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“Brick City”: Rebuilding From the Heart Up


Creation,
destruction; life, murder; beauty, disfigurement. All contradictions,
all words that can be used to illustrate life on the streets of the
city of Newark, New Jersey. Newark, a city long known for its
corruption and exceedingly high murder and poverty rates, has been the
subject of both hardline scrutiny and the worrisome glances folks throw
towards it as they drive past on Route 280 or the New Jersey Turnpike.


But
all of that is on the verge of changing. After decades of corruption, a
new, young, charismatic mayor is determined to change Newark from its
status as a cautionary tale to one of the country’s greatest cities;
and this past week, the Sundance Channel hosted a five-part
documentary, "Brick City," chronicling his efforts in a hard-hitting,
convicting series of episodes.


From
its powerful start, "Brick City" focuses on Mayor Cory Booker, Newark’s
Director of Police Garry McCarthy, and the people who are trying to
make a difference in this turbulent city. And although the documentary
is full of the drama and heart-tugging personal connections that make
any series—fictional or not—worth watching, what strikes the viewer
most is being able to watch love in action: true agape love—selfless,
unending love. It is everywhere, just as ferocious as the violence
which seeks to destroy the city, and it starts at the top. Mayor Cory
Booker, an intelligent, enthusiastic Ivy-league graduate who was
elected as mayor in 2006 (his unsuccessful 2002 run was documented in
the film Street Fight), is determined to rid Newark of all that
plagues it and spends every waking hour (and sometimes even those when
he’s supposed to be asleep) to "take back Newark" for its people. He
encourages community members to go out and make a difference; he holds
monthly open office hours; and he even organizes a "Midnight
basketball" game during long summer nights to keep the youth out of the
violent streets and onto the courts. The games, like the city, are
electric, filled with anticipatory faces, laughter, and fun—a welcome
respite from the sadness that is such a part of Newark’s current
history. Afterwards, in the glow of the court’s streetlights, Booker
leads some of the city’s younger children in a raucous game of Simon
Says. "You’re out and you win," he says to two of them at the end of
the game; and his smile is from ear to ear, sincere as ever. At the
series’ end, when he encounters a woman at the grocery store whose
sister has just been killed by gang violence, he gives her a hug and
tells her to buy as much food as she can for her family and her
now-motherless nieces and nephews, which he promptly pays for. Love is
what motivates him: this is a man whose devotion to his city shines
continuously—and sincerely—from his face.


Tough
love for the city also comes from the gruff, hard-talking,
results-getting Director of Police, Garry McCarthy. A controversial
appointee to the position in 2006, he is determined to bring down the
high numbers of crime. Although he takes his job extremely seriously
(and gets results: in 2008 the murder rate in Newark had decreased by
nearly 40%), he also finds time to poke jokes at Mayor Booker’s
expense. When Mayor Booker receives death treats before his first
Midnight Basketball game, McCarthy, who is in charge of security
detail, dryly notes, "You just had to make my job harder, didn’t ya?"


That
love, though, like many things about Newark, is a two-way street. Just
as the police work to reduce crime and killing in the city, its gang
members also display a fierce loyalty between the members of their
ranks. In one of the concluding episodes a juxtaposition is placed
between a police officer’s funeral and a member of the Bloods who has
committed suicide: the grief sounds the same, no matter which side of
the violence you’re looking from. Jayda and Creep, lovers from rival
gangs, are showcased in their efforts to transform themselves and
Newark. Jayda, a member of the infamous Blood gang, awaits prosecution
for an assault charge. Pregnant by Crip member boyfriend Creep and
determined to turn her life around, she seeks out—and ultimately
attains—a grant to start a program called "Nine Strong Women," which
seeks to empower young women in the city with the message that love
does not have to equal sex and knowledge is power as well as freedom.

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It
can be tempting to watch the series and focus solely on the negativity
that is present, but what the viewer is most drawn to is the concern
and the love shown from Newark’s concerned citizens. These folks,
mainly from church groups in the area who are tired of the danger they
are constantly put in, make it their mission to help the city’s youth
become empowered with the message that they are good and can accomplish
so much. In the first episode, a man affectionately named "Street
Doctor" brings coffee cake and donuts to kids at local community
centers. "I know it sounds stupid," he says, holding out the box to a
group of children, "but it’ll work. These are cakes that will stop
killing." Later, he sits on a bus, crying tears of joy when he and a
large group of children head to the Jersey Shore on a field trip on
Father’s Day. "This is my moment," he says, choked up with emotion. "If
more people got involved, we could really stop what’s going on in our
city."


What
makes "Brick City" both so powerful and so convicting is that it lays
out a map for its viewers, showing where to go, how to help, how to be
Christ to those who desperately needs them most. Is it neat and tidy?
No. Is it clean and polished? No. It’s gritty. It’s real. But that’s
what love is; and that is where Christians are called to be.

 

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