By Justin Williams and Seena Ghaznavi
By 1986, Newark was in the midst of catastrophic economic and social decline. Between 1980 and 1990, the city’s population dropped from 329,000 to 275,000. Making matters worse, the void of vacant homes, closed factories and decreased funding for social services was filled by the crack epidemic, the catalyst for increasing violence and crime (especially car theft) to levels that would earn Newark the dubious honor of being named the “most dangerous city in America” by Money Magazine. With the euphoria of Kenneth Gibson’s groundbreaking election as the first Black leader of a major Northeastern city in 1970 long gone, a young would-be reformer named Sharpe James was elected mayor with a mandate to stop the bleeding. The question was, where would Newark get the massive levels of private investment needed to turn the tide? Enter Harry Grant.
Harry Grant was born Uri Chyavi in Iraq in 1942, but changed his name upon immigrating to the US from Iraq, Israel, or Canada in either 1975 or 1976—there are conflicting reports—with his wife and three children. With his new name chosen from a phone book, his unverified backstory that he was “rumored to be from a wealthy Baghdad family,” gave him preliminary credibility during his rise as successful developer of Bergen County homes and shopping centers.1 Eventually, Grant claimedto have a net worth of over $50 million.
In the Reagan era, the valorization of the private sector became entrenched in government, while Gordon Gekko famously declared in the film Wall Street “greed is good.” In real life, a charismatic young Donald Trump made national headlines for his promises to deliver large real estate developments that would change the fortunes of struggling New York and Atlantic City. America ate it up, and Harry Grant started to fancy himself as New Jersey’s Donald Trump with increasingly grand plans of reform like “a proposal to construct, with private financing, a five-mile tunnel under the Hudson River just north of the traffic-clogged George Washington Bridge [which he wanted called ‘The Grant Tunnel’].”1 Ultimately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rejected the proposal as unfeasible. Unable to play at the state level, Harry Grant decided to follow the Trump playbook and get into high profile urban development.
Just six weeks after he took office in 1986, Mayor James was approached by Grant with a proposal: a 121-story office high rise on the site of the old Central Railroad Terminal on Broad Street that would be named The Grant USA Tower. It would rise 160 feet higher than the 1,590-foot Sears Tower in Chicago. It would also be 80 feet taller than a building proposed by Donald Trump in Manhattan.2 Grant’s proposed tower included, “three million square feet of office space, a five hundred-room hotel, piano bar, observation deck, convention center, parking garage and a sixty thousand-square-foot mall adorned in Italianate marble. The Renaissance Mall, it was dubbed, was meant to be the posterchild for the city’s rebirth.”3 But there was more! Grant also promised to include an elevated monorail that would run from Newark Penn Station to the skyscraper and then down Broad Street to the airport. Grant boasted this new transit system would be “free, no charge, just like Disneyland.”4 Suddenly claiming to have half a billion dollars ready and waiting for the project, Grant offered to finance the project himself in return for a 15-year property tax abatement.
From the very beginning, there were skeptics about his plans. Councilwoman Marie Villani warned, “We in Newark are so used to people coming in and trying to get over on us. . . . I hope this isn’t another . . . . If you keep your word, Newark will again be one of the most exciting cities in the country.”5 Alfred Faiella, director of the Newark Economic Development Corporation, noted the vastly underestimated construction costs and potential rents for office space, but remained “cautiously optimistic” the project would move forward.6 In order to win favor with the press and Newark’s skeptical political establishment, Harry Grant began to give the city high profile gifts including flagpoles, new sidewalks, and a five-story Christmas tree. Most notably, Grant personally financed the 24-karat gold-leaf dome on top of Newark City Hall.
In 1989, Grant overstepped the scope of his project and lost Mayor James’ support by tearing up the city’s existing concrete sidewalks and replacing them with Belgian bricks. When Grant’s construction team ignored the city engineer’s cease-and-desist order, city officials had “to physically go out there and put [their] arms around his workmen and say, stop tearing up the sidewalks, stop laying the bricks.”7 James angrily reacted to the bizarre incident by saying, “People are now saying that Harry has an unfair advantage, that people now think he’s part of the city, that he has the Council under control, the administration under control, and they resent Harry’s presence in Newark.”8 After filing criminal charges against Grant, James further framed him as an invasive powerful outsider by saying, “Now, we have him in court and we’re trying to send a message: No matter how good your intentions, rich or poor, you’re not above the law; you can’t come in and take over the city.”9
Making matters worse, initial suspicions about Harry Grant’s grandiose plans proved to be more than justified. Three years after his mega-projects were announced, it was clear Grant lacked the capacity to realize them as the tower had not progressed beyond architect’s drawings.10 The only actual construction Grant ever started was on the Renaissance Mall. After purchasing the abandoned Central Railroad depot, Grant went bankrupt halfway though the construction of the shopping mall, a white elephant that would blight downtown until 2005, when it was demolished to make way for the Prudential Center.
Outside of his grand plans for Newark, more financial issues bubbled up for Grant when a New York court ordered him to pay $356,970.06 in damages to Capri Jewelry for illegally attempting to foreclose on the property within one of Grant’s buildings.11 One of his other companies, Sandalwood Construction Company, had a staggering number of civil suits from 1988 to May of 1991. A New York Times exposé on Grant’s various ventures revealed foreclosure proceedings from defaults on loans in excess of $17.5 million, 119 violations of the EPA’s Clean Air Act due to illegal demolitions of buildings containing asbestos in Hoboken, and the bankruptcy of at least four other of this companies.12
Like Donald Trump, grand financial disasters and unrealized dreams wouldn’t deter him from making a permanent mark on New York City. As New York City’s crime rate fell throughout the 90s, tourists began to return to neighborhoods like Times Square, which was good news for Harry Grant’s New York Apple Tours. Inspired by a visit to London, Grant decided to bring London’s red double-decker tour buses across the Atlantic to immediate success. That achievement marked by a rapidly expanding fleet and millions of dollars in revenue proved to be short-lived, as Grant’s patterns of malfeasance showed themselves once again. Apple Tours failed to pay thousands of dollars in traffic tickets, used unlicensed drivers, generated complaints from residents, and switched license plates to avoid inspections on many of its 63 buses which earned a $100,000 fine from the Department of Consumer Affairs.13 As a result of this infraction, Grant was removed as an officer of the company, but was still able to stay on as vice president of operations.
In 1998, Harry Grant was indicted on charges of first-degree sexual abuse, after being accused of attacking a female employee at the company’s bus yard in Queens. He pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and was sentenced to counseling and one year of probation.14 Court records show that in 2003, he was ordered to pay the woman he assaulted, Renata Cabrera, $753,619 in damages. An Apple Tours bus striking and killing an elderly man in Times Square ended it all, as Grant was forced to step down and completely separate himself from the company. By February 2001, after amassing millions in fines and many legal issues, the company went out of business and Grant faded from public view. According to the Lexis Person report, he is still alive, living in Florida at 79 years old.
As for Mayor James, he ultimately got his megaprojects aiming to bring suburbanites back to Newark. In 1997, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened, followed by the aforementioned Prudential Center a decade later. Developments like these and his outsized persona—he like Grant, also drove a Rolls-Royce—helped him remain mayor for an an unprecedented 20 years while simultaneously serving as State Senator from 1999–2006. Clearly reflecting on the Grant Tower debacle at the unveiling of plans for the Prudential Center in 2005, James said, “When no one loved us and no one wanted us, anyone could come in and sell us snake oil.”15 It wasn’t all a happy ending. In 2008, James was convicted by a federal jury for conspiring to rig the sale of nine city lots to his mistress, who quickly resold them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Thankfully, Newark is currently better off than previous decades and no longer needs to hedge its entire future on one or two large projects that often have very little impact on the lives of people living in the city’s neighborhoods. But even in the midst of Newark’s very real revival of the last decade, a Harry Grant still comes to town with drawings of large buildings and tall tales of wholesale revitalization, only to secure tax benefits and site approvals as part of an effort to flip the still undeveloped land at a handsome profit. The saying, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” didn’t become a cliché by accident.
About the authors
Justin Williams and Seena Ghaznavi are co-hosts of the Fraudsters podcast. On February 1, 2022, the second season will be available on all major platforms.
1 Narvaez, Alfonso A. “121-STORY Office TOWER Proposed FOR NEWARK.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Aug. 1986.
2 Andreassi, George. “Developer Plans World’s Largest Building in Newark.” UPI, UPI, 12 Aug. 1986; Narvaez, 121-STORY Office TOWER.
3 Tuttle, Brad R. “Sharpe Change.” How Newark Become Newark: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American City , Rutgers University Press, 2009, pp. 223–225.
4 Andreassi, Developer Plans.
6 Narvaez, 121-STORY Office TOWER.
7 Andreassi, Developer Plans.
10 Smothers, Ronald. “We’ll Make This Dream Come True, Mayor Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Apr. 2005.
11 Capri Jewelry Inc v. Chayavi, 117 A.D.2d 464 (NY. Sup. Ct. 1986).
12 Chivers, C. J., and Forero, Juan. “Behind Success of Tour Buses, Troubled Trail.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 May 2000.
13 Day, Sherri. “Apple Tours QUITS Business, Lawyer Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2001.
14 Chivers & Forero, Behind Success.
15 Smothers, Dream Come True.
Featured image courtesy of The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) August, 24 1982