Goodbye, Baxter Terrace

I love you darling’_Baby, you know I do_
But I’ve got to see this Book of Love
Find out why it’s true

Every day in 1955, Charles Patrick, 17, and a group of teenagers came together to sing in the Baxter Terrace’s recreation hall. By 1958, they had sung their heart out and their song, “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” hit the country and even spread as far as Europe and Australia. “Oh, I wonder, wonder ohm ba doo who….. who wrote the book of love?” Charles never found the answer and two members of the Monotones, the Ryanes Brothers, died in their 30’s. Now that Baxter Terrance has been scheduled for demolition, I wonder if people could find some old and broken pages of the Book of Love from the rubble of this 66 year-old project.

Immediately after the establishment of the Newark Housing Authority (NHA) in 1938, word spread out that one of four “low-cost “ projects, a complex of 21 apartment buildings, would be in an area surrounded by Orange, Nesbitt, James, and Boyden Streets. Among 1,363 buildings in the vicinity, 45 percent residents were black, living in substandard condition, many even without bath tubs and toilets. (Only 10 percent of the city population was black.) To construct the largest public housing in the state, the Orange-Nesbitt project needed to clear a few hundred buildings, while the other three (Pennington Court, Seth Boyden Court, and Stephen Crane Village) would be built on mostly vacant land. All land negotiations with lucrative commissions were assigned to three white agents, despite of the protest of Harold Lett, the only black NHA member.

By June 1939, 21 white land owners still held out their properties. After condemnation procedures, a lone grocer-butcher Mr. Romano took the case of his four properties to the state court. He put up placards against the NHA, “This Is a Free Country….” One afternoon, his plump wife, in a gingham dress, apron and cap, waved her meat clever to chase out the government agent who had come to serve the condemnation notice. “This is no dictatorship, Hitlerism or Soviet government where they chain you and send you to Siberia,” cried Mrs. Romano. However, the couple were subsequently sent to jail and fined. Next March, the court rejected the couple’s constitutionality challenge and settled the case with an offer of $25,000, far from the $75,000 they asked for. Meanwhile, all surrounding streets were widened, in consideration of the traffic during the project’s estimated life of 60 years. After $2,269,088 were awarded to contractors, the construction moved quickly towards completion in 18 months.

On June 7, 1941, the project was officially opened, named after James Baxter, who died in 1909 after serving 45 years in the city’s school. Ironically, although the old Baxter fought all his life for a desegregated school system, his name was chosen only to settle the housing dispute to make the project for black residents only. At the time, among 44,000 black residents, 18,900 were on “relief load,” 41 percent of the total poor in the city. Those blacks, who were removed from the area but failed to get back in, had to settle in far worse housing because of the limited rental availability for blacks. Among the 621 lucky black families, the income limit (i.e., $17 weekly for two and $22 for six) was intentionally set very low with constant strong pressure from the Newark Real Estate Board, among other “real estate lobbies.” The nationwide racial as well as the economic segregation were designed to doom the future of public housing from its very beginning. By 1951 when Louis Danzig, the talented and dedicated NHA director for 21 years, pushed for housing desegregation, the city’s white population had been in its rapid decline. As a result, political support for public housing further eroded.

The Baxter Terrace area was always in one of the most notorious locations. In September 1939 before the project’s construction, the city had to pump 30,000,000 cubic feet of odorless and colorless cyanide gas into the whole block, leading to 500,000 rodent casualties. The problem, however, never ended. For instance, in a February 1970 Newark Evening News report, residents complained that rats were running wildly. “They are so big that kids are not aware of what they are, but play with them in the court yard,” observed one resident. The hallways of the buildings were filled with “foul” odors because of dead rats.

From the beginning, various crimes were reported. For instance, in July 1945, Rochai Sanders, a girl of five and half who had just enrolled in the Burnet Street School, was raped and killed. Her charred body was found in a waste paper incinerator in the basement. The case was never solved. Two years later, the battered body of Mrs. Evelyn Eltoohey (24) was found under walls splattered with blood, while her two year old daughter was sleeping in the room during the day. In February 1954, four armed bandits locked three housing employees in a closet and ran away with $1,500 rent money. In April 1957, a 13-year-old girl was raped by six boys from ages 14 to 16 in the basement. In the 1960’s, robberies became more often and purse snatchings happened repeatedly near Summit Street. By the 1990’s, after the Federal government declared its “War against Drugs,” the area along Orange Street and Interstate 280 became one of the nation’s busiest drug traffic centers. The 1940’s and 1950’s were by then the “good old days.” The police helicopter’s search light and gun shots disturbing the quiet night were a regular feature for Baxter Terrace residents. Even the news media lost interest in the daily violence. During the last a few years under Sharpe James, the area was constantly sealed by police cars and mobile stations to create a concentration camp for those whose only crime was to be born poor.

The innocent residents of generations were hostages to the moralist drug “war” and casualties of various policy failures. While millions of African-American men were pushed in and out of jails, women and children often suffered as well. Two years ago, Cynthia McFadden of ABC News reported a case of 8-year-old Armani Stevenson. When she was only 10 months old, Armani was left on the doorstep of her 85-year-old great-great-grandmother’s home at the Baxter Terrace. The old lady, Okella Foster, was raising five boys and girls at the time. Over the past five decades, she raised a dozen of her family’s abandoned children. When Armani first arrived, raw and open sores were all over her lower body. By eight, she had willed herself to silence, hardly speaking a word outside her home. Psychologists name the condition selective mutism, as an extreme form of control for a traumatized child who cannot control any other things in her life.

My first encounter with the project was in the early 1990’s after finding my home on James Street. Together with some neighbors, I attended a City Council meeting to protest a plan to open an auto junk yard on Orange Street within the James Street Historic District. Happily, I found a large group of mostly women, three times more than my “progressive” neighbors, had already been in the room to protest the same ill-planned business. Some more experienced neighbors, however, were disturbed, “Don’t approach them,” they told me. “Why?” I was puzzled. “They are from the Baxter Terrace.” “What is the Baxter Terrace? Don’t we share the same goal of defeating the junkyard?” I asked. For years, I hardly stepped foot in the dangerous area while getting to know a few decent people there.

Last year, my children’s two bicycles were stolen in front of Intrinsic Café on Sussex Street. My homeless friend Joe volunteered to take me to the Baxter Terrace to look for the loss. In the middle of the courtyard, a child was happily riding my daughter’s bike while a group of men were watching from the doorsteps. “Hey, Joe, fuck you. What are you up to, with that man?” “Hey, fuck YOU,” Joe replied. I left without my bicycles, but with a burdened conscience for my arrogance and indifference. However, my “recklessness” of breaking the taboo for entering the war zone had deeply bothered some neighbors on my own street. Even in this largest city of the most segregated state in the nation, life has been further segregated, creating visible and invisible prisons for everybody.

In my 17 years in the city, I have witnessed a number of ”triumphant” implosions of public housing buildings, including Columbus Homes, Scudder Homes, and Hayes Homes. After next summer, the city will again schedule another demolition, this time for the Baxter Terrace. Kaderia Boykin, a 26-year-old Baxter Terrace mother reportedly said, “Tear it down today. Move me now.” This time, the enduring people of Newark have to go through the experience very differently and mindfully. This is our city, our city planning, our lives, and our souls. Flying all flags at half-mast, ringing the bells of Saint Patrick and Sacred Heart Cathedrals, and playing taps along Orange Street, we will mourn the loss of 67 years and generations of lives. Good-bye, Baxter Terrace, birthplace of the Book of Love, but having seen little of it itself.

Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Newarker, PCA Elder, Business Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

11 thoughts on “Goodbye, Baxter Terrace”

  1. I am a resident of the city of Newark born and raised, I have a lot friends from Baxter Terrace that I grew up with and attended elementary Central Avenue School and Central School in the Early 70’s. There was a lot of talent in those buildings. They speak so badly about Baxter Terrace I know familys that are on the 5th generations of residents there. Unfortuntely somewhere along the way people lost what little respect and morals they had for where they lived and the destruction began. There has always been drugs in that area long before crack. But the dealers had respect for the neighborhoods. There was no killings over turf and what color you wear. I hate to see the buildings go because I think that it is a great part of history of the old Orange Street area , where there was a bakery on Nesbitt Street you could smell bread baking for blocks, The Borden Milk factory right across the street, Meat packing house down the street where everyone went to purchase fresh meats. There even was a Diner on Orange Street that was family owned for many of years that sold fountain sodas and the best Cherry Coke in town.There is so much history surrounding Baxter Terrace and the people who lived there. James Street use to be the better side of Baxter Terrace . People didn’t consider them projects because they were only three stories. There is still 2 business that have been there about 40 plus years to my knowledge The Gas station on Nesbitt and the National Oil and Gas Station right across the street. Take a trip back when you read this remember the bridge that would take you from Orange Street to 7th Avenue Projects. You can demolish Baxter Terrace but wherever you send the people that is tearing it down will only destroy the next place . We need to educate the people to appreciate where they live, Stephen Crane use to be majority Italian now and the blacks that lived there lived there with pride . Now the people are afraid to come out of their homes. Beautiful place first town houses I had ever seen for public housing and now they are a mess. Education is the key stop the generational curse of self destruction.

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  2. I dont know if it is appropiate on what I am about to say about baxter terrace. I feel compelled though, because Baxter terrace has been a big part of my life. I am a 24 year old heroin addict that has been coping in baxter terrace since I was seveenteen years old.I can still remember the first time i entered those projects, i was completly strucken with awe. though i feel many mixed emoitions about this strange place in the city of newark, to my experiences there were many good people in these projects. I have been held at gun point, robed and beaten and arrested all in these projects, yet alwayse felt compelled to come back.
    I have also been helped out and rescued by random strangers that seemed to be sent from the hand of god into a place that is probally the closest place th hell on earth.
    It is very hard to accuratly display my emoitions about these projects so all i can say is that i was just there three days ago, and i felt a heavy cloud of depression and sadness. The windows are broke out the construction crews are blocking them up.
    i am definatly sad to see them go. when i was there three days ago after not beeing there for three mmonths the gentleman i spoke to said that they are going to relocate everyone to different projects throughout the city and it makes me realize that the powers that control us as avverage citizens in this country have absolutly no intention on rectifing this major problem that exhists in our society.
    i am very sad to see these projects go i honestly thought thery were going to be there for the rest of my life.

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  3. I am a 52 year old woman and I live there from the age of 5 to about 12. The baxter terrace I remembered was alot of fun. Back in th ’60s the older people looked out for you as kids we played a lot of different games. We had basement parties(with the red light)guys on one side girls on the other. You never heard about anyone getting killed There would be fist fights and that would be it. The women took turn cleaning the hallways, I remember my mother hanging out the windows to wash them. One of my best memories was listening to the guys sing accapella under the lamp post on a beautiful summer evening while I laid in bed. Those were good times.

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  4. I was born in St. Michael Hospital on April 8, 1966. My parents moved from lincoln park projects to Baxter Terrace projects when I was only 1 year old. My memories of Baxter Terrace was the people who lived there. We was family. We took care of each other, we walk to school together at Burnett Street School. Baxter Terrace had a big play court that we would play basketball, football, kickball and softball. The hallways was alway clean and the courtyard had these nice benches to sit on. The courtyard had these poles where the neighbors would hang there clothes without fear of someone taking them. The grass was cut and the garbage was pickup always. The neighbors would watchout from there windows on the little kids. It was great growing up in Baxter Terrace. Everyone would remember us as the Cruz family. On behalf of all my brothers and sisters, I would say this, you can demolish Baxter Terrace but you can not demolish the memories, the dreams and the wonderful friends we made in Baxter Terrace.

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  5. Mecca Ali…says the 186 James St. structure will forever contain memories of my family; the good, the bad and the ugly! Either way, it was home.
    Question: Did anyone ever believe they were poor while growing up there? I know I didn’t.
    I shared the Richness of a childhood at its best in the KINSHIP of best friends…Hey Londa, holla yo girl; acquired the...idea of STRATEGY in our rendition of board games in tops...yeah …Sulaiman, tops is unparalleled;
    I LEARNED the definition of sports(wo)manship, drive and organization…from kickball, we tore up some butt; but above all that…
    I OWN the love and support (butt whippings too) I received in times of happiness, sorrow, indifference and suffering. I know exactly what it means to feel and be LOVED! The result of that is infinite wealth.
    Thank you Stella (Mooki) Farrell, Rita Johnson, Judy Bey, Saundra Rouse, Gail Harvey…my sister til infinity +1 Adrienne (Aaliyah) McDonald and respectfully saving the best for last and most definitely not least for she was truly instrumental to my growth, Sheila Keith (you mean the world to me). I love you all! If I’ve left anyone out it is because I am emotional and gotta go!
    To the writer of this article, you should know, today, I am a scholar with accomplished short-term goals, a newly set task of mid term goals and long-term goals which follow. Through my endurance in the Baxter Terrace Housing Project I have acquired an unabashed reverence for poverty, alcohol, drug addiction, education and a burning desire for psychology. I believe the communities of my childhood or more importantly, the adults and especially the children who look so much like me that resided there and made up those communities, deserve the right to exposure to intervention and the opportunity to drink from the fountain of remediation. I too am a product of this environment and am convinced that problems in human behavior start with people who are dismissed, voices that are unheard, minds that are malnourished and hope that is completely lost without the possibility of being found. I have an utmost interest in battling against these issues from the grass roots level. My decision to pursue my goal of Doctorate of Psychology in the form of a Psy. D is in the mid term range of what I can only hope to accomplish in my lifetime.
    Celita Sharif

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  6. To the writer of this article:
    I thank you for providing me and so many others with the hisotrical background of The Baxter Terrace Housing Projects that I was not aware; however, what I would like you and others reading this article and responses to know is The Baxter Terrace Housing Projects was more that the name, its was home, a community of families that lived together, loved together, morned together, broke bread together and motivatted each other. A community where bushes, trees, benches, clothes drying on the live without the fear of being stolen, children playin in the playground, the water sprinklers (showers) in the summer, strecthed far beyond the concrete buildings in which we lived. A community that committed itself to making sure that all of its residents were taken care for and held to a higher human and moral standard. A community that made sure that children were able to be children and enjoy those pleasures. A community of extended family members who had the right and moral responsibilty to redirect, repremand, discipline and love all of is residents.
    168 James Street, 55 Sussex Avenue, 59 Sussex Avenue, 175 James Street, 177 James Street & 176 James is the 45 year history from which My grandmother, Doris Jenkins, her five children, Deborah, Janet, Valerie, Sharon & Preston, 12 grandchildren, Darryl, Sadiq, Dawn, Hassan, Quamamara, Rahman, Darius, Malik, Aqueelah, Shafeequah, Ishan, Fakhir, 20 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great grandchild come from.
    A history so rich and full that it has provided a platform for so many of its residents to become productive members of its society. A people a who take pride, care and concern in the safety and welfare of others above themselves. A people who are well rounded, in education, culture and community activism striving to provide the youth and families of today’s Newark with the same love, kindness and respect that was given to us.

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  7. Wow! I have so many memories from Baxter Terrace it was the best project to grow up in every one respect each others mothers back then, you could hang clothes on the line even panties and no one would steel them LOL..How ever it a sad place today with all the crime and drugs there I lost my nephew 3 years ago there whom i miss very dearly and love very much he was a good guy but sometime our children get caugh up in the fast lane and trust the wrong people, we all make bad choices in our lives, but the good thing about is that we can change them today..I still stay in touch with a lot of friends and family from Baxter Terrace, you know every one wanted to be related to the Jenkins sister, and guess what alot of my family is from Baxter Terrace who is really family ..I miss sitting on the brenches playground partys, kick ball games against other projects..I am writing a book of my life i hope it iwll be finish by mid march ..i will let every one know when my book signing will be.. will miss Baxter and the people whom made it a safe and wonderful place to live…

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  8. Wow! I have so many memories from Baxter Terrace it was the best project to grow up in every one respect each others mothers back then, you could hang clothes on the line even panties and no one would steel them LOL..How ever it a sad place today with all the crime and drugs there I lost my nephew 3 years ago there whom i miss very dearly and love very much he was a good guy but sometime our children get caugh up in the fast lane and trust the wrong people, we all make bad choices in our lives, but the good thing about is that we can change them today..I still stay in touch with a lot of friends and family from Baxter Terrace, you know every one wanted to be related to the Jenkins sister, and guess what alot of my family is from Baxter Terrace who is really family ..I miss sitting on the brenches playground partys, kick ball games against other projects..I am writing a book of my life i hope it iwll be finish by mid march ..i will let every one know when my book signing will be.. will miss Baxter and the people whom made it a safe and wonderful place to live…

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  9. Baxter Terrace, Baxter Terrace. It was a wonderful place to be raised. My grandparents lived there Mr. and Mrs. James Coggins. I had a great childhood there, my sister Cynthia and I.
    I will always remember the men in the neighborhood, they were family men. They would all get together in the parking lot, and work on each other cars, I remember getting up early on Saturday mornings, going fishing with my grandfather, along with Mr. Washington, and Mr. Baker.
    We had kickball games, jump rope in the court, played jacks on the stoop, played marbles in the dirt. Sat outside and would eat crabs on the bench, and we would always clean up behind ourselves because we had Baxter Terrace Pride.
    I will always remember the summer nights, they were the best, we sat outside on the benches and everyone would just play and talk, there weren’t any gangs, no shooting, so fighting just pure fun and peace.
    Yes, I do remember some of the bad times, but the good times out way the bad. I am so happy that my children were able experience life at Baxter Terrace, eventhough some of the courts were bad, my court was still one of the best ones. 162 James Street. My boys experience their first snow play, birthday parties, and may were able to go outside and play like children.
    Eventhough, we re-located to Georgia, they remember their life there. Baxter Terrace may be demolished, but the memories will always always, stay in my heart.

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  10. i am earl i was also born and raised from i didn’t know much about it unitl i was in my teenage year to understand the work of newark housing. i would think that i had fun until when it was time to relocate and to move on…. but if i was housing i would rebuild a stonger better baxter terrace
    my rate on housing right now 3 out a 10

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  11. I lived in Baxter Terrace from 1951 until anout 1962. I lived at 168 Janes Street then at 172 James Street. I attended Central Avene School during that time. I enjoy my memories of growing up in the projects.

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