Renewal: Varied cultural attractions and revitalization efforts are giving New Jersey's much-maligned city a new spirit.

May 06, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | By Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Several years ago, there were very few signs for Newark along New Jersey's highways, which made it difficult to figure out how to drive to the state's largest city.

"It was like it was some bad secret," said Jeffrey Norman, vice president of public affairs for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

That's changed now, thanks in part to Norman's organization and several others dedicated to turning the old industrial city on the Passaic River into a destination spot. With a state-of-the-art concert hall, theater, restaurant and spacious outdoor plaza, the low-slung performing arts center is the star to which Newark has hitched its wagon. In tow are an art museum that boasts one of the country's largest collections of Tibetan art, a variety of Portuguese res-taurants, a magnificent Gothic cathedral and a lush park landscaped with some 3,000 Japanese cherry trees.

All of which is surprising for a place that's been taking it on the chin for years. Since riots broke out in the summer of 1967 after white police officers arrested a black cab driver, Newark has struggled to overcome the perception that it's a miserable place of abandoned buildings and empty blocks of rubbish. While it was not the only city damaged by civil unrest in those turbulent times, Newark seems to be the one that's had the hardest time rebounding.

In part, that's a function of size and resources, says Charles F. Cummings, Newark's official historian and author of the "Knowing Newark" column, which he writes each week on a manual typewriter for the Star-Ledger.

"Compared with Baltimore and Los Angeles," Cummings says, "which are much larger, much richer cities, Newark is so small -- about 23 square miles. And it had a very large poor section."

The grim cityscape visitors expect to see in Newark still exists, and Cummings does not hesitate to point it out. But he also points out the unexpected: glorious art deco buildings along the main thoroughfare of Broad Street, Gothic and Byzantine churches, and Forest Hill, an elegant residential neighborhood of tree-lined streets and large homes built around the turn of the 20th century.

Cummings is an unabashed city booster, right down to the "NWK NJ" emblazoned on his vanity license plates. He came here in 1962 to work in the local history collection of the public library and never left. But thousands of other Newarkers fled, particularly after the riots. For a city where some 70 percent of the land is off the tax rolls because it's occupied by the state and federal government, Essex County and numerous churches, any loss of property tax revenue represents a nasty blow.

Newark's comeback actually began shortly after the riots, starting with the construction of a few high-rise office buildings. In 1986, Gov. Tom Kean administered a shot in the arm when he commissioned a study to determine where to build the state's performing arts center. With a major international airport and train station in its midst and about 4.5 million state residents living within 25 miles, Newark was the logical choice.

Inner Harbor an inspiration

The arts center is tucked between the Passaic River and Military Park, a narrow green space that borders Broad Street. If the brick sidewalks and outdoor performance area feel familiar, it's because the developers took the success of Baltimore's Inner Harbor into account.

"I used to cite the Inner Harbor in my funding proposals," Norman says. "It was everything that we had dreamed would happen outside the arts center here. It reinforced the notion that cities are meant for people."

Since the center opened in 1997, about two million people have come to see such performers as Sting, Sonny Rollins, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Film director Ron Howard paid a call recently while checking out locations for a new movie.

Part of the center's mission is to serve the entire community, not just those who can pony up $75 a ticket. In warm weather, there are free concerts in the outdoor plaza. One recent day, a group of seniors were in to watch the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra rehearse a Broadway pops show. Norman and I tiptoed onto a balcony high up in Prudential Hall, while the seniors sat in the orchestra. As the rousing opener of "Oklahoma!" reverberated throughout the 2,750-seat hall, I found it was hard to imagine that the music could have sounded any better in the pricier sections.

Invigorated by Rodgers and Hammerstein, I got a cup of cocoa at the center's coffee shop and walked west through Military Park. In the 1660s when a group of Puritans settled Newark, they set aside three triangular patches of land for public use, and those parcels are now Washington, Military and Lincoln parks.

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