How Cory Booker got his real education

By | February 2, 2019

Michael Grunwald writes:

Senator Cory Booker was educated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale, but he likes to say he got his real education at Brick Towers, the dilapidated and dangerous housing project in inner-city Newark where he spent eight years as a tenant—not by necessity, but by choice. Living in a 16th-floor apartment that often lacked heat, hot water and elevator service, among poor neighbors trapped on the slum side of the American Dream, this celebrated black prodigy from a comfortable white suburb took an extended tutorial in urban adversity. He got a firsthand introduction to the policy issues that drove his agenda as a city councilor, mayor and New Jersey senator, and will now drive his newly announced presidential campaign.

Brick Towers is gone now, but on a chilly gray morning in January, Booker was back at the intersection it loomed over for decades, riffing on the difference between thinking about policy and experiencing it up close. He noted that his former neighbor from the towers, Shahad Smith, was gunned down at this very intersection last spring: “You hear debates about guns, but he was killed right here with an assault rifle.” The median household income around here is below $15,000, and Booker cited the local bodega as an inspiration for his noisy crusades against poverty: “You see folks in there every day who work full-time jobs but need food stamps to feed their family.” Just down the block, Booker pointed out a drug treatment center called Integrity House that shaped his views on criminal justice reform. “Talk about the opioid epidemic: You can talk to fellas in there who had their addictions treated with jail a dozen times,” he said. “We spend millions of dollars, for what?”

There’s another landmark across the street from Integrity House: the modest beige-brick townhouse where Booker lives today, a few hundred feet from the site of the notorious project where he made his name in politics. Booker now spends his weekdays in Washington, and last year he spent his weekends campaigning for Democrats in 24 states, but he’s still a resident of a census tract where more than half his neighbors live below the poverty line; in the video announcing his campaign for the White House, he called himself “the only senator who goes home to a low-income inner-city community.” And his team is hoping that will set him apart in the 2020 primary, as much as his veganism, his bachelorhood, his colorful Twitter feed, or his legendary rescue of a neighbor from a house fire. The Democratic candidates will all talk about fighting inequality, promoting affordable housing and ending the school-to-prison pipeline, but he’ll be the only 49-year-old black man who’s spent more than two decades in a poor minority neighborhood. He had a privileged suburban upbringing, and after he moved to Newark his African-American political opponents derided him as an inauthentic intruder, but while he’s never escaped doubts about his authenticity, there’s no longer any question about his home.

“You can’t live in a community like this and not live with a sense of urgency,” Booker said. “And this is not the exception in America. This is the reality.” [Continue reading…]

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