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Excerpt | Brad R. Tuttle


From the Prologue to How Newark Became Newark, by Brad R. Tuttle

“Pride in Newark: A 300th anniversary, and a city on the brink”

“The story of Newark is America’s story. It is the story of colonization, independence, growth, and maturity. It is the story of a brave people.”

With those words of congratulations and warm wishes, issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson on the first day of 1966, a festive year began in which Newark celebrated its 300th anniversary. It seemed as if every one of the city’s community groups, businesses, schools, and houses of worship got in on the birthday festivities, which were spread over a full 12 months. Social calendars were filled with concerts and banquets, from a Health Services dinner dance, to a Sports Awards Dinner for local legends holding records in track, basketball, and gymnastics, to an evening honoring Old First Presbyterian, the church founded by Newark’s original Puritan settlers. Founder’s Day activities on Wednesday, May 18, marked the year’s highlight. Church bells and factory whistles rang at noon, kicking off a three-hour parade of bagpipers, historic steam engines, marching bands, soldier brigades, and floats sponsored by corporations and city agencies. Some 400 banners emblazoned with the circular “Pride in Newark” logo lined Broad Street, the exceptionally wide road which had served as the grand main drag for three centuries. From Lincoln Park, the parade crept north past dignitaries and everyday citizens in front of the elegant granite facade of City Hall. Further up, just after the Four Corners intersection of Broad and Market streets, once acclaimed as the world’s busiest intersection, the Prudential Insurance Company’s glowing-white corporate headquarters rose 24 stories into the sky, where “300” was visible in red 100-foot-high numerals. Skyscrapers built during the city’s early 1900s heyday sat across Broad Street, followed by Military Park and quaint Trinity Church, whose classic columns and white spire wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a New England village.

The Newark Museum joined the anniversary year celebration with a series of special exhibits, including a display showcasing the works of Adolf Konrad. A classically trained painter born in Bremen, Germany, Konrad lived in downtown Newark from prohibition times through the post-World War II era. As other artists had found endless inspiration in Paris or Venice, Konrad spent his days painting the streetscapes and riverside factories of Newark. “Instead of a Doge’s Palace I created my fantasies around the deserted Java Bread Company building,” Konrad explained. “In place of the Lions of St. Mark I introduced the statue of that unique and creative genius, Seth Boyden.”

The museum ended its anniversary series with a look at “Newark: Present and Future.” Scale models revealed high-rise offices and college buildings which were either under construction or planned. Photos showed off the recently expanded operations of the city’s two daily newspapers, the Newark Evening News and the Star-Ledger. “This is Newark, 1966,” a short film funded by the Port Authority, which ran the city’s airport and seaport, ran on a loop starting every 15 minutes. The film consisted mostly of aerial shots viewing the likes of Military Park, Broad Street skyscrapers, and high-rise public housing buildings and other urban renewal projects. “In our time, one-fifth of the city will have been rebuilt with projects like these,” the narrator said. Particular attention was paid to the city’s largest green space, Branch Brook Park, and its surroundings, notably the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Adorned with dazzling gargoyles and stained glass, Sacred Heart had opened in 1954 as a vision reminiscent of Europe’s great cathedrals.

The anniversary was a natural time for newspapers, academics, and others observers to take the long view with assessments of the current state of affairs and projections for what the future might hold. Everyone admitted Newark had problems. But, it was often stressed, issues such as the disappearance of manufacturing, increase in crime, rising tax rates, and inadequate housing were not unique to Newark in the 1960s.

Drastic population shifts were another of the challenges faced by Newark and many older cities. Well over 100,000 white Newark residents left the city in the two decades after World War II. A corresponding influx of African Americans placed people of color in the majority by the mid-1960s. Despite the wild population turnover and widespread racial tensions during the era, Newark’s still overwhelmingly white power structure maintained that the city’s race relations were nothing short of exemplary. Hugh Addonizio won the mayoralty in 1962 through a coalition of Italian, black, and liberal Jewish supporters. Once in City Hall, Addonizio was Newark’s first mayor to appoint African Americans to top government positions. With a reputation as a progressive, Addonizio cruised to another term with an easy 1966 election triumph. Many supporters cited the leadership of Mayor Addonizio and others as the reason violent racial outbreaks hadn’t surfaced as they had in Harlem and Watts.

“Newark through the summer of 1966 had not been rocked by the riots and disorder that had swept other cities,” wrote John T. Cunningham, New Jersey’s leading popular historian, in his thick illustrated history of Newark published for the tercentenary. “It certainly is not a matter of luck. For one thing, there has long been sincere dialogue between volunteer Negro and white leaders. City-appointed racially mixed commissions have worked hard at settling racial tensions before the point of explosion.”

* * * * * * * *

Newark’s main problem, it would soon be glaringly apparent, was that leaders had grown accustomed to systematically whitewashing its problems. A deeply troubled city lay beneath the 300th anniversary facade. The truth was visible to anyone who cared to look. Filthy, crime-ridden streets crisscrossed poverty-stricken, all-black neighborhoods where white business owners locked iron gates over their stores nightly before departing for home in the suburbs. Children attended worn-out, feebly equipped schools which were de facto segregated. Merely a decade after welcoming their first hopeful tenants, Newark’s high-rise public housing projects were dreary and dilapidated, plagued with graffiti and violence. The truth was also on display at The Newark Museum in the form of artist Adolf Konrad’s canvases. Newark may have been Konrad’s inspiration, but the city he painted in oils was something of an urban nightmare. Grim, tired old factories belched gray smoke. Windows of shops and apartment buildings were dark and foreboding. In Konrad’s Seth Boyden series, the statue of Newark’s acclaimed 19th century inventor appears in silhouette amid weed-choked Washington Park, his chin lowered as if in dejection. Most of Konrad’s scenes were completely bereft of human life. The few people he did paint were generally faceless wraiths haunting the city-hunched-over workers leaving a factory after the day’s grind, a disheveled junk man placing garbage into a cart, a crudely rendered figure cradling his head while slumped on a park bench.

As might be expected, the positive image projected by Newark boosters told only a portion of the city’s story. Sacred Heart, the soaring cathedral on the edge of Branch Brook Park, was symptomatic of the city’s overstretched ambitions and economic struggles during the early 20th century. The cornerstone had been laid in 1898 when Newark was flush with industrial riches. Yet as the years passed, the project periodically ran out of funds as manufacturing wealth shrunk and more and more of the church’s patrons debarked for the suburbs. Work wasn’t completed until 1954.

Much about the city’s projected future as exhibited by The Newark Museum would never be reached. Several projects shown in scale models did not proceed beyond the blueprint stage. The excitement around the expanded Newark Evening News building would be shattered in 1972 when the publication generally regarded as New Jersey’s newspaper of record went out of business.

The state of race relations and ghetto life was so atrocious in mid-1960s Newark that national activists targeted their efforts on the city. The newcomers included charismatic young leaders such as Students for a Democratic Society founder Tom Hayden, as well as a colorful militant character who called himself Colonel Hassan and protested through the streets with Black Liberation Army soldiers. They and others chose to come to Newark often with the idealistic-perhaps also naive and opportunistic-concept of tackling inner city problems head-on in the place they deemed as the worst of the worst.

Despite the omnipresent signs, Newark politicians and the chamber of commerce generally glossed over just how deep-rooted its troubles were. Disaster came as a consequence, most obviously during the summer after the 300th anniversary year when frustrations spilled over into five days of riots which left behind more than two dozen dead, $10 million in damages, and a foul legacy of distrust and hate.

City leaders could not honestly say that they’d been completely caught off guard by the riots. Observers had been saying for years that Newark was on the brink of economic ruin and widespread upheaval. The criticisms reached a peak during the mayoral election of 1966. Kenneth Gibson, an African American engineer who came in a strong third place, harped on the need to end police brutality by hiring more people of color in the department and creating of an independent civilian review board. Leo Carlin, the reformist former mayor who’d been ousted in the 1962 election, decried the Addonizio administration’s ties to organized crime, as well as its failures to build a single school, stem crime rates, or remedy the city’s rapidly escalating property tax situation. “Newark is a city in trouble, a city that is running out of time,” Carlin warned.

The claims of impending doom could not be cast off as mere political rhetoric. During the summer of 1966, leaflets circulated through Newark’s slums detailing how to make Molotov cocktails for firebombing, the latest form of protest among angry radicals. “Light rag and throw at some white person or white person’s property,” the leaflet suggested in its final step.

In the spring of 1967, months before riots burned through the Central Ward, the Addonizio administration itself flatly owned up to the desperate state of affairs confronting Newark. “The most uncommon characteristic of the city may well be the extent and severity of its problems,” stated Newark’s application for federal urban renewal funding via the recently created Model Cities program. “There is no other major city in the nation where these common urban problems range so widely and cut so deeply.” The application cited the city’s poor, unstable population and the highest per capita tax rate in the nation among its many troubles. “Boasting about progress is unthinkable,” the proposal said. “Times are too volatile and to ignore that fact in a welter of self-praise would be fatal.”

Local leaders accurately pointed the finger at larger forces out of their control as the causes of many problems enveloping the city. As industrial bases shifted in the mid-20th century, all the Northeast’s rusted older cities suffered, none more so than Newark. The white flight phenomena hit Newark particularly hard because of its small size: just 24 square miles. Newark residents with the means could easily skip out on the city’s oppressive taxes by moving to nearby suburban towns. Newark’s tax burden was passed along to the folks remaining, who were increasingly too poor to own homes. By 1967, three-quarters of whites and 87 percent of black residents were renters, who felt the exorbitant tax rises with regular bumps in monthly checks to landlords-who typically lived outside the city. Within a shockingly brief period of time, the situation snowballed so that Newark became a lopsided, bottom-heavy city, with poor people stacked on top of each other in densely populated slum areas and middleclass and affluent residents left only in a few pockets.

Still, much of the blame for Newark’s troubles rested squarely in the hands of city leadership. Decades of mismanagement, bloated government agencies rampant with patronage jobs, and overwhelming corruption caught up with the city in the form of outrageous tax rates and inevitable political scandals. An ad purchased in 1966 by the city for the Star-Ledger’s special 300th anniversary section listed the names of the mayor and the eight councilmen running for reelection. In late 1969, Mayor Addonizio and six of those councilmen were indicted alongside a handful of organized crime members for involvement in a racket which had awarded city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

Corruption has evolved into something of a tradition in Newark, dating back at least to the late 1800s. It’s survived in Darwinian fashion, adapting and taking new shape in response to reformers’ efforts and swings in voter populations. For most of the 19th century, government power sat in the hands of rich manufacturers and bankers who established policies aimed mainly at safeguarding their wealth. Later, as groups of Irish, Jews, and Italians crept to prominence, they came to see politics not simply as a way to maintain wealth, but as a means to produce it for their working-class compatriots, and for themselves personally. Ethnic politicians drew support based on the promise of doling out patronage jobs. Patronage led to inefficiency and graft, which in turn led to unbridled corruption.

Officials running Newark during the 1930s gangster era might be thought of as the grandfathers of the city’s modern comprehensive system of corruption. Meyer Ellenstein, a handsome, charismatic dentist and lawyer, guided the city as mayor. Some people said that Abner “Longy” Zwillman, Newark’s unquestioned king of organized crime, had handpicked his old friend Ellenstein to serve as the mob’s official henchman. Tales circulated during the Ellenstein years of rampant election fraud and regular looting of the city treasury. Prosecutors often failed to get convictions related to such accusations, typically because both jurors and evidence were tampered with during criminal trials.

Newark installed a new mayor-council form of government in 1954 in the hopes of restoring some semblance of honesty and efficiency. Even after the switchover, however, power remained in the hands of relatively few people, and corruption thrived at the expense of citizens and the city’s overall well-being.

Between 1954 and 2006, Newark has had only four mayors. Three of those four have faced indictments on corruption charges either while in office or shortly afterward. The nine-member city council has similarly experienced few turnovers during the first half-century of a mayor-council system; eight council members have been elected to four or more four-year terms. And in the city where an old joke goes, “Newark politicians leave office in only one of two ways: death or conviction,” the council has likewise been plagued with scandals. No fewer than 18 council members have been indicted over the years, typically for accepting kickbacks or some other misuse of power.

* * * * * * * *

Neither great cities nor slums are created overnight. Newark’s epic downfall was decades in the making, rooted in forces from outside and within the city. As post-World War II public policy neglected urban centers and fostered the blossoming of suburbs and the nation’s highway system, cities across the U.S. found themselves in predicaments similar to Newark. Yet Newark was an exceptional case. It stood out for the extraordinary speed, depth, and viciousness of its decline, and for the monumental difficulties the city faced while attempting to dig itself out from the hole. In the post-riot years, Donald Malafronte, a top aide of Mayor Addonizio and his successor, Kenneth Gibson, voiced a much-repeated observation often attributed to Gibson. “Wherever our cities are going, I’ll bet Newark gets there first,” Malafronte said. Unfortunately, after the bloodletting of the 1960s riots, Newark was not heading toward racial healing or a newfound vibrancy in urban life. Instead, Newark led the pack as cities approached hopelessness. Once, our cities were regarded as places of opportunity and glamour, places where ethnic groups could carve out niches for themselves and live the American dream. By the mid-1970s, cities were more often viewed as economic black holes dependent on outside subsidies to stay afloat. They were filthy dens of crime where poor people of color lived because they had no other choice. Cities were places to be avoided, if possible.

Newark didn’t hit rock bottom during the riots, but years later in the desperate 1970s, when the economy floundered to new lows and militant, hate-spewing demagogues provoked racial standoffs that were arguably uglier than the looting, arson, and violence of the late 1960s. Crime soared to unparalleled levels in the ’70s. Whereas rates for violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, and assault) rose 25 percent across the U.S. during the tumultuous decade, they skyrocketed 91 percent in Newark. Residents and good-intentioned officials caught in the crossfire-literally, or in the form of a tense, racially-polarized atmosphere-often simply gave up. They abandoned their old neighborhoods for safer, more pleasant surroundings. Between 1960 and 1990, Newark lost nearly one-third of its population, a drop of more than 125,000 people.

Journalists invented new superlatives to sum up the extent of Newark’s 1970s freefall. The city was “a classic example of urban disaster,” according to Newsweek, and “a study in the evils, tensions, and frustrations that beset the central cities of America” in the words of a New York Times magazine scribe. Most infamously, a 1975 feature story in Harper’s named Newark far and away “The Worst American City.”

Joke-tellers found an easy target in Newark. “It’s such a disaster area it don’t deserve no organized crime,” a character says in a 1980 Off Off Broadway play. “Have you heard?” quipped talk show host Johnny Carson. “The city of Newark is under arrest.”

Philip Roth, the famous author who set many of his novels in his hometown of Newark, offered an extremely brutal assessment of the post-riot city in his 1981 book Zuckerman Unbound. In one scene, the renowned novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Roth’s alter-ego) is accosted by a man who feels it’s his duty to set Zuckerman straight about the city he writes of so often with a semblance of nostalgia. “What do you know about Newark, Mama’s Boy!” the man says. “Moron! Moron! Newark is a nigger with a knife! Newark is a whore with the syph! Newark is junkies shitting in your hallway and everything burned to the ground! Newark is dago vigilantes hunting jigs with tire irons! Newark is bankruptcy! Newark is ashes! Newark is rubble and filth!”

Newark’s God-awful reputation persisted even as the city mounted its much-heralded recovery. Years after the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened downtown to much acclaim, after the city’s population finally stabilized and the real estate market rebounded, surrounding towns sought to disassociate themselves from Newark. Tired of paying for Essex County taxes-which people believed disappeared in the county seat of Newark to the benefit of very few -Cedar Grove, Verona, Montclair, and other suburban towns voted in 2004 to secede from the county. The votes were mostly symbolic; secession wouldn’t be allowed without approval from the governor and state legislature, which is highly unlikely. Yet the point was made that taxpayers wanted to rid themselves of the city they viewed as a burden.

Destroying ties among communities is probably not in anyone’s best interest, however. New Jersey has a long history of towns splitting up into smaller municipalities for the sake of home rule, and the result is pervasive duplication of services and one of the most inefficient, heavily taxed states in the country. On the contrary, if Newark had retained the land once within its borders-nearly all of Essex County-the city certainly wouldn’t have struggled as desperately as it did during the latter 20th century. If Newark encompassed all of Essex County today, it would be home to about 800,000 people, making it one of the nation’s leading cities, the 12th biggest overall (rather than the 65th). The taxes paid by Verona, Montclair, and other towns probably would never have reached their current oppressive levels had they been joined all along in the larger city of Newark. Some people may argue that these towns have been better off distanced from the city’s corruption. Yet Newark might not have been quite as corrupt had more voters been deciding who ran the city. It’s impossible to believe, for instance, that Sharpe James would have been elected as mayor five times if all of Essex County had a say in the matter.

All of these points are of course moot. The fact is that all of Essex County-and all of New Jersey-has vested interests in Newark, the state’s largest city. As far back as 1968, the ground-breaking Report for Action, commissioned after the riots by the governor, plainly made the case which still holds today: “Suburban residents must understand that the future of their communities is inextricably linked to the fate of the city, instead of harboring the illusion that they can maintain invisible walls or continue to run away. Such change is possible only when the people in our more fortunate communities understand that what is required of them is not an act of generosity toward the people in the ghettoes, but a decision of direct and deep self-interest.” In other words, Newark’s failure affects us all. And if Newark succeeds, we all do.

Another reason for taking an interest in the city is that, to paraphrase President Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 sentiments, Newark’s story is America’s story.

Newark was born as a direct descendant of the Puritan New England village, the unyielding, strictly controlled institution which played such a key role in establishing an early sense of American character. After the Revolution, Newark’s story is that of urban America in extremis. No community hopped aboard the runaway train that was the Industrial Revolution as whole-heartedly as Newark. In its embrace of manufacturing, Newark grew as quickly as any city. When the United States rode to prominence as a world power, it did so on the backs of cities like Newark. Then, to use a modern cliche, Newark experienced the perfect storm of 20th century urban troubles-deeply entrenched corruption, industrial abandonment, white flight, racial conflict, soaring crime rates, fiscal insolvency, dire poverty. Newark’s saga reflects the rollercoaster ride of Everycity U.S.A., only with a steeper rise, sharper turns, and a much more dramatic plunge.

To understand the tragedy of urban America in the post-World War II years, one must understand the unvarnished truth of the city walloped the hardest. With that in mind, this book takes a fresh, honest, and critical look at Newark, in all its grit and glory.

While the centerpiece of this book is Newark’s precipitous decline, this is also a tale of survival, and of redemption. The city was too much of a commodity, with too prime a location, to remain mired in despair. Though the idea of a renaissance in Newark has been promoted starting as early as the 1970s, the city has indisputably hit a streak of prosperity in recent years. The upswing parallels the rebound seen in cities all over the U.S. Besides Newark’s booming real estate market, perhaps the best sign for the city is a population which, at long last, is growing.

With the renaissance has come a renewed sense of interest and-indeed-pride in Newark. It’s obviously felt by entrepreneurs, business owners, community groups, and new and longtime residents reinvigorating city streets. Former Newarkers are also demonstrating newfound pride in the place they deserted long ago. Nostalgic websites like VirtualNewarkNJ.com are flooded with people sharing stories and photos from the old neighborhoods. Grass roots efforts celebrate the city’s history through institutions like the Jewish Museum of New Jersey and the Newark First Ward Heritage & Cultural Society.

While Newark still has far to go before it can be categorized as an unabashed success story, the city is certainly not the terminal case critics have made it out to be. And if the consensus of opinion is correct, Newark is destined for much brighter days ahead.