By Rashawn Davis
I remember the day clearly.
I was a senior in high school and lept onto an NJ Transit bus after classes, making my way to an interview for a college I would attend the following year.
In one moment, I was experiencing the full commotion of the number “13” bus riding down Clinton Avenue headed for downtown. In the other moment, I was whisked up a private elevator to the shiny law offices of my interviewer in the Gateway building.
I don’t remember my interviewer’s questions, probably something about SAT scores and the tennis team. I do, however, remember looking out of a top floor window onto the handsome, newly-built Prudential Center and a surrounding area clearly pregnant with the city’s future.
It might as well have been an entirely different planet than the one I was in just 30 minutes earlier at my high school in Clinton Hill. Because in many ways, it was.
Newark has always been that sort of place—balancing the boldest ambitions of its future right alongside the traumatic remains of a broken and incomplete past.
It’s made for a complicated present; a city whose best days are perpetually linked to its worst.
It’s the thing that fascinated me when I came to Newark for high school from a nearby suburb. And it’s the thing that has kept me coming back after college in Washington, D.C., graduate school in New York City, and extended flirtations with cities in every corner of the country.
There is something about this place, the humility of our city.
Saying that Newark’s best days are ahead of it feels far too simple. Instead, Newark is a city that constantly defies expectations. A city that makes a habit of surprising you. A city that on any given day can be so many different things for so many different people.
A city for everyone and a city for anyone.
Newark is a place where immigrants from the shores of faraway places come for their first crack at the American Dream. A place where a small army of creatives redefine entire neighborhoods with the stroke of a paintbrush or click of a camera. A place where entrepreneurs and innovators see a gold rush of opportunity. Also a city whose streets and corners hold the painful memories of hardship, loss, and violence for a generation of people.
So much of who I am today, I owe to Newark. Many of the things I have been able to achieve and experience in my life are because of my roots here. It’s difficult to leave a place like that even when you might want to.
Instead, I feel as many of you reading do—a deep desire to help shape Newark’s future. I find myself acting as both Newark’s cheerleader and her sharpest critic. But always in awe of the countless people who call this place home, the same people who generously and regularly forgive its shortcomings, and the same people who fuel Newark’s progress on slim margins and enormous love.
It’s our city. It’s Newark.
To my great-grandmother, Mattie, who came to Newark in 1934 with only a hope.
Rashawn Davis is a native Newarker who became the youngest candidate in history for city council during his 2014 run for the West Ward seat. Since then, he has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to establish Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and served on it as a commissioner from 2018-2020. He is currently Associate Director of the Racial Justice Fund at Change.org.
Featured image by Noelle Lorraine Williams