Rebuilding Lincoln Park Blog

My ex-girlfriend called yesterday to tell me her “older” boyfriend of three years dumped her unceremoniously.  I asked why and after a sigh she said it was “just time.”  She was thinking about breaking up with him but his birthday is next week and she was waiting until after her planned surprise birthday party to convey the life-altering news.  He beat her to the punch, deciding not to enter his fifth decade of life in a deteriorating romantic relationship with a younger woman.  To lighten the mood, I told her we too had just been dumped.  In an emotional break-up taking place over 72 hours that included seven emails, one phone call and a little drama, we ended a relationship that lasted almost two years.   Yet, we were not dumped by a potential spouse, but by our low-income housing development partner.    She let out a relieving laugh…

The Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (LPCCD) is a 501c3 organization redeveloping the Lincoln Park community in Newark, New Jersey.  It was founded as a response to the creation of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC).   Local residents were angry with the City of Newark and the State of New Jersey for spending almost $200 million dollars to build a new facility in 1997, rather than renovate and reprogram Newark Symphony Hall–a legendary performance venue built in 1925.  Many local residents believed NJPAC was built with the desire to attract white middle income suburbanites into a new Newark facility instead of integrating them into the historic Newark Symphony Hall, which by the early 1980s had the sunken reputation of being on the “chitlin circuit.”

Immediately thereafter, LPCCD became the vocal opposition to the market devaluation of black culture in a place that was and continues to be predominately black.   LPCCD facilitated the conversations of the town’s disgruntled cultural bulwarks who wanted to prove Newark’s black cultural legitimacy locally and nationally.  Those conversations crystallized the idea that community economic development starts and ends with local pride if it is going to change more than just the built environment.  This is one of the core building blocks of LPCCD.

LPCCD grew into a community development corporation, becoming designated developer of a redevelopment area across the street from Newark Symphony Hall.  In the redevelopment area, LPCCD purchased lots from the City of Newark and is in the process of completing 125 units of United States Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (USGBC LEED) Certified housing.  Over the last several years, this neighborhood that was known mostly for its blight is a burgeoning, sustainable arts and cultural district that now includes two art galleries, a yoga studio, two new mixed-use projects, two new charter schools, a new restaurant/lounge, a farm, a USGBC LEED-Neighborhood Development Gold Certification, a planned Smithsonian-Affiliated, Museum of African American Music, approximately 250 completed housing units, an annual music festival that attracts over 50,000 people from around the world and a community of artist and creative professionals integrated throughout.

Even with all of our successes and blessings mentioned above, the challenge is, and continues to be, the economy and where do poor people, poor communities and communities of color fit in the overall local, regional and national economic development priorities.  Our partnership with this well-known, successful low income housing developer was short lived because his successful business model is based on the idea that you build low income restricted rental housing in low income neighborhoods, regardless of the trends or the local aspirations, because those are the most financially secure, economically viable deals.   And, more importantly, he is not alone!  This economic depression makes the proposal of any non low-income housing development project in a low income neighborhood financially irresponsible.

Nonetheless, LPCCD is continuing to redevelop Lincoln Park in this market.    We believe poor people, poor communities and communities of color deserve all the economic, civic, educational, cultural, political and spiritual opportunities that wealthier communities have.  We believe the projects that take place in these communities have the capacity and responsibility to build the foundations of a local living economy which can be directive, catalyzing, strengthening and meaningful.   However, we are not naive; our experiences tell us it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to continue with our current goals.  We were completely overextended when the real estate market collapsed in 2008 and we have needed deep-pocket partners for banks to take our development projects seriously.   Our belief in Lincoln Park’s importance to local residents and the City of Newark also works to motives us.  Not to mention, it has taken several generations of dedication to get Lincoln Park to this juncture; stalling now will probably disable any neighborhood scale redevelopment activities from occurring in the foreseeable future and leave our community with another unfinished project.

As we step into this phase of organizational development, working on projects, probably alone, we openly wonder if we are going to succeed.   Our unabashed celebration of urban, black culture as central to our redevelopment strategy has lenders and financial institutions looking at us sideways.   More disturbingly, as I’m writing this first blog, one of my staff members sends out a mass email stating there was an attempted, armed carjacking around the corner from our office today and that we should be careful.   I have to pause and wonder if our former low-income housing development partner and the banks are not absolutely correct about Lincoln Park, Newark and other places like ours.

The Rebuilding Lincoln Park bi-weekly blog will be geared toward providing readers with the updates, challenges, victories and mistakes that we make on this journey.   A lot of what you read will be not pretty; some of it downright ugly, but historically the victories have been sweet when we take the time to enjoy them.   We want to share everything with you with the hopes that in your attempts to work in and transform your communities that our lessons will be helpful.

LeandroArts Design Studio