R. J. Hoppe continues 40-year-old legacy of custom wood furniture making in Newark headquarters

On North 5th Street near Park Avenue, there sit a slew of multifamily homes, mobile fruit and vegetable trucks stocked with jeweled green avocados, and a warehouse, nondescript except for the yellow “R. J. Hoppe, Inc.” lettering adorning the squat building’s flat, brown awning.

But what the building lacks in outward appeal, the carefully crafted, high-end wares and deep history inside more than make up for. R. J. Hoppe is a 40-year-old woodwork and furniture making company here in Newark, and its 12,500-square-foot warehouse is where Rolf Hoppe, the company’s president and only son of its now-retired founder, can be found on a weekday afternoon, perhaps working on a coffee table that he will ship to a customer in Nantucket the following week.

Hoppe is a graduate of New York’s Pratt Institute, one of the world’s foremost higher education institutions for design and architecture. But his woodworking education started at his father’s company, where his “entry-level” work entailed sweeping floors in the warehouse when they set up shop at their current location in 1975 (the company was incorporated in 1968). Sixteen years later, Hoppe assumed his current position as the company’s president.

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“I’ve been working summers and winters since I was ye big, sweeping floors, picking up nails, rolling up extension cords, the whole thing. That’s kind of how I grew to know architectural woodwork,” said Hoppe.

At a time when consumers are quick to go the Ikea route, companies like Hoppe’s, which employs the use of mixed metals and exotic wood veneers, can have a difficult time connecting with the average furniture shopper.

“There are few architectural woodworking contractors out there that do what we do. A lot of them have already gone under,” Hoppe said. “I don’t know what the future holds for the business. There are spots here and there in terms of work, but from what I can tell, this area has been hit hard,” he continued.

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Rolf Hoppe poses with his father.

As Hoppe thumbed through images of past work, it became clear why the herd of bespoke furniture outfits like his has thinned out. Hoppe’s portfolio boasts high-end commercial and residential projects that can set a customer back a couple thousand dollars.

From systems furniture for companies like Goldman Sachs, to residential projects for international celebrities, R. J. Hoppe’s work definitely suits customers of a particular taste and budget. Customized display cases, built-in bookshelves, and outdoor metal installations are among the types of projects the company takes on for its customers, which have included schools, banks, and retail stores, in addition to residential work.

“What really sets us apart is a particular attention to detail,” Hoppe said. “I think that the only reason we aren’t getting the work we should be getting is because we’re being underbid by contractors and people who will do a cheaper job — but not as good a job as us.”

Hoppe credits his dedication to craftsmanship to his roots. His father relocated to New Jersey from Germany after the Second World War, and quickly began work as a cabinetmaker in Newark.

“My father was about 15 when the war ended, and at that time you only had two choices – go to school or learn a trade,” said Hoppe. “He knew he had a gift for working with wood, so he explored it. And when there were still no jobs in Germany, he moved here.” Forty years after the founding of R .J. Hoppe, the warehouse still houses work created by Hoppe’s father.

Hoppe said that although the company’s core values around hand crafting, sharp attention to detail, and workmanship remain the same, he is infusing his own modern-day acumen into the family business, with hopes of staying ahead of the continuously changing industry. While his core customer territory radiates 50 miles from his Newark furniture shop, Hoppe said he hopes in particular to partner with local architects and designers in Newark to help source more local jobs, and to add texture to more of the city’s interiors with some of his company’s homegrown, custom-made style and craftsmanship.


R. J. Hoppe is located at 340 N. 5th Street in Newark, and can be reached online at rjhoppeinc.com, and by telephone at (973) 485-5665.

Sweet smell of success: Handmade body products and African-inspired apparel offered at thriving Halsey Street shop

Patchouli, frankincense and myrrh are some of the scents that might greet you at the doorway to Ancient African Formula on Halsey Street. That is unless the embroidered prints adorning the mannequins in the store’s display window don’t lure you in first.

Aminata Dukuray, a native of Gambia by way of Sierra Leone, runs the health and lifestyle store with the help of her four daughters. At around 1 p.m. on any given weekday, one can find Dukuray bottling samples of her sweet-smelling body oils, or explaining to her loyal customers how exactly her Super Hair Grow formula works.

Dukuray’s Ancient African Formula skincare and hair care products are all handmade by Dukuray herself in the back of the store. Customers who find themselves there will see blocks of her uncut Shea butter soap ready to be packaged and sold.

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Aminata Dukuray owns Ancient African Formula on Halsey Street. Source: ancientafricanformula.com.

Dukuray opened the Halsey Street store in November of 2014, but she has been in business much longer than that, making her products for at-home use before becoming a wholesaler and stocking local beauty supply stores all over New Jersey with her products.

“I’ve been in business for a long, long time,” said Dukuray when asked about the origin of her line. “I started making my products at home because my daughter had ringworm, and nothing was working. So I decided to try and make something myself, and that’s how it started.”

Less than a year after Dukuray opened shop, she has built a legion of customers that keep coming back for her sweet-smelling products.

“I buy oils. I buy soap. I buy Shea butter. I even buy earrings. I love her products because they are natural. I use them for everything,” said Kecia Richardson-Gilbert, one of Dukuray’s customers.

Beyond skin and hair care, Ancient African Formula is also home to African-inspired jewelry, artwork and more recently, clothing. As Dukuray bagged up another one of her orders, a customer lamented  the sign outside the store informing customers that Dukuray will not be able to take anymore clothing orders for another two weeks due to her busy schedule.

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Ancient African formula offers clothing, accessories, and artwork in addition to body products.

“I overbooked myself. People were making so many orders for the clothes that I barely had time to make my products,” Dukuray explained. “Customers came in and there was nothing on the shelves, nothing to sell.”

The new additions to Dukuray’s brand are bespoke, embroidered outfits made from African prints — prints that her daughter brings back to the U.S. from her trips to West Africa. From the midday rush in Dukuray’s store, it is clear that her store is thriving.

“Everyone comes here, it’s not just African women. Some people come because their friends tell them about it, and some just come because they see the sign,” Dukuray said.

Even though her store is doing well, Dukuray is not one to rest on her laurels. The businesswoman is already in the planning stages of developing an African-inspired restaurant right next door to her existing space.

“I see it [Ancient African Formula] growing. I see us opening more stores, and not just in New Jersey,” she said.


Ancient African Formula is located at 109 Halsey Street. The shop is open from Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Shop online herePhotograph of Aminata Dukuray via ancientafricanformula.com.

Isabel Livingston: The ‘savvy’ behind Closet Savvy Consignment in Newark’s Teacher’s Village

Newark native Isabel Livingston is bringing high-end, designer fashion to Newark in the form of her store, Closet Savvy Consignment.

The shop, which is located in Newark’s Teachers Village, offers a carefully selected inventory of designer items, including brands like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton. Livingston and her daughter, college student Asata Evans, founded the store in 2012 as an online retail business.

“When my daughter was a junior in high school, it became time to consider college. Tuition and costs became very real numbers, and we realized how unprepared we were. So we decided to go into business,” said Livingston.

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A scene from Closet Savvy Consignment’s Instagram feed

With the goal to bring an extra $10,000 dollars into her home, Livingston purged her designer-laden closet and began Closet Savvy on a self-hosted website. She embarked on the occasional pop-up shop setup when the opportunity presented itself.

Over $10,000 and 10,000 Instagram followers later, Livingston saw the potential in converting the business into a brick-and-mortar store, and eventually launched the cozy and chic boutique in the new development on the south end of Halsey Street.

Livingston said social media created a built-in audience that has benefited the shop since opening day. “Having the time to have built up that social media following made all the difference,” Livingston said. “Without 10,000 people being able to see my stuff everyday and just opening my door to the world, this could have been a completely different situation for me.”

To be sure, in addition to now being a physical store, Closet Savvy is still a thriving social movement. Livingston’s followers talk about everything from the store’s latest designer products to natural hair trends to pop culture. The social platform has also powered Livingston’s buying reach, with Closet Savvy offering customers the opportunity to purchase products directly from the store’s page for an added shipping fee.

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While the social media activity adds dimension to her brand for followers well outside of the city, Livingston says the store itself provides a carefully considered experience for the nearby shoppers who venture in. Walking into the store, it’s clear to see what Livingston is referring to. With a Chanel-embossed drink tray, monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks stacked against the wall, and Beyoncé blaring from the speakers, Closet Savvy is a dream experience for shoppers in her demographic.

“When you shop with a woman, you’re really on an intimate level. You get to see how she really feels about herself,” Livingston mused. (Closet Savvy also offers a selection of men’s apparel.)

“Women come in here as total strangers, and by the time they leave, we’ve bonded. They leave here promising to come back, and you can’t get that online. People come here, and it really is an authentic experience.”


Closet Savvy is located at 35 Maiden Lane, just off Halsey Street in downtown Newark. The shop is open from Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Shop online here, and visit their thriving Instagram community @ClosetSavvyConsignment.

Images courtesy Closet Saavy Consignment.

 

Q&A with Trills: Newark-bred multimedia artist and progenitor of ‘Lush Rap’

Newark-bred Trills is an artist and “Lush Rap” pioneer who’s right at home creating art across many different mediums. Get to know Trills a little in our 5-question Q&A below, and look out for his work and performances around town. He promises euphoria for your ears.

Andaiye Taylor: How would you describe your work?
Trills: My work is a hybrid of a few things. Mostly my affinity for food, drink, soul music, and activism. My work would pretty much be the score to a hybrid of bond and Blaxploitation films if that actually existed. Someone on Twitter once called it “Lush Rap.” I’ve been using that ever since.

trills wallaAT: Where did you get your start?
Trills: I grew up around Newark’s music scene. I mean, Naughty By Nature was actually around in my neighborhood. I still work with Treach to date. The inspiration to be artistic in this way was always present. Essentially I was indirectly influenced by the scene I was exposed to.

AT: What do you think about the current arts and cultural landscape in Newark?
Trills: Newark is artistically beautiful right now. Being born and raised here gives you the best insight on this development. There was a time where we had to go outside of the city to showcase our talents because establishments were afraid of it. Now, we all can connect and flourish in our hometown, and there are tons of us. I love it.

AT: What can people expect from tonight’s show?
Trills: People can expect a very euphonious ride, that’s for sure. Also an introduction to some really cool artists, lots of fun, and the great food that Burger Walla provides.

AT: How can we stay on top of you work?
Trills: I just launched trillstheartist.work last week and it is a new and improved website from the last — almost everything I do is now easily accessible in one place. I hope everyone enjoys it.


Follow Trills on Twitter @trillytrills and on Instagram @lushlifetrills. Featured image via Trills.

Q&A with Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals president Jason Grove

The Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals (ULECYP) have been raising their profile in the area this summer with well-attended and highly rated networking events at Newark’s Taste Venue. I asked ULECYP president Jason Grove about the association’s mission, the type of members they’re seeking, and how ULECYP plans to help drive and localize a 21st-century civil rights agenda right here in Essex County.

Andaiye Taylor: What is ULECYP’s mission, and how does it fit into the broader mission of the National Urban League Young Professional movement?

jason grove ulecypJason Grove: The Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals (ULECYP) is made up of a network of young professionals here in Essex County. We are a member chapter of the National Urban League Young Professional (NULYP) movement across the country that provides leadership development, economic empowerment and community volunteer opportunities for other young professionals. The organization is an auxiliary of the National Urban League and trains, develops, and educates young professionals to take leadership roles within the National Urban League, the civil rights movement, and society at-large.

Our members are defining, developing, implementing, and leading the “now” generation civil rights agenda. The ULECYP and NULYP mission is to engage young professionals towards the achievement of social and economic equality. We do this by providing an effective forum through which young professionals can support the overall mission of the Urban League through mentoring, tutoring, scholarships, economic empowerment, political engagement, and leadership development programs. Our chapter implements local programs in support of the National Urban League’s five-point empowerment agenda, the Opportunity Compact, and the I Am Empowered pledge.

AT: What types of members do you hope to attract to ULECYP?

JG: We are looking to attract members aged 21 to 40 who are proficient in their profession and masters of their talents. Our ideal members are also responding to the call for community engagement using current technologies; impacting others with energy and passion; prepared for work and life with a vision for the future; improving their health and fitness each day; guarding and increasing the civil rights gains of their ancestors; and expanding economic opportunity and building wealth for themselves and their community.

AT: You’ve been hosting networking events here in Newark. What can young professionals expect from your networking events?

JG: At every networking event we always try to provide “The Perfect Room” — a healthy mix of people from various backgrounds and disciplines, interested in building healthy business and personal relationships. I always reiterate that we are the current and next generation of leaders. We are looking for members and community partners that share similar values.

AT: What initiatives will ULECYP be taking up in the next year?

JG: We’ll be hosting a college fair with the mission of creating a pipeline to college for area youth, voter registration drives, an initiative around home ownership and affordable housing for young professionals, and a cooperative economics initiative involving hiring, spending, procuring, and development using local sources.


Follow ULECYP on Facebook and Twitter, and learn how to become a member on the Urban League of Essex County website. Stay on top of ULECYP networking events on our calendar at brickc.it/ulecypevents.

Featured image via ULECYP.

Sweet Peace (in Military Park!): fayemi shakur discusses why you should consider taking up yoga

Yoga isn’t just a physical practice: it promises mental and spiritual benefits that can pay dividends in its devotees’ every day lives. Below fayemi shakur, who teaches a free yoga class on Saturdays in Military Park here in Newark, discusses what drew her to yoga, and why you should consider trying it too.

What about yoga drew you into the practice?

I started practicing yoga about seven years ago. I took my first class at a gym I went to with my sister. I was pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be. The sense of peace I felt after class was evident from day one. But, it wasn’t until I met my teacher, Jennifer Kohl from Lotus Yoga, that I really began to deepen my practice.

At her former studio, she often gave dharma talks and chanted in Sanskrit. My spirit was really drawn to that. That’s something I didn’t get in yoga classes that were geared more towards fitness. Independently, I read and studied the I-Ching – a form of Chinese divination and philosophy – for years, which continues to be a part of my practice.

I was attracted to learning about yoga philosophy as a way of life. I didn’t practice any particular religion, and I needed a disciplined spiritual practice I could relate to that was universal and holistic. It grounded me and continually gives me balance and personal goals to work towards incorporating into my life. The thing that really got me open was learning about the yamas, the niyamas, and the five causes of suffering.

There are lots of yoga styles – which do you practice, and why?

fayemi shakur 2I’m open to all styles and paths of yoga. There are many yoga systems and paths across the globe of course, so I haven’t tried them all yet. Some paths go beyond a hatha yoga practice consisting of asana and meditation. For instance, karma yoga practices include volunteer work, and it is a path of service. Nada yoga is the yoga of deep inner listening. It’s the yoga of sound, which includes meditation, listening to good music, and turning off the television and other distractions. Other physical yoga styles are Kundalini, Kemetic, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Restorative and Bikram, or hot yoga — all considered Hatha yoga.

As it’s said in yoga, “Many paths, one truth.” I haven’t tried one yet that I didn’t like, although vinyasa is my favorite style. Vinyasa is so beautiful. The poses are sequenced in such a way that one pose flows to the next. It’s like poetry to me. All yoga is beautiful.

What motivated you to share your yoga experience with others through teaching?

I’m a 500 hour certified yoga teacher, and I’ve been teaching for almost three years. I’m at the very beginning of this journey. I was encouraged by Jennifer Kohl and fellow yogi Danielle Mastrogiovanni to enroll in Lotus Yoga’s teacher training. They kept telling me they thought I could be a great yoga teacher, and I was sincerely puzzled by that. Like why? Honestly, when I started practicing I was just trying to find a way to eliminate stress and anxiety. I never would have thought I would be teaching yoga today. I’m grateful they encouraged me to do it.

Teaching community classes was a required part of my teacher trainings, so I couldn’t shy away from it. I completed two trainings where I studied yoga sutras, The Gita, Sanskrit, anatomy, alignment, and so much more. The trainings lasted for months at a time, and they were hard. Some of the concepts were so intense, it was difficult to come back afterwards and engage in the real world.

My perceptions started changing. Our Sanskrit teacher, Manorama, told us that yoga was an ego bashing process and I found that to be true. I learned that yoga is not for pacifists. I read something that said what Americans need most is more humility, and that arrogance will forever keep us separate from each other and from the Divine. Arrogance and spiritual ecstasy can’t go together. So we constantly have to balance these things. I learned a lot about anger and how yoga could be used as a tool to foster healing, strength and improved focus.

I decided to start teaching as a part of my karma yoga practice with the hope that others could apply yoga to their lives in their own way. It only works if you do it. I started to learn what I needed to embrace from within and how to be still so I could hear. I’m still learning. A good teacher can sharpen your practice by jarring you out of complacency and self-satisfaction so that new possibilities appear.

What can newcomers expect from a session with you at Military Park?

I’ve been teaching a Saturday morning class at Military Park for about a year since the park re-opened. I always want newcomers to feel at ease in their bodies and abilities, even if it is their first time. It’s an open level class, but I teach mostly beginners.

It’s not a religion. I teach in a way that complements students’ religious beliefs. I think it’s important to de-mystify what yoga is and teach it in a way that’s relatable. We’re also living at a time when we are seeing and experiencing a lot of change, violence and stress all around. I want to share my practice and how I use it to confront and deal with those things while practicing a sense of calmness and balance.

It’s important to see people of color engaged in yoga. Yoga is for everybody and all shapes and sizes. I think when people see me doing it they realize it’s something they can do too. I’m not a heavy promoter when it comes to yoga. Most teachers aren’t. Only if someone asks. It should come naturally.

We begin class with a dharma talk and silent meditation. We have a goal to work up to 20 minutes of mediation every day but for now we are at five minutes. It takes time and effort to learn how to meditate and engage the breath work required in yoga. The class serves as a group practice, and I provide some simple guided instructions. Sometimes I share the wisdom of the yoga sutras, some days I might share an inspiring poem by Maya Angelou or Nayyirah Waheed. Any wisdom I share really doesn’t come from me. It’s an ancient wisdom or universal truth.

I love music and incorporate it into the class as well. Sometimes I teach a restorative class, sometimes vinyasa, or if the students say they want power yoga, I’ll give them that. The restorative classes seem to be the favorite among the students, which essentially is a centering of the breath and the body, aligning the physical and the mental by practicing stillness and gentle movement. There is something special about being in the grass, under the sun, practicing in nature that feels so good. The remodeled park is truly a beautiful space. The class I teach in the park is open to all and parents can bring their children. The little ones love yoga too. It’s a special kind of sweet peace.

Yoga’s health and wellbeing benefits are highly touted by people in the know. What are those benefits?

Yoga helps alleviate stress and anxiety, but it also can provide greater clarity and awareness mentally and spiritually. The benefits of meditation and its effect on the brain are incredible. Yoga and meditation should also go together. The asana – the poses – are what help prepare the mind for meditation, because the body is both stimulated and relaxed in way that activates the analytical and intuitive abilities.

These benefits improve mental clarity and help us make better decisions. Physically yoga helps increase strength, balance, focus, and flexibility. Practicing yoga can also alleviate pain and discomfort, aid digestion, improve the nervous system, circulation, posture, cardiovascular health, and provide relief for asthma. Every yoga pose has a health benefit which I discuss in class.

I love to think of the poses too as metaphors for other things. For instance, feeling the feet rooted into the ground and the sense of balance and awareness that it inspires. Holding your eyes on a focal point, knowing that you must or you will lose your balance. Maintaining a pose and keeping perfectly still when you feel like you just can’t hold it any longer. Some days you will fail to practice – we all do – but you try again and get better at it. Everyone comes to yoga for different reasons, but the spiritual component of yoga as a way of life is just as important as the physical benefits.

Lastly, what type of work do you do outside of yoga?

I work at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Newark a few days a week as a consultant and marketing manager. I’ve been at Aljira for about three years. Essentially, I’m a cultural worker.

My job there entails strategic marketing and communications, public relations, content management and development for the Aljira blog and social media, sharing news about what’s going on in the arts and supporting Aljira’s exhibitions and programs.

I’m also an independent writer. Writing is my first love; organizing is my second. My work has been published in The New York Times, The International Review of African American Art, Nueva Luz photographic journal, Ebony.com, UPTOWN, and HYCIDE Magazine. I initially started writing political and cultural news stories in 1999. These days I write more about art, which gives me a new way to explore various topics. Short story writing or curating exhibitions and programs may be the next thing I try. Who knows? But, ArtLife Media is my consulting company through which I make money and provide a range of services.

I believe in supporting and valuing the arts, cultural institutions and programs in our communities, and most work I do is a part of my social and creative practice which includes community service. In the past year, I also taught yoga at N.J. Regional Day School for special needs and autistic youth. I just do what I love and I appreciate having that freedom. Still, I’m very discerning and mindful of what I say yes to.


fayemi shakur’s “Sweet Peace” family yoga and meditation class is held every Saturday from 10:30am to 11:30am in Military Park. The class is free and mats are provided. On inclement weather days, the class will be held at The New Jersey Historical Society at 52 Park Place just across from the park. To check out more free classes and activities, visit www.militarypark.org.

Remember R&B group Surface? They’re now ReSurface. ‘Get closer to’ them at Suite53

There is a whole generation that grew up off love songs wafting from the smooth R&B vocals of 90’s groups such as Surface, whose memorable tracks include “Happy” (1987), “Closer Than Friends” (1988), “Shower Me With Your Love” (1989) among others. With an album aptly entitled “ReSurface, Where Have You Been?” the group, comprised of David “Pic” Conley and John Feva, are aimed at reasserting their vocals and rhythmic sounds among old fans, as well as a new generation of R&B lovers.

Now fans in the greater Newark area can see ReSurface live at Suite53 (53 Edison Place, Newark; $20 cover includes new CD) on Friday, June 5th starting at 9 pm as the group celebrates their album release with a live show, part of the full alum launch that kicked off on June 1st.

“Because of my past music I still wanted to keep things pretty much close to the Surface in doing this record. So that’s kind of what you should be expecting,” Conley said. “Not a lot is new under the sun but I just took the old and blended it with the new to bring you what we have.”

Released on June 1, the CD “ReSurface Where Have You Been?” is produced by David Pic Conley, who is now based in Aurora, Colorado. Fans of the old sound can expect that plus some freshly flavored stylings by the team which consists of Gene Lennon, Gene Lake, Jam Benton, Derrick “Derky” Culler and the newest talents to join the team, Martin Blockson and Mjestie Brooks. Both a part of the group and the production ensemble, Conley has remained at the helm by co-producing all of the songs in conjunction with the team. He also co-wrote all of the tracks alongside John Feva.

The first release, “We Can Fly,” produced by Conley with Gene Lake, has already started generating a buzz with its video on YouTube. Showing off his co-writing skills on the song is West Orange New Jersey based John Feva, who was formerly managed by Russell Simmons.

Having also produced and written for major artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stanley Jordon, George Benson, and other notables like Victoria Beckham and Damon Dash, Conley reenters the R&B world as an industry veteran ready to connect with fresh listeners worldwide.

Q&A with Isaiah Little: Imagining a better block on Bergen Street

Better Block Newark is inviting community volunteers to help complete its first public spaces project at Bergen Street and Lyons Avenue. The project entails imagining by doing: bringing the community together to build temporary public spaces called “parklets” that might become models for more permanent ones or, as the founders of Better Block state on their website, a “demonstration tool…so that communities can actively engage in the buildout process and provide feedback in real time.”

I spoke with Isaiah Little, project manager in Newark’s Office of Information Technology, founder of GalleryRetail, and Brigade Captain of Code for Newark, about how the community can use this project to create a living vision for a better block in their neighborhood.

What is a parklet?

It’s a park that you create out of a parking space. Parking spaces make up about a 9-by-20-foot space. For a parklet, you remove the car and put in a mini public space instead. It can be made out of concrete and similar materials, or it can be made out of palettes. We’re going to do palettes for Better Block at Bergen Street. We’re essentially giving the community more shared space, more public space, more green space.

 

What’s the setup going to look like on Bergen Street?

We’re going to have three parklets. One is going to be children’s themed for activities like playing with legos, and I know the Newark Mommies group is going to meet there for a portion of the day. Then there’s a relaxation parklet with comfortable chairs and pillows. And then the mini tech park will have wifi so people can do work. The idea overall is to bring some of that Military Park vibe to Bergen Street.

How long will these last?

They’re going to be temporary. Our goal is to show the potential, and as we think more about development, we can encourage the community and decision-makers to revisit these types of ideas to make better use of the street and public spaces. But these will be disassembled by the end of the weekend.

 

What has community involvement looked like so far, and how can the community lobby for more permanent versions of these parklets?

We’ve had at least two official, large general community meetings. So the community has had the opportunity to chime in with what they’d like to see.

They’ve also been part of our build days and painting days, so they’ve been able to provide feedback and ideas of what they’d like to see then as well. Now, we want to show what the street could look like if we gave it that love. In addition to the parklets we’re going to have bike groups come out – kind of show what the experience of bike lanes would bring to Bergen Street south. There’s also going to be a bistro-style eating opportunity. So the community can decide what pieces they like.

 

Would you say this is almost like a lean startup approach to development and beautification?

I would agree – especially the part about getting out there and doing it. This is similar to lean [startup] where you get out there and do it, see how the community responds to the idea, and then adjust. We can conceive it in real life, and then innovate and evolve the original idea.

Code for Newark will be there taking surveys to gauge which ideas were the favorites and what people would like to see more permanently. We’ll be taking that information back to planning, housing and economic development, and information technology for deliberation.


Better Block Bergen takes place Saturday, June 6 from 12pm to 6pm at Bergen Street and Lyons Avenue. All are welcome to attend and volunteer. Email betterblock@ci.newark.nj.us for further inquiries about this project.

The Better Block Newark @ Bergen Street project will run from Lyons to Lehigh Avenues

City’s new “We Are Newark” Tumblr showcases city employees

The City of Newark recently launched a new Tumblr blog entitled WeAreNewark, meant to showcase what Mayor Ras Baraka calls “Newark 3.0,” embodied in this case by a diverse legion of city employees.

The inaugural post is a profile of Carrie Velez, the city’s principal personnel technician. Angela Daniels, the city’s press officer and social media manager, said these snapshots of city employees are meant to put a face behind the people who ultimately make the city run. “Everyone’s job is important, and we are using this blog as a method to showcase who we are, what makes us different, and also use this as an outlet to share our love for our City,” she wrote in an email, before adding that the blog would highlight other developments in town.

True to its name, the blog is meant to further press home Baraka’s “we are the mayor” message from the campaign, underscoring just how many people who were heretofore unknown to the general public work behind the scenes in city government. City employees interested in being featured on the blog are asked to contact Daniels at danielsan@ci.newark.nj.us.

End of the beginning: Rashawn Davis finds his footing after Newark’s municipal race

It’s an early spring Saturday afternoon in Newark, and I’m bumping along Springfield Avenue in the backseat of a red Buick. Rashawn Davis, 22, is seated in front of me in the passenger seat discussing the details of his next event with his campaign manager, Chad Montague. He’ll be visiting St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen in Newark’s West Ward to read at a literacy program and serve food to the kitchen’s Saturday morning clientele.

For Davis, this Saturday afternoon is the coda to a week spent working at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on community policing issues by day, and talking to the likes of me at night (I interviewed Davis for this story four days prior to our soup kitchen excursion).

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Image credit: Andaiye Taylor

At St. Ann’s, Davis is greeted warmly by the soup kitchen’s staff. He heads into a long, thin reading room where children have gathered around a table, and reads Babar Comes to America to a young girl. When he’s finished there, he crosses the facility and heads into the kitchen, where he dons a baseball cap and matching apron, and receives a rundown of the day’s menu from kitchen staff. Asked to make some remarks to the people he’ll soon serve, he assents readily and walks out to the middle of the floor to say a few words.

His basic message to the soup kitchen attendees: that he’ll be working on their behalf in the political off-season, far away from the klieg lights and media hype that contribute to the circus-like feel of campaign season here in Newark. This, in a nutshell, is the blueprint for Davis’ life after his first political run.

Unto the breach

Newark might be one of the oldest cities in the country, but look at its current demographics, and at the people who are most affected by the city’s most pressing problems, and the watchword is undoubtedly “youth.”

Newark indexes slightly higher for pre-adult youth than the state of New Jersey, and the city boasts a senior population of only 8.6 percent, versus the state’s 13.5 percent. Young people are the subject of the city’s raging debate about education, and the hardest hit by unemployment. They’re both the most frequent victims and perpetrators of violent crime.

Yet Newark’s political leadership is characterized by legacy, incumbency and, well, age. It’s a particular concern for Davis, who worries that the experiences, worldview, and talents of the millennial generation are essential for moving the city forward, but missing from the city’s local government leadership. The needs of that generation, and of the city on the whole, can’t be sufficiently addressed because of youth underrepresentation, Davis says.

So in 2013, while the Newark native was still a college undergraduate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and buoyed in part by his core group of friends – all enterprising young black men from cities around the country – Davis decided to “be the change” and run for office in his hometown.

Failing forward

Davis entered the campaign with the intent to do as well as he could, but on the merits, it was highly unlikely that he’d pull out a win. In the beginning in particular, attention to his campaign was slow-going, and money was scarce. He was also up against Newark voters’  tendency to vote for incumbents and other known entities in local elections (a tendency they share with the average American voter). Davis was decidedly neither.

Davis made it clear to me that losing wasn’t fun (“for a week or so after the election I didn’t talk to many people, and I was a little disenchanted with the system,” he said, mostly due to vandalism and other assorted ugliness his campaign weathered as voting day drew closer). But Davis also knew that losing the race was merely the end of the beginning of his plan to be a change agent in Newark. “We still had a ton of opportunity ahead of us, even if we didn’t win,” he observed.

In the technology startup world, this is called “failing forward.” The concept: statistically, an entrepreneur’s first venture is unlikely to succeed. But launching a new venture, and all the activities that go along with it – defining a vision, creating an execution plan, hiring the right (or the wrong) team members, getting investors to contribute funds – these make for such dynamic learning experiences that founders often find themselves in high demand for new opportunities, even if the business they founded didn’t succeed. They fail forward.

Davis’ first run conferred similar benefits. Hearing from Newarkers helped him understand what he would need to accomplish to make his pitch to Newarkers resonate better. Trying to get an audience for his message with a lean team and even leaner funds made the importance of serious fundraising and smart staffing apparent. And the attacks Davis said his campaign experienced after his first big press mentions – on PolicyMic and MTV – awakened him to the ugly realities of Newark politicking during campaign season.

Back to the day-to-day

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Image credit: Brian Rock

In this way, Davis’ first run helped bring shape and clarity to the work he does now. Working backwards from the types of arguments he would like to have made to Newarkers about his record during his first council race, Davis has been able to marry issues he sincerely cares about with a plan to accomplish milestones that the community can easily understand and appreciate.

In the most concrete way, that work has involved the creation of a Civilian Police Review Board under the aegis of the ACLU. While systemic – and often deadly – abuse of communities of color by police has recently become a marquee issue in national conversations, Davis’ work precedes this attention, instead coming on the heels of the Justice Department’s announcement last July of a federal monitor to keep watch over the Newark Police Department.

Davis is being intentional about how he spends his post-campaign time in other ways. One of his initiatives is to bring young professionals and creatives together to collaborate on projects in Newark, and to simply be aware that they’re a resource for one another here in town. To that end, he recently hosted an “Innovator’s Happy Hour” at Newark’s new Skylab rooftop bar. “I knew what it was like to wonder if you had a community here,” he said of his motivation for organizing the event.

Davis is also continuing to hone his ideas for how to elevate civic life in the West Ward, and in the city at large. One of his favorite ideas? “‘City Hall to Go’,” he said. “You take a van of City Hall employees to a different corner in a neighborhood each week, park it there, and let people come and get their questions answered there. It’s like a City Hall substation,” Davis explained of the idea he first learned of at the “innovation lab” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

And in general, Davis is in favor of a muscular approach to the city council office. “The demand on council people is so much more” than what they are required to do by statute, Davis said. “Council members need to have visionary insight,” in order to do their part to improve the city, he added. From figuring out how to reform the blighted Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery site on South Orange Avenue, to maximizing commercial opportunities along the Orange Street corridor, Davis says an “expansive mindset” is required for council members to help unlock Newark’s potential.

In the next few months, Davis says he expects to continue dedicating considerable time to the Civilian Police Review Board, an initiative given new dimension by the current national climate. More tactically, Davis plans to start interviewing for communications, funding, and intern staff.

And perhaps he’ll accomplish a thing or two he can’t anticipate at the moment. “This in-between time is new,” he said.

Featured image credit: Brian Rock


#AfterTheRun is our yearlong series examining the life and work of Rashawn Davis after his city council run.

Read the next article in this series, Settling into the campaign post-season, Rashawn Davis doubles down on issues and builds bridges.