Can a city left for dead be made over? Can hope and green things be coaxed to grow where bullet casings and crack vials have lain so thick? Cory Booker, who's just now starting his second four-year term as mayor, resoundingly says yes; if the sheer force of his passion were enough to get the job done, Newark would surely be Paris by now. His belief in this place is limitless, and so are his plans. Or as Booker thundered from the podium during an evangelical State of the City speech last year, "Does my confidence offend you? Well, prepare to be surprised. In the coming years, you will see this city and won't believe your eyes...."
When Booker arrived for his new job at City Hall in July 2006, the copper lettering on the Beaux Arts building was missing a c and an l. "ITY HAL," it read, elliptically—a small but symbolic example of the neglect that had grown commonplace in Newark, and of the top-to-bottom repair work that lay ahead.
Although the mayor has a spacious office on the second floor adorned with photographs—of his parents, one of Martin Luther King Jr., another of demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, being blasted with fire hoses—the real work happens on the hustle, on the move. An all-access public servant who freely gives his cell phone number to strangers who are serious about finding a job, Booker starts his morning by sending out tweets both inspirational and chatty to his roughly one million followers in the Twitterverse; sentiments range from "Courage delayed is fear embraced" to "Two hours of cardio today—trying to make up for my cookie dough sins of yesterday." Then he hops on the stationary bike or goes for a meditative run through the neighborhood—fueling, oxygenating, firing up his own machinery. It's work, hurling out that exuberant, throw-me-the-Frisbee energy all day long, and it won't stop until he closes his eyes at night. Perhaps, then, it's a blessing that there are no wife and kids at home, making demands. At 41, Booker jokes frequently about his "failed personal life"—"It's the one area you can't put up on the whiteboard," he says. "I definitely want a partner, somebody to talk to at the end of the day. Honestly, just lying next to somebody is like a gift from God. Forget the sex—just having someone spend the night is a great thing."
While there are still some stately residences in this town befitting a mayor, Booker has made his home over the past three years in a no-frills, three-family brick-face house in the contentious South Ward, where loyalty to his floridly corrupt predecessor, Sharpe James—who spent 18 months in prison for fraud—still runs deep. Before this, Booker lived for eight years in the run-down Newark housing project Brick Towers until it was condemned and demolished; then as now, his preference is to be in the mix and win people over, despite the obvious risks (Booker appears unfazed by the occasional death threats he's received since he was first elected mayor in 2006). His parents stay on one floor of the house during their frequent visits from Atlanta, and his security detail occupies another. Just like at Booker's apartment, the vibe there is man-cave minimal: TV, couch, chair, another stationary bike, and a passel of plaques and hardware engraved with Booker's name that he has no interest in putting on display.
On a typical morning last spring, Booker bursts into City Hall, face joyful as a helium balloon, smooth scalp gleaming, arms and smile wide as he greets city workers—"How are we doing today? You're 65, and you're in better shape than I am! Gotta get a haircut like mine—high and tight!" He's wearing a dark, bulky suit in the obligatory manner of high school jocks on game day; the tailoring can't obscure the physicality, the 63 build, the tree-trunk thighs that served him well while playing football at Stanford. His first task today: addressing the largest-ever graduating class of the Senior Citizen Police Academy. Kind of a quaint idea in any other community—grandpas and grannies in their blue uniforms and caps, deputized to keep a nearsighted eye on the neighborhood. Only here, support from seniors is a dead-serious affair: Most of the graduates are longtime residents who lived through the riots and the crack epidemic. Some have lost children to violence and raised their own grandchildren. They are the memory keepers, the conscience of Newark, who quite literally know where the bodies are buried. Booker tells the graduates he has to run off to an Arbor Day celebration, "but you all are the great roots of this community."
Arbor Day—is there a bigger snoozefest on the American calendar? Who cares about Arbor Day? But again, here in Newark, where kids have had criminally few places to play and the worst kind of mischief goes down in vacant lots, the promise of a leafier tomorrow is fraught with game-changing potential. Booker has made the greening of Newark a high priority, hosting tree-planting days and gardening days; reclaiming abandoned land for community gardens and refurbishing parks; as well as supporting Beautiful Newark, which sponsors a kidcentric cleanup on Earth Day. On this Arbor Day alone, volunteers are planting 213 trees in a six-block area of the West Ward. At the enthusiastic assembly at the Thirteenth Avenue School, Booker, who is greeted like a jolly green giant by the kids, with whoops and cheers, poses for pictures with the New Jersey Youth Corps. In the audience, small children clutch paper cones containing a single sapling each—and it's tempting to imagine them holding Newark's equally fragile future in their small, dimpled hands.
Next: Growing up in a white neighborhood