There hasn’t been much good news coming out of Newark lately. Although the number of shootings is down somewhat, the murder rate is still frighteningly high, and reports of entrenched corruption and substandard schools keep making headlines. Maybe that’s why, when he appeared at The New School in Manhattan on Feb. 12, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was introduced as being from a city “where people have lost hope.”
And yet, the whole point of Booker's 90-minute talk before a packed audience on West 12th Street was to insist on hope as the basis for changing cities -- and reviving democracy.
"This country must resonate with a different energy," he said. Then, evoking James Baldwin -- one of numerous black authors and leaders he quoted in his speech -- Booker called on the audience to light the "fires of hope, opportunity and love" in America’s urban communities.
Speaking without notes and while ranging back and forth across the stage ("as a former football player, I'm always worried that if I stand still, I'll get hit," Booker quipped), the mayor told stories about his family and people from his former Brick Towers neighborhood in Newark, who've inspired him to stand up in the face of discrimination, poverty and violence.
We heard about Booker's father, who grew up poor in the mountains of North Carolina and went on to become one of the first black executives at IBM. Booker conceded that his dad is far less optimistic about the future of the inner city than he is.
"I rail against that view," the mayor said.
We heard about T-Bone, a local drug dealer who first threatened to shoot Booker, then later tearfully begged for his help in getting out of town before the police closed in. (Coda: Booker couldn't help him and T-Bone has apparently disappeared).
And we heard about Virginia Jones, a tenant leader who let Booker know that unless he could see past the surface decay to what was of value in the neighborhood, he was of no use to her. "What you see outside you is a reflection of what you see inside you," she told him.
When Booker asked her why she stayed in the projects, she replied, "Because I'm in charge of homeland security."
That story drew Booker back to his larger theme, that prospects for American democracy hang on the fate of struggling urban centers like Newark: if one is allowed to fail, so will the other. He noted that while 85 people from New Jersey have died in Iraq since 2003, 106 citizens of Newark were murdered last year alone -- most of them young, black males.
Booker made brief mention of charter schools, prevailing wage laws and inclusive zoning. But his speech was short on specific policy prescriptions. He seemed more interested in capturing the hearts than the minds of the crowd.
In that, he was a huge success. One man said he hoped Booker would run for president. A Newark native told him he'd made her proud.
During the question-and-answer session, Booker was asked how he keeps "the black cloud of despair from descending" when trying to solve problems such as street shootings and high dropout rates.
"I lean on other people," he said, including a friend who is a minister.
"How do you get respect in the streets?" a young boy who'd approached the microphone wanted to know.
"The best way to get respect anywhere is by giving respect," Booker said, backing up as if to give his answer more room. "If you can see God in another person’s eyes, that's the place you can start. I see God in your eyes and my prayer for you is that you can become everything that you want to become. All right? Did you get it?"
The boy smiled. The audience cheered.