One Property at a Time’: A City Tries to Revive Without Gentrifying

Neighborhoods in Newark are beginning to see a flurry of redevelopment, a decade after the city’s downtown gained vogue.

NEWARK — Construction workers in the South Ward of Newark, one of New Jersey’s most distressed areas, are busy converting a long-abandoned bank into an apartment building and poets cafe.

decrepit mansion in the Central Ward built by a Newark beer baron before the turn of the 20th century is being revamped as a “makerhood,” a first-of-its-kind co-working residential and retail space.

Siree Morris, a developer, recently finished erecting six three-bedroom apartments on a formerly vacant lot. Next up: condos made from shipping containers and an affordable-housing complex named for his slain brother, Michael, on the street where they grew up.

While the downtown corridors of Newark, a poor industrial city burdened by decades of disinvestment, have been on the rebound for years, much of the rest of the city had been largely left behind.

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Meet the Visionary Revitalizing Newark Symphony Hall

Taneshia Nash Laird has always been a visionary. Growing up below the poverty line in White Plains, New York, many of Laird’s classmates had parents who were doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and entertainment executives. 

“And these included the Black families I knew,” says Laird. “I just wanted to be middle class. I knew I could achieve that because I saw people that looked like me doing all sorts of things. I knew that my dreams could be achieved.”

Since 2018, Laird has been the president and CEO of Newark Symphony Hall, one of the Garden State’s oldest and largest venues. She is the only Black woman at the helm of a major performing arts center in the state. “In many ways, I’m living my dream,” says Laird.


Laird’s mother, who never earned more than minimum wage, was integral to her arts exposure. She sent 7-year-old Laird on a church bus trip to see her first Broadway musical, The Wiz. “It’s only occurring to me as an adult that she probably couldn’t afford her own ticket,” says Laird. With the help of financial aid, Laird took art, dance and music classes. By high school, she was a glee club member, participated in every school play, and was enrolled in a pre-professional dance program.

“I know that my life could have been very different,” she says, “if I did not have the things that I grew up around.”

Now, Laird is on a quest to bring similar opportunities to Newark, where nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty, based on 2019 U.S. Census data.

Her role at Newark Symphony Hall, an anchor in the Lincoln Park section of the city, positions her well to accomplish her vision. Laird’s goal is threefold: restore the historic venue to its glory days with a major renovation; expose local artists, especially those of color, through dynamic programming; and create career opportunities for residents of the Newark area.

“This is part of my commitment of having the revitalization of Newark Symphony Hall happening with the people of Newark and not to the people of Newark,” says Laird. “That’s an important distinction.”

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For 15 years, Laird has been a changemaker in New Jersey. During her time as the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, she launched an instructional art program for adults with disabilities and greatly increased free public performing arts programs. She has held several significant positions in Trenton, including executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association. In that role, she initiated Destination Trenton, an award-winning arts and tourism program. Also of note is the book Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans, which she co-authored with her late husband, Roland. Laird, 52, currently lives in West Windsor with her two daughters.

These leadership roles in Princeton and Trenton, as well as several others, have established Laird’s reputation as a driver of economic development.

“Not only are her ideas bold and brash,” says Jeremy V. Johnson, executive director of Newark Arts, “they’re backed by an understanding of how collaborations work, how public-private partnerships work, and how complex issues like workforce strategies and tax credits work.”

In November, the scope of Laird’s work widened when she was appointed to the National Independent Venue Foundation’s inaugural eight-person board. The NIVF’s approximately 3,000 member theaters nationwide include White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, and dozens of others in New Jersey. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, the foundation’s sister organization, the National Independent Venue Association, has lobbied Congress to pass the Save Our Stages act. The effort came to fruition in December, when Congress passed the $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill, which allocates $15 billion in support of live venues, independent movie theaters and cultural institutions. Pollstar, a trade publication for the global concert industry, estimates that the sector lost more than $30 billion in 2020.

“I just want to make sure that the venues survive,” says Laird. “Live music is important to communities for a whole number of reasons, whether it’s economic development reasons [or] quality of life. We’re all looking at, What does the future look like?

Laird and her fellow foundation board members are focused on non-lobbying activities, such as emergency relief funds, education and community programming, employee training, and economic development initiatives. Laird summarizes the board’s efforts for independent music venues as “making sure that, pandemic or not, there is help in the sector.”


Much of Laird’s work with the NIVF is in line with her vision for Newark Symphony Hall. 

Built in 1925 as the Salaam Temple, the nearly 220,000-square-foot building on Broad Street was an entertainment hub for decades. Music legends of all genres graced the stage, including Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo, Patti LaBelle, the Rolling Stones and Sarah Vaughan, the namesake of the venue’s main concert hall. By the late 20th century, the venue was struggling financially, and audiences were flocking to the modern New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center, opened in 1997 and 2007, respectively. 

“The resurgence of the stately Newark Symphony Hall will take more than a great arts administrator,” says Johnson, who has been on the venue’s board since December 2017. “It will take a connector, a negotiator, a preservationist and an urban planner. Taneshia checks off all the boxes.”

The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977, but is in bad need of revitalization after years of neglect. A $40 million, five-year renovation project is expected to wrap up in 2025, in tandem with the hall’s 100th anniversary. The three-phase construction project—due to begin this summer—includes exterior and interior facelifts. 

A combination of philanthropic donations and economic development programs are funding the renovation. The hall has already been awarded a $750,000 grant from the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund. Laird will seek further revenue through the federal historic tax credit program and a tax deferment for opportunity zones, or economically distressed communities. She estimates the project will create 500 construction jobs and opportunities for 50 small businesses. 

One of the goals is to add new skills, such as specialty historic preservation, to the résumés of local construction workers. “This is important economic activity that we’re going to be generating in the city of Newark,” says Laird. “There are other projects that could benefit from this newly upskilled workforce.” 

In addition to upgrading buildings and creating construction-related jobs, Laird wants to help foster the next generation of entertainers. To that end, the Newark-based cultural organization Yendor will become an in-residence theater company at Newark Symphony Hall. A program dubbed the Lab will connect local artists, from directors to dancers, with resources they need to build careers. Newark poet and author Jasmine Mans will be the hall’s first participant. 

Laird is also assembling an artist-in-residency program for people of color. Also on the horizon is Laird’s partnership with Diversify the Stage, an organization launched by Noelle Scaggs of the alternative-pop band Fitz and the Tantrums, which is focused on establishing more opportunities for people of color, women and the LGBTQ community in the live music, events and touring industries.

With audiences stuck at home, Laird is rolling out two virtual programs. Yendor will perform an online play by screenwriter and playwright Richard Wesley, a Newark Symphony Hall board member. As an homage to the hall’s history, the original documentary-style production The Soul of Newark Symphony Hall will livestream on social media and


As Newark Symphony Hall undergoes its metamorphosis, Laird has her sights set on transforming the community at large.

Before the pandemic, Laird developed a curriculum for her Newark Symphony Hall staff that addressed all aspects of running a venue. Board member Johnson was struck by Laird’s employee-training and professional-development efforts. Now, Laird is setting up a larger initiative.

“Taneshia wants to build a pipeline of Black and Brown venue experts with experience derived from Newark Symphony Hall’s training ground,” says Johnson. “This new pool of talent can seed and diversify arts leadership across the region.”

“As we enter our next century,” says Laird, “I see Symphony Hall being a career accelerator and business incubator in performing arts, live entertainment and historic preservation for local people who are predominantly people of color…. What I’m hoping is that the things that I’m doing create a real pathway.”


At home, Laird has created a pathway for her daughters. Naima, 10, is a cellist and dancer with aspirations to become Misty Copeland, but also a chef and entrepreneur. Imani, 14, is a straight-A student and future doctor who played the violin with her school orchestra in Sicily. Both kids listen to everything from 80s hip-hop to K-pop and classical music. 

Laird’s own pathway to Newark began with a revelation. 

In October 2017, Laird visited Brick City to support abstract artist Danny Simmons, a friend who was on a Newark Arts Festival panel.

“I remember being very moved by what I saw in Newark,” says Laird. At the time, she was leading the Princeton Arts Council, a role she thought was her dream job.

“I really loved that community, but when I was in Newark, I was surrounded by people that looked like me,” says Laird. “I did not have that in Princeton.”

Although she wouldn’t become the leader of Newark Symphony Hall for another year, at that moment, she knew Newark was where she was supposed to be. 

“I felt like this is what I was meant to do, period,” says Laird. “I’m doing this because I feel like I have something to give back.”

Newark Symphony Hall names city’s arts and cultural affairs director, Fayemi Shakur, as new board chair

The city of Newark’s arts and cultural affairs director, fayemi shakur, has been elected chair of Newark Symphony Hall’s board of directors, the arts and entertainment venue announced Tuesday.

In her new role, shakur will provide strategic advice on focus areas including fundraising, programming, racial justice initiatives and more.

“fayemi’s reputation demonstrates a commitment to cultural organizing, mentorship and engaging programming that explores art that challenges the way we see and experience the world, ourselves and each other,” CEO and President Taneshia Nash Laird said in a prepared statement. “We’re thrilled to have her as chairwoman of our board, and value her input.

“Overall, we anticipate success in the months ahead — in everything from enriching new programming to several community and economic development initiatives.”

Added shakur: “Newark Symphony Hall’s vibrant cultural history deserves to be celebrated. I’m excited and humbled to chair its board of directors — comprised of such talented professionals, who have worked tirelessly to preserve and support the venue’s growth and long-term sustainability. This is important and joyful work.”

In her role as Newark’s arts and cultural affairs director, shakur started the city’s first arts fund, the Creative Catalyst Fund. She has also served in leadership roles at City Without Walls gallery; Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art; and other venues and projects.

“Newark Symphony Hall’s historic stage represents the cultural backbone of our city, and I’m pleased that fayemi shakur, Newark’s arts and cultural affairs director, has been elected to preside over its board of directors,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement. “Her sound counsel on the venue’s arts programming and fundraising efforts will have a dynamic and positive impact for years to come, enhancing our city’s luster as a center for the arts and ensuring that residents and visitors alike enjoy world-class quality performances at Symphony Hall.”

Developing while Black: Newark group attempting to increase opportunities

Anthony Smith, the executive director of the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District in Newark, knows a thing or two about the prevalence of Black real estate investments firms.

Simply put, he knows how few there are. Recent research on the subject revealed stunning statistics, he said.

“Recently, I talked about the challenges of ‘Developing while Black’ on my podcast, the Lincoln Park Sustainable Living Community Podcast,” he said. “While doing the research for the episode, we found that a 2019 study by Harvard Business School and Bella Research identified only 17 women-owned and 21 minority-owned real estate investment firms among the total universe of 967 firms listed in the Prequin database, less than 5% of the industry.”

Now, Smith is out to change that.

On Feb. 1, to mark the first day of Black History Month, the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District launched its LPCCD Green Suite: The Business of Real Estate Development Training Program.

The program, which runs through April 21, seeks to change that narrative, disrupt gentrification and make a tangible, equitable impact in the community of Newark, where there are many cranes in the sky, but a lack of Black real estate developers, Smith said.

Susan Austin, director – development and operations, said the program’s mission is to create generational wealth in communities of color and provide access to this business sector for the Black, indigenous and people of color community, as well as women of color — all of which are vastly underrepresented in the real estate development sector.

Smith, Austin and LPCCD are getting help from the business community, too.

The program is sponsored by the state of New Jersey’s Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program, which is designed to foster the revitalization of New Jersey’s distressed neighborhoods, with assistance from Provident BankValley Bank and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.

The program also is getting help from Samer Hanini, the managing partner at Hanini Group — a firm that has done a lot of top work in the city, including the redevelopment of the Hahne’s building and Hotel Indigo.

Hanini said his group is happy to play a role in a project it feels will benefit many.

“Helping teach other local firms to develop real estate is something we feel is important in creating a pipeline of work for the future of Newark,” he said. “The city has undergone so many great changes that have preserved and enhanced neighborhoods. We want this momentum sustained.”

At the end of the 11-week program, participants will present the one-page business plan they have been developing and refining during the prior sessions.

Participants will receive feedback and suggestions from a panel of experienced developers and other city of Newark stakeholders. And graduates with business plans that fit the needs of such projects can propose potential roles for their company — as an equity investor, joint venture partner, subcontractor or other roles.

LPCCD Green Suite participant Kimberlee Williams is the CEO of Newark Business Hub, a nonprofit learning community dedicated to elevating Black and brown creative entrepreneurs to become job creators, wealth creators and real estate owners.

As a resident of Lincoln Park, she said she is grateful for the opportunity.

“I look forward to acquiring the skills to participate in the $5.6 billion of real estate development underway in the city,” she said. “My participation in this real estate development training program will advance Newark Business Hub’s mission to interrupt the gentrification paradigm by assisting 100,000 entrepreneurs to start or grow their business and accumulate wealth through ownership opportunities that leverage community revitalization efforts in rapidly appreciating urban markets like Newark.”

LPCCD Green Suite hopes to build upon the foundation laid by Lincoln Park’s “LPCCD Green Cap” initiative, which was one of the nation’s first Green Job Training Programs. Held in 2008-09, it provided a pipeline of entry-level workers for the new jobs that were created as a result of the state’s Energy Master Plan and the New Jersey Clean Plan energy efficient projects under former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Additional sponsors and partners include the city of Newark, Baldwin Equities and reh+main home.


LPCCD Green Suite: Creating Generational Wealth In Communities of Color

Newark’s Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District has launched “LPCCD Green Suite: The Business of Real Estate Development Training Program.” The mission is to create generational wealth in communities of color and provide access to this business sector for Black Indigenious Persons of Color , Persons of Color, and Women of Color who are vastly underrepresented in the real estate development sector. It’s sponsored by the State of New Jersey’s Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program, through Provident Bank, Valley Bank and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.

Program partner Samer Hanini, Managing Partner at Hanini Group states, “We are happy to participate in such an important project. Helping teach other local firms to develop real estate is something we feel is important in creating a pipeline of work for the future of Newark. The city has undergone so many great changes that have preserved and enhanced neighborhoods. We want this momentum sustained.”

LPCCD Green Suite builds upon the foundation laid by Lincoln Park’s “LPCCD Green Cap” initiative, which was one of the nation’s first Green Job Training Programs in 2008-09 which provided a pipeline of entry-level workers for the new jobs that were created as a result of the State’s Energy Master Plan and the New Jersey Clean Plan energy efficient-projects under former Governor Jon Corzine. Anthony Smith, Executive Director, Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District states “Recently, I talked about the challenges of “Developing While Black” on my podcast, and while doing the research, we found that a 2019 study by Harvard Business School and Bella Research identified only 17 women-owned and 21 minority-owned real estate investment firms of 967 firms listed, which is, less than 5% of the industry. LPCCD Green Suite seeks to change that narrative, disrupt gentrification and make a tangible, equitable impact in the community of Newark where there are many cranes in the sky, but a lack of Black real estate developers”.

“LPCCD Green Suite” runs through April 21, 2021.