Coming of Age in Newark

Early last year when I was picking up the street garbage as usual, a large black car pulled up next to me. Mayor Booker jumped out to say, “Thank you for cleaning up our city. Is Rutgers still refusing to talk to your neighbors about its construction plans?” The mayor then asked, “What can I do to help?”

Walking back from the Broad Street Train Station this morning, I saw a Rutgers student unroll her car window, toss out a pile of banana peels, Burger King wrappings, and school catalogs and testing schedules, and fall back to her before-class nap in her parked car on University Avenue. I picked up all her garbage and tapped her window, “Miss, this is a neighborhood, a city. Please don’t litter my street…” “I am sleeping. I didn’t do it. Leave me alone.” “Excuse me. According to Mayor Booker, you just conducted a terrorist attack against my city.” I stood in the cold, garbage in my hands, shaking with anger, even after having experienced this for 17 years.

Seventeen years have flown by swiftly. In April 1991, it was easy to leave our little garden apartment in Harrison, a vast patriotic ocean of American flags during President George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War. Older Irish and Polish residents, under a mayor for 48 years, watched the New York City skyline all their lives, but only visited 30 years ago. On the other side, the Newark skyline created only fear that made the Passaic River the widest in the world. Proud people voluntarily boycotted selling homes to Indian immigrants. When we visited the first rental apartment above a barber shop on Harrison Avenue, the owner told us, “We don’t have minorities here…” The high school, where we occasionally did lap swimming, hired the most qualified physical ed director, a crippled man who was the mayor’s nephew, despite a number of pending cases filed by the NAACP. However, as a lifelong outsider, I had no idea about living in a poor “black” city of a rich white country.

After visiting various insurance agents, stupidly in Harrison and Kearny, we could not get a homeowner’s insurance policy. A State Farm agent tossed back the Polaroid picture of my future home on James Street, shaking his head with an incredulous smile, “Newark! You should at least paint the bay window before taking the picture…” Others required extensive repairs for a policy. After many trips to the Newark City Hall, I could not get a copy of the codes for a back-door deck. “We don’t have codes here,” the Engineer Department clerk told me. One day, I went into the office during the lunch hour. Nobody was there, but the thick code book sat on the counter. I took the book outside the City Hall, copied a few pages, and returned it to the empty room. Finally, our able lawyer had some mystical talks with the bank and the insurance agency to close our deal. The first night in our rundown brownstone was scarily quiet to fall sleep. I got up to write a few lines about owning a place in Newark on my electric typewriter, with which I wrote my doctoral dissertation. A few days later, my wife’s beat-up Datsun 210 was stolen from the street and showed up two weeks later on a Dorchester street in Boston.

One day the following year, when I came back from work, police blocked the street with yellow tapes and TV cameras aimed at my row of brownstones. Our next-door neighbor Darcel was sobbing at the front steps, “Don Dust was killed in his room.” A Catholic gay man, he escaped his perfect marriage with a beautiful wealthy lady and his suburban home with a big lawn. He struggled hard to build his life back in this post-riot land, first as a young reporter for the Newark Evening News, then a mayor’s aid. Fascinated by the city’s history, he devoted all his energy to survey hundreds of old buildings, to found the Newark Historic Preservation and Landmarks Committee, and to put the James Street Commons on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1990’s, Don was tired and depressed. From my back window, I often saw him sitting next to the kitchen counter drinking. A few nights ago, from a local bar, he met a paroled murderer. Don never came out of his bedroom again, until police found his city-owned red car in Baxter Terrace three days later.

Darcel, the beautiful neighbor, and Robert, her intelligent boyfriend, were for years under Don’s protection, sometimes without paying their rent. Without Don, their life soon fell apart. Darcel one day locked Robert out of the apartment until I offered to take him to his grandmother’s home, ending the 10-year love relationship. When we arrived at the house deep in the West Ward, Grandmother opened the door with three little grand-or great-grand children, “Robert, have you received your (government) check? Your father got his this morning.” We saw Robert a few more times in Newark city hall pushing a mail cart. Then, he disappeared forever. Darcel also left soon with her only valuable precession, a new washer. There was not much we could do to cope with our fear, but adopt a dear black Labrador, Morris.

    • *

To be politically active in this city was not easy. As Professor Brendan O’Flaherty of Columbia observed painfully, under 20 years’ ruins of Sharpe James, the basic fabric of a civic society had been destroyed. For the last school board election, only three people out of hundreds in my district voted. The neighborhood association has been torn apart by infighting, by penetration of a powerful neighboring institution’s “community relations” person, as well as by people who see various enrichment opportunities. Most decent people would just mind their own business, just as a corrupted government needs. After all, a “Chinese” man (although with an Irish-American grandparent) is not always welcomed in a city where people have developed a xenophobic habit of flashing their “born-and-raised-in-Newark” credentials. When I parked my car too slowly on my street one day, the driver behind me shouted, “Go back to where you came from.” When I had an argument with my more qualified neighbors, even some “radical liberal” white professionals would often choose to be absent, or keep silent to avoid taking sides politically incorrectly. It took many years for people to stop saying just “hello” to me, and then switch to politics with my (white) wife. Therefore, serving position in local organizations, calling city officials, and even contacting the Rutgers police department about on-going crime have been my wife’s job. I was told, “It is only in your mind.”

    • *

In 1996, my family finally had its first “born-and-raised-in Newark” privilege. My son, and then my daughter, were among the first children on James Street after my neighbor Linda Epps, the president of the New Jersey Historic Society brought her sons here 20 some years ago. Finding a school for children was a challenge. Logistics, finance, and my guilt of not attending the neighborhood Burnett Street School…. My friend, a professor of education, who has lived in Harlem for over 30 years, scolded me, “Think the best for your children; nothing else.” After searching high and low, close and far, we embraced a parent-owned, small progressive school in Montclair. My children became proud Newark children, attending school by NJ Transit from the Broad Street Station.

For their school fund-raising auction, our children used to donate applesauce that we made with our Victory canner from apples that grew on a vacant lot off Bleeker Street, before Rutgers built its new student dormitory. We named it “Forgotten Apple.” Last year after much talk of Newark’s renaissance, we gathered courage to pursue a school fundraising idea by selling a historic walking tour in Newark for suburban parents. Liz Del Tufo, the prominent Newark preservationist, generously led the tour, followed by dinner in our favorite Ironbound restaurant, Campino’s. Only three brave suburbanites showed their curiosity towards Newark, its history, and its ethnic food. The challenge facing our children to grow up in Newark is even greater than what their parents face. They rarely have play-dates because we cannot reciprocate with their classmates, whose parents have many “ideas” about our city. Like their parents, my children have grown their roots in the city. Last fall, we even found another forgotten apple tree to gather over four hundred pounds of apples to can. On the applesauce labels, we wrote:

Christian Feigenspan was the first in the nation to make canned beer. His “Pride of Newark” was among the best. This old apple tree still stands in front of his mansion, turning the bitter Newark soil into these forgotten apples.

    • *

Four years ago, in a rare occasion, the city went to court to challenge a large property’s out-of-town owner for installing mechanical car-lifts in the historic district without a permit. (We later learned that a Sharpe James’ confidant, who was also a county freeholder member, failed to get a “commission” from the owner.) In the first court hearing, the state superior court judge sarcastically challenged every argument of the city’s Assistant Corporation Council. My wife and I decided to spend $12,000 of the children’s school fund to join the case with an amicus brief under the neighborhood’s name. For many months, children attentively listened to their parents arguing about the legal battle and watching them writing papers for the attorneys. To raise a few hundred dollars of extra fund for the legal costs, with a few neighbors, we bought and sold a truckload of oranges and grapefruits from Florida. A year later, after winning the case and negotiating with the owner and his architects for dozens of hours, we actually stopped an assault on the district’s historic assets for the first time since 1980.

    • *

Early last year when I was picking up the street garbage as usual, a large black car pulled up next to me. Mayor Booker jumped out to say, “Thank you for cleaning up our city. Is Rutgers still refusing to talk to your neighbors about its construction plans?” The mayor then asked, “What can I do to help?” Yes, Rutgers-Newark, our neighborhood institution, where my grown-up daughter got her bachelor’s degree. After over 20 years’ effort to destroy a residential community, the school was (is) planning its last blow to the last downtown neighborhood by planning to insert an eight-level parking deck with 1,600 cars in the heart of the city’s first historic district without any community input. After months of talk with the school’s administrators, we were told nothing, but “to accept heavy traffic in a downtown area.” The two children often went to these meetings with us, waiting outside the conference room with their books and eavesdropping on some revealing conversations with the office staff. “I could care less about what is going on in their fxxking neighborhood” my daughter reported hearing to me. In October 2006, they went to the university campus to distribute leaflets to Rutgers’ guests at the new dormitory ceremony, urging the university to contribute to a sustainable and equitable community in our city. From time to time, their deepest fear has not been run-down buildings or crime, such as shooting on our street in the night of June 30, 2006. (We just washed off the blood stains next morning.) The state university and its “urban expert” Provost have been terrorized them with a monstrous parking deck and foul fumes. They know that life is not a beach here, but more meaningful if they do not take our sidewalks, trees and flowers, or even the air breathe for granted. Day after day, the children offered their own versions of parking plans for Rutgers, or “tricks” they could pull that would instantly bring a peaceful world to their streets.

    • *

For most of their early childhood, the city of 270,000 residents provided not a single playground. Our children got to know some playmates in the nearest urban playground at the corner of Hudson and Bleaker Streets of New York City. In 2002, my three-year-old daughter attended her first “political” event, with SPARKS of the Ironbound Community, demanding the clean up of Riverbank Park. For weeks, she chanted at home, “No Park, No Summer….” Many warm evenings, we walked to the grass of NJPAC to watch the moon rising behind Penn Station, to count trains and airplanes in the east, and to touch the brick dedicated to the center in their names in 2001: Myles 6, Maia 3, City Aficionados. Rutgers’ sandbox contains countless buried tunnels the children built over years. Washington Park, the strip of green in front of Rutgers Law School, NJIT’s campus, and all the bumpy sidewalks have felt their flying scooters. From their bedroom windows, we watched trains roaring through Broad Street Station and admired the glass of Mies ven der Rohe’s three buildings reflecting the last ray of the sunlight.

    • *

Many years ago, my boy uttered his first word, reflecting a distinguishing Newark reality: “demolition.” However, he has grown up to be a building fanatic, recording all kinds of historic structures in his portfolio, from Murphy’s Varnish Company, to Sacred Heart Cathedral, to neighborhood brownstones. Last year, he took an opportunity to present to Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor a green design for I-280 under a park of lush trees. “Oh, great! It will take me only $36 dollars,” Mr. Pryor commented. In various public hearings, he has commented on the Broad Street beautification project, the Regional Plan Association’s Vision Newark, and his favorite architect Michael Graves’ new Newark Museum rendering. Last year, I delivered the devastating news of the eminent demolition of the Westinghouse building over dinner, a much-loved building he had watched and rehabilitated in his mind daily through his bedroom window. He crashed on the table with tears, “I hate Newark. I hate Newark…” Since then, we have retrieved much memorabilia from the Westinghouse building, slipping through an opening in the fence after demolition hours. The treasures include architect Abramson’s blueprints, various glass lampshades, and enamel signs. It is extremely painful to watch the slow death of the building, burying in the crumpled bricks those 275 famous children’s bedside stories broadcast by WJZ in 1922 from this building. To survive, we have all learned to move on to dream about something else in this uniquely great city.

    • *

Since the time when we hung a sign, “Drop Bush Not Bombs,” on our front window, life in this country has become increasingly suffocating. With some escapist desires deep in our minds that we would not want to admit, we traveled summer after summer to Istanbul, to Barcelona, to Prague, to Paris, and to Canada. In this big world, most people, we learned, have been cultivating their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, we could not wait to rush back to this pathetic place we call home. For all my adult life, I helplessly remember the great pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer’s words, “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think…” Growing up and aging in Newark, however, is a powerful experience to emancipate our souls and to enable us “to think what we want to think.”

Author: Ken Walker

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

8 thoughts on “Coming of Age in Newark”

  1. Was this gentleman depressed when he wrote this? Perhaps he should wait until a depressed moment has passed before he writes for this blog. Plainly he has had the good sense, and courage, to fite the good fite for many years rather than run. But the whipsawing emotions, back and forth between pros and cons, confuse the reader. Is Newark a place to stay or flee? The blanket hostility to Mayor James, even when his administration intervened on his side!, is deplorable. I’m relatively new (7 1/2 years) to Newark, and live four miles west of James Street, in leafy, semi-suburban Vailsburg. My experiences have been very different, and almost all positive. Yes, we mourn the loss of the Westinghouse Building and other parts of our cultural heritage. But it is assuredly true that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”. We need to try to ensure that whatever takes the place of the Westinghouse Building is worthy of that spot. I would urge Zemin, and other urban pioneers working to bring Newark back who have bad days, “Be of good cheer. Reinforcements are on the way.”

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  2. As a single white guy living in the west ward for two years I think you’re completely insane for raising your kid here. It is fine to throw yourself in the most racially charged high-crime city in jersey out of a love for history in the making, but why bring your kid into this? I may be crazy, but you are insane. Love the Daily Newarker, keep it up!

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  3. You broke into Westinghouse to take stuff? For God’s sake, man, get rid of it! Do you know how many toxins have built up on the site, in the building and on everything in it over the past century? It’s sad to see it go, but it’s a product of an industrial age that wasn’t careful with hazardous waste disposal. It would be a shame to survive some of the dangers of living in Newark only to be killed by some memorabilia stolen from an old factory.

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  4. Great article, as usual, Zemin.
    Newark has its tragedies and its triumphs, and I it’s difficult enough to cope with the challenges as an adult, let alone as a 10-year-old.
    As new parents of a 10-month-old Newarker living in the Ironbound, we’re proud to see another parent fighting the fight to create a sustainable, livable, healthy city for our children.
    There’s a lot more of us out there so keep fighting.

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  5. You fail to cite the other sources of “foul fumes” in Newark- like the countless people who commute into the city to work every day or Newark residents commuting to their jobs. Your mention of the student tossing out school catalogs and testing schedules is absurd and clearly over exaggerated. This early in the semester, most students do not even have the testing schedule for the May finals yet. If they had taken the trouble to print it, they would most assuredly not have callously thrown it out the window. Furthermore, the stretch on University where Rutgers is located is notable for being clean, unlike other parts of the city. Perhaps you should save your terrorism speech for residents in another part of the city. But I guess attacking college students is safer, right?

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  6. This post was obviously a love letter to the city. I know the area that the poster lives, and had family and was his neighbor for a time. Being in James St. historic district is particularly depressing at time because if allows you to see the potential in and around Newark, had there been better governance. But over time residents of Newark have lost faith and stopped caring and believe that Newark is beyond redemption. I applaud the writer for actually living what he believes. It would have been easy to move to a suburb and talk about Newark from a far, instead of staying and fighting.

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