternatives to what he regards as the miserably poor and politicized Newark public schools.

The explosive drug culture among youth, says Monsignor Linder, is making the world around New Community ever more violent and fearful: ''We're like a safe haven and need to reach out and influence that world.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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