A City’s Lost Dreams: Review of How Newark Became Newark

On January 1, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson wished a happy 300th anniversary to Newark, New Jersey, observing that Newark’s history paralleled that of the United States itself. Church bells rung, and celebrations occurred throughout the city. The Newark Museum launched a year of exhibits exploring the city’s historical and cultural heritage. A year and a half later, on July 12, 1967, riots wracked Newark, destroying millions of dollars in businesses and property and leaving twenty-six people dead. Brad Tuttle opens his history How Newark Became Newark: the Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American City (New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2009) with these two dramatically different events.

Newark began as an outpost of a Puritan splinter group. Robert Treat and his cohorts left Connecticut, finding the colony too lax in its religiosity and chafing under the laws of its government. The Puritan families hoped that their settlement could remain devout and separate from the new nation forming around them. Not surprisingly, this desire proved to be impossible. Newark’s prime location became apparent in the decade prior to the American Revolution. In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, Newark emerged as a  regional transportation, commercial, and manufacturing hub.

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Firm of Ferdinand Mayer, Newark, (East of Mulberry St. 1820–5), c. 1854-1857 (Courtesy of New York Public Library).

Throughout the nineteenth century, Newark continued to grow as center of manufacturing and trade, attracting immigrants, tinkerers, and inventors: it became a major force in industry and innovation and a desired destination for capital and workers. In 1872, Newark organized the Newark Industrial Exhibition to promote the variety and quality of goods produced within the city’s borders and to feature paintings, sculptures, and other pieces by local artists. During the Exhibition’s fifty-two-day run, 130,000 people visited it and the city, including President Ulysses S. Grant and his Democratic rival, Horace Greeley.

Newark peaked during the Progressive Era and the 1920s. During those years, the city invested in public works, such as sewers, water, and roads. The public library was founded and expanded with neighborhood branches. Branch Brook Park opened. Newark City Hall and the Essex County Courthouse were built. Grand department stores–Hahne’s and Bambergers’s–drew customers to the downtown. The Robert Treat Hotel welcomed visitors to the city. Confident and thriving, Newark was a city overflowing with potential and idealism. Things could only get better.

Tuttle’s narrative becomes the most detailed and compelling in the period between the postwar years and the first Cory Booker mayoral administration. This image and time of Newark is most familiar to the reading public. Additionally, this era is much more fully and widely documented.

Armchair historians and public sentiment both point to the 1967 riots as the event that triggered Newark’s downfall. The riots were certainly the most violent and tragic event in Newark’s storied history. However, with or without the riots, Newark would have still slid into a long, steady decline. It just might not have been as brutal, traumatic, and complete.

Prior to the riots, multiple, seemingly intractable problems buffeted the city: deep poverty; gross political corruption and municipal mismanagement; white flight; racial tensions; deindustrialization; and destructive urban renewal projects. Admittedly, such problems beset many older American cities during the 1960s and 1970s, especially those in the Great Lakes and along the East Coast. Riots occurred in other cites as well. Why, then, did Newark fall so far, so fast, and so hard?

newark riots
Riot in Newark’s 4th Precinct on First Night, Newark Star-Ledger, July 13, 1967 (Courtesy of NJ.com).

An underappreciated socio-econmic transformation stands out. Long before the riots, Newark was bleeding its affluent and professional residents. The very rich had long ago left for “country” estates and well-t0-d0 streetcar suburbs. The city was now losing its middle class. By the 1930s, only a sliver of business owners, managers, lawyers, doctors, and other middle-class professionals called Newark home. This trend only continued as the city’s fortunes declined. Why is this important? Aren’t such folks the villainous gentrifiers of the present day? Good riddance and stay away, right?

The steady loss of such residents equaled the slow death of civic leadership in Newark. Self-identified middle-class professionals (regardless of actual income) invest in neighborhoods and cities by purchasing and maintaining homes and small businesses. These individuals organize communities and manage local civic organizations. These individuals pressure elected officials and government agencies. These individuals volunteer at local events and donate to charities. These individuals themselves might even run for public office. Simply put, such middle-class professionals form the backbone of any community. In the America of today, the middle class is struggling. Many communities are as well. The connection is clear. This is an important lesson to be drawn from Tuttle’s work.

If such a population existed in Newark, the city might have more intelligently addressed the factors contributing to the riots or adequately managed their aftermath. Unfortunately, Tuttle does not address this question in any close detail. Possibly, he hoped to avoid historical speculation.

Nearby Jersey City, the titular focus of this blog, suffered through many of the same issues and difficulties afflicting Newark in the decades following the Second World War. For instance, Jersey City’s political corruption and poor governance are second to none. Unlike Jersey City, Newark possesses enviable resources–the Port of New York and New Jersey; Liberty International Airport; a great, yet underfunded public library system; and the surprisingly wonderful and delightful Newark Museum. Jersey City  does not have such institutions. It never will. Why then has Jersey City rebounded, while Newark still flounders?

Jersey City never experienced such a complete and speedy demographic change. Today, Jersey City is no longer a white-majority city; in fact, it ranks as one of the more diverse cities in the nation. While both Newark and Jersey City were losing jobs and population in the dark decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, urban pioneers (artists, creatives, and other colorful oddballs) discovered the neglected neighborhoods comprising downtown Jersey City. Meanwhile, miles of abandoned railways and industrial space lay on the Hudson River waterfront in Jersey City. The location, its view of the Manhattan skyline, and its (relatively) low cost seduced investors and developers.

How Newark Become Newark guarantees an informative and well-crafted introduction to the history of Newark. The books also contains a good selection of prints, maps, and photographs to assist the uninitiated and the expert in visualizing the places and people of Newark, New Jersey. Although never a grand American city in the same category as Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, Newark might resemble many smaller, yet proud cities across America attempting to reclaim a fragment of past glory and to find a way forward through an increasingly uncertain landscape.

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “A City’s Lost Dreams: Review of How Newark Became Newark

  1. Very informative and well written article.

    As someone who lived in Newark for years, I spent countless hours walking around many of its neighborhoods. One can easily see the past glory, incredible loss, and (hopefully) potential for rejuvenation. Luckily, the Iron Bound district is still safe and clean, where you can find many wonderful and worldly restaurants.

    I was particularly saddened to learn that the downtown (vacant) baseball stadium was recently sold and is scheduled to be razed and replaced by various commercial and residential properties. For the sake of Newark, I hope the new project is incredibly successful. However, I cannot help but feel some disappointment. New to the city and living alone, I spent many summer nights at the ballpark, for some affordable entertainment and to experience a sense of community. When the city built the baseball stadium in 1999 at a cost of $30 million, their intent was to help revitalize downtown, by providing a family-friendly gathering place and source of entertainment. I believe their intentions were good, as the real value of sports is to bring family, friends and communities together and provide people with joy, pride, excitement, and a mental break from the stress of life. For a number of reasons, the Newark Bears failed to capture the city’s interest and were not well run financially. The team folded and the stadium was sold, killing baseball in Newark for the foreseeable future, if not forever.

    On a brighter note, the much grander Prudential Center opened nearby in 2007 and is home to the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. It is also regularly hosts various other sports, concerts, shows, and events.

    For Newark’s future, let us hope that the Prudential Center succeeds. One day, while many families and friends watch the game at home with pride, the residents of Newark will pour out into downtown Newark, celebrating an elusive Stanley Cup title and continuing the party well into the night at local bars and restaurants.

    On a somewhat related note, the Cleveland Cavaliers recently brought Cleveland, another city that has fallen on hard times in the new economy, their first title in more than 50 years. For months, the area was riveted by their success. 1.3 million people attended the victory parade; the entire Cleveland metro area is 2.1 million people. It was a beautiful sight.

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    1. I think that you pointed out the differences in the comparative successes of the two venues. The Prudential Center hosts sports, concerts, and other forms of entertainment. It also benefits from the poor quality of Madison Square Garden and the large audience in New Jersey and the metro area. Many acts now perform a night in Brooklyn and a night in Newark, tapping into audiences in both New York and New Jersey. The baseball stadium was poorly financed and managed from its birth, and it never attracted an audience beyond Newark. It remained empty for the majority of the year. It was too far was Penn Station, too.

      I also argue that Newark and other cities rely on stadiums and other big-ticket venues (concert halls, museums, etc.) as a silver bullet to solve the problems afflicting their downtowns. Instead of developing a long-range, incremental, and holistic plan to reinvent a downtown, a city invests heavily in such venues and offers unwise tax breaks to developers and owners. The failures outnumber the successes. Thankfully, this trend appears to be dissipating in American cities, which are now (once more) seeing downtowns as centers of living, work, and commerce.

      Several months ago, I walked through downtown Newark and was surprised by the amount of activity. Will Newark every resemble its past self? Doubtful. Yet, it might emerge as something better than its current state. That itself is a real accomplishment.

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  2. Very well said. Yes, I agree. The Prudential Center and the Newark Bears Riverfront Stadium are very different projects. For Newark’s sake, I hope the Prudential Center thrives and helps bring more people to the area, hopefully leading to successful and growing restaurants, hotels, bars, stores, etc. I believe stadiums and venues can play a role in revitalizing areas, but they must be financed and managed responsibly, and built in line with a much larger citywide plan. You are absolutely right…stadiums and venues should never be seen as a silver bullet, but rather as a potential piece to a very complex puzzle.

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