NEWARK, N.J. — At the height of their urban decay in the 1960s, American cities were headed down. Newark, it was said, would get there first.
On Thursday, Newark was again the metaphor for the future of urban America. President Clinton used it as a showcase for the contributions professional sports can make toward turning around the Newarks of America.
There is, the president said, "no better place for America to look than right here in Newark" to divine the potential of partnerships between a prosperous private sector and still-impoverished communities.
He singled out the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team for promising to plow 38% of the team's profits into community development programs, or a minimum of $200,000 in those years--like the last one--when it makes no profit.
Clinton spoke in the gymnasium of the Malcolm X Shabazz High School. It is situated in the midst of empty lots just a few blocks from the storefronts and tenements along Clinton Avenue, where some of the nation's worst urban unrest took place during the summer of 1967.
Riots killed more than two dozen people here. Afterward, the population went into a precipitous slide--it has dropped 18.7% since 1980 alone--while the poverty rate and unemployment rose in an index of misery.
The president visited Newark as part of a continuing campaign to spotlight cooperation between private investors and government to create jobs in communities bypassed by the nation's economic recovery. It was the first stop on a two-day trip taking him to Connecticut, Arkansas and Chicago.
In Newark, unemployment has dropped from the depressingly high rate of 15.2% in 1993 to 9.9% last year. But it was still twice the national average and more than double the 4.1% rate in the suburbs to the north and west of the city.
At the heart of Clinton's focus is the idea that such communities as Newark and Hartford, Conn., his second stop of the day, are still feeling only the slightest breeze of economic recovery while prosperity storms through their suburbs. They are ripe not only for renewal, he said, but should be seen by investors as the next burgeoning markets.
Investment there, he said in Hartford, will create customers--and besides meeting a "moral responsibility," he said, it will prove to be "economically smart."
At the same time, the president said, those making money nearby can help out the way the New Jersey Nets, who play their home games in an arena about 10 miles north of the city, have aided Newark.
"A sports team can not only thrill people while the game is going on but actually share the rewards of their popular support with the communities in which they live," he said. A galaxy of Nets stars towered above the president, no little fellow at 6 feet, 2 1/2 inches, as he spoke.
The players have helped clean up playgrounds, and the team says it has put approximately $2 million into need-based scholarships. Its contributions also have helped pay for a 2,000-member teen basketball league.
"This is an astonishing thing that they have done," Clinton said. "If every franchise in America would follow that lead . . . America would be a very different place. Sports teams everywhere can make a difference."
Specifically, he suggested building arenas in urban settings, a course the Nets say they want to follow here, "setting up mentoring partnerships with suppliers to help small and minority-owned businesses," and mentoring young people.
Clinton encouraged team owners to "make investments in your community second only in your priorities to bringing home the championship trophy."
In July, the president undertook a cross-country tour from an Appalachian hollow in Kentucky to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and to Watts in Los Angeles to draw attention to what were described as the pockets of poverty left behind during the nation's longest-running economic expansion.
The president's attention to poverty comes as former Sen. Bill Bradley has focused on the issue in his unexpectedly viable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. That effort has not gone unnoticed in Vice President Al Gore's rival presidential campaign, nor in the White House, where Clinton is working to elect Gore.
But the degree to which Clinton's approach would make a dent in American poverty is uncertain.
The problem has been intractable. According to 1998 statistics, 12.7% of the population, or 34.5 million people, live below the official poverty line, defined as an income of $14,000 for three people or $17,000 for four.