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.