By Nakeefa Garay
Ten years ago, if you told me I would call Newark home, I would have laughed in your face and made some nonspecific elitist remark about why that could never be. It’s not that my idea of home had a particular shape of what it had to look like. Rather, I knew what it could never be, and it was never going to be Newark, NJ. As a native New Jerseyan, I held our state’s largest city in low regard because of the classist, racist stereotypes that dominated the Newark narrative for the last several decades. The truth is, I don’t know where I would be without this city. I will be forever grateful to it because of all the places I’ve lived and visited, Newark was the place that taught me how to embrace that home feeling by giving me the space to feel at home with myself.
For a long time, I didn’t consider anywhere to be home. I was born in the Caribbean, spent most of elementary school years in Jersey City, had my high school experience in rural western Massachusetts, experienced my early twenties in New Brunswick, and my late twenties in South Orange. People would ask me where is home, and I would say Jersey City because that is where my family lived, but I hadn’t considered Jersey City home since I was a tween. People say “home is where the heart is,” but what if one leaves pieces of their heart everywhere? When you’re a vibes whore like me, you pour your heart out into people and places to make authentic, heartfelt, and lasting connections. I’m a romantic, but I’m also a realist–surely everywhere can’t be home. Truth be told, no place gave me that home feeling because I was so used to the process of moving, building networks, and separating from loved ones after cycles ended.
When I first moved to Newark in 2015, I landed in Teacher’s Village and I didn’t expect to live here for long. Nonetheless, it was the nicest apartment I had ever lived in. Everything was brand new–I felt like such a boss when I moved in and had to pull the factory stickers off of the dishwasher. I enjoyed walking down the street to the Prudential Center to catch a WWE show or a New Jersey Devils game. The buzz of downtown gave me life, and the best part was that my job was a six minute walk away. I even stopped leasing a car; I was living the millennial yuppie dream! Though luxurious and convenient, the apartment did not make me feel at home, it was the Newark people and the culture of unapologetic authenticity.
Newark began to feel like home after about two years of walking the streets, taking the bus, and learning in community alongside other Newark residents. You never know what you’ll see while navigating the city, but what you can count on is a level of realness embodied by passersby. Newarkers walk with a sense of unapologeticness in their stride. No one is timid, or side stepping, or pulling back on how they show up in this world. This was new to me because most of the spaces I inhabited prior to Newark forced me to assimilate on some level.
Newark’s culture gave me permission to let it all hang out. Student me, worker me, organic me, smoker me, wino me, activist me, lover me, hater me, spiritual me, destructive me, creative me, socialist me, technocrat me, dreamer me, wife me, friend me, go getter me, lazy me, lover me, fighter me… all sides of me were not only welcomed, but free-flowing. Everyone here is too busy to be judgmental. This was a type of freedom I had never felt before! Prior to living free in Newark, I walked this earth thinking I needed permission to express certain parts of me in certain spaces. No other place gave me permission — or rather no other place could make enough space for my identities to meander, permissionless.
So what is it about Newark specifically that facilitates this vibe? Newark is the most unpretentious, colorful, unassuming, forgiving, hard working, no nonsense, unpasteurized, charismatic place you could ever hope to live. Newark transplants like me settle in with a similar sense of pride, not just about their newfound neighborhood, but about the multidimensional, sometimes contradictory facets of their daily existence.
Now that I’ve been living freely in this glorious city, I can’t fathom living any other way. Here’s my truth: I never truly embraced myself like I do now that I’m a Newarker. Home is where I can find me and I found myself in Newark. The irony is, I refused to give Newark a chance initially, the same way I refused to give myself a chance. I wanted to put Newark in a category for easy packaging. But like most beautiful and complicated things, neither I nor Newark can ever be put in a box.
Nakeefa Garay is a Newark resident and PhD candidate in Rutgers University’s Global Urban Studies Program.
Featured image by Shawn Collins