The story of Rodney Mason is one of a Newark too often overlooked, of a man left in a wheelchair by the city's perils but then finding in Little League baseball a chance to help others -- and himself. Jon Schuppe, a former Star-Ledger police reporter and now NBCUniversal correspondent, follows Mason as he climbs this tortuous path, starting with its first chapter and Mason's upbringing in the city's infamous Zion Towers.
If you drive south from New York City on the New Jersey Turnpike, Newark appears rather suddenly, about five miles out, as the highway curls across the Hackensack River, climbs a hundred feet above the Meadowlands, and cuts through a formation of volcanic rock called Snake Hill. Atop the cragged peak, the road bends westward, and you find yourself looking out over a vast mottled carpet of factories, warehouses, landfills, highways, and railroad lines. Plumes of steam dissolve into the air over oily mudflats and windblown beds of wheat-colored reeds. Up ahead, the three-mile-long black-steel skeleton of the Pulaski Skyway stretches over the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, and to the right, at the southwestern horizon, along an S-shaped curve in the Passaic, stands the downtown skyline, a striking combination of art deco, Beaux-Arts, and modernist skyscrapers built in the city’s golden age, when Newark was the most industrialized city in America, producing just about anything Americans used, from curling irons and soap to sheet metal and celluloid. Catch the view late in the afternoon, with the sun hanging low over the Watchung Mountains and reflecting off the sandstone and glass, and you understand what it must have been like for twentieth-century travelers arriving in Newark for the first time, immigrants fresh from Eastern Europe and Latin America, and African-Americans from the Jim Crow South, stopping short of New York to stake themselves in a rough-and-tumble city with still so much to prove.
On the road toward Newark you pass piles of automobile carcasses, oil tanks, fields of empty Lego-like shipping containers stacked seven stories high, trucking bay after trucking bay. Soon the turnpike carries you under the rumble of airplanes descending into Newark Airport. A half-dozen apartment towers, each more than twenty stories tall, rise above a tangle of jug handles and overpasses. The towers stand on Elizabeth Avenue, a major municipal artery that begins at the edge of downtown, runs into the South Ward, and keels westward along the slope of Weequahic Park and traces the southern boundary of the neighborhood that shares the park’s name. The brick-and-steel towers are clustered around that sharp turn at the park’s corner, at the periphery of an industrial zone littered with scrap-metal yards, recycling plants, auto-glass works, and methadone clinics.
The towers were the result of an ambitious and ill-timed development blitz aimed at preventing Weequahic’s middle- and upper-income residents from fleeing to the suburbs in the 1960s. Billed as luxury high-rises, the buildings were supposed to bring modern living to a city desperate for revitalization. They boasted saunas, pools, recreation rooms, maid and porter services, marble lobbies, and easy bus access to downtown Newark and Manhattan. The key feature was an unencumbered vista of the 311-acre park, which featured a lake and golf course and was designed by the same landscape architectural firm that created Central Park.
It didn’t work. The upwardly mobile Jewish families who had migrated to the neighborhood decades earlier continued to retreat westward, a trend that hastened after several days of rioting in July 1967. They were replaced by striving working-class blacks from Central Ward slums, some of whom could afford the rent in the new towers or in the squat 1930s-era art deco buildings between them. But there weren’t enough middle-income tenants to keep the buildings filled, and the developers were forced to rethink their business plans. That included the backers of Zion Towers, a twenty-eight-story building conceived as a residence for elderly Jews. When the project was finally finished in the early 1970s, the sponsoring temple, B’nai Zion, and its partners applied for government subsidies and opened the apartments to a wider array of residents.
At the time, Clara Mason was a single mother of five children, facing eviction from a house down the street that had just been sold. A scrawny woman with angular features, a jutting lower lip, and light brown skin, Clara grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and quit school at seventeen to marry a navy-yard worker thirteen years her elder. Many members of her family disapproved of the marriage, including an uncle who’d moved to Newark seeking work. He sent for Clara, offering her the chance to finish school and start over. She agreed, but her husband, James, followed her, finding work as a truck driver. She moved in with him and ditched her plans. They began having children, but James was a carouser and an abusive alcoholic. They separated, but he would still stop by from time to time. “It was like he would come around long enough to get a baby,” Clara told me, a scratch of bitterness in her drawl. “You know. One of them things.” James never stuck around long enough to play much of a role in his children’s lives, and he died in the early 1970s. Clara found work in an airplane-parts factory, then in a doctor’s office, supporting her three daughters and two sons on her own.
Desperate for a new place to live, Clara went to her pastor, who worked as a chaplain at a local hospital alongside a rabbi from B’nai Zion. Despite Zion Towers’ struggles, the building still boasted luxury amenities: mail chutes on each floor, juice and milk machines in the lobby, a recreation center, a playground. When Clara was accepted for a three-bedroom apartment on the tenth floor, at $167 a month, “I thought I was living in paradise,” she said. “I thought I was rich.”