Across the river from Manhattan, one of the country's most maligned cities is beating the rap
Jasper James

Inside: the Facts.

Newark is separate from New York City, is even in a separate state, New Jersey, and funnily enough, the Statue of Liberty, that quintessential New York symbol, actually stands in Jersey waters. If it's true, as the great architect Mies van der Rohe believed, that we have no clearly defined cities anymore, that they go on like an unending forest, then Newark actually is a continuation of Manhattan.

Certainly their fortunes mirror each other. Thirty years ago, Harper's magazine dubbed Newark "the worst city in America," but now its crime rate has fallen even more sharply than New York City's. And just as gentrification has touched almost every corner of New York, Newark has been flourishing: the Newark Museum, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and galleries of contemporary art, alongside new restaurants and shops, are drawing visitors and residents. With the fall of the Twin Towers, Manhattan businesses that lost their offices have found lower rents and comparative quiet in Newark. This renaissance has been sustained by people who are neither puritans nor idealists, but realists: they can see that here, for all its former problems, is a gem of a city.

Take the 40-minute ride on a path train, or a 20-minute ride on New Jersey Transit, from New York. You'll get off at Newark's Penn Station, a long, gleaming building of limestone with polished aluminum Art Deco sunbursts over the doorways. It was one of the last projects designed and built by McKim, Mead & White, in 1937. The station alone, and a view of the signs of the zodiac within, is worth the trip. It is as beautiful, if not quite so grand, as Grand Central at 42nd Street, and every bit as well maintained, touchingly restored, cared for.

Newark has the contrast between very high and very low living that seems to invite tension in so many American cities, that way of having an enclave of fine mansions with impressive façades surrounded by urban wastelands and bleak housing projects—some of them, admittedly, very distinguished from an architectural point of view. I'm thinking of the three Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers, the Colonnade and Pavilion apartments, some of whose residents have "the Manhattan skyline as their fourth wall," as the original 1960 prospectus boasted. All three are tall, elegant, and spare, though somewhat neglected on the inside, despite the lavish chandelier at the entrance to the Colonnades that would have incensed Mies even more than the builder's refusal to install parquet floors throughout.

Walking around Newark's historical core—a harmonious combination of stately turn-of-the-century, 1920's, and 30's buildings—I thought about the poets Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, and LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka), who were all born here. The protagonist of Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus is employed by the Newark Public Library at the opening of the book. In a documentary filmed a few years ago by German television, Roth was asked what had been his inspiration growing up. He pointed to the library and replied that it had been his temple and muse. As for Shapiro—who, like Roth, attended Weequahic (pronounced "weekwake") High School in the South Ward, then a neighborhood of mostly Russian Jewish immigrants—he decided he would read every book in the library's poetry section and proceeded to do so. The artist Robert Rauschenberg got off the bus that had brought him all the way from Texas, hearing the conductor call out "Newark" and thinking he'd heard "New York." Legend has it that he spent an entire week in Newark before realizing his mistake, but the account may be somewhat exaggerated.

Newark gave me a strange thrill every time I went there. It's what I had expected New York would be, when I first arrived in America some 25 years ago: that air of promise, Art Deco, and pure steel belief in the power of man to build high up into the sky. My guides to Newark were two men who have spent most of their lives reinstating the city in the eyes of America by generously, and unabashedly, taking it to heart: Sam Miller, director emeritus of the Newark Museum, and Charles Cummings, librarian at the Newark Public Library and the city's official historian. Miller, who is from Oregon, moved to Newark with his wife one year after the infamous race riots of '67. Cummings, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Virginia, has been in Newark for most of his adult life, chronicling its architecture, politics, moods, and ethnic groups in the Newark Star-Ledger. He has been a worthy successor to librarian John Cotton Dana, who set about furthering education in the city by bringing it to the people and not just to those who already read books and kept them in the house. Dana drew up the 12 Commandments of Reading, which are still printed on bookmarks at the library and put across the imperatives that one must read, read some more, read anything, and talk about what one has read.

The Newark Museum began as a division of the library, which is architecturally a smaller version of the Renaissance Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. It now has one of the finest collections of Tibetan art in this country, in addition to those of classical art, American painting, decorative arts, and sculpture. How the Tibetan collection was acquired is a tale of idealism and zeal that once again involves Dana, "a Yankee who went for the whole Far Eastern thing," according to Cummings. In 1910 the museum's destiny intersected with that of a certain Dr. Albert Shelton, who was, according to Miller, "a medical doctor interested in saving bodies and souls."

Shelton had been living in China and Tibet since 1904, and had collected 150 Tibetan artifacts. En route from Yokohama to New York, he met a trustee of the Newark Museum, Edward Crane, who asked whether Shelton might be interested in exhibiting his treasures. About 18,000 people attended that show. The Crane family later purchased the collection for the museum, and Dana gave Shelton a retainer to continue scouting for acquisitions in the Far East.

Among Shelton's finds was a large silver Wheel of the Law, a Buddhist relic the size of a ship's steering wheel. It was the very first object to be installed in the new part of the museum, built in 1989 and designed by Michael Graves, at the time a young Princeton architect who found his inspiration for the carved-out cubes on the façade in the work of the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann, as well as in the classical symmetry of Sir John Soames's house in London. The conception is purely Neoclassical, the materials—linoleum and plaster—purely functional.

In his inaugural speech for the newly expanded and renovated museum, Miller wondered why he had taken on the project, and this was the answer he gave himself: "In a world of decaying cities and malled-over meadows, it's important our children should know what beauty is." The language of a romantic. His work with Graves spanned more than 20 years, "the longest architectural embrace in the history of architecture," Miller called it, though one can think of other such instances. Newark itself is an architectural embrace, from downtown's Gibraltar Building to the North Reformed Church on Broad Street, which seems to have sprung fully formed with its 17-story-high spindle from one of Grimm's fairy tales. It is flanked by obligingly undecorated sixties skyscrapers that show it off to its best advantage.

Cummings says that Broad Street, which is the city's main street, is "like a string of pearls, with Symphony Hall at the south end and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at the north end." The njpac, as it is called, is one of the new giants on Newark's cultural scene. The building is a gleaming postmodernist red-brick structure designed by UCLA professor of architecture Barton Myers, with an immense chandelier in the main hall donated by Senator Jon Corzine and his wife. Inside you can see anyone from Youssou N'Dour and the Buena Vista Social Club to the violinist Itzhak Perlman or the pianist Alfred Brendel. It is fast becoming another "New York" venue, just as Newark Airport is considered one of New York's airports.

And if you're wondering where to have dinner, in the Robert Treat Hotel, steps away from the njpac, you will find the restaurant Maize. It is in a long, corn-colored, softly lit room, one that came into being to receive the njpac's exigent audiences and the booming scene of the city's new galleries of contemporary art, such as Iandor and Sumei. I had excellent crab cakes there, sitting on dark-stained wenge-wood chairs and listening to piped-in sirtaki (the owner, Stephanie Voulgaris, is of Greek descent).

For something more traditional, there is Sunday rodizio at the Iberia Peninsula Restaurant in the Portuguese neighborhood called the Ironbound. The portions of mixed grill (lamb chops, chicken, beef) are immense and come in three or four servings. Even the hungriest leave carrying leftovers the dog won't be allowed to sniff.

The faithful can pray near beautiful Branch Brook Park at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a neo-Gothic edifice built by Italian masons and proclaimed a basilica by the current pope on his visit in 1995, or at any of the 25 or so churches on the city's list of landmarks, or at either of the remaining synagogues (there were once 54), or at the museum's Tibetan Buddhist Altar, which was consecrated by the 14th Dalai Lama. Whichever gods drive you or leave you cold, go to Newark: it is thriving with human deities, common, admirable mortals who believe in their city.

The Facts

Crime has decreased significantly in Newark; use the same caution walking at night that you would in any city. The area around the NJPAC is considered safe after dark.
Newark Public Library 5 Washington St.; 973/733-7800;
Newark Museum 49 Washington St.; 800/768-7386 or 973/596-6550;
New Jersey Performing Arts Center 1 Center St.; 888/466-5722 or 973/642-8989;
Maize Robert Treat Hotel, 50 Park Place; 973/639-1200; dinner for two $130.
Iandor Fine Arts Gallery 93 Lafayette St.; 973/824-5802.
Sumei Multidisciplinary Arts Center 19 Liberty St.; 973/643-7883.
Iberia Peninsula Restaurant 63—69 Ferry St.; 973/344-5611; dinner for two $60.