Cory Booker
Photo: Brian Finke
Cory Booker bounds around the gray streets of Newark like a golden retriever chasing waves. On a cloudy day in May, as his police-issue black Chevy Tahoe docks at the curb, he leaps from the car and scans the sidewalk for citizens who need his love.

"How you doin'," he says to a badly weathered guy in saggy jeans and a sweatshirt, hanging out in front of a senior center.

"Just trying to get by," comes the narcotized response.

Booker leans in, his slate blue eyes intent as he listens to the man's woes; then he refers him to a staffer who might have some job leads. The conversation ends with Booker saying, "God bless you, brother. Stay strong."

Inside, he recognizes a young guy in the lobby—Newark has more than 280,000 residents, and it seems almost plausible that Booker has met them all.

"Did you get a job?" Booker asks.

"I tried yesterday."

"Every day, make it your job to get a job," Booker declaims; as a product of Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School who has been writing down his goals on a whiteboard since college (and in a "goals journal" before that), Booker has scant experience with lethargy and low expectations. "When did you get up today?"

"Early! Eight o'clock."

"I got up at 5:30 this morning, chasing my dream," says Booker. "Do you believe you have a great destiny? Get that job—get that dream. Promise me you will." And the young man gives him his word.

But when, exactly, he'll find work is the tricky part. Like many cities across the nation, Newark, New Jersey, was summarily coldcocked by the economic downturn; unemployment hovers around 13 percent, and the budget has been stretched to the screaming point. Of course, while recovery has been slow in coming for everyone, Newark has the added complication of a legacy that looms like a boogeyman over its 27 square miles and five districts—or wards, as they're called—each with its own grim tale to tell.

A fabled haven in the first half of the 20th century to striving immigrant families like the ones that spawned Philip Roth and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, the city started to lose its way by the 1950s, after many of its factories and breweries either relocated or closed; when the jobs left, so did its bootstrapping middle class. Southern blacks looking for work migrated north and took its place. But with jobs dwindling, taxes soaring, a risible plan to demolish black homes in favor of a dental and medical college, white minority control of both the city council and the school board, and a mobbed-up mayor in charge of it all, the situation was rigged for disaster. The toxic brew of anger and desperation boiled over in 1967, when the abuse of a black cabdriver by a pair of white cops sparked five days of rioting that left 26 dead.

What followed were decades of textbook urban rot—joblessness and despair fueling an antic drug trade; violent gangs providing the structure in communities where many fathers were either in jail or dead. Newark became a darkly mordant joke, the perennial worst place in America.

Next: Can a city left for dead make a comeback?