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Carter: Newark man establishes nonprofit agency, builds 35 homes on vacant lots in old neighborhood

Updated Apr 01, 2019; Posted Dec 17, 2010 Newark man creates nonprofit to rebuild neighborhood

Gallery: Newark man creates nonprofit to rebuild neighborhoodFacebook ShareTwitter ShareBy Barry Carter | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

NEWARK — The empty lots Uriel Burwell skipped through as a kid were nothing more than shortcuts from Newark to Irvington.

When he graduated from college, 15 years ago, Burwell discovered something different about those parcels of land where he kicked a few cans and bottles. He was working in the Newark tax assessors’ office at the time and saw the abandoned houses and vacant lots on tax maps as a way to rebuild his troubled neighborhood, one with a reputation for drugs.

“I figured this would be the perfect chance to make that mark,’’ he said. “I just wanted to build it back up to what it was when I was child,’’ he said, remembering a place where working class families once lived on tree-lined streets.

South 20th Street is where he grew up in Newark, a South Ward street bordering Irvington that fell on hard times when multi-family rental properties were abandoned, leaving a trail of crime, shootings, speeding cars and drugs houses.

Burwell figured he could change that a few years out of college. He’d quit his job in the assessors office, then teach himself to buy and sell houses. He’d become a developer and get families to be homeowners.

“He was always different from the other boys as a child,’’ said Dorothy Hall, who has known him since he was kid. “He always cared about the neighborhood and wanted to do something about it.’’

Burwell, 37, co-founded New Visions, a nonprofit community group, and built 35 homes on the lots he saw on those tax maps, lots that used to make his neighborhood desolate. The homes, most of them single family, are named after historical figures like Adam Clayton Powell and Paul Robeson to invoke pride. They have hardwood floors, fireplaces finished basements, 2 ½ baths.

“We were trying something different,’’ Burwell said. “We wanted to put something that would make people say, damn, I’ll go up there. Nobody was trying to come up here to live.’’

But new families, some from New York, moved on his block and surrounding streets.

“He was responsible for me moving from Brooklyn,’’ said Shirley Eversley, whose three sisters bought homes, too. “He talked to me and said give it a try.’’

The homes sold quickly and the change Burwell sought was taking place. The empty lots disappeared from 2003 to 2006 and residents joined a homeowners association that had 300 members. Burwell ran for city council in the midst of gradual change that improved life on the block.

“When I see what he did, it warmed my heart,’’ said Lee Poole, his childhood friend who lives in the area. “He’s a man of his word. He could have left a long time ago. He didn’t have to be here.’’

Residents on the street are holding onto what Burwell started, but they appear to be losing the fight against the progress, mainly because of the recession. Abandoned rental properties once again mar the block, about seven of them on South 20th Street near Springfield Avenue. People who don’t live there loiter out front. Drug dealers stash their trade inside, taking them out to make a sale when cars stop. It’s constant, like they’re working in shifts.

Burwell, married with a 7-month-old son, couldn’t take it himself. He recently moved from South 20th Street. He said police found a bullet lodged in the window frame of his home this year and a man was shot in front of his home last year.

“I said this is crazy,’’ Burwell said. “I can’t raise my little man, here. I can’t do that to him.’’

He has a Madison address now, but offices for his own company (Burwell Capital Partners) are two blocks from where he grew up. It’s like he’s never left, because he’s always there, compelled to rebuild and reclaim his block. Burwell sees another chance to bring his neighborhood back one more time.

Newark has identified 450 acres in the South and Central wards that are in need of redevelopment and Burwell’s stomping grounds happens to be in that area. If the city acquires abandoned properties on his block, Burwell said he could purchase the older housing stock for renovation and sell them at affordable prices. That would mean working families becoming property owners and less riff-raff hanging on the block.

“Uriel has always tried to do the right thing,’’ said Ras Baraka, Newark’s South Ward councilman. “He’s one of those guys who puts his money where his mouth is for the community.’’

Baraka said he would like the to city move on the redevelopment plan so developers like Burwell can do something with the abandoned homes. In his new office, one block over from the street where he grew up, Burwell has a diagram of his old neighborhood. It’s colored coded with properties on South 20th Street and surrounding streets. He calls it the Burwell Redevelopment plan, another strategy to jump start his enclave.

“Uriel and people like him put transformation into action,’’ said Wayne Bradley, Irvington’s business adminsitrator, who has worked with Burwell on housing projects.

“He takes charge to change the neighborhood.’’

Maybe he can do it again in Newark and make his way back home from Madison.

“I’m coming back, brother,’’ he said. “I rest my head in Madison, but my heart and soul is in Newark.