Rutgers Oral History Archives

The # 15 Oral History Website in the World

New Brunswick Redevelopment

Vega, Jeffrey Summary

 

vega

 Oral History Transcript

HTML Version | PDF Version

 

Permission to quote from this transcript must be obtained from the Rutgers Oral History Archives. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

DISCUSSION SUMMARY (PDF Version)

Jeffrey Vega enrolled at Rutgers in 1985 and subsequently was accepted into the Master’s Fellowship Program at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. During this time, Vega got to know a different New Brunswick: “Back then, you were warned not to come into downtown.” [1] As a Rutgers student, the Eagleton program was “very separated from New Brunswick.” [1] After graduate school, Vega worked for The Center for Non-Profits “[providing] technical assistance to small nonprofits funded by DYFS.” This introduced him to nonprofit organizations in New Brunswick and to meeting people in the community like David Harris. [1] In 1993 Vega was hired by New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT) and has “been there ever since in different capacities.” [2] “I've seen the organization itself evolve and the city evolve in terms of the revitalization efforts,” Vega said.

Vega explained how the focus of New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT) has shifted over the past three decades. NBT originally dealt with physical planning, and the New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco)was created to be an implementation partner. [7] This changed “within one or two years,” and Devco took on planning responsibilities. “New Brunswick Tomorrow then began to focus on the quality-of-life issues,” Vega said. [7] “There was an effort to pull all different partners together to deal with a variety of issues of downtown redevelopment, neighborhood development,” Vega said. Part of this involved beautification programs and concerts. NBT later moved away from this and put more of a focus “on the health, human services, and education issues that impact residents who live in our neighborhoods . . . the deeper, more profound, human/social/health issues of our residents.” [2-3]

In 1989, the NBT board looked to implement “the holistic model,” which organized seven task forces that correspond to the human life cycle from infant to senior. [3] NBT “listened to what the neighborhoods and the community had to say” and responded by creating appropriate programs or interventions. [3] Vega explained that NBT provides seed funding to such programs and then “[cuts] the umbilical cord so that others then take it on.” [4] NBT can then use its resources to focus on other issues. Recently, New Brunswick Tomorrow has “developed our muscle in doing more grant writing, doing more solicitation of grants to bring resources to New Brunswick.” [8]

New Brunswick Tomorrow is different from other social service entities in that it does not provide services. Rather, Vega said, NBT “[fosters] collaborations.” [4] He describes the organization as a catalyst in that it will listen to problems and then determine solutions. Vega elaborated on how NBT is unique: “Very different from City government; we don’t get any dollars from the government, from City government. Very different from a social service provider, where they’re seeing people on the ground. People don’t come through our office seeking help directly. It’s usually the service providers, or insti­tu­tional leaders, or neighborhood associations that are coming to us for the help.” [4]

The NBT board of directors is evenly divided among members from the community, the public sector, and the private sector. This creates “a nice blend of different perspectives on the kind of work we do,” Vega said. [6] The board of directors and the “collective input of 250-plus residents and volunteers and others that tell us what the issues are” contribute to the strategic plan that New Brunswick Tomorrow pursues. Vega noted “the strategic plan is merely a guide to kind of point us in the right direction,” but that the process of addressing issues is rather fluid. [7]

Though NBT does not collaborate with Devco as much as in the past, there was a successful experience with the Heldrich Hotel. Devco “did the physical planning, and then we were part of the effort of making sure that New Brunswick residents had a leg up in the process of interviewing for the jobs that were coming,” Vega said. [9] NBT helped assess residents for employment; as a result, 30 percent of Heldrich Hotel employees are New Brunswick residents. [9]

Vega explained how New Brunswick Tomorrow was closely involved with the HOPE VI residential project that replaced four high-rise public-housing towers. “Our role was to develop a case management component that helped to, number one, relocate about 200 different units of families to different areas . . . and then for us to assess each household to determine what their social needs were,” Vega said. [10] NBT subsequently worked with various local agencies to “provide case management, counseling, referrals to all sorts of aid services.” [10] Still, because this was a Department of Housing and Urban Development project, Vega expressed difficulty with complying with federal criteria, which he interpreted as: “You can make [residents] self-sufficient, but not too self-sufficient,” so that families would remain eligible for public assistance programs. [10]

A recent project involved “special education” students. Vega explained that “New Brunswick also has a very disproportionately high number of children that are classified ‘special ed,’ not for cognitive purposes but mostly behavioral purposes.” [12] Currently, about 17.5 percent of students have this classification. To lower this number, New Brunswick Tomorrow engaged Behavior Therapy Associates. Psychologists observe student–teacher interactions in classrooms and then “coach the teacher on how to deal with that behavior so that it doesn’t have to result in a referral.” [13] In the two schools where this was implemented, the referral rate decreased by 63 percent in one school and by 70–75 percent in the other. As the school district “institutionalized” the process, NBT was able to withdraw from involvement. [13]          

The NBT biannual survey provides “sort of a sense” of what the organization should be doing, Vega said. NBT shares information from the report with the police, public schools, and other concerned groups, and also uses the data to set priorities. [14]

Vega described the school-based Youth Services Program, which deals with mental health issues, an important concern for many children whose families are not covered by health insurance. The program also helps secure employment for high school students in local businesses. [15]

Vega discussed the involvement of local institutions in New Brunswick Tomorrow: “We make sure that the hospitals, Rutgers, and other institutional leaders are represented on our board of directors, and they are the ones that help to guide and endorse every single initiative that we undertake.” [15-16] The City government is involved with neighbor­hood issues, and NBT works with the “over 60 different houses of worship” for their perspective on current and potential projects. [16] Banks are also asked to help improve financial literacy. Vega said that NBT connects with these different community partners to work on specific issues and broader, board-level concerns. [16]  

In the future, Vega explained, New Brunswick Tomorrow wants to develop a more holistic plan to approach “human services, health, and education” issues, and to evaluate the assets and gaps that exist in New Brunswick. Another issue is how in the past, institutional leaders and service providers have provided information that generates momentum for NBT initiatives. Eventually, Vega would like residents to be more involved in “directing, guiding, our planning process.” [17] He noted that engaging the community today—which includes a large Mexican immigrant population—is more difficult than in the past when “it was a primarily Puerto Rican and African American community.” With the immigrant community, “the connection can’t be made that easily, for obvious reasons,” Vega said. [18]

Vega thinks that the process is “transferable if the financial and leadership commitment is there.” [20] However, he acknowledged that New Brunswick is “unique in that it has Johnson & Johnson, and also the link to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—with their commitment to the New Brunswick area.” [20]

Compared with the New Brunswick Development Corporation, Vega thinks that New Brunswick Tomorrow has “the tougher end of revitalization.” [20] While Devco works on physical projects that people can see, NBT must address the needs of a community and find “more creative responses to dealing with the issues that come up.” [20] Another issue is public understanding of what New Brunswick Tomorrow does; Vega mentioned that “When I start staying I’m president of New Brunswick Tomorrow, the first thing I get back is, ‘Congratulations. You've done a nice job in the downtown.’ And so, I say, ‘Well, that's not us. That’s Devco.’” [24] NBT could be branded better, Vega said, whereas currently, “everything’s blended into the overall brand of the revitalization process.” [24]

KEY QUOTATIONS

[Quotations have been edited for grammar and alphabetized by topic]

New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco) versus NBT

When you look at the work of, for example, the New Brunswick Development Corporation, people can see it. It’s much more celebrated. And perhaps this may sound a little bit biased, but I think we have the tougher end of revitalization—that is, the community changes, and we now have, at this point in our history in New Brunswick, a population that really requires more resources, much more creative responses to dealing with the issues that come up. Through the programs that we have in schools, we are seeing issues that, 15 years ago, were just not there. It requires much more money and much more of an engagement process to deal with. [20]

New Brunswick—Public Safety

Back then, you were warned not to come into downtown. It was, “You stay on the campus.”

New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT)

Very different from city government, where we don't get any dollars from the government, from City government. Very different from a social service provider, where they're seeing people on the ground. People don’t come through our office seeking help directly. It’s usually the service providers, or institutional leaders, or neighborhood associations that are coming to us for the help. [4]       

So, again, it’s being able to respond to the needs of the community. And it's a very unique mission. I've not seen another NBT-alike in any other community. [8]

Transferability

It's transferable if the financial and leadership commitment is there. You know, New Brunswick is unique in that it has Johnson & Johnson, and also the link to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—with their commitment to the New Brunswick area. I don't think the Campbell Soup Company has had the same presence or commitment to Camden. But if they decided to do that, I mean, the mechanisms and the processes of what we do are transferable and replicable. But you need to look at the financial and leadership commitment. [20]

Rutgers Oral History Archives

A Rutgers History Department Affliated Center 


This website and all content

Copyright © 2016 ROHA

Contact Us

1 Spring Street, 4th Floor

New Brunswick, NJ 08901


848-932-0454
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.