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A City in Search of a Renaissance

by Victor Saraiva


The city of Newark has just emerged from another mayoral election.  For the first time in twenty years a new mayor has been elected. 


The outgoing Mayor James who is a part time Mayor and part time State Senator,  hypocritically says he is against the concept of civil servants holding dual offices, but is prepared to continue as a State Senator, while also being named as a highly paid head of an Institute of government affairs being organized at Essex County College-- an institution which is partly funded by city and county taxpayers.  I guess money speaks louder than supposed principles!


During the run up to election day, Senator Rice, a mayoral contender and former cop,  attempted to gain momentum by using the bogeyman approach in his electoral campaign—crime.  According to Rice the main problem facing the city continues to be crime, so we gotta get tough—more cops, let’s get out there in them tough neighborhoods and bag them bad guys by the busload.  Cory Booker, the other main contender and future Mayor-Elect, sensing the power of fear, joined the chorus by adding his voice to the political chorus of ‘yea let’s get tough’!

Sure crime has always been an issue in a large city, but is it THE issue?  Let’s sit back a minute and look at the horizon. 


Newark has scant financial resources to be applied to better city services.  It has a high tax rate and a crumbling infrastructure.  City employees and especially its politicians have generous benefits packages that include health care, prescription coverage, vision and dental, along with very generous pension plans;  this, while the vast majority of city citizens have no such benefits at all! 


City politicians ride around in Ford crown victorias gassed up, and maintenanced with tax dollars.  Several city politicians have sent out mailings to their constituents making use of regular first class stamps, paid with tax dollars, instead of using the reduced cost government stamp, why?

City politicians spend thousands of tax dollars on travel and entertainment, that have little to do with city business, and many citizens rightly grumble: ‘how do they get away with it?’ 


City politicians tally up thousands of dollars in cellular telephone accounts which are paid with tax dollars. How about reining in and placing a limit on mobile phone use?  An officeholder should spend the majority of his/her time in the office, where citizens can reach them, don’t you think?


How about mandating that all employees of the city, reside within city limits, so that they spend the majority of their tax dollar salaries supporting city businesses?  When city employees also live in the city that employs them they have a vested interest in seeing their city not only survive but also prosper. 

Crime, like a disease, is just a symptom of a greater problem.  Stomping on gang members, letting loose with the ‘tommy gun’ approach, will not solve the crime problem, in the long run it will exacerbate it.  Kids join gangs for a reason.  Gangs exist for a reason.  Crime is rampant in certain parts of cities as a result of certain identifiable reasons. 


At the root of most property crime is rampant unemployment, and economic hopelessness.  The city has had, and continues to have some of the worst public education not only in the state but also in the country.  The drop out rate continues to be high.  Kids who drop out, lose out on ever being able to hold any kind of decent paying job, never mind the loss to their self esteem or the diminished capacity of being an informed and capable citizen existing in our society.  Many of these kids come from broken homes, where a father has been long gone, and a mother is either unemployed or toiling at a low paying job struggling to make ends meet. 


Meanwhile out in the neighborhood similar kids are spending time walking the streets trying to figure out what to do; how they are going to get some money for clothes, to go to the movies, to buy a car, to go somewhere else—away from here.  The answer they find often, is silenced stares from strangers, some black, some white.  Some of these strangers come from outside the city, looking for such desperate people who can do their bidding; ‘wanna make a fast buck’? 


Thus we get prostitution, gun running, drugs, and gangs!  The networks supporting these activities are very real and easy to identify if only the government had a real interest in breaking up the cycle of poverty, and the resultant crime in the city.  But you see the cycle is profitable to some people.  The more desperation, poverty, and unemployment there is, the better for the merchants of death that sell the guns, and the drugs.  City residents who get caught up in the organizations of crime have an option that is tangible and pays off—money.  Money that pays for groceries, services, health care, and in turn gives them self esteem.  ‘There is nothing like money in your pocket to make you feel like somebody’ was a favorite expression of Al Capone.  I guess it is still true. 


Gangs survive because they give the kids involved an alternate ‘family’ of similar people who are facing the same hopelessness, who now band together to find renewed power, a sense of protection and belongingness. 

Gangs traffic in guns and drugs, helping to support an illicit economy that garners billions in profits across the United States.  These profits wind up being deposited in banking institutions, they are helping to fund business development and the loan industry in the U.S.  Gang activity and organized crime involved in the support of prostitution, drugs, guns, is not germane only to the city of Newark, it is to be found across the U.S. in every state.  Such enterprises are responsible for the preponderant majority of all crime.


But let’s get back to our own city of Newark; how does a mayor-elect who truly wants to reduce crime and better the city within his domain, succeed in doing so?  The answer is as tough as the question, because it calls for courage, determination, integrity, and political suicide; the only true alternative is to focus on the root of the problem—the people behind the gangs; the people behind the prostitution rings; the people who profit by running guns into the city.  That is where law enforcement should concentrate. 


On the street, the city should also make inroads by providing citizens in the cycle of poverty and gangs, a legitimate way to reform their lives through alternatives;  job training that results in--REAL JOBS.  Such city residents should also be given options for better housing in other parts of the city; break up the gang members’ territory by moving their members; and provide such gang members with tangible offers of a better life by renouncing their gang ties. 

If the new mayor was really interested in reducing crime he would make it a priority to create a civilian corps made up of ‘volunteers’ that would be paid a monthly stipend along with educational benefits at Essex County College of free tuition, and subsidized recently built housing in the city.  Such a civilian corps would be responsible for helping to clean up parks;  and to serve as councilors to youth currently involved in gang activity. 

Who would make up such a force?  How about reformed gang members; how about recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who have completed their periods of recovery at Integrity House and Cura? 


Some of you reading this are smirking at this notion, you are deriding the idea, laughing at the possibility that recovering alcoholics or recovering addicts have any redeeming possibilities at all.  ‘Such people can’t be reformed, once an addict always an addict’. But dear friend, if you reject the possibility that a recovering addict, or a recovering alcoholic could reform himself, then you are saying at the same time that such human beings belong on garbage heaps, and once rejected by society they are lost forever.  You are saying too that no one, worth anything, makes mistakes in life—and we know that is not true. 


We all make mistakes in life. When we do, we appreciate and thank our friends who were there when we faltered and fell, who gave us a hand up; then we too we as citizens, should not hesitate in helping others in situations of helplessness and hopelessness. We owe it to them, and we owe it to the notion and belief that our society can renew itself, that everyone is human, and as such, we must react to others in dire circumstances with humanity, compassion, and understanding.


Building such a civilian corps would have a triple purpose;

  1. to provide recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, a palpable semblance of toiling for a better future;
  2. to provide the support needed to entice youth away from high risk and illicit lifestyles;
  3. to serve as an example to youth, and others, that legitimate options exist out of the cycle of hopelessness and poverty.

‘Where’s the money’ you say! Yes, you need money for such programs, and the money can be garnered.  You know, one’s greatest energy savings can be found first of all in the awareness of conserving one’s resources.  A newly elected mayor could conserve, by several measures;


  1. by instituting a new bidding process that removes decision of bids according to criteria founded on anti-corruption principles, such as those listed by Transparency International;
  2. by getting rid of city vehicles that don’t achieve at minimum 28 mpg combined city/highway driving;
  3. by purchasing compact size vehicles to be used by all departments, inclusive of the council as well as the mayor’s office;
  4. by mandating that no city vehicle leave city limits without proper authorization from department heads, and that a paper trail substantiating such a trip be incorporated into an electronic filing system made available to the public through FOIA;
  5. by reducing current expenditures to publications such as calendars, circulars, brochures-- such publications should not be used as vehicles for advertisements benefiting any public official; such publications should make use of the lightest paper deemed pertinent in comparison to similar publications published by other comparable municipalities;
  6. by abolishing travel and entertainment subsidies’ for all public employees of the city, as well as consultants, and other employees currently associated with the city on a contractual basis;
  7. by limiting mobile phone accounts for all city officials, equally;
  8. by creating a new office of Inspector-General, with the sole duty of rooting out corruption; who will work in concert with the state attorney general’s office;
  9. by making it clear to all city employees that bribes, ‘freebies’, and favors no longer have a place in this city, and will be targeted as a corrupt practice, thereby warranting prosecution, termination from employment, and voiding any city pension plan;
  10. by re-examining current contracts with all companies that deal with city government, and by seeking to terminate any such contracts that are exorbitant, redundant, or unnecessary;
  11. by eliminating lease agreements when the purchase or relocation of such services could provide substantial savings to the city;
  12. by terminating cronyism as a standard practice;
  13. by identifying city employees in the department of sanitation that illegally provide services to businesses, and prosecuting both the business as well as such city employees;
  14. by placing a moratorium on any further sales at auction to developers at below market rates;
  15. by placing a moratorium on property tax abatements longer than five years;
  16. by making it possible for certain fees and payments to be made on the Internet, such as property taxes, water and sewer, as well as requisitions for building permits--the resultant will be more streamlined services and reduced costs to the city;
  17. by reducing the need for paper, while migrating memorandums to email, and reports to PDF documents;
  18. by establishing photocopying constraints in all city government departments based on key personnel who will be held responsible for any abusive practices;
  19. by reexamining the pension structure now in place;  eliminating or restricting a city pension for any official who already will receive a state or federal government pension;
  20. by initiating an investigation into the contracts of the construction of city schools and identifying corrupt practices of bid rigging and ‘intentional slowdown’ of construction projects.

These are just a few ideas that would save the city MILLIONS of dollars, which in turn could be funneled into a civilian corps that in turn would open a door of hope to hundreds if not thousands, currently locked in situations of poverty and violence.


Would it work? Could it work?


I don’t think the city would be worse off. As things stand the marginalized of this city are being exploited by a wellspring criminal enterprise that profits by the misery inherent in this city. It is time to turn the tide for those citizens in the midst of the violence, as well as for the rest of us, who count ourselves among the population of a dismal metropolis on the edge of ridicule and hopelessness.  Switching those at the helm of a lost ship for the sake of change is no solution, unless that change behests a change of direction that indeed brings forth a true renaissance for all citizens of the city. In fact, a renaissance that at its root embraces integrity, decency and compassion.


Posted  May 16, 2006

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