Why you need to know Adenah Bayoh — and why people cheer the things she has to say

By the time Adenah Bayoh was getting her fourth, fifth and sixth ovations from the crowd at the Newark Regional Business Partnership event last Thursday, three things were becoming clear to the approximately 200 people in the room:

  1. Having women on panels is a good thing;
  2. Having women of color on panels is even better;
  3. Having Bayoh ensures you truly will have “thought leadership” moments.

We have long been admirers of Bayoh’s success, chronicling her American dream story that includes coming to this country at 13 — escaping the civil war in her native Liberia — graduating from the Newark Public Schools system and then Fairleigh Dickinson University before founding Adenah Bayoh and Cos., which is the parent corporation of an IHOP franchise; her own fast-casual restaurants, Cornbread; and several residential and commercial redevelopment projects in North Jersey.

It’s why she was honored on the latest ROI-NJ Influencers Power List and why she was asked to be on a panel discussing the future of real estate development in Newark.

Given the opportunity, Bayoh did much more than just recite her resume. She challenged the audience of Newark business leaders and developers.

“I think Newark is on the rise; I think you have a lot of investment into the city, and that’s always a great thing,” she said. “But, I caution that investment can be clustered. We’re almost building a city within a city. And, when you do that, what happens is we continue the old struggles of the past: segregation.”

Bayoh said she is concerned about gentrification — and cautions that more may need to be done to stop it.

“There’s a lot of development happening in downtown Newark, (but) nothing in American history has ever been changed without the law. So, when we speak about development and what the mayor (Ras Baraka) has tried to do with inclusionary development, I think we have to be very intentional in how we redesign Newark so we don’t make the mistakes of the past.”

Bayoh described her efforts with her latest residential project, 915 Broad Street. While others talked about the need for incentives to help them meet the 20% affordable component, Bayoh proudly explained how the 84-unit project will be 55% affordable.

That, she said, is what is needed.

Adenah Bayoh and Cos.
A rendering of 915 Broad Street, Adenah Bayoh’s latest real estate development, in downtown Newark.

“I have been really interested in why is it that developers that come to downtown Newark are so fascinated with filling downtown Newark with market-rate housing,” she said.

“Understand that, while we’re doing this, I can’t go to (a wealthy suburb) and say: ‘Typically, people don’t live in your downtown. I’m going to develop your downtown for you and do it with all affordable housing.’ How would that conversation go? It would be a riot. And, essentially, that is what’s happening in downtown Newark.”

Bayoh said she is making a conscious effort to develop for the residents of Newark.

“We wanted our project to be the mixed-income project for the city of Newark,” she said. “Essentially, we said, there is a market here for people of moderate income.”

Bayoh said she’s calling it what it is: moderate-income housing. Terms matter, she said.

“We have to be careful when we talk about affordable housing,” she said. “I had people at my planning board arguing with me that they did not want me to build affordable housing in downtown Newark. And I said to them — some people that looked like me — ‘No, you don’t want to stay that. What you’re trying to say is you don’t want dilapidated, old product that you (saw) in the ’60s, (when) they built a bunch of projects and put all of the black and brown in there. That’s what you don’t want.

“What you want is something where more than 40% of your income does not go to your living. I was very intentional about that, and it took a long process.”

Then she delivered the kicker.

“Am I sitting here rich because of our project? No,” she asked and answered. “Sometimes, some things are not about money. If we’re going to be impactful in the city, we have to be creative, but we have to think outside of our profit lines.

“This project was a partnership with (Newark Housing Authority), the city of Newark and New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency. But I’m here to say projects like these can be done, but they’re not easy. It takes ingenuity and research, but, ultimately, it takes you wanting to do the hard work and the heavy lifting, because nothing is easy for anyone who has ever done anything first, but it can be done.”

Tom Bergeron/ROI-NJ
Adenah Bayoh, in red, on the panel at the Newark Regional Business Partnership event.

It was another of the applause moments.

Bayoh had the audience. And she kept up the thought-provoking commentary.

She hired a Newark-based contractor, then couldn’t believe the company showed up without a single African American on its crew.

“He showed up with all Latino and Portuguese workers,” she said. “I said to him: ‘This is an educational moment for me, but I’m also thinking it’s an educational moment for you. You are in the city that’s predominantly African American. How are you not able to find at least one black worker to put on a job site?’”

Bayoh said she didn’t accept it.

“I had to roll my sleeves up and get creative,” she said. “How do I get women on that job and black and brown people and hold this contractor accountable so that if you’re going to come on this job, you’re going to do the heavy lifting and you’re going to find a workforce that reflects the city you’re working in? Some people said, ‘You’re being difficult.’ And I said, ‘That might be the case, but some things have got to change.’”

Bayoh worries the changes some people want will hurt those who have called Newark home the longest. Developers, she said, have to be vigilant.

“These are things that we have to make important to us,” she said. “Or else the city of Newark is going to stay as the status quo (and) just like any other urban city that gets gentrified or gets redeveloped. There is nothing like developing a city and having the occupants of this city have no stake in the city. Martin Luther King said that is dangerous.”

Businesses need to play their part, too, she said. It’s one thing to make sure cities have amenities for their workers. It’s another, she said, to make sure companies are sharing their potential with residents. To do this, Bayoh said, companies need to see their communities up close and personal.

“These companies that operate in Newark need to get uncomfortable and go in the South Ward,” she said. “Go in these schools and let the kids know (they’re) here.”

Bayoh said what happens now will impact the next 40-50 years. And she said it all starts with intention.

“For me, my intention has always been very clear: I want to be impactful,” she said.

As the panel came to a close — after she and others spent an hour answering questions on Newark’s future — Bayoh challenged the audience with questions of her own.

“I agree the future of Newark is very bright,” she said. “I’m an eternal optimist and I think we will rebuild Newark and bring it back. And we will rebuild it equitably and we will rebuild it correctly. I just want to pose two questions:

“Why is it this way, and does it have to remain that way? Let that guide you.”

Applause followed. Again.

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