After half a century of urban disorder in Newark, yet another disaster has befallen New Jersey’s largest city: The city’s first Whole Foods just opened.
First it was arson, then it was crack, now it’s farm-fresh goat cheese.
Will the horror never end? Can Newark ever catch a break? The questions are implied in a New York Times piece this week headlined with a lament from one city resident that Whole Foods, which opened its Newark branch in late winter, is “not for us.” Newark’s population is only one-fourth white, and it seems obvious that the sentiment being expressed here, as well as the use of the word “gentrification,” are what in other contexts might be called “racial dog whistles.”
The Times frets that it’s a “tense moment” and that development is happening “unevenly” in Newark, that only certain neighborhoods have benefited so far. No doubt this is correct. You might think a paper based in New York would be aware of another city where development occurred in an uneven pattern. The Upper West Side gentrified in the 1980s, Times Square in the mid 1990s, the Lower East Side in the late 1990s, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in the 2000s. Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant are gentrifying as we speak. It takes a while to renovate a city.
Whole Foods is plainly worried that in Newark the shiitake might hit the fan. Its Newark page is an amusing plea to be welcomed into the community and a promise to prove its goodwill by handing out large checks. It emphasizes that it “will offer funding between $5,000 and $15,000 to each selected organization . . . in all five wards of Newark,” moving on to tell shoppers that it offers “Detroit style pizza” and hot dogs and then returning to note one more time that “We believe in the importance of giving back to our Newark community! We donate regularly to local nonprofits and schools to better serve our neighborhood and local causes.” Please don’t hate us for doing business in your city.
Whole Foods is wise to open up the checkbook of outreach given the deep suspicion that accompanies improvement in America’s less affluent cities. Let’s recap the slate of urban worries on the left. “Food deserts,” meaning a lack of availability of fresh food (or a lack of market demand for it), are bad. The opening of a gigantic store dedicated to selling healthy comestibles and produce, though, is also bad.
When large corporations don’t invest in urban communities, that’s shameful. Investment? Also shameful. White flight by people moving to suburbs in the 1960s? Racist. Their grandchildren’s return? Also racist. Increased disorder that leads to garbage-strewn vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and declining property values is troubling, but increased order that leads to refilled buildings, cleaned-up neighborhoods, and rising rents is also troubling. Segregation? Bad. Integration? Bad.
Such thoughts are not restricted to the fringe. Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most revered thinker on black life in America, advances them in his National Book Award winning memoir-cum-manifesto Between the World and Me. When white people started moving into his neighborhood, he felt this way: “I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts . . . their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” Spike Lee compared the gentrification of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he grew up, to genocide after someone called the police to complain about his musician father playing late at night. Cornel West equated gentrification with “land-grabbing” and “power-grabbing,” and in an interview with AlterNet he denounced Harlem as “49 percent vanilla” as white people have moved in to “leave precious and poor working people dangling with very little for a place to go.” In his very next comment, he deplored the large number of abandoned buildings in places like Philadelphia as a result of “neoliberal hegemony.”
Newark has had such a rough time of it that its leading newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, long ago excised the “Newark.” City boosters talking up economic development find themselves inadvertently using the vocabulary of disaster, perhaps out of habit. “We are at a precipice,” Newark mayor Ras Baraka said. Deputy Mayor and Director of Housing and Economic Development Baye Adofo-Wilson said, in a reference to economic development, “To me it seems sort of like a tidal wave that’s coming.”
City boosters talking up economic development find themselves inadvertently using the vocabulary of disaster.
The word that petrifies Newark’s leaders right now is Brooklyn. To ward off Brooklynification, the city is, for instance, discussing a requirement that large numbers of new apartments be set aside for those of low or moderate income. Let’s improve things, but not too fast is a peculiar mantra for a down-at-heels city. Some of these ideas seem doomed.
The next stage for Newark, assuming development continues, will be urban nostalgie de la boue, an insistence that the age of unrest is preferable to the age of arugula. Long-term residents will assert that newcomers don’t belong. When a Whole Foods opened in Harlem, Angela Helm wrote at The Root, “Where some people saw violence, I saw community. Where others saw pathology, I glimpsed my reflection in the shiny faces of little girls in cornrows and big teeth.” She deplored the “erasure” of Harlem and spoke of experiencing “anger and loss” because “there are now some places in Harlem that seem to be white havens.”
Amid all the hand-wringing and self-contradiction that accompanies discussion of gentrification, there is a depressing constant: race-based animus.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.
Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.