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Whitney Houston's death hits her native New Jersey hard

By Greg Botelho, CNN
February 15, 2012 -- Updated 1508 GMT (2308 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Whitney Houston was born in Newark in 1963 and later moved to nearby East Orange
  • Local leaders, friends say she never forgot her roots, stopped by her childhood church
  • "She was everywhere and everything to everyone," a former Newark mayor says
  • Students at a New Jersey school named after Houston called her an inspiration

(CNN) -- Many were in diapers, if they were born at all, during Whitney Houston's heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And yet they still feel a special connection to her -- and, today, share in the heartache of their parents and neighbors by virtue of the fact that they all call northern New Jersey home.

Mario Depeine said that students in the public middle school in Newark where he teaches cannot stop talking about Houston, adding they are upset that there is no large-scale public memorial at which they can pay their respects.

Most weren't alive when she won her first Grammy Award, in 1986, for best female pop performance for her song "Saving All My Love For You." Still, Depeine -- a CNN iReporter -- said the middle-schoolers know Houston's music through their parents as well as her unique place in Newark lore.

"They know her well," he said. "And they realize that she's really connected to this community."

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The legendary singer is hardly the first person born in Newark to make a mark on the world. Comedian Jerry Lewis, musician Paul Simon and poet Allen Ginsberg, among many others, arose from the city of about 275,000 people, situated 10 miles west of New York City.

Yet Houston has a special connection because -- according to public leaders, family friends and other residents -- she never forgot her roots in Newark, where she was born, and nearby East Orange, where she moved to as a child.

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"It's very sad because, in reality, she's a part of here," said German Racines. "She is a little piece of Newark."

Pastor Joe Carter from New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, which Houston attended growing up, recalled how she would come sing at some Easter Sunday services even after she'd made it big.

Others recalled fondly how Houston would often return to the area, treating neighbors and fellow church members like family.

"It's almost like she never left," said Sharpe James, a former Newark mayor who organized concerts for a young Houston as well as her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston. "Here's a superstar, but you could find her in Newark, at the church. She was everywhere and everything to everyone."

Pride tied to her enormous talents, and her fame, are also part of her appeal in the Garden State.

Gov. Chris Christie told reporters Tuesday that he believes Houston belongs in the same class as Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Bruce Springsteen as far as musical luminaries hailing from New Jersey.

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To pay tribute, he said he plans to order all flags at government buildings be lowered to half-staff Saturday, the day of her funeral.

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"Whitney Houston was an important part of the cultural fabric of this state," said Christie. "She was a cultural icon in this state, and her accomplishments in her life were a source of great pride for the people of this state."

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For some New Jerseyans, the songstress was an inspiration.

Whitney wanted to see daughter grow up

That's particularly true at the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, a school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in East Orange, a few blocks from where the singer spent much of her childhood with her parents and two brothers.

Tearful students and staff remembered Houston -- a frequent visitor since the school was named in her honor about 15 years ago -- at a memorial event Monday. In addition to speeches and the release of white balloons, her historic rendition of the national anthem before Super Bowl XXV was replayed.

Students told CNN affiliate WCBS afterward that Houston's successes prove that there's no limits for a girl from northern New Jersey.

"I think that I can achieve whatever I want, just like she did," said eighth-grader Hailey Diasallen.

CNN's Maria Santana, Jason Carroll and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.

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