Saturday, March 16, 2013

Will Newark Benefit from all the Philip Roth Birthday Hoopla?

I love Newark, and I love one of its most famous sons, Philip Roth.  With his 80th birthday next week, there will be some events here in Brick City drawing in Roth fans from all over the world, giving my town one of its few positive moments to shine.  These include a bus tour of local spots mentioned in his books, a photo display on Roth's life at the public library, an academic conference, and an event at the Newark Museum where Roth himself will speak.  The latter event is invite-only, and the conference will be closed to the public.

While I am sure that Mr. Roth wants to guard his privacy, and that the assembled scholars are only following the usual academic conference protocol, something doesn't feel right.  I can't help but to wonder whether the participants are keeping modern day Newark, not the thriving industrial city of the 1940s described in Roth's novels, at arm's length.  Will those who take the bus tour simply gawk at the urban decay they are bound to see, and not consider how deindustrialization and institutionalized racism have harmed this place?  Will they get out of their buses and interact with the people who live here today?  Will they stop into one of the city's many fine local eateries for a bite to eat, and perhaps some conversation?  Somehow I think not.

Those coming to downtown Newark for the big events probably won't be venturing much into the surrounding neighborhoods at all.  Despite the new construction and growing affluence of Newark's downtown, there are clues aplenty that the city still struggles.  For instance, those who go to the beautiful public library to see the photo exhibit will see signs notifying patrons that the library does not have sufficient funds to acquire new books.  Worse yet, the main library now must close on Sunday, and the branch libraries are not open at all on the weekends.  Newark has nurtured more than its share of prominent writers; Amiri Baraka was also raised here.  How many more great authors can this city produce if its children don't have access to books?

I only hope that the Roth fans who come here learn something about the city as it is, not as it was. I also hope that if they truly do love books and want to honor the city of Roth's birth, that they make some donations to the local libraries.

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