My Newark: The Good, the Ugly and its Beauty
I have called New Jersey my home away from home (Nigeria) since 2006. Altogether, I have lived in the state for almost 7 years. Now, I work in Newark, N.J as a health policy fellow in the city’s health department. When I got the news of my acceptance to GHC, I was excited not only because I was going to work on health policy issues centered on U.S. domestic health issues (an experience I felt would be much different from my international development focus), but I was only moving an hour away from graduate school! My graduate school friends thought I was crazy to move to Newark. I was reminded about tales of gang violence, impoverished neighborhoods, abandoned buildings and people on welfare. My friends, during our GHC training at Yale, even joked about using some of my professional funds to purchase a bullet proof vest. I made up my mind that I would brace myself for anything that may happen. Particularly, I reminded myself of a Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, who spoke during a TED talk about the danger of single story. According to her, a single story emerges when someone carries a one-dimensional view of a reality that is actually quite complex, and it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.
Ten months later, I am sold on probably living in the city if I get a job in New York City (sorry, not a huge NYC fan!) after my fellowship. Although my neighborhood is safer compared to other wards in the city, it is also true that Newark deals with gang violence, abandoned buildings and impoverished neighborhoods. The idea that nearly everybody is on welfare is untrue. My community (the Ironbound or “The Neck”) has a lot of Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish households. I have met some really hardworking individuals who are establishing or have established thriving businesses including retail stores, restaurants (guaranteed food coma at Brazilian steakhouses), nightlife spots and pastry shops (mmm, Portuguese custard cups!!). In addition, there are quite a number of home owners and professionals who also work both within Newark’s key firms like Prudential Financial, PSEG and Panasonic. The historic buildings and architecture in the city are a sight to behold. The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Ridge Street is one the most amazing gothic churches I have ever seen, and the Krueger Mansion on MLK Jr. Blvd rivals Victorian style buildings in Europe. Luckily, I was in the city to attend the Brazilian Independence Day – a 3 day weekend festival on Ferry Street quite similar to carnival parade in Rio. You can trust that everywhere in the Ironbound area was draped in green and yellow colors.
Despite these fascinating things about this city, and its position as the largest city (population wise) in New Jersey, Newark has its share of unfortunate stories. Poverty is still a challenge in the city with nearly 30 percent of its population under the poverty line, while its public schools are ranked low in terms of graduation rates in the state. Gang violence and murder remains a huge headache. Homicide is the third largest cause of death among males in the city, and this form of violence has risen in epic proportions among young adults (18-44 years old) and members of minority racial groups. Christmas in 2013 was particularly sad for several families, with 5 people shot and killed that day. In addition, the city’s past has been tainted by political corruption and mayors have been indicted on criminal charges. The city also has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the state among children 2-4 years old who live in low-income households.
Still, Newark remains my home for at least another month. I have met some really awesome individuals who know me by my first name. My neighbors have also encouraged me to learn how to speak Portuguese. Finally, the World Cup is here and there is a soccer fever in Newark! I am sure it is going to be a colorful time in the city given the ability of my Portuguese neighbors to do anything to ensure a fantastic show (and throw awesome parties). I think Newark will be turned into a little Sao Paolo, Lisbon or Barcelona. Also, I am not forgetting the rivalries that will exist between the Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilian residents about the best players in the tournament – is it Neymar (Brazil) or Ronaldo (Portugal)? Perhaps, Alonso (Spain)? I will let them worry about the best players, while I deal with Nigeria’s chances of making it to the quarter finals!