Newark’s Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District embraces the transformative power of music

Lincoln Park is an 11-acre, four-block neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. In the late 1990s, the area became a focus of conversation on redevelopment efforts, with a series of charrettes – planning sessions – conducted with stakeholders from all around the area including residents, community organizers and activists, government representatives, and academics.

The Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (LPCCD) formed out of those sessions, organizing officially in 2002 with a mission to plan, design, and build a comprehensive arts and cultural district in the Lincoln Park Coast.

Anthony Smith, now Executive Director of LPCCD, has been working with the organization from its earliest conception in 1998. With an MBA in marketing and a background working in tourism for governments, the Newark native was already focused on making Newark a tourist destination, “not just for sports but also for historical and cultural tourism,” he clarifies.

“We’re the third oldest city in the United States. We’re celebrating our 350th anniversary this year. There has to be something interesting here, yet no one is articulating that.”

Like so many other Atlantic Coast and Rust Belt manufacturing cities with large minority populations, Newark fell into decline over the last several decades. The 1967 Newark riots and social unrest during the Civil Rights era precipitated a loss of population due to white flight over the next two decades, a phenomenon that happened all over the country that profoundly impacted the demographics and economics of America’s largest cities, and left once-thriving urban metropolises to rot.

Companies moved out of the city too, so the loss of population – hundreds of thousands of residents whose taxes supported city services and programs, including schools – was further exacerbated by a loss of job opportunities for those who remained. In Smith’s words, the city – and Lincoln Park – “took a turn.”

But the bones of the once-great city were still there: institutions like the Newark Symphony Hall and the Newark School of Arts along with the historical mansions and brownstones still stood in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which serves as the entry point into the city of Newark from the airport.

After the series of community planning sessions in the 1998, leaders decided to focus on redeveloping the Lincoln Park Coast, forsaking the popular development practices that dominated the ’90s – big box chains and cheap tract housing – in favor of sustainable development, with homes built to last 100 years and a focus on the wellness and cultural richness of the community itself.

“This was about looking at what makes a community whole and complete,” Smith says. That included energy-efficient LEED-certified housing, access to fresh and healthful foods, and green job creation for a pathway out of poverty. “We took on a big mission to transform this community and connect to what it was in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s with modern technology. How do we recapture that and how do we, as change agents, transform this community to be this haven and bedrock of arts and culture?”

Their multi-layered approach to transforming the community included the design and construction of LEED-certified affordable housing, environmental remediation and repurposing of previously developed Brownfield sites, the construction of new cultural facilities and the restoration of historically significant old ones (like Symphony Hall), and implementing food production and increasing food access through urban farms located on development sites, like the hydroponic farm located in front of the façade of a burned-down church that dates back to a historic visit from Abraham Lincoln in 1961, for which the neighborhood is now named.

“We had these big ideas and worked through all of this minutiae,” Smith says. “We believed that there was promise for Lincoln Park. We were the early adopters, the pioneers down here, and we worked tenaciously in shifting the branding and image of Lincoln Park.”

The Lincoln Park Coast area was a rich area for jazz music and jazz culture for the first half of the twentieth century, drawing in major names like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn. In fact, the area got its name – “The Coast” – not for any proximity to water (it’s a mile to the Passaic River), but for its popular Black nightclubs and its status as a “red-light district.” The nickname referenced San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast.

“Everyone came to Newark because it was this bedrock community for entertainment, this haven, and it had a heavy emphasis on jazz,” says Smith.

It is this kind of rich cultural and artistic history that he wants to focus on now, with plans to transform the district into a “green” arts and cultural district through the building of sustainable mixed-income housing units, historic restoration projects, green job creation, urban agriculture, and cultural programming, which includes the annual Lincoln Park Music Festival, happening July 29-31 this year.

Now in its 11th year, the Lincoln Park Music Festival draws over 60,000 people over the three-day weekend. Smith had previously worked for the Mayor’s Office of Tourism, Arts and Entertainment in the City of New Orleans, working on major events like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, so he knew what went into planning a music festival, as well as what comes out of it.

“Housing and all of that is good, but people are drawn to entertainment and music,” he says. “Music has a draw. It beings people together in a different kind of way. Music and entertainment and those places of self-expression help us to escape from our everyday doldrums. The arts really give a voice to the voiceless. We were doing all these other things [with the LPCCD], but it was the festival that really got people’s attention.”

Attention that also garnered the LPCCD support from the Kresge Foundation and ArtPlace America.

On the surface, the Lincoln Park Music Festival is a straightforward music festival, highlighting genres like jazz, gospel, house music (techno), and hip hop with local, regional, and international artists all playing on the same stage. The Sunday of the festival is a celebration of hip hop culture, including old school hip hop and spoken word. There is a “Newark Idol Youth Explosion,” and other components geared towards youth like skateboard, basketball, and hockey clinics. There is also a senior day, because this is truly an intergenerational festival. All of the entertainment and activities are completely free.

But it is more than just “a music festival.” There is a humanities component, taking the festival off the stage and into the community with photography exhibits and literary and digital media programming.

“It’s a different way of still having conversations about how arts and culture are transformative and are giving voice to the voiceless in our communities.”

Visitors can also spend time exploring areas in the festival like the sustainable health and wellness village. This is one of the highlighted areas at the festival that addresses preventive health measures, sustainability, and easy day-to-day energy efficient practices.

“I thought it was important to deal with sustainable issues,” Smith explains. “In 2006 when we started the festival, this whole green movement still appeared to be a suburban conversation. For people in an urban environment like Newark, it had not really clicked. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: people were dealing with food, clothing, and shelter issues; they were not really dealing with green infrastructure.”

But still Smith introduced these ideas through the festival through the sustainable health and wellness village and annual events like the “Rock the Block” old-fashioned block party and clean-up, during which people get together to clean up dilapidated buildings and paint murals. For one of these murals, the LPCCD worked with Rutgers students to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and show how music has a way of emancipating people too.

“Culture bubbles up. It comes from the community and from the neighborhood,” Smith says. “We were doing creative placemaking before I knew that term existed. We were pushing the environment when it wasn’t really cool or in vogue to do so. Music has been our saving grace; it is how we’ve been able to get people to really pay attention to what we’re doing here. It shifted and changed people’s perceptions.”

Now, he says, people see the Lincoln Park Coast as the “cool and sexy place to be.” It still has the same challenges that are found in every urban environment, but the culture is shifting.

“We want everyone to rise with the tide; we’re not trying to chase people out with the tide and sanitize the area. We’re trying to be the anchor nonprofit community development and arts organization that’s moving the community and neighborhood into the 21st century – through affordable housing, arts and culture, clean and safe streets, a green environment, job and environmental sustainability training, education education education – and it does not happen overnight. Community engagement is tough, and resources are scare, but it is something you have to do to bring about the transformation that’s needed.”