When you live and/or work in the city of Newark, the presence of history, demographics and economics is all around you. You cannot ignore it. Just stepping a block away from the city’s Art Deco edifice, Penn Station, and you’re thrust into the elegant Ironbound Neighborhood with its Portuguese signs, Brazilian banks and Spanish food. Head in another direction and you’re viewing the massive, modern Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils. The colossal showpiece sits atop what was once the nexus of the city’s long-vanished Chinatown. Head out a different door and you’re a block away from the city’s formerly bustling central dock, where sailors once boarded ships headed for Pacific whaling grounds and distant Asian ports.
But last month, another reminder of Newark’s history emerged, and it was from an unlikely source. First, the reminder was that of the city’s devastating 1967 riots. “The Riots,” as the event is still called, obliterated whole parts of the city, particularly the once business lined, bustling Springfield Avenue corridor. Between 1964 and 1967 the city had experienced a rapid decline as crime, police brutality and de facto racial segregation reached seismic levels.
The source of the reminder was none other than State Senator Ronald Rice, Jr. and State Assemblyman Ralph Caputo. Rice witnessed the riots personally and he knows the city’s history and its present condition. I’m sure Rice was not happy to bring up these disturbing memories, because they scarred the city for decades. But apparently conditions on the ground in New Jersey’s largest city have so deteriorated that he felt, in a press conference late last month, to warn the people of New Jersey that Newark again sits on disaster’s door.
Basically, Rice and Caputo are warning us that we’re on the verge of it again; Newark and perhaps all of New Jersey’s troubled, forgotten cities (like Paterson, Camden and Trenton) are staring at the abyss. Rising unemployment, poverty, a near total absence of law enforcement due to massive layoffs, amongst other factors are ripening the Brick City into a fruit that, when harvested, could be a costly one:
“We are somewhat numb to those situations that occur within certain boundaries of our county and state,” Caputo said. “We have kids in the city of Newark riding on bicycles with guns on their hips.”
These elected state officials and their supporters are urging a comprehensive study of the city and its problems before it is too late. I work and teach in Newark every day, and judging from what I’ve seen and the testimony my students and fellow educators have provided, the situation is dire.
Out of the dozens of people I informally interviewed over the past two weeks, regardless of race, economic status or where they live in the city, they all agree. “Newark is absolutely a forgotten city. There is little or no interaction between it, its people and the larger surrounding population of the state,” one teacher told me. “The city’s basic fabric and order are completely disintegrating before our eyes,” another stated. “People are being tackled and attacked midday in crowded, downtown areas.”
Most alarming are the reports of my students. Friends and siblings are robbed; some are shot. Students claim this is all terrifying, but what is more terrifying is the complete lack of police presence and response. “Bad guys in the neighborhood know that not only are the police not around, but they’re probably not going to show up even if we call them.”
One student had a particularly terrifying story to tell. “Did you ever get scared as a kid at night?” she recently asked me. “Sure…I’ve got two cats that run all over the house at night and even that freaks me out from time to time. At least three nights a week I awake to the sounds of pans falling and feet thumping. But they’re just being nocturnal.” The student chuckled, and then retorted, “a few nights a week we wake up too, but this is to the sound of our locked front door knob jiggling or people pulling on the window panes, trying to pry them open. Sometimes we call the police but they never show up.”
The mental strength that some of my students demonstrate in dealing with such conditions never ceases to amaze me. But even in the midst of such strength, my students constantly remind me that they are being pushed to their very human limits. “I walk around this city and I feel that the walls are closing in on me, and my Dad feels it too, and he’s over six feet tall,” another student recently said.
City services are deteriorating, and this, along with the crime and poverty, are literally eating away at everyone’s nerves. Recent snowstorms have buried much of the state, but only in Newark are major downtown sidewalks still covered in inches of dirty snow and ice. People jostle around everywhere, mothers holding their children routinely and repeatedly slip and fall. “It’s like a never-ending assault on your nerves, your senses, your knees, your ass,” one of my peers stated the other day. “And the scariest part of it all is that if you did fall and really, really hurt yourself, and you couldn’t move, the prospect of having to lay there for a long period of time in the cold before anyone noticed or even cared is a very real one.”
Several of Newark’s schools – large and small – are scheduled to close in June to be replaced by Charters. The prospect of the end of neighborhood schools and the idea that they might have to travel miles around the city using public transportation in the cold and the dark weighs upon many kids. Meanwhile, at these large public schools teachers and administrators all face losing their jobs. At all of Newark’s public schools teachers are now presented with a torrent of paperwork that administrators use to present to their superiors to justify their own existence, to save their own jobs. The effect has been devastating. At some schools teachers have simply halted instruction and personal interaction with students altogether. Students, especially in the high schools and middle schools, spend hours working on elaborate group projects while their most important mentors whittle away in front of computers, emailing administrators, working to revise revisions on plans that will probably never take place. Some of the best, previously honored teachers now walk in to mailboxes filled with vicious write-ups, threats and demands for plans-on-plans. This is especially tragic because so many of the city’s students hail from single parent, grandparent or foster parent-led homes and are in desperate need for positive adult role models and progressive interaction. So whom do they wind up looking to? Immature peers, neighborhood bullies, local drug dealers, troubled siblings…
It’s all wrapping up into a perfect storm, slowly and inexorably. The state has invested billions of dollars in downtown, with its shiny, modern Performing Arts Center and expanding Rutgers campus. But all of the buildings in the world will not be able to stand in the way of this beleaguered population that lives in one of the worst food deserts in America when it explodes. There will not be enough police or national guardsmen to stop the damage if another round of riots ensue.
But don’t take my word for it. I live in Princeton, a beautiful, comfortable, stately academic town. Listen to Newark’s leaders, like Senator Rice and Assemblyman Caputo. Study the problem; act on it. Now.
For More On The Lawmakers’ Recent January Press Conference:
To Contact Rice and/or Caputo:
Senator Ronald L. Rice (Dem)
1044 South Orange Avenue Newark, NJ 07106-1723
Phone: 973-371-5665 Fax: 973-733-3725
Service Since: 1986
Email: SenRice@njleg.org Official Website
Assemblyman Ralph R. Caputo (Dem)
148-152 Franklin Street Belleville, NJ 07109-4051
Phone: 973-450-0484 Fax: 973-450-0487
Service Since: 2008; 1968-1972
Email: AsmCaputo@njleg.org Official Website