Cory Booker, Newark, and data

coryThe current issue of Time Magazine tries to understand why someone with such a bright future would want to try to fix Newark, New Jersey:

“The Booker bio is irresistible — and familiar: he arrived in Newark fresh out of Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law, passing up riches to save a poor city. He moved into a decrepit Newark public-housing project, which has since been torn down, and was elected to the Newark city council at age 29. In 2006, at 37, he became mayor.”

And in doing so, the article reveals Newark’s interesting relationship with data.

Booker is described as “obsessed with the murder statistics” and crime data generally. And what does he have to show for it?

“Murders dropped 36% in Newark — from 105 to 67 — from 2006 to 2008. Shooting incidents dropped 41%. Rapes fell 30%, and auto thefts 26%. Newark went 43 days without a homicide in early 2008, the city’s longest such stretch in 48 years. In the first quarter of this year, Newark had its lowest number of homicides since 1959.”

But Newark is still overcoming a dark legacy, and sometimes statistics aren’t enough.

“…since the ’67 riots and the epic flight that followed, Newark (pop. 280,000) has been searching for its elusive renaissance…’Whenever there’s a murder in Newark, the city almost defaults to the terrible memories,’ says Clement Price, a history professor at Rutgers University, Newark, who has lived in the city for 40 years. ‘The statistics become meaningless.'”

And sometimes the data is too narrowly focused.

Amiri Baraka, “a prominent, controversial African-American poet and activist,” says this: “I give him credit. The homicide rate has gone down,” says the poet. “But I don’t know if you can judge the quality of life in a city by just the homicide rate. Where is the employment? Where is the education? What is in it for the residents?”

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