Vitality and stability

November 20, 2003

NEWARK, N.J., reached about as low an ebb in the 1970s and 1980s as any American city has had to endure. Torn by riots in 1967, it then proceeded to lose nearly half its population. The schools were terrible, politics were corrupt, business nose-dived, and everyone was scrambling to get out of town.

Then came the immigrants. Brazilians began flooding into the Ironbound district in the East Ward, replacing an earlier generation of Portuguese who were moving to the suburbs. Colombians, Ecuadoreans and Dominicans poured into the North Ward, even as the Puerto Ricans who had come before them were heading for surrounding towns. Newark had rediscovered its role as an immigrant city, a way station for newcomers on the road to prosperity.

In the 1990s, Newark's precipitous population decline came to a complete halt. People were still leaving -- but just as many were coming in to replace them.

Its problems are by no means solved, but its example is instructive. Baltimore, which is more than twice the size of Newark and would seem to have so much more going for it, nonetheless saw few immigrants and lost 11.5 percent of its population in the 1990s. That decline is a not-so-slow but steady calamity. Finding newcomers, and keeping them here, is going to be an essential part of securing the city's future. Newark, battered and scorned, offers a glimpse of what immigration can do.

The people there are still poor. The schools are still terrible. A prominent business on Market Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, is a used tool store. But the streets of the North Ward are alive with people. The Ironbound is packed. New houses are springing up -- they're not pretty, but they'll do. Crime is down, although it's difficult to sort out the reasons why.

Newark, as it has for years, still lacks a decent supermarket. But dozens of bodegas line the streets. Most, if not all, are owned by immigrants who came a decade or more ago, worked their way up, saved their earnings and finally went into business for themselves. Somewhere in the back you'll find a nephew or cousin or friend of a friend who has just arrived from Latin America -- legally or not -- and is taking his turn on the first rung.

After a stint at the bodega, this typical immigrant might start hiring on with a landscaping firm that has clients in the suburbs. Maybe after that comes day labor in construction. Finally, a bodega, or an auto body shop, or even a restaurant, of his own.

Or consider the route that Amanda Lopez, a Colombian, has followed. She came to New Jersey to join her grown daughter, and at first she worked in a factory where everyone spoke Spanish. It was comfortable, but restrictive, she says. She started right in on English lessons, and now she has a job at a Wal-Mart just outside the city -- as a customer service representative, dealing with all the Spanish-speaking customers. But she's still improving her English, because she's aiming eventually for a job at an AIDS hospice.

The Ironbound was settled by Portuguese a generation ago. They built a thriving world for themselves; the neighborhood is filled with restaurants, which once served other immigrants but now attract a much broader clientele from throughout the area. In a way, it's a little like Baltimore's Little Italy -- with one big exception: It hasn't stultified. Even as it keeps its identity, it's being completely reinvigorated by a new wave of Brazilians.

Squeezed in between the restaurants isa whole new crop of travel agencies, international telephone centers, jewelry stores and fabric shops. The sidewalks are jammed, the mood strikingly upbeat. Music pours out everywhere. The bad news? All the new business is pushing real estate values to unprecedented heights.

"The Brazilians are such a euphoric group," says Frank Paredes, whose father was the first Portuguese to own a liquor store in Newark. "But they arrive here with the same mindset my parents had -- `Make a better life for my children.'"

Newark is an easy destination for immigrants, starting with the airport, which has direct flights from Central and South America. Being part of a metropolitan area that has extensive public transit is a big plus. Large Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking populations remove the intimidation of language -- though the people arriving today are more intent on learning English than many of their predecessors. The new Central American immigrants are also more business-oriented than the Puerto Ricans who came before them, says Ray Ocasio, director of La Casa de Don Pedro, a nonprofit agency in Newark (and himself a Puerto Rican).

"I encourage people -- to do anything, you've got to learn English," says Pedro Paulino, a onetime Dominican police officer who arrived 16 years ago, picked up odd jobs in grocery stores and in landscaping, and now works in what he calls "light construction." That means he does a little carpentry and a little drywall and a little plumbing -- primarily for other Dominicans.

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