City Without Memory

The demolition of the Westinghouse building is moving eastward slowly along Orange Street towards the former site of WJZ, a landmark in the American broadcasting history. According to Tommy Cowan, the radio station’s first announcer, “My Little Gypsy Sweet Heart” was the first show aired in 1921.

Memories are roses in the rain.
Days I knew are just a memory, just a memory.
Happiness is just a memory, just a memory.
That is all left for me…

When I sat in the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan to listen to a clip of the group’s singing, all I could think about was a recent email message from Mrs. Bachmeier, a lady who lived across from the Westinghouse building in the early 1950’s:

I lived on Burnett Street 1951, went to Burnett Street School – later moved to Orange Street around 1958. Left around 1963… Even today after all that time I still see Orange Street the way it used to be. It was a very busy and lived place. There used to be a diner on the corner of Burnett and Orange Streets. The Orange Bar & Grill. Jimmy’s Barber Shop, Rocco’s Pizza & Restaurant, candy store corner of Broad and Orange Streets, Schickhaus meat packing… Westinghouse was one of the most upstanding buildings I have ever seen, and to live across the street from it was a bonus. Five years ago, my husband took me down to see the area. I was in shock to see what had happened. It’s a shame to see what had happened to Westinghouse!! I used to play on the steps. I can’t believe where I used to live is now a gated parking lot. It was sad. I guess it’s true “you can’t go home again.”

Obviously, Mrs. Bachmeier’s experience is neither the beginning nor the end of Newark’s experience around the Broad Street Station area. Surely, like all of us, she has never experienced WJZ in the “golden era of radio.”

On February 19, 1921, WJZ was the second in the nation to be licensed for radio broadcasting. Although KDKA of Pittsburgh started a few months earlier, WJZ popularized the broadcasting idea and introduced it to the metropolitan area. At 1:55 p.m., October 5, 1921, WJZ made history by broadcasting a World Series game pitch by pitch between the Giants and the Yankees. A Newark reporter called in from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan and Tommy Cowan aired the game from a radio shack on the roof of the Westinghouse building to 5,000,000 excited baseball fans. A former employee of Thomas Edison, Cowan got his job at WJZ by exaggerating his musical expertise. However, his main challenge was to fill the sparsely programmed daily schedule with unpaid singers and musicians. He often filled gaps with a large phonograph machine borrowed from Edison, which he had to hoist from outside the building to the rooftop. Edison was not happy about the primitive quality of radio broadcasting, which made his machine sound awful. “I need it back. After listening to your radio, nobody will buy my machine,” Edison told Cowan.

Soon, the station settled on a second floor ladies room, with a grand piano rented from the Griffith Piano Company. Cowan bought two oriental rugs on sale on Halsey Street, together with some flannel drapes, to add to its appearance and to subdue echoes. He was often seen in a tuxedo outside the building to greet entertainers, who traveled from New York City by the Hudson Tube across the foul-smelling Meadowlands. The station even provided a limousine to fetch Broadway stars to the studio, and tendered champagne and flowers. Among them were the later superstars “The Happy Boys,” Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, who amused themselves by singing opera in a burlesque fashion. The flexible schedules and casual fashion let performers and announcers enjoy themselves. Milton Cross, another famous announcer who was later known as the opera man, once followed a fire alarm while reporting stock prices, “Stand by please.” He jumped to the window to check on the direction of a fire truck before going back to his listeners. At the beginning, his tenor voice often carried a harsh accent from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.

WJZ programming quickly created a general mix of orchestral music, humorous speeches, weather programs, and even religious preaching. One of the best known programs was children’s bedtime stories between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m., written by Josephine Lawrence of the Newark Sunday Call. She was first asked to read her own stories, but fainted at attempting to climb the roof to the studio. Lawrence grew up at 41 Halsey Street in a Quaker family before the Haines’ building replaced those wooden row houses. With only some education at Barringer High School, she became one of the most successful writers of her time. Sinclair Lewis praised her stories of “the touching, gentle, and tragic people of America.” Her “Man in the Moon” stories, listened to by millions of children, often mentioned particular children by names and admonished them to “eat spinach like a good boy and go to bed when mother says so.”

Before moving to New York City in May 1923, WJZ had been the most successful station in the nation, breaking many historic grounds. On February 19, 1922, the station broadcast the first Broadway show: “The Perfect Fool” by Ed Wynn. Opera came to radio for the first time on March 15, 1922, when WJZ broadcast Mozart’s comic piece, The Impresario, with the whole opera company herded into a 10’ by 40’ makeshift studio in the Westinghouse building. On April 22, it created the first music program of an educational nature. On October 14, 1922, WJZ covered the first football game in radio, between Princeton and Colgate. Music programs from Newark could be heard as far away as California and England. Together with other Westinghouse stations, KDKA of Pittsburg and WBZ of Springfield, MA, WJZ formed the first radio network in American broadcasting history.

WJZ’s great success led its own abrupt end in Newark. In 1922, 14 mostly commercial radio stations, including Newark’s WOR of the Bamberger Department Store, ganged up against WJZ for the crowded share of airwaves. A joint request was presented to Herbert Hoover, then the Secretary of Commerce, to bar WJZ from the air. Eventually, the station was bought and moved to New York City, ending its most inventive and colorful experience. The original radio shack can still be seen from University Avenue, although for just another month.

Newark is a city without memory. Nobody knows that the first girls’ school is now under Rutgers-Newark’s library. The Newark Academy with its first 75 years history is under two brick high rises next to I-280. The country’s fourth largest Italian community was long buried first under the Columbus Homes and the now Hope VI apartments. Prince Street, where the most exciting Jewish street life used to be located, is covered by weeds, most likely waiting for some generic automobile-oriented development off Springfield Avenue. While Philip Roth indulges himself in memories of Weequahic’s tree-lined streets, the city seems collectively eager to wipe out its memory, often in the name of progress. A few years ago, I walked a visitor from Austria, who was hardly a snobbish elitist architectural critic, to see the Mies van der Rohe’s Pavilion buildings; he commented on the nearby Hope VI construction, “Oh, whoever built those structures should go to jail.” True, there is a price to be paid for bad architecture. Even the greatest historic city like Paris has to deal with its colossal failure of replacing the historic, but eclectic, Les Halles with “a soulless architecturally bombastic modern jungle,” as Mayor Bertrand Delanoe puts it.

Nobody, with a fair and sane mind, would advocate nostalgia against economic development. The Baraka brothers, the owners of the Westinghouse building, are not responsible for Newark’s identity or the phoenix trying to rise above the demolition rubble. However, our mayor, our planners, and, most of all, citizens of Newark, have to be mindful while moving forward. If one tries hard to listen to WJZ, a playful, gentle, and enduring voice is telling us, “A city without memory will never have a future.”

Author: Ken Walker

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

5 thoughts on “City Without Memory”

  1. Thanks, Zemin, great blog. Do you know if there’s any attention being paid to maintaining any of Newark’s historic buildings? I forget whether the city has a functioning planning board in place to implement a city-wide development plan (though I’ve heard one has been in the works for years now). Did you get a sense from the Bayonne Box meeting whether the city is paying attention to this specific issue?
    It was sad when we walked around the Ironbound on tour with Jeff Bennett last summer and saw those forgotten buildings, like the original Murphy’s Oil Soap factory. In these difficult times, it would seem we should be celebrating inventive entrepreneurs like Murphy and Edision, rather then demolishing their legacy.

    Like

  2. The City Ordinances require the mayor to appoint nine members for the Historic Preservation and Landmarks Commission, which reviews all constructions in five historic districts and other designated historic structures. (Westinghouse building is not designated; the Broad Street Station is.) The commission has a highly effective chair, Mr. David Abramson, an architect. They meet every first Wednesday (6:00 p.m.) of the month in the basement of the City Hall. Also, the Newark Preservation and Landmark Committee, a non-profit group, has been instrumental for establishing all historic districts. Further, the new city planning director, Toni Griffin, has a record of using preservation as one of the basic building blocks of city planning. However, the effective preservation needs the mayor’s strong leadership and all citizens’ commitment. I met a long-time resident and a reader of this site, who grew up in a housing project. He movingly devotes his effort to study the history of his wood-framed building, where a leader of early women’s suffrage movement lived. Every building has a human history deserved to be preserved in some ways.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s