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Ironbound Community Corporation staff members and volunteers distribute meals from Newark Working Kitchens (NWK)
Getty Images for Newark Working Kitchens

Why Building an Urban Neighborhood Begins With Supporting its Restaurants

A panel of key players shares the steps they’re taking to better the neighborhoods around them.

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You may recognize Audible as the leading creator and provider of premium audio storytelling with an extensive library of audiobooks, but highlighting new authors and creative talents isn’t all they do. After relocating its headquarters to Newark in 2007, Audible expanded its community programs to become part of the city’s renaissance — working to support local job seekers, scale the start-up ecosystem and promote education through the Global Center for Urban Development.

Building equality and opportunity starts from the ground-up, by improving local economic enterprises and improving city residents’ lives. During SXSW’s virtual 2021 event, Abhinav Mathur, who heads up Audible’s Global Center for Urban Development, spoke with three key players in Newark’s renewal on their long-term goals for the city’s revitalization. Starting at a local level, they’re aiming to provide opportunities throughout the COVID-19 crisis, while aiming to reduce joblessness and poverty, and advance minority-owned businesses. Read on to learn how they’re doing it in Newark — and what you can do to positively shape the future in your own neighborhood.

Buying Local Is More Than a Trend

When the pandemic hit, most Americans finally recognized the need to support the businesses struggling to stay afloat. But real support goes beyond the occasional purchase or shoutout. Chef Marcus Samuelsson, a fierce advocate and acclaimed chef collaborating with Newark Working Kitchens, shared how crucial restaurants are to their neighborhoods. Eateries don’t only provide date-goers with a romantic space to share an entree and families to celebrate a youthful birthday; they also produce millions of jobs, both in the back and front of house.

Newark Working Kitchens provides jobs, nutritional assistance, and small-business support to underserved communities — keeping servers, delivery staff, and cooks employed throughout an abrupt crisis that directly affects local jobs and dining experiences. It’s helping keep hundreds of people employed, at 30 different restaurants still in business, and feeding more than 800,000 residents in need. “Restaurants are the heart and soul of our neighbors across the country,” Samuelsson said. “We need to keep these businesses going, and we also need to have partnerships and relationships with companies like Newark Working Kitchen, which is helping keep mom n’ pop businesses afloat.”

Michael Loccisano | Getty Images for Newark Working Kitchens

Some of NWK’s participating restaurants on in Newark, New Jersey.

Work Closely Within Your Community

Real change begins from within. That’s precisely where Aisha Glover, a former leader of the Newark Alliance who now serves as the Vice President of Urban Innovation at Audible, thinks everyone yearning to make a difference should begin. Glover noted that corporations must commit to the long-term success of the cities in which they are based. “For many years, you’d see people drive to their jobs in cities like Newark, park under their office buildings, and take an elevator up to their office. You could work in Newark and never step foot in a Newark neighborhood, and that’s the exact opposite of what companies like Audible believe in,” she stated. “We find ways to celebrate and work closely with our community, and believe in hiring local while incentivizing our employees to live local and buy local.”

Aim To Build Partnerships Between Public and Private Companies

Mayor Ras J. Baraka has been leading Newark through the pandemic with equal parts heart and innovation. Black and brown residents make up most frontline workers, and lack of proper access to healthcare and shelter has only exacerbated the surge of infections in their community. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve created funds outside of what the federal and state government has created. We created money for artists, funds for those working from home with home-based businesses; doing the most we possibly can to create stability,” he stated. “We need everybody involved to make a difference.”

Audible aims to prioritize social-entrepreneurship models to enrich the lives of citizens across Newark. Newark Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital fund, is another big player stemming from The Urban Development Center that works to attract early-stage companies to Newark to help build out the city’s emerging tech sector. “By catalyzing a tech ecosystem in Newark, NVP is helping transform the city into a hub for tech entrepreneurs, and its member companies are creating jobs and revenue for the city and its residents,” Aisha explains. NVP has already invested millions of dollars into Newark’s start-ups.

Top left and right: Michael Loccisano; bottom: Arturo Holmes | Getty Images for Newark Working Kitchens

Top left: The Halal Guys, one of NWK’s participating restaurants on August 13, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey. Top right: Chef Seho Lee prepares food at Nizi Sushi. Bottom: NWK meals delivered to the Newark Community on August 14, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey.

NWK meals delivered to the Newark Community on August 14, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey.
Arturo Holmes | Getty Images for Newark Working Kitchens

Glover recognizes the importance of partnership-building, too. “Newark Working Kitchens was put together in three weeks because we realized Covid was leading to a lockdown, and we knew the restaurants we worked with through our Lunch Out Wednesday program would get hit hard,” she said. Lunch Out Wednesday is a subsidized weekly meal for Audible employees to “lunch out” at a local Newark restaurant. With a determination to make a real difference at a local level, these advocates joined forces to work with the City of Newark and the community organizations to ascertain where meals, supplies, and jobs were needed the most.

Many corporations have little personal relationships with the neighborhoods and residents surrounding them, something the pandemic exposed with undeniable lucidity. The focus is now on Main Street businesses — your favorite bodega, your local coffee hub, or your favorite corner cafe. “We’re Newark’s biggest fans,” Gover exclaimed. “We encourage our employees to leave our buildings and go out into the surrounding area to connect with the area.”

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