Tracy Syphax is a Trenton-based entrepreneur, CEO, activist, author, and teacher who has committed much of his life to rebuilding and restoring Trenton from the ground up. Syphax is a founding member of the African American Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey, one of the only African American Chambers across the country to be accredited. He has been an entrepreneur for over 25 years, and was selected to be a 2014 White House “Champion of Change” out of a pool of over 900 nominees. He recently spoke to the Trenton Journal to discuss his story of how he came to be the person he is today, his memoir “From the Block to the Boardroom,” the state of Trenton politics, and his new passion of passing his knowledge and experience to the next generation of Trenton entrepreneurs.
What was Trenton like growing up?
I grew up in Miller Homes. It’s right there on the corner of Lincoln Ave. and where the bridge is, it’s called something else now. It used to be a nice high-rise project back in the day, in the early 60’s and 70’s when we lived there. It was new, I think it was built some time in the 50’s. But, you know, it was a nice area to grow up in, a lot of kids lived there, so we had a great time growing up and being a kid at a very young age. Of course, you know, throughout the 70’s and 80’s after we moved out, eventually, it went from Miller Homes to ‘Killer Homes’ like so many of the other projects across this country. So yeah, in the beginning that was a very nice place to grow up in.
When did you start to see a change in the city? Do you attribute some of that decline to drugs?
I would have to say around the time I was 10 or 11 years old. For me, I’m 59 years old, so that time was around ‘72 or ‘73. I actually began my backslide in the days of 1976 and 1978, that’s around the time when heroin was prevalent in the city of Trenton. Then rolling into the 80’s, the crack epidemic, so I’ve seen that transition from probably from 1972 to 1982 when crack hit the city of Trenton. There are a number of factors. We can always talk about crime, and public safety, and poverty, and structural racism, and all of those things that contribute to so many urban areas across the country that I’ve seen a decline in. Not just Trenton, you can talk about Newark, Brooklyn, Harlem, you can talk about so many different cities that have really suffered. When I look back on the 70’s, when we had manufacturers in the city, we had a lot of warehouses, General Motors. So many of the folks I knew back in the 70’s and 80’s worked at General Motors, which were good high paying jobs, great benefits, health benefits. You know, most of the folks who worked for General Motors were driving Cadillacs back then. Those types of factory jobs were right over here on Pennington Avenue, which is now an apartment complex. We had major manufacturing jobs in the city, so when the manufacturing jobs went out in the 70’s, it introduced drugs and poverty, it breeds what you have today. I think it's an accumulation of so many things, and you know, we could never just pinpoint that it was just the War on Drugs. As a survivor of the War on Drugs, that played a big part in it, but yeah, structural racism. The redlining that goes on when Black folks can’t get homes, we can’t build generational wealth. So, it’s so many factors that contribute to the decline. You can’t just place it on one single thing.
I definitely agree with you. You mention places like Newark, which have seen somewhat of a revitalization. Do you see the same happening for Trenton?
That’s a good question, and I like to have candid conversations about the political landscape here in Trenton, New Jersey, and the fact of where we are today and why we look at the city of Trenton differently than how we look at the city of Newark. When you look at those cities, and how they have progressed, a lot of them have made incremental steps in rebirth. Newark has done a great job, but Newark has a great leader in Mayor Ras Baraka. I don’t believe Trenton has a candidate, as someone who has been an independent, someone who has supported John Harmon in two mayoral races here in the city of Trenton, supported Jim Golden in a mayoral race in Trenton, all three of those races lost. But when I look at the city of Trenton, where we are today, and how those races were lost back then, and say okay, how have we progressed since then? Even though those candidates have supported laws, have we progressed since then? I’m talking like 2006, 2010. When you look at the leadership we’ve had, Mayor Mack, great guy, I love him, but he was terrible. He went to jail, you know what I mean? So when you look at that, when you look at Mayor Jackson, elected and quit after four years. When you look at eight years of bad leadership, times two, you’re talking 20 years of getting nothing done. The prime example is when you look at the downtown area. When you look at Trenton in the downtown area since the 70’s, and I’m talking 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, the 2000’s, and now 2022, downtown Trenton has not changed one bit. And if you go through downtown now, you know, folks have lawn chairs which they’re sitting outside on. Where do they have lawn chairs in a downtown area in this country? This is what we’re doing in Trenton. So I attribute that to poor leadership, I attribute that to our City Council, what we have today over the past four years of all the bickering, and back and forth, and name calling, and unprofessional stuff that goes on. You know, we have become the laughing stock of this state when it comes to government, and how we run city government in Trenton, New Jersey. So, you know, I can say this and don’t feel a certain way about it because I’ve worked for decades just to try to change the structure, and things that have happened, things that have transpired politically here in the city of Trenton, because I have always seen that we’ve been going in the wrong direction.
I definitely agree with you, leadership has something to do with that. But, leaders are elected, so some of that goes back to the people. Do you think that people within the city have apathy?
You know, sometimes leadership can create apathy, so I think the people play a major role in it. I notice here in Trenton over the years, we select people because we went to school together, we select people because they came to my cookout, we select people because they do great cleanups. That doesn’t make people council members, and that doesn’t make them mayor. The fact of the matter is, we elect people in the city for the wrong reasons. And I’ve had this conversation before. I look at people who have been in bad relationships, you can’t say that every relationship you’ve been in is bad, sometimes you have to look at yourself and say, you know what, maybe I have a bad picking problem. And I think that the city of Trenton, and its residents, have a bad picking problem. When Kathy McBride is the number one vote getter here in the city of Trenton, we have a bad picking problem. We seriously have a picking problem. So I think until we address the apathy here in this city, created by some of the leadership here in this city, because it’s no secret. When we have an election here in the city of Trenton, politicians come out three weeks before the election, put up a bunch of signs around the city, Parkside Avenue, Greenwood Avenue, they have a rally at Shiloh Baptist Church, and then they have an election. We’ve been doing that for a number of years now. So you tell me where the apathy comes here in the city of Trenton? It comes directly from leadership down to the people, and you basically have what you have.
Click here to watch Tracy Syphax speak about Trenton's latest initiative to reduce violence
What are projects are you currently working on?
I [recently] retired from the construction business. And that was more of the hand-to-hand, client to customer relationship that I was in for 27 years as a general contractor. I still own millions of dollars of property here in the City, I still rent properties, I still flip properties. We are buying a house right now in South Jersey that we’re gonna flip. So I still do those things, but my thing now is what I’m passionate about, and that’s teaching. So I teach, and that’s what I do. I teach at Bo Robinson now. That’s the halfway house on Enterprise Avenue with folks on their way home. When I look back on my life, I spent 17 years as a drug dealer in the city of Trenton. And one of the greatest things that I told people, and I don’t look at it as the greatest thing, but it was something that I had to do. One of the things that I managed to do over that 17 years as a drug dealer, because I was a drug addicted dealer, I was addicted to heroin and cocaine when I was on the streets. I never was without my drug of choice, which made me a great businessman. I knew product, I knew sales, I knew networking. I knew how to sell drugs in all four parts in the city of Trenton. I knew how to get along with people. If anybody asked you about my days as a drug dealer, they will probably tell you it is no different than what I’m doing right now. People say, you know, I own multiple businesses. I own three businesses right now. I’m ready to buy a black woman establishment in Philadelphia. So I am a serial entrepreneur, and I’m able to do that because when I was on the street, I never sold just one drug. I sold dope, coke, and heroin. So why can’t I run multiple businesses at the same time? So I was born under the mindset that, I grew up in the area of learning. People pay, and go to college for their degrees, you know what I mean? I paid heavily for my 16, 17 years in that industry. My seven years spent in prison for everything that I’ve learned and have been able to do today. So I’ve been able to teach what I’ve learned today to folks who look like me, who come from the same place that I come from.
If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would it be?
If I had to say one word, I would say resilient. I look at resilient two ways, though, and I don’t take credit for myself when I say resilient based on my ability to “pull myself up from my bootstraps.” I believe that through my faith, that’s something I’ve had for a very long time. I’ve been a Muslim, I’ve been a Christian, all three religions throughout my life. My face is Christianity, and I’ve always had some of that foundation in my life. My grandfather was a preacher, my grandmother was a deacon. When I went to prison and did that year in solitary confinement, I read the Bible twice, cover to cover. The things that I read in the Bible, I began to connect to my life’s journey. And once I began to realize that everything I had gone through and dealt with to get to the point where I am today, it’s all divine order. And this is the way it’s supposed to be. We are all built, and we are all put here for a purpose. When I say my life was built for a reason to get to where I am today, and this is why I’m so passionate and I love teaching. When I see those [success] stories, I feel the wind on myself. The opportunities to help other people, to have the ability to actually teach someone some of the things I have learned over the years, you know, that’s my greatest story.
What does it take to be successful in life?
It’s commitment. Eight out of 10 millionaires in this country started out broke. When I teach a class, we start off with 38 members sometimes. After two or three weeks, we learn that business is not about where you want to go, it’s about getting off to the next best thing. And when we end a class, with maybe six or eight individuals, those are the ones who will be successful. People want instant, and too many people believe that you can. And now there’s opportunities where you can create instant success, but that’s a small percentage. The fact of the matter is in order to be successful in this country, you have to work to go get it. And it has to be consistent work ethic. I get up every morning at 4 o’clock, I never stopped after I left prison. I still work out three times a week. I get up, meditate, and do yoga. I still wake up every morning and make my bed. I think what it really boils down to is being consistent in your approach of what you want. If you quit, you’re never going to be satisfied until you do something to completion. And once you begin to do things to completion, then you’ll be able to realize the stuff you can do.
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