February 15, 2015 / 12:30 AM / 5 years ago

In Newark, the American dream is this year's sweetest Valentine

NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - For more than 200 couples who lined up in Newark, New Jersey, on a frigid Valentine’s Day morning, the city’s plan to sell building lots at the bargain price of $1,000 a piece was a chance to make the American dream come true.

The turnout was also beyond the wildest dreams of the officials who came up with the idea of offering a sweetheart deal to attract fledgling families to neighborhoods of the state’s largest city that need of an influx of new residents.

“Families are the core of community, so we wanted to change the perception of our community, to get people to choose to live in Newark,” said Mayor Ras Baraka. “But this has taken on a life of its own.”

Baraka, the son of poet and activist Amiri Baraka, said a website about the sale drew 10,000 hits, and the offer has garnered international media attention.

The sale of 100 lots on a first-come-first-served basis was open to couples only, whether married or not. The buyers had to promise to build a home on their land within 18 months and live there for at least five years.

All told, more than 225 couples lined up, 30 of whom spent the entire night camped out on the street in temperatures hovering near 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-7 Celsius).

Among them were Shannon Guy, 29, and her partner and fellow lawyer, John Errico, 28. The couple, who were seventh in line, only found out about the sale on Friday morning.

By late afternoon, they had pitched a small tent on the street outside City Hall and spent the night comparing data about commute times, crime and curb appeal on a laptop. Ultimately, they snagged the lot they wanted on Garside Street.

“I’m excited to be part of the vanguard,” said Guy, who met Errico when they were Yale University undergraduates. “It’s great to be part of the city as it transitions.”

Rafael Cura, 36, a plumber, and his wife, Ana, were first in line, arriving at 4 p.m. (2100 GMT) Friday. He was a career technician in the Brazilian air force before moving to Newark 15 years ago.

He said he liked the city for its sense of community, food, soccer and the New Jersey Devils, the National Hockey League franchise that makes its home in downtown Newark.

And he dismissed the city’s reputation for crime. “Compared to Brazil, it’s safe here,” he said.

Baye Adofo-Wilson, deputy mayor for economic development and housing, came up with the idea of a Valentine’s Day sale of city-owned lots.

“Economic development is not about buildings, it’s about relationships,” Adofo-Wilson said. “Couples are the foundation of communities and if we can get more of them to come to our city we can make it a happier and more enjoyable place.”

The sale is part of a broader “model neighborhood” approach to redevelopment that the new administration has championed to help turn around a city that has made halting advances toward renewal in the last 45 years.

The flight of industry and reduced economic opportunity triggered riots in 1967. Newark, along with other cities, has struggled to find its way back ever since.

Adofo-Wilson said the city was trying to build “model neighborhoods” by increasing police, fire, health, economic development, code enforcement and neighborhood resources in designated areas. 

By increasing population density, officials believe, new shops and businesses will locate in those neighborhoods.

“We want to be part of the revitalization of the community,” said Bern Woods, 46, who works both in her partner’s Jersey City cafe and as a children’s recreation coach for the City of New York.

Her partner, Christina Coaker, 37, and she are engaged to be married in September and hope to open an espresso bar near Newark City Hall.

Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn

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