New Newark for an Old Jersey Boy
I went to a concert last night…in Newark. I still can’t help but be somewhat amazed by that statement; the “in Newark” part, that is.
I’m a 49-year-old, life-long New Jerseyian, raised on the beach in Monmouth County in the 1960s and ’70s. Sure, I left the state for college and grad school, and I spent my early adulthood in New York City, but for the past 10 years I’ve been back on my home turf, raising my family in suburban Essex. And even though we’ve now squarely entered the second decade of the 21st century, my Garden State will always hover around the late ’60s, when I was coming of age.
During that era, a white, middle class suburban kid like myself in search of loud, musical entertainment of the arena rock variety didn’t even think of going to Newark. You went to the Convention Hall on the boardwalk in Asbury or the newly commissioned PNC Bank Arts Center, in leafy Holmdel. Maybe, if your parents were permissive enough, you took the North Jersey Coast line train into Madison Square Garden in “the City.”
At that time — the late 1960s — Brick City (a nickname for Newark derived from its ubiquitous brick high-rise housing projects) was smoldering from nearly half a century of poverty, violence and urban decay that had left its African-American residents feeling powerless and disenfranchised. Endemic unemployment, poverty and low-quality housing gnawed at the city’s social fabric, just as the country as a whole entered a turbulent period of incipient change in political power.
Black leaders argued that the Newark Police Department, dominated at that time by white officers, would routinely stop and question black youths without provocation. And in 1967, the smoldering Newark erupted in flames. The spark will sound all too familiar to even casual historians of the period: On July 12, 1967, two white Newark policemen arrested John W. Smith, a black cab driver, for improperly passing them on 15th Avenue. They took him to the 4th Precinct, across the street from Hayes Homes, a large public housing project. The residents there saw what was for them an all too familiar sight — a black man being forcibly dragged into a police precinct by two white officers, and a rumor spread that he had been killed while in police custody.
Six days of riots, looting, violence and destruction ensued. In the immediate aftermath of what would become known throughout the nation as the 1967 Newark riots, 26 people were dead, 725 injured and close to 1,500 arrested, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. In the years and decades that followed, industry fled the city — as did the largely white middle class — leaving behind a poor, predominantly black population with a seemingly bleak future. Thirty years later, in 1996, Time magazine christened Newark “The Most Dangerous City In the Nation.”
So what has changed since then? Newark, the state’s largest city — home to the largest port on the East Coast and finance and tech giants including Prudential Financial and Net2Phone — has seen large public and private development projects come in fits and starts as the region and the nation’s economies have ebbed and flowed over the past 30 years.
And although every Newark mayor from 1962 to 1996 has been indicted for crimes committed while in office, Cory Booker, who took office at the end of that sad continuum, is seen by many as a leader who just might help save Newark. Making the reduction of crime one of his top priorities, Booker — and the entire city — celebrated an important milestone in Mar. 2010: Newark’s first murder-free month in over 44 years.
On the culture and arts scene, the last two decades have seen civic works projects in Newark on an unprecedented scale.
- The $200 million New Jersey Performing Arts Center was conceived as a major component in the revitalization of Newark and is today New Jersey’s premiere arts center. Its arts education program is the nation’s fourth largest for a performing arts institution, serving over 105,000 people each season.
- Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, opened in 1999, is home to the minor league Newark Bears, who descended from the Negro National League of the 1930s and 1940s. This $30 million, 6,200-seat stadium has been touted as an example of why downtown baseball parks work so well.
- The $375 million Prudential Center multi-purpose indoor area opened in 2007 as the state’s home for the NHL New Jersey Devils, the NBA New Jersey Nets and Seton Hall Basketball, as well as concerts, family shows and special events. The Prudential Center has been hailed as the cornerstone in the revitalization and renaissance of downtown Newark.
These Robert Moses-scale civic projects notwithstanding, Newark’s future is anything but clear. The ills that have long plagued New Jersey’s largest city persist. Just as plans for the redevelopment of Newark’s waterfront Minish Park are underway, and just as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center begins collaborating on the development of One Theater Square (a mixed-used skyscraper that promises to include market-rate apartments, affordable housing and retail space), the news media reported a 21 percent increase in the overall crime rate (year over year from 2010 to 2011), widely attributed to cuts in the police force brought about by the economic downturn and resultant municipal funding crisis.
Newark today is much more in my consciousness than it was when I was a privileged (and somewhat sheltered) child of New Jersey. I’ll be back for walks in Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.’s Branch Brook Park, the first county park to be opened for public use in the United States in 1986; for tours of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the fifth-largest cathedral in North America whose construction began in 1899 and lasted until 1954; and for more concerts, like the first show of country/pop “tween” sensation Taylor Swift’s sold out, four-night-stand that I attended at the Prudential Center last night. More on that, another time.
Bob Feinberg is vice president, general counsel and secretary of WNET. He lives with his family in Montclair, N.J.