When my grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe, it was to Newark, N.J. that they came. My parents were born and raised in the Newark. For most of my life, I have lived within five miles of the city limits, as I do today. I fly from the city’s airport, take trains from the Amtrak station downtown, attend concerts in its music halls, eat in its restaurants, and watch sporting events in its arena and stadium. I cheer Newark’s triumphs, and despair in the seemingly endless cycle of violence that grips the city.
It was, therefore, with great interest that I watched Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin’s five-part documentary series “Brick City,” which begins its run on the Sundance Channel tonight. The Executive Producer of the series is the Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker.
The city got its nickname, Brick City, from the number of beautiful old brick structures that remain there, but Newark’s young activist mayor, Cory Booker, suspects that the nickname may have more to do with the toughness of the people who reside there. Although Booker is the central figure in the drama, which takes us from late spring of 2008 to the early fall, the series follows other residents of Newark as they struggle to make their city a safer place to live.
Police Director Garry McCarthy is the point man in the war on crime. His fight is not only with gangs and drugs, but also with the deeply ingrained internal politics of the Newark Police Department. Ras Baraka is the principal of the city’s Central High School, and Todd Warren its Vice-Principal. Central is about to occupy a new building after a ten-year, 100 million dollar construction project that has been rife with delays and cost overruns. Perhaps the most dramatic story in Brick City is the latter-day Romeo and Juliet saga of Jayda, a member of the Bloods, and her boyfriend Creep, who is Crip. It is the intertwining of these lives, and others, that gives Brick City its indelible drama.
The series opens as the summer of 2008 approaches. The city still has not recovered emotionally from the execution-style murder of three college students on a playground the previous summer. Newark is leading the nation in homicide reduction, but the historically violent summer months are at hand. Mayor Booker and Police Director McGarry are determined to keep the lid on by offering new programs and systems. Jayda and Creep learn that they’re going to be parents, and Baraka and Warren learn that the long-delayed new high school building may not be ready to open when classes resume in September. Meanwhile, Newark, like every other city, must prepare for the looming financial crisis by cutting much-needed programs.
Crime, of course, goes on even as the statistics show a dramatic decrease in the rate. We see Booker and McGarry visiting homicide scenes, and the outpouring of grief and rage from a community reeling from the loss of its children. Jayda works to create a non-profit group to mentor young women, but an altercation from her past comes back to haunt her. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus makes its first appearance in Newark in 50 years. As I said at the outset, it’s this intersection of triumph and tragedy that provides more drama than any fictional series ever could. Adding to the drama is the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign, which will result in the election of this country’s first African-American president.
I am a big fan of Mayor Cory Booker. I think he brings the kind of positive force that this country needs more of in its politics. He works harder than any politician I’ve ever seen, out of the streets of his city late into the night. Don’t be surprised to see him on the national stage sometime soon. It felt to me at times that there was too much emphasis on statistics on the part of the mayor, as if a number was the be-all and end-all of the fight against crime in Newark. The number, of course, is just an indicator. The reality is out there in the streets. And it’s on those streets that Brick City succeeds brilliantly.
Brick City begins its run on the Sundance Channel tonight. It is absolutely riveting — and important — television. Do not miss it.