Newark Before the Comeback: A City Marked by White Flight, Poor Policy

In the span of a few decades, New Jersey’s premier city went from being an economic driver to a struggling urban area, most of whose white population had left. The reasons were complex

Credit: Cornell University
Early suburbs
Many view the 1967 riots, alternatively called a rebellion, in Newark as the city’s low point, prompting whites to flee in droves for the neighboring suburbs. But the phenomenon called white flight started much earlier and the reasons behind it were more numerous and complex than simple racism.

People started moving out of the state’s largest city in earnest after World War II. New Jersey’s suburbs were growing and advertisements were portraying them as idyllic places with more space and grassy lawns that were easy to get to by automobile. The U.S. government made it easy for veterans to get a mortgage. As blacks moved from the South into cities like Newark, real estate agents stoked fears that homes would lose their value, prompting whites to sell and move out. “Redlining” discouraged whites from moving into cities and kept blacks from moving out.

“That part of the story really is the federal government subsidized the growth of suburbs while neglecting cities, and it was racialized in the sense that low interest mortgages were made available to white people and new housing was made available to white people and those opportunities were not available for black people,” said Max Herman, a professor of sociology and anthropology at New Jersey City University who has written two books on 20th century urban riots, including those in Newark.

For these reasons, and some others, Newark went from being one of the largest cities in the nation — 14th most populous in the U.S. in 1910 — and New Jersey’s economic driver to a struggling urban area with a high crime rate, failing schools and deep poverty in the span of just a few decades.

Founded in 1666, Newark rose to prominence through the 1800s due to its location near New York City and along the Passaic and Hackensack rivers. “By the beginning of the twentieth century, Newark was one of the leading manufacturing cities in the nation,” wrote scholar and civil rights activist Robert Curvin, who lived through the five days of disorder in 1967, in his book “Inside Newark.”


Prudential Insurance Company was founded and is still headquartered there. The Johnston and Murphy footwear company began there in 1850 as did the William J. Dudley Shoe Company. Krueger, Ballantine, Pabst and, currently Budweiser, beers all were made in Newark. Ballantine House, now part of the Newark Museum, provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous in the city.

Former Gov. Kean: ‘It was a vibrant city’

In the first half of the last century, the city was still largely growing, save during the Great Depression. Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, whose father Robert W. Kean represented part of Newark during his two decades in Congress, fondly recalled the Newark of the 1930s and ‘40s, when the city attracted visitors from surrounding areas to its shopping and night life.

“I knew the old Newark very well,” said Kean, whose work as governor led to the siting of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark at a time when the city was in the early stages of recovery. “It was a vibrant city. There were a lot of good things going on there. We went shopping there — there were no shops in Livingston. At Thanksgiving, we went to the Bamberger’s parade. I came to be very fond of the city at a very early age.”

Former Gov. Tom Kean
The population of Newark grew by more than 26 percent between 1910 and 1950, an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows. This was largely driven by the Great Migration of blacks from the South, mostly to urban areas. The number of African Americans in Newark increased by more than 65,000, or close to 700 percent, during those four decades. At the same time, the white population rose by roughly 7 percent, or 25,000.

In actuality, whites had begun leaving the city during the 1930s. In his book “Crabgrass Frontier,” Columbia University history professor Kenneth Jackson, wrote that middle- and upper-class whites were already viewing the suburbs more favorably than cities like Newark.

“In 1925, more than 40 percent of all attorneys whose offices were in Newark were already living in the suburbs; by 1947 the figure had jumped to 63 percent,” Jackson wrote. “As early as 1932, more than 86 percent of the officers and board members of the Newark Chamber of Commerce lived in the suburbs.”

According to the book “How Newark Became Newark,” the city’s population peaked at just under 450,000 in 1948. In 1950, whites numbered some 363,000, or about 83 percent of the city’s population, down from 89 percent a decade earlier.

Newark was not a city that many would have found attractive at that time, according to the descriptions in Brad Tuttle’s book chronicling, as the subtitle puts it, “The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American City.” Whole neighborhoods were considered blighted. A 1947 report by the city’s Central Planning Board found “one-third of all Newark dwelling units needed major repairs and/or lacked private bathrooms or a private water supply.” Some streets needed widening to ease congestion. “Vast areas of slums in the Ironbound and the North and Central wards needed to be completely razed.”

Rapid flight in the 1950s

The flight began in earnest in the 1950s, with close to 100,000 whites leaving Newark that decade, to be replaced by more than 60,000 blacks.

The later African American arrivals were part of what demographers call the second wave of the Great Migration. According to the census bureau, Newark experienced the most dramatic racial population shift of any major city as a result of that wave: Between 1940 and 1970, African Americans went from 10.6 percent of the city’s population to 54.2 percent.

Population concentrations in Newark before white flight: Click to expand/close
Population concentrations in Newark after white flight: Click to expand/close
A confluence of events during this time spurred or exacerbated white flight, with experts disagreeing on how much influence racism itself contributed, at least prior to the riots.

James Hughes, dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said that couples who had put off having children due to the Great Depression began to have babies during World War II. After the war, Americans got serious about having families. The resulting baby boom — children born between 1946 and 1964 — necessitated the development of the suburbs.

“We had a period from the Great Depression to World War II of almost 15 years where there was no housing construction, so we had all that to make up,” said Hughes, adding that most cities were already essentially built out.

City’s small size was a problem

Tuttle wrote that Newark’s small size kept it from being able to accommodate more families. At 24-square miles in size, it was the third smallest of the 20 most populous American cities in 1910 and would not annex any new land, unlike Sun Belt cities, some of which grew to be 20 times larger than Newark. “Newark would remain stuck at its 1905 size, which was sufficient to allow for relative prosperity over the next few decades,” he wrote. But eventually, “Newark’s twenty-four square miles seemed ridiculously small.”

“Much of non-urbanized New Jersey was a relatively blank slate, with insufficient infrastructure in place to meet the needs and demands of a huge new generation,” Hughes and Joseph Seneca, a Rutgers professor emeritus, wrote in a July 2019 report titled “Move Over Millennials.”

Widespread housing shortages demanded quick and sprawling suburban subdivisions: “Between 1950 and 1970, young families moved into Levittown-style houses at the approximate rate of 1,000 per week across New Jersey for more than 1,000 straight weeks. Nothing less than a homebuilder’s bacchanalia took place — nearly 50,000 units per year were built in this two-decade period.”

One message to soldiers going off to war had been that they would come home to “a house with a little picket fence and a backyard and the like,” Hughes said. “Everybody wanted to go to the suburbs and at the same time, automobile ownership was exploding, so all those factors came together.”

Veterans were able to get loans to buy homes in the suburbs. And governments were building and improving roads, making it easier for those working in the city to drive there. But more and more employers were leaving the city, with its neglected streets and ghetto-like housing. According to the Rise Up North: Newark website, “the city began hemorrhaging jobs,” with 250 manufacturers leaving between 1950-1960 and another 1,300 leaving during the 1960s.

Where did they go after Newark?

It’s unclear where people who left Newark after the war went — Hughes said some suggest many from Newark and its neighboring towns moved down to Ocean County. But the suburbs along the north and western edges of Essex County experienced tremendous growth during the period. From 1950 to 1970, the population more than doubled in Roseland and West Caldwell, and it more than tripled in Fairfield, Livingston and North Caldwell.

What is clear, though, is that whites went to the suburbs because they could. Richard Rothstein, distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and author of a book about the federal government’s role in residential segregation titled “The Color of Law,” spoke last year at a forum in Newark about how Federal Housing Administration policy kept blacks out of the suburbs.

“There was systematic, coordinated policy to create the racial segregation we see all around us,” Rothstein said.

After World War II, the FHA guaranteed mortgages for hundreds of developments with thousands of single-family homes in suburbs across the country. Rothstein called this a “racially explicit program designed to suburbanize the population into white communities.” To get FHA approval, a builder had to make an “explicit commitment never to sell a home to an African-American or rent to an African-American,” Rothstein said. Homes were also deed-restricted.

The FHA’s underwriting manual prohibited the awarding of loans in neighborhoods that were in or near black neighborhoods. This was in conjunction with the process known as “redlining,” which began in the 1930s, when federal underwriters drew lines around neighborhoods in cities across the country and colored in red those areas that were deemed “hazardous” for bank lending because of the presence of African Americans or immigrants.

Jersey City, Camden and Trenton too

Newark was not the only New Jersey city to suffer from these practices. Jersey City, Camden and Trenton also saw their total populations decline as whites moved out and blacks, and eventually Hispanics, moved in. Newark was second only to Camden in the proportion of people who left — Newark had almost 19 percent fewer people in 2017 compared with 1910, while the drop in Camden was 20 percent.

Jackson described how the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation rated Newark neighborhoods: “The 1939 Newark area Residential Security Map did not designate a single neighborhood in that city of more than 400,000 as worth of an ‘A’ rating. ‘High class Jewish’ sections like Weequahic and Clinton Hill, as well as non-Jewish areas like Vailsburg and Forest Hill all received the Second grade, or ‘B.’ Typical Newark neighborhoods were rated even lower. The well-maintained and attractive working-class sections of Roseville, Woodside and East Vailsburg were given Third-grade or ‘C’ ratings; the remainder of the city, including immigrant Ironbound and every black neighborhood, was written off as Fourth grade or ‘hazardous.’”

“That was a very dark, dark era,” said Hughes.

Real estate “blockbusters” further drove whites out of the city by playing up fears some had of racial integration, Herman of New Jersey City University said.

“They went to neighborhoods where they encouraged a black family to move in — in some cases, even paid black women to push a baby carriage down the street to make it look like black people were moving in,” he said. The message of blockbusters was, “Black people are moving in, your property values are going to go down, so you’d better sell while you can.”

Herman call it “a very insidious process,” saying that blockbusters would offer to buy a home at “the best deal I can today” and then turn around and flip the house. Then they would use one sale to convince other homeowners that the neighborhood was changing rapidly and then seek to buy those homes at even lower prices.

Blockbusting, redlining and other tactics

“The way the process of blockbusting works is that you systematically depress the cost of houses,” he continued. “You get people to sell low and then you scoop everything up and there is a tremendous demand among middle class black families for houses, so then you begin flipping. You charge them higher mortgage rates, which redlining allows you to do, because when a neighborhood has a higher proportion of black people in it, it gets redlined and it’s deemed a risky investment area, so banks can then charge higher interest rates on mortgages.”

"Redlined" neighborhoods in Newark: Click to expand/close
Some tried to stop the tactics. In its 1958 annual report, the Urban League of Essex County wrote that one of its major focuses was on “combatting” the actions of real estate agents that stoked fears and exacerbated white flight.

Citizens’ groups, too, got involved. A June 1958 summary of a meeting by the Clinton Hill Neighborhood Council touched on a number of housing issues, including white flight, as well as the actions by unscrupulous real estate agents. Two of its recommendations were that:

  • Religious leaders should speak to their congregations about the immoral nature of racial prejudice and try to stem the ill-considered flight of some white families from Clinton Hill;
  • Certain real estate agents using unethical and “panic-inducing” methods should be asked to adopt a more professional approach; they should tell would-be purchasers about the zoning restrictions on property usage and shun racial appeals to buyers and sellers.
  • Newark officials saw what was happening and tried various ways to stem the outmigration.

    For instance, Mayor Leo Carlin established the Mayor’s Committee on Group Relations in the mid-1950s. In 1957, the city council agreed to spend some $34,000 “for research into the behavior patterns and emotional feelings of the various racial, religious and ethnic groups that make up the city,” according to a June 1958 article in the publication “Mayor and Manager.” The report’s conclusion? “Racial and religious relations in Newark appeared to be more healthy and positive than in most other northern American communities.”

    In July 1962, the chairman and director of that committee sent a memo to the new mayor, Hugh Addonizio, outlining continuing problems and suggesting ways for the city to attack them. Noting increases in the African American populations in such other cities as New York and Philadelphia and that Newark’s 38-percent black population was the “largest proportional Negro population of any city north of Washington, D.C.,” they wrote that “while other cities have kept abreast of this racial population explosion and tripled their budgets for intergroup agencies, Newark’s concern about the human side of urban renewal relocation and Negro-white relations has not kept pace with other progressive cities, or with its own growing needs.”

    ‘Cleverly diabolical’ effort to change Newark

    The memo did not mince words in outlining the continuing problem: “Block busters and panic peddlers are convincing innocent and naïve home owners to sell quick before the neighborhood becomes Negro. The lies about property depreciation because of Negro invasion and inundation have now developed into a cleverly diabolical technique which is changing Newark’s residential neighborhoods faster than the two Commission staff members can visit the blocks being busted.” One solution it suggested was the hiring of a housing specialist in every ward “if we are to stem the outward flight to suburbia.”

    On another front, Newark jumped at the chance to use federal housing funds made available beginning in 1949 to tear down some of its “slums” and build new public housing. But the redevelopment of the 1950s and 1960s did not accomplish the goals leaders stated at the time.

    “In specific neighborhoods, people had no choice but to leave, because Newark was at the forefront, really, of accepting federal money to level entire neighborhood that were filled with some of the more fairly dilapidated old tenement kind of buildings … neighborhoods where multiple generations of families had lived,” said Tuttle, who grew up in suburban New Jersey and had heard stories of the old, vibrant Newark.

    “I think there were certainly some people who were very idealistic about this, you know, even naive about it, and thinking, ‘Well, the federal government’s going to give us all this money to help rebuild our city and this is going to be great for everybody to be able to put in affordable housing’” continued Tuttle. “And then, you know Newark is, and many, many cities are, just notoriously known for back room deals going on. So I think lots of people benefitted by having construction work, and then all of the work that went into rebuilding some of these neighborhoods.”

    In one instance, officials decided to remake a “blighted” section of the then-First Ward, now the North Ward, by tearing down several blocks and for the construction of the Christopher Columbus Homes project. The area condemned, which included much of Eighth Avenue east of St. Lucy’s Church and north of then-Route 58, now Interstate 280, included 1,371 apartments that housed 1,362 families, as well as markets, butchers, mom-and-pop candy shops and stores selling pastries, according to Tuttle. At the time, the First Ward was the fourth-largest Italian enclave in the country.

    When the wrecking ball arrived

    “The problem was that many First Warders vehemently disagreed that their streets were unnecessary, or that their beloved neighborhood was a slum,” Tuttle wrote. The Newark Housing Authority “maintained that its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs. But, as it turned out, approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist after the wrecking ball came.”

    The eight stark Columbus high rises that had replaced the Italian neighborhood eventually were seen as a depressing place known for crime and vandalism. This is only one example of the way the redevelopment efforts hurt the city they were supposed to save. They were demolished in the 1990s and replaced by low-rise garden apartments.

    “Newark was, in fact, guilty of evicting more people than it accommodated in public housing,” Tuttle wrote. “Between 1959 and 1967, 3,760 units were built. At the same time, approximately twelve thousand families were pushed out of their homes to make way for public housing, highway and other urban-renewal development.”

    The construction of two large interstates through the city displaced residents, as well as splitting neighborhoods. Some two miles of Route 280, built between 1960 and 1973, separate the north from the rest of the city. The construction of about six miles of Interstate 78 from the border of Irvington through Newark — approved in 1963 at an estimated cost of $77 million — displaced residents in the south and split Weequahic from the rest of the city.

    African Americans continued moving into Newark in the 1960s and often did not find the good jobs they had hoped for. Many blacks were living in poor housing. Despite their large numbers, they still had comparatively little power. And the civil rights movement was in full swing.

    “People felt disenfranchised,” said Richard Cammerieri, an activist, in a PBS documentary “Revolution ‘67.” “They were destabilized economically and all of those things were what led to Newark in ‘67.”

    The events of July 1967

    In July 1967, the arrest and beating of a black taxi driver by police led to five days of rioting that left 26 dead, more than 200 seriously injured and city blocks damaged by looting and fires, with the cost of the destruction estimated at more than $10 million, scholar and civil rights activist Curvin wrote, but that was only the immediate monetary cost.

    “It would be difficult to assess the real costs to the city, for the disturbances further damaged the image and reputation of Newark,” Curvin wrote. “From 1967 forward, almost every magazine article about the city’s economic, political or social life began with a reference to the rebellion, often branding the city as a place of violence and racial strife.”

    Credit: NJ Picture collection/Newark Library
    Newark, July 1967
    “The riots certainly accelerated” white flight, Hughes said. It drove some of the whites who had remained in Newark out to the suburbs.

    While the exact timing of when people left is unknown, another 100,000 whites left Newark between 1960 and 1970, and the city lost more than 5 percent of its population, according to U.S. Census data.

    “With the riot, or as I choose to say, rebellion, white flight grabbed hold tremendously,” said Edward Crawford, who was working as a counselor at halfway houses in February 1997 when he recounted his recollections of living in Newark for the African American Oral History Project of the Scott-Krueger Mansion Cultural Center Project for the City of Newark. “I can remember the Weequahic section of the South Ward, heavily Jewish. A lot of my teachers at the Clinton Place (school) were Jewish, lived over on that side of town and within months, year at tops, they were gone.”

    Kean: ‘…irrational fear after the riots’

    Kean said there was “an irrational fear after the riots” among some living in the suburbs, while others held a march down Broad Street wearing buttons saying, “We care” as a show of solidarity. Still, the city was devastated.

    “I remember walking down Springfield Avenue into Newark and most of the stores were destroyed, only a few things were open. It’s just that kind of thing you never forget,” said Kean.

    Credit: William Clare for The Star-Ledger
    Newark, July 1967
    The extent of the physical and reputational damage was long-standing and hard to counter.

    A 1984 article in the Star-Ledger, based in Newark, about a community forum held by the United Vailsburg Services Organization cited statistics demonstrating that white flight continued through the 1970s. It said that the number of deed transactions increased 43 percent between 1974 and 1978 and that the annual turnover rate for homes exceeded 30 percent on some blocks in 1978 alone. The population in that section of Newark went from 6 percent African American in 1970 to 56 percent by the end of the decade. And Vailsburg High School, whose student body was 56 percent black in 1975, was 84 percent black by 1979.

    Kean said that over the years, as both a legislator and then governor, he sponsored and signed a number of bills —including the Educational Opportunity Fund that gives financial aid and support to disadvantaged students, urban aid for cities and certain funding for the Newark Museum.

    “Newark had always been at the top of my mind,” he said. “I always tried to do things to benefit the city.”

    But it is a project begun during his second term and not completed until eight years after Kean left office that may have done the most to boost Newark’s reputation and jumpstart its recovery. The construction of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center brought suburbanites back into Newark to enjoy the arts and maybe enjoy a meal. New housing is now being built around NJPAC and other construction has added apartments, charter schools, supermarkets, corporate offices and the revitalization and reopening of the former Hahne’s department store.

    “I always loved Newark,” Kean said. “It’s a wonderful city. I’m happy to see it coming back.”

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