In Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel _American Pastoral_, his protagonist, a Jew named Seymour Levov who goes by the nickname “the Swede,” sees his life turned upside down when his daughter turns terrorist and blows up a post office. Before that, the Swede was living the American Dream in economically robust Newark, New Jersey. At predominantly Jewish Weequahic High School the Swede fulfills the role of idol amongst his peers by dominating in three sports and charming with his good looks. He eventually inherits his father’s prosperous glove factory, Newark Maid, which at the time is the exclusive manufacturer of the luxurious and highly in demand leather gloves that all the elite are wearing in the 1950s and 1960s. The Swede marries a former Miss New Jersey and is peerless and pristine. In New Jersey. In Newark.
We live in a time now where people get tired of things quickly. Fads come fast, celebrities fade as soon as their shows are cancelled—our politicians are given twenty-four hours before we start to criticize their every move. There is something very admirable and old-fashioned, then, about Cory Booker and his relationship with Newark. Booker’s election as mayor, in 2006, came about two years before Barack Obama took the nation by storm and seized the presidency. A _New Yorker_ article from that year gives me a sense of a man who has, by all accounts, taken on an extraordinarily difficult job, and for reasons that seem to come from another time and place; indeed, he seems to come from an entirely different breed of office-seekers. Booker professes that he wanted to be mayor because of how he thought it would change him, and make him feel. These are self-centered goals, but they are not the classic selfish aims of past politicians: to advance one’s career, to become famous. Booker is refreshing because his idealism reaches from the very depths of himself to the community he oversees. He wants everyone to believe that there is meaning in the little things that make a life.
So two years before Obama, Booker is running a place whose population is one-sixth of Manhattan’s, but its murder rate is eight times as large. He’s running a place in which he receives weekly, often daily updates on violent crimes on his BlackBerry. We’ve all heard about Obama’s cell phone, which surely buzzes incessantly with gossip about his administration, about health care, about senator’s shifting their stances and voters getting uneasy, but it certainly does not ping again and again with the news of some teenager being shot or some mother being beaten. Booker has staked his future on a city that has rejected peace by all accounts. He has welcomed news of its struggle into his home. Indeed, for several years he lived in the very Projects where the worst things happen: Brick Towers, one of the city’s so-called _sky ghettos_. He meets people, professors of Newark he calls them, who have buried children and husbands and wives and cousins and friends. He goes to work trying to change a culture, all the while immersed in the classic political structure of our age. Deal making is incessant, politicking is the norm—Booker’s Newark is a microcosm of the tumult of Washington, with issues perhaps more alarming. It’s a failed state within the larger context of a country striving to return to promise.
Booker’s goals, ultimately, are to make Newark not another Manhattan; no, that would be impossible, impractical, and indeed, probably unnecessary. But he wants to turn this city that eats its young and hemorrhages jobs into the bustling, burgeoning, romanticized city of the past, when it was an insurance empire and was almost as frequently a player in Philip Roth novels as that ineffable Zuckerman. Weequahic High School is a fine example; a school built in a neighborhood claimed by second and third generation Jewish immigrants who had found success in America. Roth himself graduated from there, in 1950, and almost a decade later the school still lead all of New Jersey in producing graduates who went on to earn Ph.Ds and was heralded as one of the finest in America.
Today, the school still plays sports under the moniker “The Indians,” but their students are far more likely to quit early than to become college professors. Weequahic has been deemed a “drop-out factory,” a school with drop-out rates at forty per cent or above. This country has close to seventeen hundred such places, and three of them are in Newark. The worst is the Swede’s Weequahic.
In _American Pastoral_, Roth doesn’t change history. Newark collapses, as it did in real life, as the Swede finds, along with dozens of other employers, that it is far more cost-efficient to ship jobs overseas and away from the unions. The Newark riots come and the Swede is holding on for dear life. And then his daughter detonates a home-made bomb, protesting the Vietnam War, spewing the rhetoric of the Weathermen and going into hiding. Traumatized, the Swede never regains his former swagger, and Newark never returns to glory.
Looking at Newark as a law student at Yale in the nineties, Cory Booker, fresh off a Rhodes Scholarship and honors from Stanford, decided that that fetid, crumbling place was where he had to be. His final year at Yale he commuted from Newark after moving there, and just five years later, in 2002, he ran for mayor the first time. His defeat to Sharpe James came after a heated struggle. James ridiculed Booker for being “not black enough” to understand the city. He even insisted that Booker’s black mother was white, and that he was simply a suburban fool, not tough enough for the job. Booker lost, fifty three per cent to forty-seven.
But the setback launched a star. Booker declared that he would run again almost as soon as he conceded, and the donations started pouring in from across the country, from Hollywood stars and mega-Democrats alike. And then, in 2004, Booker was offered a chance to run for Senator of New Jersey. If he had taken that opportunity, and won, he would have been the only black senator in the country before Obama. Instead, Booker kept his promise and ran for mayor again in 2006. He outspent his opponent, Ronald Rice, twenty-five to one. He defeated him in record fashion, with seventy-two per cent of the vote.
Yet in August 2007, Booker’s Newark was the lead story on every cable news network in the country, and the headline of every paper. Four college students were taken behind an elementary school and shot, execution style and from point blank range. Three died, while a fourth staggered thirty feet away and was found bleeding from numerous knife wounds to her head. She survived. The night of the shootings, Booker’s BlackBerry rang in the early morning on his bedside table. He was concerned by the number of victims, but assumed because of the neighborhood that it was a gang, or drug related incident. He asked to be updated in the morning.
By dawn, the police knew that the three crumpled, deformed bodies at the base of a green wall in the city’s West Ward were not gangbangers or drug mules. They were just kids, and their murder made Newark infamous again. Roth’s New Jersey seemed farther off than ever. But Booker’s revamped law enforcement unit worked rapidly, and apprehended six suspects. And Booker found himself not preaching about reform, but eulogizing three young lives gone too soon. The order for change came from elsewhere. The father of one of the victims, James Harvey, spoke to Newark at a press conference about the killings. Standing with Booker behind him, Harvey gave an impromptu plea to his fellow citizens. “I don’t blame Mayor Booker. Because it’s not on Mayor Booker. It’s on you guys. It’s on the parents of the city of Newark.”
Today, Booker’s devotion to Gandhi’s aphorism “be the change you wish to see in the world” and the personal reward he reaps from every minor success have lead to a rapidly changing culture in Newark. Even one of Booker’s harshest critics, Harvard Professor Martin Kilson, granted that, “things are shifting.” On his tenure as mayor, Booker says: “It’s the time of my life when I actually feel—maybe not weaker, but more dependent on others than ever before. And that my success is completely dependent on how other people are doing.”
I don’t know if Booker will succeed. But I find that the response he evokes from me merely by existing, by doing what he believes, and in my opinion, believing in the right things, is a powerful agent of change and growth. I’m inspired, as few individuals seem able to do in this modern, fast-paced age, to slow down, to reconnect with the places I live, to think about the future and the present and the past and how they’re all connected, and see where I can fit in. He inspires lofty thoughts, it seems. And if he manages, at the end of his tenure, to employ more people and send more kids to college, he will have set Newark back on the path towards their most admirable past, made permanent in Roth’s writing, but disappeared from this earth, at least for now. The Swede ultimately crumbled, in my opinion, not because of his cancer at the end, or even his daughter’s bomb, but because the home that he had starred in was no longer a place that could love back. Booker is giving life to a place previously on its deathbed. I see no wrong in that.