Open Wound

Forty years after the riots that ripped Newark apart, a city scarred by violence and neglect tries to make peace with its past and plant hope for its future.

On a hot July night in Newark 40 years ago, a rumor made its way from block to block, ward to ward—the cops had beaten up a cabdriver. The racial assumptions didn’t have to be spelled out: The cops were white, the cabby was black.

It was summer in Newark, and the living was uneasy. Tension in the white-governed, black-majority city had been growing for years, but in recent months race relations had taken several turns for the worse. In early 1967, Mayor Hugh Addonizio’s administration announced plans to raze a 150-acre site in the heavily black and poor Central Ward to make room for a medical complex that would become known as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Residents saw the plan as the forced removal of the poor and the powerless.

Then in June the mayor and city council appointed a white man with only a high school education, Councilman James Callaghan, as secretary of the school board, passing over a black candidate named Wilbur Parker, a college graduate and the first African-American in New Jersey to become a certified public accountant. The city’s African-American population protested, to no avail.

Since the summer of 1965, three young black men had died in police custody in Newark. The outcry provoked by each of these deaths had gone unheard, or unheeded, in the mayor’s office on Broad Street.

The rumors of white officers beating a black cabdriver on that Wednesday night, July 12, 1967, sounded all too plausible. As word of the clash between the cops and the cabbie ricocheted through the Central Ward—up and down Bergen Street, then one block east to Hunterdon Street, and into the Hayes Projects—young and old emerged from their steamy apartments. Gathering size, the crowd marched up Springfield Avenue toward the Fourth Precinct on 17th Street, where the driver, John Smith, was in custody.

Police allowed the demonstration’s leaders inside to see Smith, who had been brought in after a routine traffic stop near the intersection of 7th Street and 15th Avenue. The protestors asked that Smith be taken to a hospital, and he was.

Outside, however, word spread that Smith was dead. The mob of about 200 hurled insults as well as projectiles at the precinct house. Police tried to break up the crowd. Some demonstrators left and began vandalizing nearby businesses.

The riot, the civil disturbance, the uprising—all these years later, there’s still disagreement on what to call the events—had begun. Order would not be restored until six nights had passed and more than two dozen people had been killed. By the time it was over, hundreds were physically injured and tens of thousands were emotionally scarred. They moved to the suburbs or stayed put and witnessed the city’s subsequent deterioration. In the language of Newark, there is only pre-riot and post-riot.

This month, the city will mark that hellish week with commemorations. The Newark Museum and New Jersey Historical Society are preparing exhibits; the Newark Black Film Festival will present documentaries about urban violence in the 1960s; and Clement A. Price, history professor and founder of Rutgers-Newark’s Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, convenes a series of panels to discuss why the riots still matter to the city. (For a list of events, log on to njmonthly.com.) On July 10, a documentary, Revolution ’67, will debut nationwide on PBS. The film’s producer, Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno, lives in Newark with her husband and creative partner, Jerome Bongiorno.

The aim is not to rub salt in a gaping wound. “The summer of ’67 so devastated the fabric of the city that it’s hard for us to get past it,” says Linda Caldwell Epps, president and chief operating officer of the New Jersey Historical Society. “Some wounds have healed, but we still have a lot of mending to do. I think public acknowledgment and the presentation of diverse perspectives will help.”

Newark, of course, was not the only city to erupt in flames in the 1960s. The Watts neighborhood burned in 1965. Parts of Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Washington, D.C., and many smaller cities resembled war zones from 1967 to 1969. But among the cities associated with the disorder of ’67, Newark is most willing to face its untidy past.

“I’ve heard negative reaction about the plans,” says Doug Eldridge, executive director of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee. “People say, ‘How many more times do we have to live through this?’”

It’s a question that Price has heard too. One of the driving forces behind the public commemorations, he believes that Newarkers are unable to forget the riots in the same way that lovers can’t get over being dumped.

“There is a sentimentality about Newark that other cities may have, but not in such high relief,” Price says. “People remember Newark as a perfect city when it was not. Blacks talk about the old days of jazz clubs and the Newark Eagles. Italians remember the old First Ward. The Irish remember Vailsburg. And Jews? Golly, you don’t need to read Philip Roth to know that Jews sentimentalize Weequahic as a perfect Jewish community. So you have this sentimentality attached to what was a problematic city. And that means when 1967 happened, it broke everybody’s heart.”

In the summer of 1967, Doug Eldridge was a reporter at the old Newark News, which was headquartered at Market and Mulberry streets. He had moved to the North Ward seven years earlier and covered many demonstrations. He was a witness to the roiling discontent of the city’s African-American population that July. “I got a call from a source who said there was trouble at the Fourth Precinct,” he says. “I was off that night, so I called the paper and they said, ‘Yeah, something’s going on.’ It didn’t seem that extensive.”

It wasn’t—at first. The following day, however, the violence increased and a call for help went out to the National Guard and the state police. Before long, parts of Newark became killing zones. Springfield Avenue burned. Residents in nearby towns such as Irvington and Maplewood put up barricades as a hedge against looters.

After spotting a National Guard jeep near his home, Eldridge sent his wife and children to their second home in Pennsylvania. For the next several days, he worked from the newsroom and coauthored stories he couldn’t believe he was writing.

In the Central Ward, on Fairmount Avenue just off South Orange Avenue, ten-year-old Lois Love always felt safe in her family’s small apartment building. It had a porch, and she could walk to the neighborhood stores. One of her favorites was Geller’s, where the owner let people buy items on installment.

“Everyone seemed to get along,” says Love, whose father worked in a Harrison foundry and whose mother was a nursing student. But now she was upset. She smelled smoke drifting through the neighborhood and heard gunshots nearby—all made stranger because she and her family were watching the events unfold on television.

On July 12, word spread to  her block that something was going on—but nobody was quite sure what it was. During the nights that followed, angry young men took to the streets, looking to lash out at somebody, anybody. White or black, if you didn’t live on or near Fairmount Avenue, you weren’t welcome. “They were mad and were just striking back,” Love says. “We didn’t understand what could make them so angry that they would burn their own neighborhoods.”

Two nights into the riot, Love’s grandmother called from Philadelphia. As they talked, Love’s grandmother heard popping noises in the background.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Just gunshots,” Lois replied. “By then, I was so used to hearing guns I didn’t think anything of it anymore,” she says.

Paula Borenstein lived in the predominantly Jewish Weequahic neighborhood. She was seventeen years old, a new graduate of Weequahic High School, and on her way to her summer job when she heard there was trouble in the Central Ward, not far from the Vassar Avenue home she shared with her immigrant parents, who were Holocaust survivors.

The National Guard had set up a cordon along Lyons Avenue to keep the looting from spreading to Weequahic. The tactic succeeded, but the family’s tailor shop was on the other side of the blockade. For days the family did not venture to the store.

“I remember the National Guard troops and tanks in the neighborhood,” Borenstein says. “But we didn’t know what was happening in other parts of the city.” The family worried about the shop, and Paula worried about her friends who lived on the other side of the cordon. Her parents finally contacted some tenants, most of them black, of the apartment building that also housed their shop. The news was good. “Our business was one of the few that were untouched,” Borenstein remembers. “It turned out that the tenants told people they shouldn’t loot the building. The tenants said they were watching over it. I think a lot of people had good feelings about my mother. She often rented apartments to pregnant women with kids when others might not have.”

One morning during the riots, Lois Love walked down South Orange Avenue. She was unprepared for the sight.

“People broke into stores and took what they wanted,” Love says. “I just watched them looting the place.”

Garbage on the sidewalks. Discarded food in the middle of a once-busy street. Smoke in the air. Glass shattering against concrete. Love walked toward Geller’s and saw people she knew from the neighborhood racing into the store and emerging with armloads of pants, skirts, and jackets. “Some of these people used to work out deals with the owner to pay for the clothes, and now they were looting him,” she says.

Love remembers someone inside the store yelling to her, “Aren’t you going to take something?” She couldn’t understand why anyone would ask such a thing, or why anybody would do such a thing. But she felt the eyes of her neighbors on her. She saw a pair of socks on the ground. She picked them up and left. As she walked away, the owner himself arrived. He watched as people fled the store with what little was left, mostly socks and underwear. Lois noticed that he was crying.

“I felt so sorry for him,” she says. “And I felt so guilty about the socks I took.” She  stuck them in a drawer and never wore them.

 National Guard troops arrived eventually.  Geller’s never reopened.

Unsubstantiated reports of rooftop snipers prompted National Guard troops and state police to shower the city with bullets. Fourteen people died on July 14; eight more died of gunshot wounds the next day. Eloise Spellman, a 41-year-old mother of eleven, was shot as she looked out the window of her apartment in the Hayes Projects on Hunterdon Avenue. Half an hour later, at 8 pm, Hattie Gainer, 53, died in the same building when police opened fire on residential windows. That same night, Michael Moran, 41, a Newark fire captain, died after being shot while responding to an alarm on Central Avenue. Was he killed by a sniper or by errant police bullets? Accounts vary to this day.

Elizabeth Del Tufo, a prominent civic booster and a longtime resident of the city’s Forest Hill section, believes the city needs to stop thinking about what happened 40 years ago and instead focus on its present—and future.

“Enough is enough,” she says. “Those terrible days belong to another age. We should be celebrating how we’ve changed as a city. You don’t go to Watts every year to talk about the riots there, or to Plainfield to talk about what happened there in 1967. Why here?”

Del Tufo has founded a small business, Newark Tours, which educates people about the post-1967 milestones of the city.

But some, like Lois Love, rarely revisit Newark to see what has changed over the years. She now lives in the Vauxhall section of Union Township. She can’t shake the impact of her walk down South Orange Avenue. “We didn’t have nice places in the neighborhood anymore,” she says. “We had to go.”

So did thousands of others, white and black. The city’s population today is about 280,000; it peaked at about 450,000 just after World War II. More than 400,000 people lived in Newark in 1960. By 1980, the population had declined to 329,000; it bottomed out at about 270,000 in 2000.

Borenstein, who lives in Elizabeth now, collects oral histories of the riots and of anything else connected to Newark; she also focuses on Holocaust survivors who settled in the city. She believes the 40th-anniversary commemorations should remind residents and public officials to preserve peace.

“For me, it’s very personal,” she says. “Innocent people lost their lives, and now we know that the National Guard wasn’t prepared for what it faced. I’d love to say that by having these commemorations, it won’t happen again. But we can’t ever forget.”

But what if there’s nothing left to look at? As the city prepared for July’s special events, Price discovered that the new face of Newark, personified by Mayor Cory Booker, was considering demolishing the old Fourth Precinct station house. Price, one of the state’s preeminent public historians, immediately swung into action. “I told the mayor’s people that if there’s one building you don’t want to tear down, other than the Prudential Center, it’s the Fourth Precinct house,” Price says. “Turn it into a museum on civil disorder. Turn it into a museum to show how a city survives something like the summer of 1967. But don’t tear it down.” It’s still there.

Over the years, the rebuilding of Newark—from the bustling Ironbound to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Riverfront Stadium to the under-construction “Pru”—created new links from one section of the city to the next. Home renovations and new residential properties continue to go up, and the city’s more than 40,000 college students come and go. With institutions such as the Newark Museum and the public library serving as links to history, the city is growing in new directions. By recruiting national corporations and retail chains, Newark is trying to give residents hope for a future, and suburban businessmen and women with Newark roots a reason to return. It doesn’t have to mean that the city has sold its soul to get on with its life.

Newark may never get over the summer of 1967; that time is as much a part of its history as the summer of 1776 is to Philadelphia. “Every time a national newspaper writes about Newark, it mentions the riots,” Price says. “That isn’t the case with other cities that had riots at the same time. The Newark riots have been institutionalized as part of the national memory.”

Today’s Newark still bears the scars of the riots, scars that can’t be hidden by new construction, new attractions, or a new administration in City Hall. The summer of 1967 cut too deeply and broke too many hearts to be forgotten. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t heal.


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