New-and-Improved Newark A Look at New Jersey's Big City

New-and-Improved Newark

For many years, Newark had it rough. Not only was the city mired in economic and social crisis, but it was the butt of late-night comedians' jokes, the red-headed stepchild of New York City, the charmless wasteland up the river. In the late 1970s, Harper's magazine thought enough of Newark to name it "the worst city in America," and one well-worn joke had it that the winner of a television game show back in the '50s got a one-week vacation in Newark. Second prize was two weeks.

But all of that has changed. Newark's reputation as a dangerous, desolate place is crumbling away, and as the tides of gentrification and development swirl around the tri-state area, the town that produced such cultural icons as poet Allen Ginsberg, NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal, rapper-actress Queen Latifah, and gangster anti-hero Tony Soprano—and that once prompted so much heckling—is coming into its own as a desirable place to live, work, and play.

American Theocracy

Before it was anything else, Newark was a woodland on the banks of the Passaic River. It was home to roving bands of Hackensack and Lenni Lenape Indians until the arrival of a group of Calvinist Puritans fleeing religious oppression in England. According to accounts of the time, the land under what is today called Newark was "purchased" from the Hackensack tribe in May of 1666 with goods that included gunpowder, bars of lead, new axes, guns and ammunition, forged blades, kettles, blankets, beer, tailored coats, and several pairs of pants—a haul valued at around $750 at the time.

Ironically, the goal of the newly arrived Puritans was to establish an ultra-strict theocracy in the New World, and they set about doing so as soon as their buckle-shoes touched American soil. Their first new colony was called New Haven, and its founders felt strongly that only members of the Puritan church should be allowed to vote, and that only the children of church members could be baptized, among other things. Hardlining to that degree didn't sit well with the more liberal colonists, and eventually the New Haven Puritans split with their fellows and moved up the Passaic River to establish a colony on their own very strict terms. By the late 1600's, the colony of Newark was officially established, with major thoroughfares, an inn, a cobbler, and a population of around 500 souls.

True to the founding colonists' vision, the village of Newark was nothing short of a theocracy. Non-church members were officially second-class citizens, and as such were not granted any benefits or protection from the town government. There was only one church in Newark until 1733, when one Colonel Josiah Ogden left the church after a bitter dispute with its leaders. According to the story, a torrential rainstorm forced Ogden to work in his wheat fields on a Sunday to prevent his entire season's crop from rotting before it could be properly harvested. The town elders took a dim view of his behavior, and punished Ogden for breaking the Sabbath. Ogden retaliated by inviting a group of Episcopal missionaries to build an Episcopal church in Newark, which they happily did —thus breaking the Puritans' theocratic monopoly. It wasn't until the American Revolution—and the need for cooperation in the face of war—that the bad blood caused by the split between congregations was mended.

Two Kinds of Revolution

During the Revolutionary War, Newark served as a drilling ground for English soldiers, and its churches as hospitals for the sick and wounded. Even thorough that turbulent era, the little town grew, with new industries taking root and more and more people coming up the Passaic to call Newark home.

Chief among these new industries was leather tanning, an industry tailor-made to Newark, thanks to the tamarack trees that grew thick in the surrounding forests and supplied local tanneries with tannin for their hides. With the opening of the Morris Canal in the 1830s, and the completion of the Essex Railroad and the New Jersey Turnpike, Newark was a well-connected, well-positioned center for commerce throughout the region, and small industries such as carriage-building, lacemaking, brewing, and millinery flourished.

Leather was king, however, and by the time Newark was granted official city status in 1836, there were hundreds of leather-related businesses and factories in the area. The city's emergence as a major industrial center was fueled in large part by the influx of immigrant and migrant laborers, who in turn worked the tanneries, carriage shops, and breweries. Many Irish had come over to work on the Morris Canal, and they were followed in short order by thousands of Germans, and later by African Americans fleeing slavery in the South. Armies of workers and steady population increases had Newark challenging its much larger neighbors in the region in terms of economic vitality and robust industry.

"So important an industrial giant was Newark," says city historian and librarian Charles Cummings, "that by the eve of the American Civil War, it had become the American South's leading supplier of manufactured goods labeled, 'Made in Newark, N.J.'"

Postwar Problems

The golden years didn't last, however. After each of the country's most monumental conflicts—the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and WWII—Newark suffered greatly. Prior to the Civil War, the Confederate States had been some of the city's best customers. With the Southern economy in a shambles, suddenly Newark found itself supported more by government contracts. During the Great Depression, those dried up as well, and the city found itself sliding quickly into insolvency. Newark's municipal coffers were soon empty, and the city's infrastructure began to decay rapidly.

As jobs dried up and companies moved on to greener pastures, many of the families who had come to the city to work in the early years of the 20th century were forced to pull up stakes and move—if they could afford to—or else to try to eke out a living in a city where unemployment, deteriorating housing stock, and crime were becoming more and more the order of the day. Those who had the money fled and those left behind inherited a city on the skids, rife with corruption, violence, and little opportunity.

Things came to a head in 1967, when racial tension erupted into violence in major cities across the country, including Newark. African Americans, who had been moving into Newark in large numbers since the end of the Civil War, were segregated and ghettoized into the city's most inadequate, least desirable housing. Years of unemployment, crime-ridden streets, disproportionate infant mortality rates and grinding poverty reached critical mass when a report of police brutality against a black cab driver reached the city's poorest. For four days, Newark was paralyzed by rioting, looting, mob violence, and arson. Finally, the National Guard was activated to bring the situation under control but before it was all over, 26 people were dead, more than 1,000 had been injured, and the city had to pick up the tab for more than $10 million worth of destroyed or damaged property. Even today, the echoes of the riots still ring in some neighborhoods, and people who lived through the mayhem remember them as some of Newark's darkest days.

After the riots, Newark's reputation as a tough town seemed sealed. For several years running, it held the dubious distinction of having the highest crime rates in the country—beating out both New York City and Detroit by several percentage points a year. More businesses fled, more municipal services eroded, and it seemed that Newark was doomed to be a violent, blighted punch line for the rest of its days.

Taking It Back

But then once again, under the radar and almost unnoticed by all the wisecracking commentators and nay-sayers, things began to change.

Beginning with the election of Kenneth Gibson in 1970, the city's first black mayor, Newark began to turn things around. By purging the elements of corruption and incompetence from city hall and encouraging businesses to give Newark another look, Gibson presided over the first days of what was to become something of a Renaissance for the once downtrodden city.

Despite former Mayor Gibson's later legal troubles, his passionate revitalization of Newark's downtown business/financial district had a ripple effect, and since the mid-1980s, the city has been a hotbed of real estate development and commercial redevelopment activity—to such a degree that last year, Newark was voted ninth on Inc. magazine's "Top 25 Cities to Do Business In."

Newark's current mayor, Sharpe James, is working tirelessly to promote growth and reinvestment in the city he calls home. According to Cummings, "The mayor's close association with the business community has helped to stabilize the city's business environment, and companies are now returning to Newark from the suburbs."

Along with commercial interest and development, the other twin engine of Newark's rebirth has been residential development and revitalization, says Cummings. From co-ops and condos to single-family homes and townhouses, residential construction in Newark is progressing at a pace not seen for many decades.

"There is tremendous growth in private housing," says Cummings. "For the first time in nearly 75 years, a very large number of upscale townhouses and condos are being built throughout the city. Attractive and affordable low-rise and low-income housing has been built by the New Community Corporation, and the Newark Housing Authority has started replacing its high-rise buildings of the 1950s and '60s with more human-scale units."

And the value of those units is quickly catching up with those in more historically prosperous cities across the state. According to the U.S. Census report, the median home price in Newark is $129,035, compared with $202,196 for New Jersey on average—still a difference, but the gap is closing fast.

Newark is catching up culturally as well. Museums have opened and expanded their programming, the arts have returned, and restaurants and nightlife options have emerged that are sophisticated enough to lure even jaded New Yorkers to see what's going on in the new-and-improved Newark. So great are the changes that in an article a few years back, The New York Times acknowledged a "reawakening" in Newark, saying that "besides an economic resurgence and ambitious real-estate developments, Newark is seeing a much less publicized flowering of artists, writers, and musicians—honest-to-goodness bohemians. "It may be transforming itself into a cool city."

And that's why more and more people—families, singles, retirees—are beginning to look at Newark again as a place to put down roots. The city's crime rate has fallen even more sharply than New York City's, Rutgers University attracts over 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students to the city every year, and between the Newark Museum, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, contemporary art galleries, upscale restaurants and shops, job opportunities of all stripes, and a painless 40-minute commute to Manhattan, no one is branding Newark as the troubled stepchild anymore.

According to Cummings, "In 1916, when Newark celebrated its 250th anniversary, its key word was 'pride.' Today, as we reflect on more than 330 years of rich history, not only pride, but also 'optimism' characterize Newark's mood."

Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The New Jersey Cooperator.