What qualifications must one meet to be considered a “true” Newarker? Must one be born-and-bred-in-Newark? Should a person rent or own a place in Newark to be considered invested? And, is there a term requirement (say, no less than 5 years) that one should adhere to before he or she is considered legit? Should a person be required to work IN Newark?
Since my arrival in Newark, I’ve seriously pondered these questions. When I meet folk, some are sure to note the fact that they were “born and raised” in Newark and others acknowledge that they are “lifelong” residents. To me, the responses that I usually receive in this regard signifies that one’s Newark-status is connected to one’s rootedness in Newark and the length of time s/he has lived in the city. It speaks to a people’s need for protection: protection from leeches who could care less about the city’s potential (unless it grows their pockets) and the city’s most precious resource, its people…protection against those who dismiss the particularities that characterize Newark as place (i.e. it’s social and political history, cultural productions, spirited legacy, etc)…protection against folk who show up with promises but leave having not fulfilled any of them. I get it.
As an adolescent living in (and, later, adult resident of) a city, like Newark, the sentiments of those shared by Newarkers are all too familiar. Camden, though it has its own particular issues and historical context, is a city, like Newark, that has a rich history and complicated present even while it maintains a bright future. For that reason, many Camden residents-including me-cautiously gazed upon any person from the “outside” moving in. I wanted to know what they wanted from us, from the city that we called “home” and others called “ghetto”. I wondered: what were they attempting to gain…what dollars were being made…what was in it for them…what would Camden residents lose? I pondered all of these questions and allowed my suspicions to guide my responses until I was challenged to reconsider my own stake in the city that I so vigorously sought to protect.
Case in point: During my final year at Seton Hall University, I sent resumes to nearly every company on the planet. My very modest resume, which touted a degree in social and behavioral sciences, made its way into the personnel departments (or trash bins in those departments) across the country. I wanted a good job, great pay and dope place to live. Not once did I, Mr. Concerned Life-long Citizen of Camden, consider heading back to South Jersey. Indeed, I wanted to do everything but. As it turned out, I did not receive any call backs from the many places I sought to work and ended up interviewing, with angst, for a non-paid, youth missionary position located where, you ask? In the place that I had been running from the entire time: Camden. I returned in my role as a disgruntled “urban youth missionary” serving middle-school aged youth in an afterschool program making a $30 a week living allowance. I actually lived in a house three blocks away from my mother’s house–the house where I grew up–with 14 other people who hailed from other states and countries. During that experience, I discovered that my 14 housemates–non-lifelongers, strangers, perceived parasites–who moved to Camden to serve, for no pay, actually did so because of their commitment to the city and its people even while my commitment had begun to wane.
As I prepare myself for, yet, another stop on my life’s journey outside of Newark, I am harnessing the wisdom gained from my own experience. It is possible for one to be committed to and passionate about a place whether he or she resides in that city or not. It is equally possible that one can tout a life-long resident card and lack the commitment to and passion for a city that s/he claims. Personally, I am committed to the revitalization of urban spaces and the uplift of the people who live/work/pray/play within them. Such commitment remains and ties my personal mission to the broader social and economic justice platforms of the Camdens, Newarks, Trentons and Patersons of the world. It seems that we might all consider what it means to be “true” to Newark and “true” to ourselves in that process.