Dilettante Bass: A vision of innovation for Newark’s South Ward

Full disclosure: the last time I spoke to Jarmaro “Dilettante” Bass before I saw his campaign announcement on Facebook earlier this year, we were at Elbow Room on Halsey Street, brainstorming how we might merge some of his ideas for promoting Newark with the news and events concept for BrickCityLive, which I’d been working on for some time by that point.

I reunited with Bass a few weeks ago – this time at Vonda’s Kitchen – to discuss why he decided to run for South Ward city council, and his vision for the ward. In a nutshell, Bass hopes to corral an advanced guard of like-minded people to “show and prove” the ward’s potential, using his pragmatic, operations-oriented style to get it done. Read on to learn more about how he plans to go about it.

So when did you decide to run?

It happened around February or March. I remember I decided right as the weather started to break. The notion was in me for a while, but I think now was the perfect time.

Was there a moment or an issue that really galvanized you?

When you look at a lot of the candidates, they don’t ever represent what we stand for. If you look at what they talk about, it’s always, “Social, social, jobs…social, social, jobs.” But there’s a demographic of Newarkers that already have a job. There’s a demographic of Newarkers that don’t need social programs. They just want to see art, culture, and businesses. There’s a demographic of Newarkers that are entrepreneurs — they want to see contracts. We need to be talking to all Newarkers.

So we were like you know, these guys don’t represent what we represent. In order for us to get things for ourselves and like-minded people, we need to go out there [and run].

When I got the idea, I just went on Facebook and announced it to see what the response would be. Like Kevin Hart says, once it goes viral, you can’t take it back. I got a good response and I said to myself, “I’m going to ride with it.”

Then I got a phone call from [veteran Newark political consultant] Carl Sharif and he said, “If you’re serious, I’ll help you.” And his son Eric Dawson called and said, “If you’re serious, I’ll do all your tech and web stuff.” It’s taken on a life of its own from there.

How long have you known Carl Sharif?

This goes back to probably 2004 or 2005. I was doing my clothing line PB Soldiers – it was a conscious clothing line. Carl Sharif met with us and helped sponsor it, just because he wanted to see us do well. He gave us a loan to buy screen printing equipment and everything. Ever since then, we’ve been like a family. Then I helped him politically, and that’s how I got involved in politics.

And how’d you help him?

I had a team called Heru Army. There were about 15 of us. We started throwing events everywhere. Then Cory [Booker] came in the picture and [Sharif] said “I want you all to work with Cory.” Nobody else was working with Cory at the time – this is after he lost the first election. I was throwing events all throughout the city, and we’d partner up with [Booker] on events called “Message in the Hood”. We had a street team and we’d set up a projector, a grill, have a DJ, give out food,  go to every project throughout the city, show movies at night, have moon bounce for the kids – everything. Cory [Booker] and Newark Now partnered up with us to do that.

How did Heru Army start?

It started because a group of us were all entrepreneurs, college educated, and shared the same mentality. So we said, “Forget all the talk, let’s just do stuff.” At our meetings, we wouldn’t talk much. We’d say, “Ok, we’re going to throw a Thanksgiving food event. How are we going to do it?” We’d use the meeting to flesh it out, then next thing you know, we’re starting the event. Everything we did was like that — we didn’t keep having meeting after meeting. That’s the big issue in politics: they just meet to meet.

From there, one of our members, Oscar James, Jr., linked up with Cory and started supporting him, and he eventually became South Ward councilman. So when Cory won, I worked for the economic development department in the director’s office, and I was always alongside Oscar James, Jr. That gave me a lot of insight. I would read the legislation, go to the meetings — everything.

And when you do that, you start to get the real insight of how city hall works, and how politics works. A lot of elected officials say “Yeah, I’ll do this. I’ll do that.” But when you get in there, you learn it’s not that simple.

After some time I left the city, but I kept doing a lot of community events, working with organizations like SOS [Saving Ourselves], dealing with gangs, going to schools. And doing solar panel work also. I went and got certified to do that work.

Where did the solar panel work fit in?

I was always into science and technology growing up – I went to NJIT – and I always like to be at the cutting edge. And you can’t talk about developing the city if you don’t talk about technology. That’s what separates us from New York and other cities. Stuff like this.

In New York City, just before you cross over to the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s a little park. There’s free wi-fi in that park — technology at its simplest. We don’t have that here. Like I said, I want to be on the cutting edge, so I went back to school – to Bloomfield College – and got certified in solar. I learned about green energy, studied thermal energy, studied biodiesel fuel. How can you say you compete if you don’t understand that? That’s why my slogan is “The renaissance man for a renaissance city,” so people understand that this guy is well-rounded. You talk about science, I got you there. You wanna talk about business, I go there with you.

Let’s talk about city council. You said earlier that when you worked in city hall, you saw that getting things done is not as easy as simply wanting to do them.  How is it that you’re going to be able to get anything done once you’re on that side?

It’s about your focus. If you gear your focus towards something, you can get it done. One, you have to read. A lot of them don’t read the legislation or the ordinances – they just go and vote. So first you have to read and really understand what’s going on.

Two, you have to galvanize all your resources to meet your objectives. That means you have to create relationships with outsiders.

And then, if you notice, their focus is always just jobs. Jobs are needed, but how do you achieve that objective? Your focus can’t just be jobs – it has to be the communities that create the jobs. If you’re always just saying “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” your stomach is always in someone else’s kitchen.

I met with the mayor of Union City, and told me this: he said you have to pick a two-block perimeter, and build those two blocks. We don’t do that. Everybody else is focused on economics, we’re over here talking about politics. When you realize politics and economics go hand in hand, you start to get somewhere. Sometimes we walk around as politicians just to have our chest out, with pride and ego. I want to change a whole mindset.

We have to create real, sustainable programs. Every other politician says “We need more programs.” But if you notice, they never say what the programs are. I know we need more STEM programs, and I actually know the science and technology concepts that produce those opportunities. So other people making power moves, they look at me and say, “He’s in the know. He understands.”

We need the type of programs for the youth where they go in and build robotics, mini cars, go-carts, aviation – things that keep their interests going and prepare them for what’s next. That’s the way I grew up, so I want them to do the same thing. They can learn screen printing, graphic arts, movie and video game production. You’re capturing their interest and preparing them for what’s out there.

If you had to pinpoint the single biggest thing you’d change in city hall, what would it be?

The biggest issue city hall has is they don’t continue to educate themselves. One time I went to a council meeting, and they said, “We need the mayor to hire somebody to help us read the budget.” If you’re serious about this, you hire your own outside consultant, or you go to school to learn how to read budgets.

I always think in terms of business. If you’re the mayor, you’re the like the company president, and the council is the board. The board is looking out for the interest of the shareholders – the citizens. But here, it’s the reverse, and that’s where we’re losing the battle.

We have to ask ourselves why can’t we have things other cities have. I want to implement things like dog parks and free wi-fi in parks. I want to transform the way we have the storefronts — put in an ordinance that says you have to glass the whole storefront out, so citizens and police can see inside from the street. So that there’s a nice visual presentation. We have to be more innovative.

What do you make of the critique that the lion’s share of development happens in the Central Ward, and that the other neighborhoods are ignored?

I think the problem is people assume that people all over Newark don’t want certain things. You walk into the Whole Foods in Union, and who do you see? Everybody from Newark. [Companies] come out with a new technology, where do you see it? In the hood. You see everybody with a Mac. People make assumptions about what we want and don’t want. But take the South Ward: we have the home ownership. The demographics for development is there.

If you look at Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that’s not downtown downtown, but they have innovation there. It’s true what they say: “If you build it, they will come.” When you’re downtown, a lot of the people who support the businesses there live in the neighborhood. Meanwhile the people in the [residential] buildings [downtown] hop on the train and go to the city.

If you talk to the owners of the stores, four times out of five, the only money they get is from the local neighborhoods. See, people always assume. It’s like the assumption is that there are no educated people in Newark. No people who want better things or different things in Newark. That’s just not the case.

In Newark, there’s three levels of people: you have the ignorant, you have the people who are trapped in the state of wanting everything to remain the same, and then you have a new age of people. You have the artists, the cultural people, the entertainment people, the tech gurus. Those are the people who go to places. Those are the people who want Newark to go places.

How do you convince that constituency that you’re aligned with them?

You gotta work outside of politics. If somebody wants to open up a store on this or that block, he should be able to open up a store. As a politician, I’m going to make sure the process runs smoothly and bring resources together. I’m going to come in and make sure permits are streamlined and that everything is taken care of in a timely fashion.

Everybody in politics knows me, so it’s not like I’m new to all this. I know who’s who, what’s what, and who’s affiliated with who and what. And they know I know who they’re affiliated with.

How do you feel about your chances among the current field?

Before anything else, I know people will say, “I see this guy everywhere“. They know the other candidates in specific contexts. I do stuff for the community, and it’s not even my job. I’m known throughout the city and within the South Ward. People know my family. People know I’m of the South Ward. I grew up right on Van Ness.

The two blocks idea you talked about earlier – do you have a vision for where in the South Ward it would happen?

I would say Clinton Avenue, from Fabyan place to 10th street. I envision nice upscale restaurants, ice cream parlors, different types of food – that whole vibe. Outdoor seating. Take shipping containers and turn them into fancy stores. Make a Trader Joe–like restaurant. We have to take value in our own neighborhood. We have to bring back that hope.

This is what I say: the talented tenth. The issue is – and this is the biggest issue that we’re having in Newark compared to other places – we have this notion where we feel we have to save everybody. You can’t save everybody and do everything, because it pulls away from all the resources. You can’t save everybody because everybody doesn’t want to be saved. You have to start from a small root. Take the talented tenth, and save them.

Some people believe when they see. They need someone to do it first, then they can say “Okay, it’s working.”

Not all people have the same risk tolerance. So what happens is the high risk takers have to go out there – then the medium come, then the low. First you had the talented tenth, now you’ll have the talented 50th. But to get there, you have to move. You show and prove.

And you can’t be mad at them [people disillusioned with the political process], because they meet people who talk so much and get nothing done. They say to themselves, “Oh, here they come with their high ideology.” That’s why I’ll come with two blocks just so show and prove. We can grow out from there, go the next main corridor. By the time you get to the next corridor, the wave has started. Now you don’t have to do as much to get people to believe, because they know when you’re coming, change is coming.

People who think Newarkers don’t want anything hold illusionary philosophies. Not all Newarkers want to come everywhere and hear a poverty conversation. Sometimes you just want hear about art, about that museum piece, about that independent film. If you live in Newark and you’re educated or have a little more money to spend – what do you do? People who don’t know that these people exist here project the statement that the neighborhoods don’t want something different. Only people downtown who don’t know the city say that. The rest of us are like, “What are you talking about?” We’ve been asking for things for years, but there’s still this notion that we don’t want better.

People  say Newarkers don’t want that or this, but when we get something nice, we’re there. You see we’re at the PAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center).

There are some times when we’re excluded on purpose. There is a business symposium going on, but the people that know about it are the people in the inner circle.

And this is another difference between me and the other people that are running: you don’t see them anywhere. You don’t see them at business symposiums, conferences — none of that. You go to the SBA [Small Business Administration] meeting, I’ll be in there. BCDC [Brick City Development Corporation] – I’ll be at the board meeting. I’ll be at different places; they’ll be at the same places. Art gallery, I’m there. There are some people that want that lifestyle. We’re not getting it because there aren’t people that represent us who stand up for that.

Me and a few people bike ride with this group called United Cycle. Everybody’s from Newark: young, progressive, all races. But the other candidates, you won’t see them at races or track meets. We can’t elect leaders that are not on the cutting age. When newcomers come in and see me and my people, they can say, “You’re the councilman who rides every Sunday and Wednesday.” Who are they going to cling to? The guy with the same values. I’m in the neighborhood, too. I’m in Weequahic park talking, socializing, running. People see me living life in this city. When you see the other candidates, it’s usually for political reasons. It’s not real.

Imagine the thing you’re interested in, and the person who’s running for council is into the same stuff you’re into, and he was doing it way before he thought about running for office. Who are you more likely to support?

I go everywhere because it keeps me in the know, because I’ll know who’s doing exactly what. When it’s time to make a move, I know who to go to. I know ten people doing it, and doing it well. I have a real pulse on the city.

What are your thoughts about attracting more jobs to Newark. You say its empty rhetoric for some politicians, but do you think it’s important at all?

I want higher-level corporate jobs for Newarkers. Those are the people who pay more taxes, and they’re more likely to take the city where it has to go.

The average income in Newark is $35,000; there’s a lot of people in Newark who make well above that. And a lot of them say, “I’m tired of people always thinking everybody’s poor. Who’s going to represent me? I just want a nice café to sit down and eat in.” Some people just want their neighbors not let their dog [go to the bathroom] in front of their property, to cut their grass. How can you stop that if there’s no dog parks? Sometimes the solution is the easy thing.

Like Lincoln Park – they have the festival there every year. They get sponsors, have nice events, no problems. Everybody loves it and looks forward to it.

As a city, we should take the hint. We really have to develop Lincoln Park and grass it out. Put a playground for kids, install a dog park. And where the stage is for the festival, we need to build a permanent stage just like SummerStage [in Central Park], or just like Marcus Garvey Park or Prospect Park.

The festival just had its 8th year, and right now we’re paying all that money for the weekend. Meanwhile, we could’ve gotten some brothas in the neighborhood to build out a permanent stage. We could have all types of stuff go on in that stage year-round – this is the way we have to think. Because over the years, the investment will pay off, because now you’re thinking about the community. And now if you’re moving to the district, you have something to look forward to.

Besides building up a couple blocks, how do you get business moving in the South Ward?

We need to create a mom-and-pop loan program: $2,000 – $10,000 per business. If your business is small, that’s all you need. Your rent, inventory, and décor aren’t going to come up to much. We have to take a concentrated amount of money, build up a couple blocks, and start there.

When I talk to people, they say, “That’s a plan. I can see that.”

Dilettante Bass is running for the South Ward city council seat that will be vacated by Ras Baraka, who is running for mayor of Newark. He recently unveiled his campaign presence on his website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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