Cory Booker grew up in a North Jersey suburb. The son of a middle-class African-American couple who broke the color barrier, the tall, athletic Mr. Booker played football at Stanford and later studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. And like Richard Florida, he is a disciple of Jane Jacobs.
“She had a very strong belief in creating strong neighborhoods and communities,” Mr. Booker told me a couple of days before Tuesday’s election for mayor of Newark, which he won in a landslide.
As he talked about his plans for the city, we drove past empty lots and abandoned housing. Mr. Booker was imagining filling those dead blocks with some of the most conveniently located housing in the New York area. “It’s quicker to get to the former World Trade Center site on the PATH train than for people on the Upper West Side or Upper East Side to get there.” And it’s not just Manhattan that’s easily accessible. Amtrak will get you to Washington in 2 1/2 hours. Newark also has an airport, a seaport and access to every major highway on the Northeast Corridor.
So why don’t builders take advantage of this prime location? “Newark has a notorious reputation in the state of New Jersey for the length of time it takes to get certificates of code compliance or certificates of occupancy for these buildings,” Mr. Booker said. One woman had to wait eight months to get approval to open a business, he noted. Meanwhile, one builder found it impossible to get his paperwork approved–even though the work he was doing was for the city housing authority. The guy then hired a “facilitator” to move the project along, but he still got nowhere. The really frightening part, said Mr. Booker, was that the facilitator was the son of the mayor.
That mayor was Sharpe James. In his 20 years of running Newark, Mr. James managed to accumulate a Rolls-Royce, several houses and a yacht. Throughout that time, he openly opposed gentrification. He didn’t want newcomers moving to the city. With good reason: They would have voted him out.
When Mr. Booker first challenged Mr. James for the mayoralty in 2002, Mr. James survived only by running what was almost certainly the dirtiest campaign of the century. He accused Mr. Booker of “collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark” and even went so far as to say of Mr. Booker on TV, “He’s Jewish.” He isn’t. He isn’t white, either. But Mr. James accused him of that as well.
The tactics won Mr. James enough of a margin in the housing projects and among city workers to beat Mr. Booker. Meanwhile the state’s Democratic establishment turned a blind eye to the race-baiting and anti-Semitism. The policy of the political class toward Newark, even in Republican administrations, has been to throw pork-barrel projects at it.
Mr. James looked like he was on a roll. But then he pulled out of this year’s mayoral race at the last minute. His reason remains a subject of speculation to those who follow New Jersey politics.
For more on New Jersey’s woes, check out our podcast with Steven Malanga of City Journal, on “The Mob That Whacked Jersey“, a cautionary tale for residents of all 50 states, not just my place of birth.
Update: Orrin Judd, himself a former Jerseyite, has much more.