Profile: An Ironclad Commitment to Community in Newark’s Ironbound District

As executive director of the Ironbound Community Corp, Joseph Della Fave knows that ‘simple’ goals are the most important: good jobs, safe housing, decent education

Joe Della Fave
Who: Joseph Della Fave

Age: 63

Home: Hoboken

Family: Married, three children

What he does: Executive Director of the Ironbound Community Corp., a grassroots nonprofit organization founded in 1969 to improve education, environmental justice, housing, and job opportunities among Newark’s most disadvantaged residents. Della Fave started with ICC in 1991.

His background: During his career, Della Fave has served as a city councilman in Hoboken, chairman of the history department at St. Peter’s Prep — where he also coached basketball — and as a union organizer, including a stint with the United Farm Workers, enabling him to spend a day touring Garden State worksites with legendary union cofounder Cesar Chavez.

What led him to ICC: For Della Fave, community has always been key. He grew up in public housing in Hoboken; he was six when his father died and his mother raised two children and a cousin working an off-the-books job in a garment factory that paid $1 an hour. “I learned early on about the meaning of community,” Della Fave said, “and how a tight-knit network of family, friends, and neighbors could provide security. We all took care of one another.”

What’s different today: The robust mix of industries that once defined the Ironbound has long made it a mecca for diverse immigrants; Germans, Poles and other Europeans at first, followed today by workers from South and Central America. The community has changed ethnically and economically since he joined ICC more than two decades ago, Della Fave said, but other things remain the same: the desire for a better life, with good jobs, safe housing, and a decent education for their children.

“The Ironbound continues to attract immigrants from around the world,” he said. “But historically people did not face the same documentation issues that they face today. They may have lived in the same dire economic circumstances, but they didn’t live in the shadows.” As a result, ICC has added citizenship and immigration-rights advocacy to its portfolio of programs. “The mission remains constant,” Della Fave added, “organizing people to strengthen the fabric of the community.”

What he’s most proud of: Among ICC’s many accomplishments, Della Fave said he is particularly proud of the organization’s role in developing Riverfront Park. It took 25 years of hard work, organizing neighbors, fighting off outside interests, and courting elected support to make it happen, he recalled, and the payoff is not just the desperately needed green space, or the popular programming ICC created to draw people to the site, but the way that the entire process empowered the community members involved. “It was an incredible accomplishment,” Della Fave said, “and it helped people realize that a well-organized community can get something done against the most powerful forces.”

[related]Della Fave is also particularly proud of ICC’s new Ironbound Early Learning Center, which opened in September. The effort builds on the organization’s existing nationally accredited preschool program with high-quality education options for very young children, plus support services for the parents, like English language and personal economics classes. The program is a first for the area — on par with educational opportunities available to suburban children, he said — and the center already serves 200 children and their families, with a waiting list just as long. “This gets them on the right road early on,” Della Fave said. “This is what early education should be all about.”

Sandy’s wrath: While much of the post-Sandy attention was focused on the Jersey Shore, urban communities like Newark were also extremely hard hit by the October 2014 storm. ICC staff and volunteers were on the ground when the rain started falling, Della Fave recalled, working with emergency responders to provide hot meals and other services — but that was just the start.

In areas like the Ironbound, longstanding contamination problems added to the common flooding concerns. “Remember, this was the contaminated waters of the Passaic River passing through industry and into people’s homes,” Della Fave said. “It’s a really dangerous situation.” Many people were forced out by the tidal surge or the debris, pollution, and mold that lingered after the waters receded; ICC eventually served as case managers for some 200 displaced households and plays an ongoing advocacy role, bringing state officials and elected leaders into the community to show them the urban impact.

Still, two and a half years later, the recovery process for individual homeowners continues to drag on. “The delays, the lost paperwork — who is eligible, who isn’t — the whole process has been nightmarish,” Della Fave said. “And these are people who can’t afford to lose a day of work, let alone a few weeks of work. They don’t have a bank account to fall back on.”

ICC is now attempting to address some of the lessons learned from Sandy’s destruction. The organization is working with state officials to get about a dozen condemned homes in East Ironbound included in the Blue Acres buyout program and has worked with Newark leaders and others to create a community resiliency plan for South Ironbound, among other efforts. “It’s really remarkable how resilient people have been,” Della Fave said.

Looking forward: What’s next on the agenda? ICC is now using a $1 million state tax credit to revitalize a section of the East Ironbound, rebuilding a number of abandoned properties that can be sold as affordable housing. The organization is also working on an urban farm nearby and, separately, has teamed with Newark developer RBH Group and high-tech firm Aerofarms to build the world’s largest indoor aeroponic garden in a former steel factory on Rome Street. “It’s about meeting the greatest need possible,” Della Fave said.

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