New Community Center Gets Youths Off Streets and in the Ring

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/22/nyregion/22club.html?_r=1&n=Top%2fReference%2fTimes%20Topics%2fPeople%2fB%2fBooker%2c%20Cory&oref=slogin

from The New York Times
June 22, 2007

By ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD

NEWARK, June 21 — The fight was brief. The mayor of Newark, Cory A. Booker, floated like a butterfly, bouncing around a bit in oversized gloves. But it was 14-year-old Shakor Jackson who stung like a bee.

“When I hit him with the hook, he just fell,” Shakor said. “But I knew he was joking.”

In the audience were three of boxing’s biggest names: Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and Don King. The setting was the boxing ring inside a new community center on Spruce Street in the heart of Newark’s Central Ward, a community beleaguered by crime and poverty that is striving to reverse its fortunes.

The center will be a welcome escape for children like Shakor, whose older brother Wadoo Jackson, 23, was fatally shot last year in nearby Irvington.

“I feel safe around here,” said Shakor, who lives in an apartment near the community center with his grandmother, brother, sister and aunt. “Like how you feel in a house.”

Besides the boxing ring, the center has a dance hall, a computer classroom and a recording studio, and sits near 489 new town houses that replaced seven dilapidated 13-story apartment buildings.

“It was one of the roughest areas of Newark,” said Robert D. Griffin, 49, who grew up in the neighborhood and works as a boxing coach at the center. “You couldn’t walk through the neighborhood. If you couldn’t fight, you’d get robbed.”

The center and nearby housing were built with federal funds in cooperation with a private developer, Roizman Development, which manages the property. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the Newark Housing Authority a $35 million grant, but the majority came from state financing and private equity.

The community center is an oasis of prosperity in an area dotted with signs of destitution. Just down the street, two blocks of five-story buildings stand crumbling, empty except for the squatters living behind sheets that cover windows in the graffiti-sprayed exterior.

“When I started with Shakor, he was put out of every school in the neighborhood,” Mr. Griffin said.

He met Shakor and his brother, Isiah, now 17, six years ago. Their fathers were gone. Their mother lived in New York.

Mr. Griffin taught them to box. When they got in trouble at school, he made sure they got back on the right path. Lucinda Jackson, the boys’ grandmother, credits Mr. Griffin and other boxing coaches with saving her grandsons’ lives.

“They’re like big brothers, fathers for them,” she said. “God sent them to save my grandchildren.”

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