- Part 5: The Politics of Newark
In the early morning Newark’s South Ward streets are full of speeding cars with blaring drum machines walloping hip-hop on their radios as sanitation trucks pull out of the Frelinghuysen Avenue facility. Men in shabby blue uniforms hang out in groups and puff on cigarettes by the cavernous doors of the facility’s garage. The group gets larger as the weather warms. One of the trucks parks right in front of the Miller Street School — a gray-brown, government building — partially blocking its drop-off zone, and the workers empty hydraulic fluid into a gutter. The smell of diesel and transmission fluid overwhelms the atmosphere, even in the March chill. Shakirah Miller, the third year principal, has had to confront these men who rudely ogle the young mothers bringing their kids to school. A six-foot-one, extremely sharp, and witty thirty-five-year-old woman who owns a pit bull named Lady, Shakirah has two Masters degrees and is writing her dissertation for a doctorate in education at Teachers College. She was raised in Newark, and she’s remained in Newark.
“It’s what I must do,” she said.
On any given day, 497 students make their way to Miller Street, a K-8 school, from disparate points, such as Wright or Emmet Streets, near Broad Street and Route 21, across the Conrail from Newark Liberty International Airport, on the very busy Pennsylvania Avenue. Newark is divided into five wards – north, south, east, west and central. The South Ward is 5.2 square miles of abandoned buildings, empty lots enclosed by chain-linked fences, boarded up homes next to liquor stores and bodegas and strip joints, and on some street corners barely conscious prostitutes high on drugs leaning over and calling out a foggy sexuality to passersby. It’s not an easy walk to school.
I stood on the Vandeerpool and Frelinghuysen corner in the early morning next to L&C Tire Services, where the loud sounds of air guns removing lug nuts from truck tires punctured the air. Juan Ramos and his grandchildren, Julio and Elvir, waited for the traffic to pass. I’d met with Juan, along with other parents eager to tell me their stories, a few days earlier. Lowanda Pots, the head of the parents organization, said to me then, “You have to tell our story. No one cares about us.”
That my role in the school was to be that of storyteller became abundantly clear and repeated by other parents, teachers, and students.
“You gonna write about us?” a young, wide eyed little girl, Ana, with long black hair – tiny for a fifth grader – asked me one day after seeing me around, always catching my eye and smiling. I was taken by the question, unsure what to say to this knowing child. Hesitantly, I said, “I’m going to try.”
But then she raised another question, as if she knew something more. “You gonna be with us?” she asked. The word had gotten around that I was at Miller Street to study the school; that this would take some time and that I would therefore be a new member of this community. But be with us had another meaning, I thought. The way Ana looked at me, her big round eyes told me that she wanted me to be someone vital to her community.
The implication was, could I do something? It’s what my students at Middlebury College, hundreds of miles away, literally and figuratively, always ask: how can one person do anything about a dysfunctional society when it’s been going on for so long?