Newark tense over development; Prosperous inner-city enclave feels pressure of economic boom


NEWARK, N.J. -- Soaring home prices. Sclerotic traffic. The maddening roar of new construction. Too many people, not enough open space.

Ah, the woes of a booming economy.

But, in an unlikely tale for flush times, the locale in question is in Manhattan or Westchester County, N.Y., but in a corner of Newark, a city left for dead after the 1967 riots, where almost a third of the residents still live in poverty.

Newark's Ironbound section, long a bastion of Portuguese immigrants and more recently a magnet for Brazilians and other Latin Americans, has become one of the hottest swaths of real estate in the region. More than 900 homes have been built in the Ironbound in the last three years, real estate values have nearly doubled, and most homes are snapped up after just days on the market.

"It's been out of this world," said Jack DaSilva, a local developer who recently sold 150 new homes in the Ironbound before even a single foundation had been poured.

Now, many residents complain that this bustling neighborhood of about 50,000 people has become too prosperous for its own good. Steep housing prices are forcing families to double and triple up, the population boom has made parking nightmarish, and local schools are overwhelmed by the influx of new students, many of them Latin American immigrants who speak little English.

"Our quality of life has gone down the tubes," said Mary Correia, 39, the daughter of Portuguese parents who works in the neighborhood but recently moved to the suburbs. "This is no place to raise a family."

'People are angry'

Overdevelopment is also feeding tensions between the Portuguese, who are widely credited with saving the neighborhood during Newark's darkest days, and the newly arrived Brazilians, who often get blamed for the crowded streets and steep housing prices.

The Rev. Moacir Weirich, a Lutheran clergyman who runs a storefront ministry here, said the problems associated with explosive growth have given life to long-buried animosities between the faded imperial power and its former colony. "People are angry, and they're just looking for someone to blame," said Weirich, who is Brazilian. "They make easy targets for each another."

A hodgepodge of vinyl-sided homes and 19th-century factories, the Ironbound has always been a gritty, working-class place named for the railroad tracks that once surrounded it. Even after the 1967 riots, when Newark suffered decades of depopulation, disinvestment and a crippling loss of faith, the Ironbound, bolstered by Portuguese immigration, remained a pocket of stability.

Although downtown Newark has benefited from a new performing arts center, a minor-league baseball stadium and the promise of a professional sports complex, New Jersey's largest city remains mired in poverty, with a quarter of its 267,000 residents on some form of public assistance.

Outsiders might find it hard to appreciate the lure of the Ironbound, a densely packed neighborhood where $300,000 homes -- most without yards -- are raked by the whoosh of planes landing at nearby Newark International Airport. There are few parks or playgrounds here, and highways, railroad tracks and derelict loft buildings are among the area's more prominent features. Many new homes sit atop toxic soil, a legacy of the area's industrial past.

Augusto Amador, the local councilman, said people are drawn here by easy access to jobs, proximity to the state's main highways and good public transportation. It also helps that immigrants can navigate daily life without worrying about their limited English, he said.

"If you're a hard-working immigrant and you want to settle down in a safe, secure neighborhood, there's no better place to be," said Amador, who came here from Portugal when he was 17. "You don't find this kind of stability elsewhere in Newark."

That stability has been fostered by the neighborhood's physical isolation and the Portuguese, who began arriving in the late 1960s, replacing the Italians, Polish and Irish who came before them.

With its modest two-and-three family homes, the Ironbound is house proud but not fussy. Charles Cummings, Newark's official historian, calls it "our Greenwich Village, without the Bohemians."

Its vibrant street life is striking as one passes beneath the elevated tracks separating the neighborhood from downtown, with its fenced-in parking lots, vacant office buildings and forlorn sidewalks. By contrast, the Ironbound's main commercial artery, Ferry Street, is lined with restaurants and bakeries, its sidewalks thick with pedestrians. "I defy you to find an empty storefront on Ferry Street," Cummings said.

'Brazilians are our future'

There are no figures on how many Brazilians live in the Ironbound, but realtors estimate that about 60 percent of the homes on the market are bought by Brazilians; the remaining buyers are a mix of Portuguese, Ecuadoreans, Peruvians and Mexicans.

Like many entrepreneurs, Kenneth Rocco has met the influx by hiring more Brazilians at his travel agency, Monica Travel, which also provides immigration, money wiring and long-distance telephone services. Five of his six employees, he said, are from Brazil. "Brazilians are our future," he said.

Not that the Portuguese are becoming extinct. They remain the neighborhood's most prominent business leaders and are behind nearly all of the new construction. Jacinto Rodrigues, for example, one of the city's largest builders, is also an owner of Crown Bank, a local lending institution that provides many Ironbound home buyers with mortgages. Some of the biggest employers in Newark are the Ironbound's Portuguese bakeries and restaurants.

But one thing is indisputable: as Brazilians continue to flood into the area, immigration from Portugal has all but dried up, with many Portuguese families moving to the suburbs and a growing number of the elderly retiring to homes they built in Portugal.

A buying frenzy

The shifting demographics have fueled strife between the two groups, although everyone agrees that the conflict finds its worst expression in off-color jokes. "We basically make the same silly cracks about each other," said Alessandra Braganca, 27, a travel agent who moved to Newark from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, six years ago. "They think we're stupid, we think they're snobs."

Sometimes they mock each other's manner of speech, which are about as different as British and American English.

Still, longtime Portuguese residents bemoan the changing landscape. Manny Lopes, 42, the owner of Newark Hardware since 1973, said the Brazilians are not as committed to the neighborhood as the Portuguese were. "We were so busy in the '70s, fixing up the houses. There were always people in here buying materials, paint and hardware," he said. "The Brazilians, they don't invest like we do. They come for a few months and then go elsewhere."

Some realtors worry that many of the new immigrants buying new homes are in over their head. Much of the buying frenzy, they said, has been fueled by subsidized loan programs or mortgages that allow buyers to put down as little as three percent on a $300,000 house. And because many home buyers work in construction, an industry notoriously susceptible to economic vagaries, a recession could hit the Ironbound especially hard. "If there's a downturn, there are going to be a lot of people defaulting on their mortgages," said Carlos Couto, the owner of Re/Max United, a real estate brokerage on Ferry Street.

In the meantime, the neighborhood's schools have become the most crowded in the state, with many classrooms exceeding 40 students. In February, hundreds of angry parents packed a series of town meetings and demanded that the city provide some relief. Officials said they would try to install temporary modular units in the coming months and build three schools within the decade, but some parents say they cannot wait.

"People are moving out as soon as their kids reach high school," said Nancy Zak, a longtime resident and a leader of the Ironbound Community Corp., a nonprofit group. "We're turning into a transient place."

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