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.
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?
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.