So What Exactly Happened?
From the 250th celebration in 1916 to the 1967 uprising,
the story of Newark was one of bad luck, poor decisions and a curious legacy.
By Mark Stewart
Newark in 2016 is a city poised to reestablish itself as an urban powerhouse. A century ago, as Newark celebrated its 250th birthday, it enjoyed robust economic and cultural success. So what exactly happened in between? The common mythology holds that history somehow conspired against the city, ultimately resulting in six terrible days of violence in 1967—one bad break following another and another and another.
While major challenges such as the Great Depression certainly contributed Newark’s woes, there were more subtle, and fateful, missteps that triggered its infamous decline. As we stop and celebrate the city’s 350 milestone, it’s important to get the story straight, because you can’t really know where you’re going unless you understand where you’ve been.
Newark at the turn of the 20th century was a miracle of the industrial revolution. It had been a sleepy town for almost 200 years until canals and railroads connected it to the growing nation. The arrival of genius inventor and business leader Seth Boyden in the early 1800s also was a part of this great urban awakening. In the decades after the Civil War the city grew to become one of America’s chief producers of patent leather, jewelry, machinery, plastics, drugs, chemicals and commercial coatings. The banking and insurance industries flourished, as did law firms and government offices. From 1800 to 1900, the number of Newarkers increased from fewer than 10,000 to nearly a quarter-million—growth of more than 2,500 percent.
Newark was not unique among American cities in its population surge. However, its response to growth was. The playbook for managing urban growth during this era was to gobble up surrounding towns, as Chicago and New York City had done in the late-1800s and Los Angeles would do in the coming years. Newark had plenty of options: East Newark, Harrison and Kearny to the east, Irvington, Maplewood, Hillside and South and East Orange to the west; Bellevile to the north and, potentially, Elizabeth to the south. The lone annexation was that of Vailsburg, in 1906. As other American cities expanded, Newark remained stuck at 23 square miles.
Not that city leaders were clueless. On the contrary. In 1900, Mayor James Seymour (below left), whose professional life had paralleled the city’s post-Civil War boom, identified several nearby towns as “desirable acquisitions” that would enable Newark to grow in an intelligent and orderly fashion. Unfortunately for Newark, the state Legislature had already gone to work carving up the surrounding areas in ways that would prevent Newark from expanding beyond its relatively modest footprint. Harrison, Kearny and East Newark are part of Hudson County. To the north of Belleville, Lyndhurst and North Arlington are part of Bergen County. Elizabeth and Hillside are in Union County. Clever business—state law prevents annexation across county lines. And because suburban towns in New Jersey were given greater power relative to their populations than cities, there was little chance Newark could have absorbed its western neighbors.
A PROBLEM OF SPACE
That Newark would become a victim of its own success was not immediately evident. Indeed, few if any Newarkers celebrating the 250th anniversary in 1916 had reason to believe the city’s then-small growing pains held dire consequences. Just a year earlier, the marshland to the east had been converted into Port Newark, ostensibly a staging area for World War I, but beyond that a major industrial lifeline. Newark Airport was still a decade or so away, but it would become America’s busiest soon after opening. The intersection of Market and Broad Streets already rivaled and possibly exceeded any of the nation pedestrian crossroads.
As Newark’s factories proliferated, they pushed slowly into once-pleasant residential neighborhoods. American cities at this time were not known for their cleanliness or policing of polluters; Newark was probably on the lower end of the totem pole in this regard. Soon anyone in these neighborhoods who could afford to move elsewhere in Newark did so. The wealthy and upwardly mobile saw the writing on the wall, too. They began moving out of Newark entirely—often just over the border, a trolley- or car-ride away. And with them went the tax base and much of Newark’s philanthropic spirit.
The 1920s were actually quite good to Newark. The city thrived economically and culturally. Its department stores bustled with activity during the days, as shoppers from surrounding municipalities flooded into downtown. At night, restaurants, theaters, movies houses and nightclubs were busy well into the morning hours. Even in the early years of the Great Depression, commerce thrived in the city. However, with a greater tax burden falling on businesses and the remaining property owners, the math of Newark stopped working. Companies found more attractive options in other towns. Private homes became increasingly unaffordable. Landlords of apartment buildings had no incentive to maintain them.
HARD TIMES, TOUGH CALLS
In the final years of the Depression, the federal government got involved, and not in a positive way. The predecessor of the FHA did an evaluation of Newark’s many neighborhoods for loan-worthiness. In other cities, the top neighborhoods received a “green” rating; no part of Newark achieved this level. Forest Hill and Weequahic—two of the city’s finest—managed a second-rate “blue” designation, while relatively well-kept sections were deemed “yellow.” The rest of the city, including the immigrant-heavy Ironbound and the African-American sections, were slapped with a “red” rating. In the years that followed, including America’s postwar boom years, the FHA poured more and more money into the surrounding suburbs, and earmarked less and less into “red-lined” Newark neighborhoods and their blue and green neighbors. Banks followed suit, denying mortgages to qualified borrowers in the city based solely on address. This served to accelerate what came to be known as white flight, which, by the 1960s, was in full swing.
Compounding this problem was another government program initiated during the Depression, which funded public housing projects in American cities. The way the program was structured, city fathers were allowed to decided where these projects should be built and how many should be built. Newark went project-crazy, building more per capita than any American city, ostensibly to create construction jobs and much-needed revenue. However, the vast majority were built in impoverished neighborhoods, with disastrous consequences.
Coupled with the growing influence of racketeers in city government, divisions of race and class, high crime and the erosion of spirit brought on by urban blight, the stage was set for the cataclysmic events of 1967.
CITY ON THE RISE
The city’s struggles in the ensuing decades have been well-chronicled. Newark’s story of decline is not all that different than those of other legacy cities, a name now used to describe older, industrial urban centers that have suffered major population and job loss—and the inevitable reduction of resources and services that inevitably follow.
However, Newark differs from its legacy sisters in ways that bode well for its future. And that is just as crucial to understand and embrace as the problems of its past.
Newark is a vital transportation hub for trains, planes and automobiles. It is a walkable and affordable city situated between overpriced Hoboken and Jersey City and the nearby suburbs, making it the logical “next stop” for young urban dwellers. It has anchor businesses and institutions, both new and old, that have invested aggressively in initiatives that create jobs and enhance the quality of life. And it is a city that, collectively, is committed to its future through the promotion of education, the arts and emerging technologies.