Summer Reading: New Jersey’s Books and Authors — Inside Newark

Civil Rights leader Robert Curvin traces the tumultuous history of the Brick City since the 1950s.

While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

In Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion and the Search for Transformation, civil rights leader Robert Curvin explores the question of whether the city of Newark is, in fact, on the brink of a long-predicted resurgence. Through historical records and interviews with more than 100 residents and officials, Curvin traces the tumultuous history of the Brick City since the 1950s. The story is a deeply personal one, as demonstrated by the very first passage of the book, which is excerpted below.

On the evening of July 12, 1967, I was in my kitchen with my wife and four-year-old son, Frank. It was about 9:00 p.m., and we were having a cup of tea with our guest, Connie Brown, who had come to Newark to work with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The phone rang. The woman on the line told me with great excitement that a man had been beaten at the Fourth Precinct police station in Newark’s Central Ward and I should get there right away. I left immediately. When I arrived at the precinct about fifteen minutes later, a large crowd had already assembled. I discovered that a black cab driver, who I later learned was a man named John Smith, had been dragged into the precinct by his legs, with his body bouncing along the pavement. Some observers thought he was dead. For everyone on the scene, the anger was intense. One could sense the fury in the air.

The crowd seemed to grow by the second. I decided to go into the police station and learn exactly what had happened. When I went to the desk, an officer told me a man had been arrested, that he was in a cell, and that he could not tell me anything more. Just at that moment, Police Inspector Kenneth Melchior arrived. Melchior, who recognized me from my civil rights activity, spoke to the officer at the desk and then asked that I accompany him to the cell. At the cell, I saw a man in great pain. He complained that he had been beaten. He said that he had bruises on his head and severe pains in his side and stomach. Melchior said that an ambulance was on the way.

Melchior and I then went to the lobby of the precinct, where other community leaders had gathered. The crowd had now swelled to several hundred. The police asked a select group of community leaders, including myself, to tell the crowd to disperse and go home, that the prisoner was on his way to the hospital. That did not seem like a feasible option to the group of about seven people, which included Tim Still, a revered leader of public housing tenants, and Oliver Lofton, the director of the Legal Services Program. I was asked to go out and speak to the crowd. I mounted a car that was parked in front of the building and told the crowd that the prisoner was alive, that this was another example of police mistreatment of a black citizen, but that we should not respond with violence. We could not win or accomplish anything that way. I urged the crowd to organize a peaceful march to City Hall where we would let the mayor and city officials know that we would not accept this kind of treatment anymore.

Suddenly rocks began to fly over my head, aimed at the police. The police retreated into the precinct house, as did I. As the police were donning their riot gear, we pleaded with them to allow us to make another try at calming the crowd and organizing a peaceful demonstration. We went back outside and I mounted the car with a bullhorn provided by the police. Perhaps one-fourth of the crowd responded to my request and began to line up for a march, but before I could dismount the car, a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails rained through the air, aimed at the police and the building right behind me. The burning gasoline slid down the façade of the building. With nightsticks flailing, the police then charged toward the crowd, and one of the worst riots in American history began. For Newark, perched along the Passaic River and founded in 1666 by Puritans from Connecticut, those five days in July 1967 would deeply change city life and politics.

Newark, with all of its troubles, is a many-sided story, full of good life, bad life, fun times, painful times, opportunity, and many of the remnants and legacies of an old American industrial city as well as the intimations of a postindustrial city. Newark speaks volumes regarding the plight of America’s urban places and the enduring effects of poverty, disadvantage, and race. And I am an elder of the Newark story.

I was born in Newark and spent my childhood in the adjacent town of Belleville, a section populated mainly by Italian immigrants. I had my first formal job as a teenager operating an elevator in Bamberger’s department store and attended college at Rutgers University in Newark. I have lived in Newark since I returned from military service in the 1950s, interrupted only by four years in Princeton attending graduate school. I raised my children in the city and was a leader in the Newark protest movement for racial justice in the 1960s. I was also part of the cadre that worked for Kenneth A. Gibson’s drive to become the first black mayor of Newark. So I am the guy who gets the Newark questions at a party in New York or on a plane ride to Washington. Were you there during the riots? Do you know Cory Booker? Do you think he will be president some day?


It isn’t ever really possible to have a complete and satisfactory conversation about this sometimes wild and rambunctious city, which nonetheless has made me and my family love it. How, for example, do you explain mayor-council relations and the horse trading at City Hall in a casual exchange? How do you paint the variety and vast differences among the city’s ethnic and racial neighborhoods? How do you describe the pathos of Newark’s poverty, the down-and-out families, the crime, the bold and brutal reminders of racial injustice and segregation? How do you tell someone over the boom of airplane engines that Newark is also a vibrant and hopeful city, driven by gritty determination? Although Newark is in many ways a unique city, it is also a representative case of American urban life, a metaphor for both the resiliency and excitement of the urban journey as well as the truth about urban hardship. While Newark is by no means the only city that is home to large numbers of people who are economically at the bottom of the ladder, it is rare to find another city in the United States with such a high proportion of poor people.

For several decades, Newark has been undergoing a slow but steady recovery from the decline that began just prior to World War II and reached a peak shortly after the civil disturbances in 1967. Newark today is old, tired, and decrepit, but it is rebuilding. In downtown Newark, there is the world-class New Jersey Performing Arts Center, as well as the Newark Museum, which ranks among the best of its peers in the nation. A few large law firms remain in the city, and there has been a spate of new commercial enterprises. Recent major developments include the Prudential Center, home to the New Jersey Devils, a National Hockey League franchise, and a venue for concerts, circuses, and college basketball games. Since 1970, there has been extensive growth among the area’s five colleges and universities, bringing 40,000 commuting and residential students into the city each day. Newark’s seaport and airport, both under the management of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are major employers and contributors to the local economy. While Newark’s neighborhoods lag behind downtown renewal projects, they have not been neglected, at least not physically. Almost every poor residential area of the city is dotted with handsome new brick-front homes, replacing the traditional wood-frame housing from the beginning of the last century.

Still, there are graphic signs of a decayed and abandoned city, often in close proximity to the shining new developments. Empty, crumbling structures and the barren lots that have marred the cityscape for decades remain. If you were to stand on Broad Street at Military Park, just west of the dazzling performing arts complex, and look southward along the city’s commercial spine, you would see the darkened windows of a huge abandoned department store building, beckoning for change. The crime rate began falling in 1999, but crime remains a serious social and political concern that has worsened with the effects of the recent economic downturn. Joblessness generally continues to be a major challenge. Most significant, there are only a handful of schools in which pupils are meeting state standards in language arts and mathematics. As some law firms move into the city, others leave. Day by day, the old, poor, and struggling Newark challenges the new, recovering Newark in defining the city’s image, quality of life, and future.

Most of us have a primal attachment to the place of our rearing. Other than religion and family relations, one is hard-pressed to find a more frequently discussed subject in the conduct of human affairs. Although places cannot physically hold our memories, they can help us to recall the warmth of good times as well as the less pleasant memories that shape our lives. The passion that went into writing this book stems from the inseparability of my life and attachment to Newark, not to mention the trauma of witnessing a historic rebellion.

I do not expect most readers to share this passion or experience as I attempt to chronicle the political and economic events that undergird Newark’s decline and its recent struggle to reinvent itself. Newark is a story of the struggle to transform a postindustrial American city and all that implies. These are themes that have been examined many times, especially in the field of urban studies. Nevertheless, I introduce personal observations as well as the observations and experiences of those who were closely involved with city life and politics. My aim is to use my access and knowledge of the community, its leaders, and the city’s political culture to illuminate the nexus of ethnic succession and urban decline. In doing so, I also address the limitations of racial and ethnic politics in Newark, which came to represent a new urban reality. As a result of the departure of the white ethnic groups, the city’s black and Latino population became the majority and captured the key political offices. The opening of the political system was supposed to come with group benefits — or so argued the Democratic theorists. But unlike other ethnic groups, political power for blacks and Latinos did not readily translate into group benefits in Newark.

The politics of decline offers only a partial explanation. The leaders of postindustrial Newark made choices, and many, if not most, chose the least common denominator — simply trading for a job or position with little or no regard for the social concerns or conditions of the poorer citizens of the city. Indeed, Newark has a long history of patronage embedded in almost every aspect of city politics. Many American cities, not just Newark, struggle to escape this conundrum. Ultimately, the extremes of democracy have to be balanced with efforts to build a civic culture that is not overly reliant on electoral politics. At the risk of generalizing, Newark’s civic culture is not strong. Although there are a few examples of what ordinary citizens can do to protect the interests of neighborhoods and common citizens, overall, Newark’s civic culture is too often overwhelmed by the strength of extreme electoral politics.

Mayor Cory A. Booker articulated a vision rare for any urban community and certainly rare for Newark. “We in Newark, in this city, are going to lead the nation in the transformation of urban communities,” he frequently promised. Did he deliver? Can there be rejuvenation in Newark with benefits flowing to residents, leading to a better quality of life in the city? Can there be meaningful reform of education? Can new leaders address the growing cadre of jobless young black and Latino men, surely one of the most important challenges of all, with more effectiveness than their predecessors? As I attempt to examine the extent to which Newark can reach for such a future, I rely on its recent history; an examination of its social systems and politics; its relationship to the regional, state, and national environment; and the stories and voices of the many people who have been a part of Newark’s journey over the last half century.