By Steve Strunsky nj.com
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For years, Queen Latifah has been trying to realize her vision of comfortable, spacious, and affordable housing in her old neighborhood in Newark. Now, after being granted a pair of tax abatements by the Newark City Council, Latifah and her project partners will break ground this October.
Newark-native Queen Latifah borrowed a line from her late contemporary Tupac Shakur as she discussed what it’s been like trying to redevelop a hardscrabble corner of the neighborhood she still thinks of as home.
“There was a lovely woman who lived across the street on 17th Street who would grow sunflowers, and to me, she was my inspiration,” Latifah told NJ Advance Media, referring to the lot she first envisioned as housing and community space in 2006. “And this woman, like I said, would grow these sunflowers every year, and these beautiful flowers would grow on the property. And for me, I see it as the roses that come from the concrete.”
“The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” is a poem by Shakur read by some as autobiographical, and more broadly viewed as a metaphor for perseverance, for the triumph of truth, beauty or life itself even in the harshest conditions.
For over a decade, Latifah has persevered in trying to realize her vision of comfortable, spacious and affordable housing at the corner of Springfield Avenue and South 17th Street in her old neighborhood, despite a housing bubble burst and great recession, a protracted land acquisition process, the coronavirus pandemic and other obstacles.
And now, after being granted a pair of tax abatements by the Newark City Council in July that are key to the $15 million project’s feasibility, Latifah -- through her company, Blue Sugar -- and her project partners from Roselle Park-based GonSosa Development say they’ll break ground this October, with an anticipated completion date of Spring 2022.
The project includes a total of 60 market-rate apartments in 20 multi-family townhouses, plus a larger building containing 16 units of affordable housing and community space. It will be one of the larger developments in recent years to take root outside the city’s booming downtown real estate market, where another Newark native of equally lofty stature, Shaquille O’Neal, has been involved in a pair of high-profile, high-rise apartment projects.
“Now, to tell you how far back this goes, 2006 was when I started looking at these properties,” said Latifah, who was born Dana Elaine Owens in Newark 50 years ago in March. “So, I’m not no new person, and this is not me trying to jump on a bandwagon. This is me having a vision from years ago.”
“So, what happened was, I was just driving one day -- I always come home, and whenever I come home I always miss home, so I just drive around Newark,” she said, adding that she’s a familiar face at Whole Foods on Broad Street.
“But anyway, I was driving down the street, and I was looking at this block, and I’m like, ‘This whole block is almost empty. There’s nothing really here.’ There’s a couple of houses here, there’s this big house on the corner, this apartment building which is basically abandoned. There was one or two people who had houses who actually lived there. And I thought, ‘You know what, if I could get this street, I could totally redo this entire block.’ I could bring it into something that it should be, redo it, rebuild it.”
Latifah had already had a taste of urban redevelopment in the 1990\u2032s, when she and other members of the Flavor Unit, a hip-hop collective that included Naughty by Nature and other artists and producers, moved into a century-old firehouse amid the warehouses of downtown Jersey City -- most of them now redeveloped as luxury lofts.
“We really were looking for a home base,” Latifah recalled. “And then when we saw this firehouse, it was just like, perfect. I love architecture and design, and I thought it was beautiful.”
Later in Newark, two years after Latifah first eyed the site of the mixed-used project, known as RISE, the Great Recession of 2008 shook the real estate industry and sidelined the project.
Years passed, as Latifah acquired some of the properties needed for the project, including a house with six apartments she continued to rent out, while maintaining her music, film and television career. (Recent credits of the Oscar nominee and Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe winner include playing Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Oscar, in this year’s Netflix miniseries, “Hollywood.”)
But progress on the project was slow at best.
“And luckily, one day a guy asked one of the people who took care of the 6-family unit, ‘What’s going on with the rest of these properties?’ And his name was Alberto,” Latifa said, referring to Alberto Goncalves, Recardo Sosa’s partner at GonSosa. “And it was kind of a perfect marriage because we both kind of built ourselves from the ground up: We don’t come from money; we’ve gone through tough, difficult times in life; and we’ve become successful. So, we joined together to create this property that we’ve been developing. And we will be breaking ground in October, finally.”
Latifah said she wants to see Newark grow into the full-fledged “metropolis” that remembers as a child.
Now estimated at about 282,000 residents, Newark’s population peaked in 1930 at 442,000, according to the U.S. Census. Its numbers began rising again after the 2010 census, but there are still about 100,000 fewer residents than there were in 1970, when Latifah was born.
“You never really had to leave Newark if you didn’t want to. And there were plenty of entrepreneurs that I grew up around, including my grandfather, who owned a hardware store on 18th Street, American Hardware. And my father owned one as well,” Latifah said.
“We’ve been Newark residents for more than 100 years,” said Latifah, the daughter of Rita and Lancelot Owens, a school teacher and police officer. “I lived on Littleton Avenue off of South Orange Avenue. I grew up in North Newark as well, on Broad Street, where my grandmother’s house was. My family is all over Newark, in Vailsburg, you name it. This is home for me. So I want to be home. We’ve got to fix up home a little bit, that’s all.”
Mayor Ras Baraka has made it a cornerstone of his administration to encourage development in neighborhoods outside of downtown, and he issued a statement praising Latifah’s efforts.
”When you look at everything that Queen Latifah has done for Newark, you know that this is a woman who loves our city and is devoted to our people,” Baraka said. “Her redevelopment project will help to re-energize a neighborhood with enormous potential. She is not only a great artist and performer. She is a fighter for social and racial justice, a very special caring human being.”.
Latifah, in turn, had high praise for the mayor and his father, the late poet and activist Amiri Baraka.
“Those of us who are from Newark and those of us who are from the area, such as our mayor, Ras Baraka, and his family, they know the beauty that is Newark,” Latifah said. “His father is a jewel of Newark, as he is becoming. And Ras has been very supportive of this project, as well as the council folks.”
Although the location of the project, known as RISE, is a couple of miles from downtown, Springfield Avenue is one of a handful of Newark thoroughfares that fan out like spokes from the city’s hub, serving as natural development corridors as growth extends outward into the surrounding neighborhoods.