Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark speaking at Occupy the City, an anti-violence rally and march, in August. (Credit: Yana Paskova for The New York Times)
NEWARK — Mayor Ras J. Baraka came into office last summer practically taunting his doubters. “Yeah,” he said in his inaugural address, “we need a mayor that’s radical.”
They had predicted that he would be anti-business and anti-police, that Mr. Baraka, the son of Newark’s most famous black radical, would return a city dogged by a history of riots and white flight to division and disarray.
A year later, Mr. Baraka is showering attention on black and Latino neighborhoods, as he promised he would. But he is also winning praise from largely white leaders of the city’s businesses and institutions downtown. He struggles with crime — all mayors here do — but he has also championed both the Black Lives Matter movement and the police, winning praise for trying to ease their shared suspicion.
The radical now looks more like a radical pragmatist.
Newark is still stubbornly two cities: gleaming new glass towers downtown, block after block of abandoned plots and relentless poverty in its outer wards, with five killings within 36 hours this month. But for all the expectations that Mr. Baraka would divide the city, those on both sides of the spectrum say that he has so far managed to do what his predecessors could not: make both Newarks feel as if he is their mayor.
The mayor at an awards ceremony for the Newark Fire Department. (Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times)
Development plans are reaching into long-ignored neighborhoods. Projects stalled for years are moving forward, and new industries are taking root: a vertical farm, an incubator space and an investment fund for technology start-ups.
Mr. Baraka closed a $93 million hole in the city budget without layoffs. In June, Gov. Chris Christie agreed to start returning the schools to local control — something the governor had denied Cory A. Booker, Mr. Baraka’s more polished predecessor. The governor had rejected Mr. Baraka’s bid for control a year ago, deeming him “kind of hostile.”
“He’s like the local boy who grew up and said, ‘I need to fix my city.’ How do you not get inspired by that? How do you not root for a guy like that?” said Joseph M. Taylor, the chief executive of Panasonic Corporation of North America, which was lured to Newark by Mr. Booker. “I didn’t think anybody could top Cory Booker, but if anybody can, it’s Mayor Baraka.”
Not everyone is on board. Some local politicians, even those who support Mr. Baraka, say the positive reception partly reflects the low expectations set during a nasty election last spring, in which outside groups spent at least $5 million trying to defeat him. They say the talent pool at City Hall is shallow, and that Mr. Baraka has surrounded himself with friends and family members — in particular, his brother, Amiri Baraka Jr., who serves as his chief of staff — who engage in a kind of street politics that have dragged Mr. Baraka into distracting feuds.
Attendees at Occupy the City, an anti-violence march. The mayor has enlisted the help of residents in trying to curb crime. (Credit: Yana Paskova for The New York Times)
The candidate Mr. Baraka defeated, Shavar Jeffries, continues to criticize the mayor’s inability to stanch crime, dismissing Mr. Baraka’s anti-violence rallies as empty gimmicks. And presuming Mr. Baraka can complete the return of schools to local control, they remain some of the nation’s most troubled and low-performing.