* Mayor, police chief, gang members in real-life TV
* Newark battles decades of crime, decay
* City trying to change its bad reputation
By Christine Kearney
NEWARK, N.J., Sept 20 (Reuters) - Just 8 miles (13 km) across the Hudson River from New York City, the largest city in New Jersey can seem a world away from the affluence and ambition on Wall Street.
In Newark, stray bullets have accidentally hit children. Gangs have battled each other and deteriorating buildings line streets depressed by drugs, violence and a sense of neglect in a city famed for political corruption.
The campaign to turn around what once topped Time magazine’s list of most dangerous cities has been chronicled in “Brick City,” a television documentary series that premieres on U.S. cable channel Sundance on Monday.
The five-part series follows the real lives of gang members, the city’s police chief and its outspoken mayor, Cory Booker, who captured national attention for efforts to reduce crime after he became mayor in 2006 at age 37. He allowed the producers of “Brick City” unusually wide access.
“The deeper story here is one of humanity where you will see people under very difficult circumstances engaged in a fight,” Booker told Reuters in an interview, referring to police and community workers trying to turn around poverty against the backdrop of a declining economy.
After Booker was elected, the number of the city’s murders was reduced by more than a third by 2008 but police still battle the fears of the more than 270,000 residents after decades of soaring crime rates.
Booker says philanthropic investments of $300 million have come in during the three years and $25 million has been poured into new charter schools. Newark’s downtown business district has shown signs of resurgence, although empty buildings still are in sight in the city center.
Booker has been criticized as a self-promoter but also has been hailed as a hero. He said the decision to do the series was not politically motivated but an effort to help change the perception of a city still suffering since race riots in 1967.
“Newark is engaged in a tremendous struggle to change its reputation,” Booker said.
The series did not show the completely positive light he was looking for, he said, pointing out a litany of gains for the city including a dramatic increase in economic investment.
Co-produced by Oscar-winning U.S. actor Forest Whitaker, the series is five one-hour shows centering on Booker, Police Chief Garry McCarthy and Jayda, a member of the Bloods street gang who now is a youth mentor but in a relationship with a member of a rival gang.
“What people hopefully will take away from this series is a turnaround of a major American city,” said McCarthy, who used tactics learned from 25 years spent in the New York City Police Department.
The documentary shows Jayda dealing with legal problems and a high school principal addressing his students after one of them was shot, while Booker deals with issues ranging from budgets and housing to trade and rehabilitating ex-convicts.
McCarthy said he agreed to the series to encourage accountability and transparency in a city that previously distrusted police.
“I saw it as a no-brainer,” he said. “I wanted people to know what is going on here. Just because there is poverty, there does not have to be crime and drugs.”
The show’s co-producer, Marc Levin, who said filming seriously began in mid-2007, said the story of Newark’s problems with crime and youth neglected by society was one that would interest communities everywhere.
“This is an American story but tragically all Western countries are dealing with the disaffected youth and how we have turned away from them,” he said. (Editing by Michelle Nichols and Bill Trott)