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There was a time when Newark, New Jersey was the place to shop. The high-end department stores on Broad Street once drew crowds that rivaled Times Square. But nowadays, shoppers flock to Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. So Newark city officials are trying to lure them back. Nancy Solomon of New Jersey News Service headed to Broad Street in Newark to check out the city's newest target for revitalization.
NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Newark's central shopping district features rows of discount clothing and beauty supply shops and an off-brand fried chicken restaurant. Their huge, brightly colored sign stretch two and three stories high. But peeking out from behind them, or high above them, are the old building names that represent Newark's storied past.
You had huge department stores. The Hanes department store, the Bamberger's were two of the largest.
Adam Zipkin is Newark's new Deputy Mayor for Economic Development.
ADAM ZIPKIN: You had S. Klein, and they were centers and attractions not just for people living in Newark but really for the region.
SOLOMON: The S. Klein building has been vacant for many years, yet the exterior of the building is still grand with ornamental details and a multistory sign that still reads "S. Klein on the Square." Zipkin has lived and worked in Newark since the 1980s when he went to law school here but his connection goes back even further. His parents were born and raised here, and he grew up hearing stories about shopping trips to Broad Street.
ZIPKIN: In the 1920s the intersection of Broad Street and Market Street was known as the busiest intersection at rush hour in the country, busier even than Times Square. And so it certainly has been an important retail district in the city for a long time.
SOLOMON: But during the middle part of the 20th century, Newark lost half its population. New superhighways, malls and desegregation of schools led to white and middle class flight, and it never really recovered. Now, New York's Fifth Avenue is the premier shopping district in the region, but even that avenue experienced a less glamorous past.
JOANNE PODELL: Some of us are old enough to remember when Fifth Avenue was a bunch of electronics stores. Not very attractive and certainly didn't demand the kind of visitors and shoppers that there are today.
SOLOMON: Joanne Podell is a commercial real estate broker. She stands at 52nd and Fifth and points out the big brand name stores that spend $2,000 a square foot to be here. Podell says Fifth Avenue changed in the 1990s when the local business improvement district restricted the types of businesses that could rent here.
PODELL: And so what happened was those stores were replaced by other types of retailers: apparel retailers, shoe retailers. And what we see here is a lot of jewelers as well.
SOLOMON: Back on Newark's Broad Street, rents start around $15 a square foot. Today, its discount stores serve the needs of Newark residents like Jessica Flores.
JESSICA FLORES: I'm just looking for sales. And pajamas are in sales, you know, clothing are in sales. I got kids, you know? Things are rough.
SOLOMON: Flores says she has no complaints about Newark's central retail district. but Zipkin, the Deputy Mayor, would like to see a little bit of Fifth Avenue glitz downtown.
ZIPKIN: We're not looking to necessarily go backwards and recreate exactly what was here before. But what we want is a vibrant, 24/7 downtown.
SOLOMON: Zipkin says the plan calls for converting vacant office buildings into apartments. He hopes the influx of residents downtown will draw a better mix of retail to Newark's central shopping district. But it remains to be seen if upper-income people will be drawn back to live in a neighborhood where the main items for sale are individual cigarettes out of the pack, wigs and discounted kids' clothes. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.