Paul Profeta recalls his teenage years in Newark with the fondness and clarity of someone who relives them every day — even if they were more than 50 years ago.
Growing up in Maplewood, he and his friends would finish school and take the No. 31 bus into the city. They'd hang out in the department stores that once made it a retail mecca — Bamberger's, Hahne & Co. and S. Klein — the same stores that gave him his first paying job in the late 1950s, demonstrating Soda King machines for what he thinks was $1.25 an hour.
"It was our town," he said. "I just loved Newark, and Newark had a lot to love. Newark was a happy, bustling, successful town."
It's why Profeta wants nothing more than to see the Brick City regain its former glorywith a renaissance that will bring people back to its downtown and erase the stigma of violence and racial tension that has plagued it since the riot of 1967.
Profeta, 69, is not just any cheerleader or well-wisher. He is a successful real estate investor, based in West Orange, with more than 40 years in business. And he has long since put his money where his mouth is when it comes to helping Newark.
It began in earnest in 2007, when he established a foundation to invest in minority-owned entrepreneurs in the city — it has since helped eight companies get off the ground and will launch its next wave of projects in the coming months.
And these days, Profeta has added another prong to his attack. Late last year he launched Radius, a glossy magazine showcasing Newark's dining, entertainment and cultural offerings, mailed directly to some 50,000 upper-middle-class residents in the Essex County suburbs — those with disposable income who, in theory, could truly impact the city's retail scene.
All Profeta wants to do is "show them what they're missing," believing many of those suburbanites are afraid to go to Newark because of the crime they read about on a routine basis, but don't understand.
"We have so many things in Newark that are just treasures and aren't understood or appreciated in the suburbs," said Profeta, the magazine's publisher. "And I know these people aren't stupid. If they knew these things were available, they would start to explore."
Profeta's efforts are only possible because of his success in real estate — and he has come a long way from when he started his own firm nearly 40 years ago.
"I had the net worth of this Post-it pad," he quipped during a recent interview, holding up a stack of tiny sticky notes on his conference table.
Profeta began his career in 1971 as a broker with Eastdil Secured in Manhattan, and then moved to Feist & Feist Realty Corp. in Newark. But he got the itch to be his own boss in 1976, even with the uncertainty that came with it.
Profeta found a niche that worked. He organized "syndications" — or groups of investors who pooled their funds to buy real estate — starting with a 108-unit apartment project in Dayton, Ohio.
By the early 1980s, Profeta had made enough from those transactions "to start trading from my own account," he said. He has operated without limited partners or investors ever since, buying and selling commercial property across the country as he quietly built the lucrative business known as Paul V. Profeta & Associates.
While the firm has thrived for decades, Profeta hasn't always been as focused on philanthropy as he is today. For many years, "I gave to some causes, I'd write checks or I would spend a Saturday afternoon at a charity, and so on."
Admittedly, though, he was falling short of a pledge he had made to his parents, who "gave an enormous amount of time and all the money they could spare to community endeavors and to the needy." He had always promised to follow suit.
But it wasn't until a day in October 2007 when something truly clicked. An avid motorcyclist, Profeta and his fiancée were riding just outside Utica, N.Y., when he suddenly lost control. Profeta was ejected — and he doesn't remember much else until he woke up about 20 minutes later, he said. Medics were taping his head to a spinal board, fearing he might have a spinal injury.
That meant he could be paralyzed.
"I was 63 years old, and I hadn't spent hardly any time keeping my promise," he said. "So in the ambulance I said, 'Lord, if I make it through this, I'm going to devote myself to philanthropic endeavors.'"
It was soon thereafter — once he realized he would recover — that he lay in his hospital bed, focusing on what he could do to keep his commitment.
There is no uncertainty these days about whether Profeta has kept his promise. He now spends about three-quarters of his time on his philanthropy, he said, much of it devoted to his foundation.
He launched the Profeta Urban Investment Foundation in 2007 and soon partnered with Rutgers Business School. He has donated $2.5 million to the cause, giving no-interest loans and personal guidance to eight minority entrepreneurs around Newark.
All eight are now paying their loans back, Profeta said. And the foundation is now preparing to launch another four, several of them aimed at creating a new vibrant restaurant scene in western Newark.
His work comes at a time of great momentum for Newark, with big-ticket, transformative development projects such as Teachers Village and Prudential Financial's new office tower underway.
But Profeta offers an important complement to those efforts, said Roland Anglin, a Rutgers-Newark professor who specializes in economic development. And his agenda comes with a whole different set of challenges — helping small businesses not quite in the downtown.
"The larger concerns can take care of themselves, but what about the smaller entrepreneurs that make up any community?" Anglin said. "And that's what he has keyed in on in a way that I don't think anyone else is Newark is keyed in on."
Such entrepreneurs today are bringing more energy than ever to the city's recovery, said Rutgers history professor Clement Price. He points to "a coterie of younger people with resources, with talent, with broad imaginations that are kind of untethered from Newark's more troubled past," who are investing in the city and are vested in its survival.
And they have found support in Profeta, who espouses the "old American story" of someone whose immigrant parents preached education and giving back.
"For someone like Paul to remember that and factor that into the way he comports himself as a citizen, and as a businessman and as an entrepreneur — that matters to a guy like me," said Price, the city's official historian.
Profeta is also hoping to build on Newark's rich jazz history with another new endeavor in Newark — a new eatery on Clinton Street called Duke's Southern Table. The venue, which he hopes to open by June, will be a combination soul food restaurant and jazz nightclub at the former site of Scully's Publick House, with a house band and potentially artists who will stop over after performances at NJPAC.
His partner in the project is Vonda McPherson, chef-owner of Vonda's Kitchen on West Kinney Street. Profeta offered a vision that made perfect sense to McPherson, a jazz lover just like Profeta: there is great demand in and around Newark for such a venue, from both musicians and patrons, and Duke's is just the place to capture it.
Eight months later, she said Profeta is not just a partner — he is a mentor.
"As a person in business, it's just nice to have someone that has gone through all of the things you could possibly go through — and has sustained his business," she said. "So I have respect for that."
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Newark's next generation of businesses
Businesses helped by the Profeta Urban Investment Foundation and Rutgers Business School:
Cravings (87 Halsey St.): A caterer and restaurant founded in 2010 by Marisa Blackwell.
Porta Print Publishing (33 Halsey St.): A printing firm owned by Peter Learmont.
Tymeless Entertainment: An organization focused on youth involvement in dance and music.
Coffee Cave (45 Halsey St.): A café serving on-the-go breakfast and lunch, launched in 2008.
Raise Hope Capital (One Washington Park): A financial services firm that hires disabled vets.
Ironbound Denim (201 South St.): A manufacturer of high-end jeans.
The Intersect Fund: A nonprofit micro-lender that helps budding entrepreneurs.