NEWARK, N.J. -- J. Wesley Tann spent much of his life traveling the world, gallivanting among the most fashionable sets and cavorting with the elite. He was one of the first black fashion designers to open a shop on New York City's Fashion Avenue, and he designed clothing for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Leontyne Price, the famed black opera singer.
But on a misty Saturday afternoon recently, Tann, 83, was deep in the belly of the Boyland Recreation Center in Newark's tough West Ward teaching the finer points of dining and social etiquette to the children of this hardscrabble city.
"Good living is easy," Tann proclaimed. "All it takes is practice."
Tann's students were mothers, fathers and children all taking part in a city-sponsored program that Mayor Cory A. Booker hopes will take politeness and manners from "abstract concepts" to daily essentials. The city hopes that by improving the niceties shared among Newark's residents the quality of their lives and their futures will be markedly improved -- one fine meal and one properly executed place setting at a time.
"I just feel that black and Hispanic children need to have an even playing field when it comes to the social kinds of programming that they get," said Catherine J. Lenix-Hooker, manager of the city's department of recreation and cultural affairs, "so that they are able to have the kinds of social skills that make them very productive and at ease in different kinds of social situations."
Youth from Newark often bear the heavy burden of being poor or working class, she said, or the bad reputation that can hang over even this city's most promising young people. Thus the importance of "learning the language of the silver."
"Our youth need to know how to conduct themselves in a public setting -- some of the dos and don'ts," Lenix-Hooker said. "If everything else is equal, it will help them break through these barriers."