ATLANTIC CITY - More than 150 residents, public officials and community leaders gathered Monday night at the Uptown Complex School for a panel on the future of the black community in southern New Jersey.
Organized by The Press of Atlantic City as part of its Black History Month coverage, the event ran about 45 minutes later than its scheduled two-hour time frame.
"From my perspective, from my peers' perspective, Atlantic City is good for tourists, but for us, it's boring," said 15-year-old Genesis Hart. "People take this as just a sort of mini-Las Vegas, but it's not. There's a community, there are families, but no one seems to care about that."
Much of the discussion focused on Hart's generation and the importance of improving education and providing good role models and extracurricular activities that Hart and those older than her said are lacking in the city.
"We want to get to where you guys are. We want to be encouraged, we want to do stuff like this when we get older, but if we don't have help, ... we're going to fail and we're going to be obsolete," Hart said.
Hart attended the event with her father, Tyrone Hart, the artist who illustrated the cover of Nelson Johnson's "The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City." The book traces the history of African Americans in the resort and its predominantly black Northside neighborhood.
Johnson sat on the panel Hart addressed, along with Mayor Lorenzo Langford, Greenidge Funeral Home owner Carolyn Greenidge, former Atlantic City Councilwoman Rosalind Norrell-Nance and Turiya S.A. Raheem, author of "Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash's and the Northside."
Johnson, whose first book, "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City," is now an HBO television series, kicked off the event by explaining one of the principles that guided him while working on "The Northside," which entailed extensive research including profiling 75 people.
"If you really want to understand history, you really have to understand the lives of people. And people who are role models are important because by studying the lives of role models, you get to understand what an era's about. The good things are what are going to get us to today," Johnson said.
Twenty days prior, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation establishing a Tourism District and increasing the state's authority in the resort by putting the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in charge of development and public safety. Stakeholders predict the new laws will change the landscape of the city to a degree that could rival the advent of gaming more than 30 years ago.
"It's a tale of two cities. And unless the Tourism District works for everybody in this town, it's a dismal failure," said Atlantic County Freeholder Charles Garrett, a city resident who sat in the audience.
Several other people pointed out that the new district, which will be targeted for infrastructure work and other improvements, does not encompass current or past predominantly black neighborhoods. That could change between now and May 1, when the CRDA will vote to finalize the boundaries and could implement rules that would divert more money to projects within city limits rather than spending some statewide, as is currently the practice.
Langford, one of 15 CRDA board members, had threatened a lawsuit against the state but said he will wait to see what happens in the meantime.
"I'm hopeful that logic and fairness will prevail," he said.
Langford also stressed the importance of building the city's economic base.
"We really need to talk about economic empowerment. One step toward that end is political empowerment. If we look at African Americans today and where we are and where we've come from, I think if we're honest with ourselves, we're not too happy with where we are," he said.
Raheem and others, including Garrett, also stressed the importance of addressing problems within the city's black community that far predate the concept of the Tourism District.
"We need to start to look at reality: Our community has been decimated," Garrett said. "When (young men) come back from prison and they can't get a job, they sell drugs, get involved in illicit, illegal activity, and Atlantic City is a hotbed for illicit, illegal activity. I'm not trying to cast a negative light on Atlantic City, I'm just talking about reality."
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