NEWARK, N.J. – Some business owners in this crime-plagued city say recent enforcement of a decades-old ordinance prohibiting some types of barbed wire and razor wire is making Newark more attractive — to thieves.
Burglaries are up 17 percent from 2007 through November in Newark, which has a young, charismatic mayor who has vowed to help the city rebound from decades of official inaction, incompetence and outright criminality.
The city is aggressively courting new investment and development, but people who have been ordered to downgrade their fences say officials are worried more about aesthetics than security.
John DeSantis, owner of a lot used by an auto repair business in Newark's West Ward, says his property has been the site of more than a dozen burglaries since the summer, when the city forced him to remove razor wire on top of the 7-foot-tall fence that surrounds the lot.
"The bottom line was, they said, 'It doesn't look good and we want to create a new image for the city of Newark,'" DeSantis said.
The order was backed up by a previously little-used 1966 ordinance that states: "No barbed wire fence or other fence or wall having barbed or sharp projections facing outward, or otherwise endangering the traveling public, shall be permitted adjacent to or along the line of any street or public place."
The Rev. C.H. Thomas of the Church of Christ, which sits across the street from DeSantis' lot, told The Star-Ledger of Newark that thieves have broken into several cars in the church's lot since barbed wire was removed from a fence over the summer at the city's behest.
In some respects, the dispute is a microcosm of the changes under way in New Jersey's largest city, viewed, as always, through the prism of crime.
Newark is a city struggling to forge ahead as it grapples with its past, with neighborhoods in which new housing is sprinkled across a landscape teeming with aging or abandoned properties.
Crime remains the broad brush that colors perceptions of the city: Despite a steep drop in homicides in the last year, robberies and aggravated assaults rose along with burglaries in 2008.
DeSantis said he was surprised when a city official told him that the ordinance was being enforced to prevent passers-by or anyone climbing the fence from being injured by the barbed wire.
"I said that maybe if a few of these thieves were injured the word would get around that 'Hey, we can't do this anymore," he said.
Melvin Waldrop, director of the city's department of neighborhood and recreational services, which oversees code enforcement, did not respond to a request for comment, but his office said 132 properties were cited for violating the 1966 ordinance in the city last year. It was not known how many of the property owners had removed the wire from their fences as a result.
Mayor Cory A. Booker said, through a spokeswoman: "We understand the concerns of local business owners and will continue to work with property owners to resolve this matter. The city will be reviewing the ordinance to come up with a solution that addresses all concerns."
For now, enforcement of the ordinance appears to be spotty.
Around the corner from DeSantis' property, barbed wire topped a fence around a vacant lot behind the Yes Lord Ministry, and two auto repair shops within a few blocks also had barbed wire or razor wire atop their fences.
Joe Nyamekye, who runs Joe's Collision Center on Central Avenue, said a city representative told him a few months ago he might have to remove the barbed wire and razor wire that tops the fence surrounding his lot. He said he hadn't heard anything since then.
"We are hoping we can work with the city so we can hold on a while longer," Nyamekye said. "I know of other cities that meet businesses halfway, and we hope that happens here."
West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice has met with local business owners in the wake of the burglaries, and said he would meet with Newark's corporation counsel to discuss solutions.
"We're not ignoring the problem," he said. "Maybe we do change this law or make an exception. We're amenable to doing that, but we have to work out what that's going to be."
In the meantime, Rice said, "We have to be a city that follows its own laws."