NEWARK, N.J. -- We didn't cut any ribbons. No civic official was on hand, unless you count the librarian who made sure we had a table to sit at. No, this was a quiet, do-it-yourself ceremony: eight reporters and editors hunched over laptops in the Newark Public Library, launching two websites designed to bring cutting-edge, digital local journalism to this rising but still troubled city.
By now you've probably heard of Patch.com. It is the AOL Huffington Post Media Group's ambitious effort to build a 21st century network of news, commentary, information and entertainment sites in and for thousands of cities, towns and suburban neighborhoods across the country.
The idea isn't just to make money -- though that will be nice -- but to repair and nurture the sense of community involvement, debate and local allegiance that is at the core of the American experiment in democratic self-government. Especially in this mega-corporate era, Americans yearn to identify with the grassroots, and tend -- often more than they realize or admit -- to judge the world based on their own small patch of it.
In Newark, that local commitment is in the hands of three terrific journalists. The leader is Liz Moore, regional editor for a cluster of 12 Patch sites in Essex County, New Jersey. A lacrosse-and-soccer mom whose husband is a lawyer, Liz is also a top-flight pro, having spent 15 years at The Star-Ledger covering the county as well as the courts, crime and municipal beats. Her editors of the two sites we launched today are Lia Eustachewich, 24, in the city's South Ward, formerly of the New York Daily News; and Joshua Wilwohl, 25, a former Star-Ledger writer/editor who will cover the West Ward.
These wards, dotted with some pleasant parks and vibrant business streets, nevertheless are among the toughest neighborhoods in the county, if not the country.
You can see Lia and Josh's work -- their reporting, pictures and video and more -- at SouthWard.patch.com and WestWard.patch.com. The sites are the 811th and 812th in the nation. There are plans for many more.
As you will see, the sites are edited for the neighborhoods, but everyone in the country, and the world, is welcome to look over local shoulders. Indeed, Huffington Post and Patch editors scan the sites for news, features and trends that merit wider attention, on other Patch sites or on HuffPost.
But the focus of each site is and will remain as local as possible: down to the smallest police department, town council or local business district.
For us, Newark is a particularly challenging -- but potentially very rewarding -- place in which to operate. The troubles of the city are well known, but far less well known are the determined and inspirational efforts to nurse the city back to health. If Newark can make it all the way back, so can we all.
Most people in the Northeast think they know Newark, if for no other reason than they whiz by it on Interstate 95 or an Amtrak train on their way to or from New York City. Political insiders have heard of the city's nationally well-connected mayor, Cory Booker, whose relentless salesmanship on behalf of his city is one reason why the Patch sites have arrived there.
But to really learn about Newark, you have to get off I-95 or the train, or read Patch. If you do, and if you spend time with the local Patch editors and reporters, you will learn the basic lessons of American life all over again: that the individual counts, but that the ethos of self-reliance can be costly sometimes; that old ways and old places can fade away almost unnoticed, and yet be replaced by vibrant immigrant ones that are the lifeblood of renewal; that as bad as things can seem, there is always hope literally around the corner in a place of worship in a country of religious freedom.
If you saw the city with Liz Moore, as I did, you would know that a Catholic church in a now-vanished Irish stronghold has closed for lack of parishioners, its statuary and silver distributed to other parishes in other places. But not far from that church is a vibrant Caribbean community, in which the Haitian Pastors Association holds social and political power and jerk chicken has replaced Irish stew on the menus of the storefront restaurants.
You will learn that crime remains endemic -- and an obsession to the locals -- and that there are from time to time sensational murders such as the one in which a gang performed its initiation rite by killing three college kids. But you will also see a new police precinct rising, solid and reassuring, in a tough neighborhood, and once crime-ridden streets near downtown now lined with rows of new, tree-shaded townhouses.
If you don't get off the train you won't know that Newark is not what it was 40 or even 20 years ago, after the riots and the revolutionary rhetoric and the decay and neglect. Yes, you can see skull-like shells of windowless buildings. But you also can see a handsome new school on South Orange Avenue, a concert hall and hockey arena that are world class, and a neat grassy plot on which Panasonic will build a new headquarters.
If you get off the train, Lia will tell you about two new special-needs education programs and Josh will tell you about a new citizens group that is eager to revive the beleaguered Fairmount neighborhood. (You can read the stories on their respective Patches.)
And you will learn from Josh that the Dalai Lama, of all people, was in town last week for an international peace conference that featured Nobel Peace Prize winners and global leaders. The press corps asked him about Tibet and China and the world's ethnic and religious conflicts. Except for Josh.
He asked His Holiness about... Newark.
Wilwohl wanted to know if the Dalai Lama's Buddhist-inspired peace message applied to Newark and, if so, how. Not expecting such a question, perhaps, the Dalai Lama paused before he answered. Yes, he said, his message did apply in Newark. The world's strife has to be addressed at the most local of levels, he said, person-to-person, block-by-block, place-by- place.
You can read about it on Patch and say, "amen."