Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
Newark is the largest city in New Jersey. It is located at the mouth of the Passaic river and the northern end of Newark Bay, which is part of New York harbor in an extended sense. It is separated from the Hudson river to the east by the thick ridge of the Palisades and about 5 miles of swamp surrounding the Hackensack river estuary, known as the Meadowlands. The city is located on top of some rolling hills of Triassic sandstone on the west banks of the Passaic.It is an unspeakably important transportation hub. Port Newark is a major node in our system of international trade, despite having its efficiency adversely affected by organized crime. Newark airport has been called the busiest airport in the US. The highway interchange between downtown and the airport might be described by a similar superlative, which also recognizes its chaotic intricacy. The NJ Turnpike, interstate 78, US 1-9 and the airport's access roads grasp each other with flailing tentacles, like four octopi having an orgy. The Northeast Corridor passes through Newark's Penn Station, and connects to the airport. All but two of NJ transit's rail lines pass through Newark too, some to Penn Station and others to a smaller station at Broad Street. The Port Authority's PATH Rapid Transit system has its western terminus at Newark's Penn Station. For $2, you can ride quickly and directly to downtown Manhattan, or to Jersey City. You can also transfer to Hoboken or the other Penn Station in Manhattan. The PATH system is pretty cool, even if its overnight service is terrible despite high demand, and the Port Authority is probably controlled by the mob. They are talking about expanding the PATH to connect to Newark Airport, which seems like a great idea.Some big companies have headquarters in Newark: Prudential, Panasonic, IDT (whatever that is), audible..com. There are also some regionally important educational institutions there: Rutgers' medical school and business school are located in the University Heights neighborhood. Also NJIT, an engineering school, shares the campus. The Newark Museum is a pretty interesting, extensive museum, both discussing the city's history and also displaying fine art. The New Jersey Performance Arts Center (NJPAC) was built just north of Downtown about 10 or 15 years ago, largely due to the political will of then-mayor Sharpe James. It now attracts people from all over to hear some pretty world-class musical performances.A ridiculous number of famous cultural figures of past and present are from Newark. Some of the great musicians of the 20th century, such as Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaugn, were born there. Same with some of the great literary figures of the 20th century, such as Amiri Baraka and Philip Roth. In more recent generations, we have Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Shaquille O'Neil among others. At the risk of being offensive, I'd like to claim that Newark's surprisingly dominant role in American arts and letters can be attributed to the city serving as a center, at various times, for ethnic communities who have been enormously culturally productive, such as Jewish Americans and African Americans. Not to trivialize the famous figures of other backgrounds from Newark! It would be ridiculous to ignore the role of Italian Americans from Newark in shaping the region's politics and culture. Not the most positive example, but the governor who we are currently saddled with is an undeniably influential figure with a national reach - if a dubious one - who meets the above description.Newark has a majority Black population, and a walk around downtown communicates a strong sense of Black ownership - the businesses, the people on the street, etc. Many white suburbanites, some of whom have strong historical onnections to Newark, are afraid to go there, reflecting the strong currents of racism in those communities. However there are a lot of interesting cultural events: film festivals, jazz shows, street fairs etc. which at least the more liberal suburbanites like myself might love if only we could get over our prejudice and try to reach out to that community a bit.Politically speaking, Newark is the rotten core of NJ. The intimidation, graft, shortsighted greed and general immaturity that characterize the democratic process in our state are at their rawest and most desperate in Newark. One example is that the Newark school system has among the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state, and recently received a donation of $100 million from Silicon Valley, yet the schools totally suck. True, there is a lot of poverty and social disenfranchisement in Newark, and those are clear barriers to academic success, but that doesn't explain why 20% of that $100 million went to "consultants" earning more than $1,000 per day. Also most of those large corporations located in the squeaky clean downtown area got huge tax abatements to build there, so they barely even support the city at all, especially when you consider that they employ mostly suburbanites rather than Newark residents.Newark was an industrial powerhouse - in fact, one of the original industrial powerhouses. Seth Boyden, a great inventor of industrial processes such as patent leather, was born and made his fortune in Newark. In fact there seem to have been a lot of leather-related enterprises going on there. Also beer - Ballantine Brewery, headquartered there, was one of the biggest breweries in the US for a long time. Now there is a Bud Light bottling plant in Newark. There was also more important stuff too - Newark made supplies for soldiers in the world wars, for instance - and I could go on but you get the idea. Newark has a typical history of waves of immigration - German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, and Portuguese immigration, as well domestic migrations from the rural South and Puerto Rico, were historically important in Newark, in roughly chronological order. Today West Indian and Latin American immigration are significant, though the industrial base is not as strong. Newark's economy met a similar fate to many midsized industrial cities in recent decades.Newark has a long sordid history of organized crime. During Prohibition, gangster Longy Zwillman operated a huge liquor smuggling operation fully within public view, with the tacit knowledge of city hall and the active support of the police. Today the tradition continues with an extensive drug trade. Some parts of the city are dangerous and violent as a result. Mayor Ras Baraka has made the reduction of drug and gang related crime a major initiative, and speaks passionately about these issues to get the community on his side. He is fighting an uphill battle against Newark's other long tradition of inadequate and unprofessional policing, which has undoubtedly gotten better in recent decades but is still not sufficient, and our hopes are with him. One also suspects that, as we know for sure in the past, the same people who make money from smuggled guns and narcotics also have a certain degree of power in the political system, which doesn't exactly contribute to good government.
Newark's North Ward stretches across a ridge paralleling the Passaic river as it runs due south into Downtown. Opposite the river is Kearny. It is home to a huge and stunning Catholic Basilica, and Branch Brook park, which is supposed to be beautiful, especially with its massive display of cherry blossoms in the spring. Route 21, McCarter Highway, is a major artery running on the west bank of the river, connecting Downtown with the suburbs to the north.The population is largely Latino, with some Italians still living there, though the focus of that community has spread to the neighboring suburbs. Steve Adubato was a major force in Newark politics, recently retired, from his base at the "North Ward center," and he seems to have engineered an alliance between those two communities. The North Ward has a reputation for being relatively more stable and better kept-up than other parts of Newark, which I can't personally verify. There apparently is a really beautiful neighborhood of mansions which some rich commuters live in now, as an alternative to the suburbs.
Historically the center of Newark's black community, the Central Ward has been the focus of a lot of the city's political turmoil. Residents successfully stopped a massive slum clearance project that wanted to reclaim suspiciously large parcels of land, containing key portions of the neighborhood, for a new medical school in the 60's. Unfortunately the destruction of 1967 damaged a lot of the neighborhood. New construction has since filled those voids with modern housing.
The South ward, along with the West Ward is home to the real population base of Newark's black community. They have been much maligned by slum clearance, ill-advised public housing projects, and highway construction. Historically, they were built up later than the more central parts of the city, and have a suburban feel. The Weequahic neighborhood was farmland as late as the 1930's.This area was home to much of the area's Jewish community for a while during the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, though, as a rule we turned our backs on Newark early and completely, and there's not much evidence of us there anymore. Two notable exceptions are the large synagogues B'nei Jeshurun and B'nei Abraham, whose buildings still stand even as those congregations now have new and bizarre looking incarnations in the western parts of Essex County, and are now Christian houses of worship, even with the Jewish iconography on them. I read a nice article that the Baptist congregation which meets in the old B'nei Jeshurun building invited some Jeshurun congregation members to join them in a Holocaust Remembrance day that they put on. Another Jewish relic is the Beth Israel regional medical center, which remains a good hospital serving the area.Today the South and West wards contain a spectrum running from some nice stable suburban areas to some dangerous and decrepit ones. I have to share a personal story: I went with my grandparents to visit the house in the Weequahic section where my grandpa grew up, and the whole way they were apprehensive about what they'd find, saying things like "they have no respect, they let trash pile up in the streets." I had some sense that they were exaggerating, but I still didn't know what to expect. When we got there, we found a well-kept house on a nice suburban-looking street, and a young couple originally from the West Indies who clearly were solidly middle class and had white-collar jobs. They let us into their house to look around, and they had modernized it nicely, preserving some of the historical details such as an ornate ceiling in the kitchen. There was definitely some awkwardness in talking to them, but my grandpa was happy to see his house so nicely cared for, and the guy who lived there seemed somewhat validated by my grandpa's approval. It was altogether a thoroughly suburban interaction.
The Vailsburg area in the far western part of the city is supposed to be relatively quiet and suburban. Historically, it had some upper middle class communities which were slower to experience white flight. It's also home to the massive Ivy Hill apartment complexSouth Orange Avenue is a major thoroughfare of the West Ward, and apparently has some of the best Jamaican food in the area at a particular hole-in-the-wall type storefront. I believe there is a Jamaican immigrant community in the neighborhood. Some Yelp reviews mention the sktechiness of the immediate area, but I still hope to check it out. An extremely abrupt change in housing stock, storefronts and general vibe is noticeable as you drive across the Newark's western border with the wealthy suburban town of South Orange on it's eponymous avenue. At this border, blockades are visible in the middle of a formerly uninterrupted grid of streets, which I believe were erected by rich people to make it harder for poor people to breathe the same air as us.
The East Ward is famous for the Ironbound section, specifically Ferry street, which is full of Portuguese restaurants. They are great places to go with a huge group of people if you want a feast. Seafood, grilled meat, sangria – it's fun. Also there are Portuguese bakeries. Plus some sort of bar scene. The ward is also home to some of Newark's industrial areas. There is an awful story about a superfund site which was too toxic to clean up, so they just "capped" it, and there it sits to this day. That was the source of some friction between the community and the powers that be.Lower Passaic RiverIt is important to note that under no circumstances should you come into contact with the mud at the bottom of the Passaic river in Newark, or probably anywhere downstream of the Great Falls in Paterson. The mud contains dioxin whch nearby chemical plants dumped when they were making Agent Orange for the Vietnam war. I'm not kidding. It was recently decided that cleaning it up would be too dangerous, and it would be more feasible to create an artificial riverbed on top of the contaminated sediments to seal them in. However to my knowledge no artificial riverbed has been laid down to date.
I hesitate to discuss the total, violent breakdown of civil order that occurred in the summer of 1967, but it is too interesting and also sadly still too relevant to ignore. Racism is a huge theme of New Jersey's 20th century history. Following the Great Migration of Black Americans from the rural south, Newark's population shifted over the course of a few decades from mostly white to a majority black. Newark had experienced radical demographic shifts before, due to massive waves of immigration, and over its history had seen its population shift from WASPy to German to Irish to Italian. Political upheaval and expressions of intolerance and hatred had accompanied all of these shifts, but it seems that the deck was stacked even more against the Black migrants, ironically in spite of the fact that they were already Americans to begin with. Part of it was bad timing: the late 19th and early 20th century industrial economy had been more friendly to people showing up without much on their resumes and getting established, while post-war America started requiring a different kind of worker, and was more dependent on education and social connections. However white New Jerseyites, with the Federal government and other major institutions on their side, actively blocked their new black neighbors from getting any kind of educational, social, or economic foothold in the region. The way Black families were denied the government subsidized home equity loans that were helping create middle class white suburbia, and ended up getting charged more money to rent slummy apartments than white people were paying for mortgages in, say, Maplewood is a particularly tragic example. There were also the more passive ways that white people failed to engage with their new neighbors, which aren't our "fault" quite as explicitly- the way white flight quickly swept away the sense of community and continuity from neighborhoods, for example. Anyway, by the late 60's, blacks were starting to become a majority in Newark, and started to expect their grievances to be addressed by what most of us believe to be a democratic system. However, aside from token gains, the system was closed off to them (as it remains in some senses, even now that the mayor and many of the city council members were Black). In other words, there was a breakdown of democracy, which according to some forms of political philosophy is a situation which calls for a rebellion. One perspective on the violence of 1967 is that is was a kind of second, failed American revolution, in which some black Newarkers were justly taking necessary actions to protect their natural rights, and were cut down by the imperial troops of our hypocritical state. A more cynical perspective holds that the conflict was a brawl between the relatively less powerful black people of NJ and the relatively more powerful white people of NJ, who, through their appalling violence against fellow citizens cemented a racial hierarchy based on force, which lasts to this day.It is a depressing side note that the white combatants were acting in their "official" capacity and wearing uniforms of the police and national guard, while the black combatants were labeled as "rioters." I think it's best not to morally distinguish too much between the two sides, and to attribute the lopsided number of casualties to the far greater firepower on the white side. Still, though, they drove tanks through downtown Newark, for God's sake. Not to trivialize the excess and violence on the black side, but I really think that's fucked up on a whole other level.As far as the aftermath goes, I can say firsthand that the white violence is ignored in the way that the local suburbanites tell the story – they call it the "race riots," and the more explicitly racist among us use it as evidence why the local black population can't be reasoned with and justification for the more excessive and brutal aspects of our criminal justice system. There is a really interesting documentary called Revolution 67 about this fateful confrontation, interviewing Amiri Baraka, former mayor Sharpe James, and a National Guardsman who was part of the fighting.Since the violence and the general economic morass of the 70's, Newark has been constantly looking to proclaim a "renaissance." It gave itself the nickname "The Renaissance City." There isn't that much evidence for a renaissance that I'm aware of. However, to its credit, it hasn't been in a total tailspin for a while. Modest amounts of new development have contributed to the viability of its neighborhoods. There are interesting restaurants to try, beautiful parks to see, and diverse neighborhoods to explore. They're getting a Whole Foods soon. In any case, Newark is and will remain one of the most important, diverse, culturally and historically rich urban centers in NJ.