The other night, Cailie and I went to a Brick City Conversations forum at Rutgers Newark on the topic of “The Economic Development of the Tri-State Region: Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Plan.” The forum was very interesting and a great event to attend. The weather however was not so great: a Nor’easter was forming off of the Atlantic Coast. Though the winds here have not been too bad, the cold rain did not make for an enjoyable walk. After a half mile of this, we decided to ditch walking and take a cab. Shortly after getting in the cab, we passed by where Modell’s had recently been located on Market Street between Halsey and Broad. While I had previously noticed that Modell’s was no longer open, I saw a new development: The GAP.
That’s right: The GAP is coming to downtown Newark.
When I saw the GAP, my first reaction was negative. Changes are coming to Newark for good and for bad. While there are many possible outcomes of this transformation, perhaps the worst possibility would be if downtown Newark turned into a mall like Westfield, NJ.
Westfield is a town of 30,681 people according to the 2011-2013 ACS. It is a 12 mile drive away from downtown Newark and a 36 minute ride by train. It is one of a series of towns located along the former Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Lehigh-Susquehanna Division. While parking has invaded the town, it has been able to keep much of its walkable downtown intact. Though the urban design and architecture of Westfield is great, there is one distinct problem with the town; its retail makeup is straight out of a mall. Included in the mix is The Children’s Place, Claire’s, Chico’s, Chipotle, and Coldstone Creamery. Those are just the C’s. It also has two GAPs.
This city as a mall development is problematic for several reasons. First, these larger corporations suck profits from the neighborhood to their corporate headquarters. Second, filling a town with the usual suspects creates an experience that can be duplicated anywhere across the country. The deadening of the local culture robs places of their identity and leaves places bland and boring. Finally, when these larger corporations come in, they squeeze out space for local entrepreneurs who could start up their own shops and build wealth in the local economy.
The GAP isn’t the only change in downtown Newark. Since the Prudential Center was built, there has been more development interest in the area. Bars and restaurants are opening on Edison Place. In 2012, Dinosaur BBQ, a regional chain based in Syracuse, opened on Market Street. More recently has been the renovation of the Rock Plaza Lofts and the opening of Mercato Tomato Pie and Chipotle. While the median household income in Newark is $32,228, the apartments in Rock Plaza Lofts were starting at $1,500/month ($18,000/year). Mercato Tomato Pie, though being an independent pizzeria, has the appearance of a much larger chain. Chipotle is an upscale Taco Bell loved by college students and is only a short walk away from real mexican food at Mi Pequeno Mexico in the Ironbound.
Although I was disturbed by what I was seeing, the taxi driver seemed optimistic. Having grown up in Newark, he has seen years of tough times in downtown. He told us about violent assaults he had seen on Broad Street during the day. He pointed out several vacancies next to the new shops. His hope is that the old stores are replaced by new ones under better management. According to the driver, many of the stores around 4 Corners are either fronts for illicit business, or at the very least have clientele engaged in illicit business spending great deals of time there. This is very possible; it wouldn’t be the first time that a Newark business was a front for criminal activity. It was interesting that this cab driver who grew up in the city had such a negative view of these stores.
To be fair, these stores aren’t always the greatest. Though the stores in the area offer the same goods you would expect at a mall, there is an over representation of cell phone, wig and dollar stores. While there are some larger chains and regional chains from the NYC Metro Area, the area is dominated by independent stores. These are the stores that have survived and in some cases thrived in Newark before this current wave of reinvestment hit. Some of these stores may be mismanaged and may contribute to some of the problems of the neighborhood. They may not be very attractive to Newark natives and gentrifiers alike. However, they do represent a local entrepreneurial class. Finding a way to strengthen this entrepreneurial class will be essential during this reinvestment.
As reinvestment gathers momentum, businesses that have survived and built a niche in Newark during its tougher times will be threatened by a rapidly transforming market environment and potential rent increases. Though this may result in some new stores and restaurants where the owners are local, many of these places will be larger chains. Under the best scenario, this will represent a replacement of the culture of Newark, and under a worse situation it could develop the feel of a mall. Newark could become like 125th in Harlem (there’s something wrong with Red Lobster being next to the Apollo Theater).
Some stores in Newark ultimately will have to change, but many should remain viable so long as the owners are able to adapt to these changing circumstances. A couple of years ago, Cailie purchased a purse on Hasley street made from the fabric of an old 1970’s couch. This purse, which could have gone for $80 to $100 in Williamsburg, set her back a whopping $20. It isn’t hard to imagine a situation where this purse maker is priced out of the retail space only to be replaced by someone who makes purses out of old couches and sells them for $100. This is an example of where minor assistance could save a local business. Business counseling would go a long way towards helping these business owners adapt. Some stores may be able to survive simply by making minor modifications to their merchandise or marketing strategies. Others may require larger changes. If they are able to adapt, downtown Newark will be able to maintain its culture to a larger degree and the increased prosperity will remain much more local.
Newark needs some major changes. Its reputation for crime, and poverty are symptoms of serious troubles. Though the change is necessary, there will be losers in the process. Too often in gentrification, the losers are those people and companies that already occupied the city. If Newark begins to thrive, only by replacing the residents and business owners, Newark will ultimately have failed its residents. With some targeted work, Newark’s revival can result in the revival of local wealth. The pace of change is increasing and the window for action is shrinking. As with many aspects of Newark’s revival, it has this one chance. If it misses it, there is no going back.