Sunday, July 15, 2007

Newark Unforgotten

Some things you never forget. The bright streaks of light accompanied by sounds of gunfire invaded the darkness below, a bizarre contrast from the view of New York’s famed skyline seen to the east through our floor to ceiling glass windows.  We occupied the south east corner on the top floor in the largest of three ultra modern Mies van der Rohe designed buildings.  The other two sat between a group of those dreary city housing boxes of brick.  All three and, believe it or not, those brick cauldrons of discontent, were part of a tragically ill-conceived urban renewal.  It’s been forty years since the day Newark imploded and, in some respects, from which it has never recovered. 

Gone that night were the halcyon days of my childhood, growing up in the quiet tree lined Clinton Hill neighborhood.  Gone was the world, described so vividly in Philip Roth novels.  Never the same was the high school (which we both attended) with that funny impossible to pronounce and spell Indian name.  “W, double e, qua, hic, Weequahic!”  Gone were all those fabulous over qualified, mostly Jewish, teachers who lived at a time when, credentials or not, people of “their kind” simply couldn’t get college jobs.  That stupid prejudice was our gain; under their tutelage, more than 85% of us matriculated to university, well prepared and ready to take on the world.

It was all gone on that July night in 1967, but unlike Katrina years later, there had been much more than a few days’ warning.  No possible excuses could be made, no scapegoats could be found.  It was mayhem transparently waiting to happen; The City of Newark was the inevitable homicide victim.  A combination of white and business flight, deep-seated corruption, racial and ethnic prejudice, and the desperate poverty that goes with them, made up a lethal cocktail of root causes.  By the time the riot exploded, our synagogue, with it s large membership and magnificent 2000 seat sanctuary, was the only major one left in a city that had boasted a thriving Jewish community of 100,000.  I lived in Newark, albeit not in the old neighborhood, but our congregants had all long since retreated to the suburbs, paying only tentative visits to attend services or the programs that were still conducted there.

Hugh Addonizio was the mayor.  A rotund former Congressman, he lived by only two discernable rules:  take all you can (preferably in cash) and be disingenuous down to the core.  He would end up in jail, to become a rite of passage for Newark’s mayors.  Lou Danzig, a wannabe Robert Moses, autocratically ran the Housing Authority.  It erected all those prison-like structures with abandon and lot’s of government money.  Many of the city’s African Americans were forced to call these dreary, deteriorating rat-infested places home, and they were the lucky ones.

For Newark’s now majority population, there were no memories of halcyon days because such days had never been.  They were like a “Shiite” majority still living under minority “Sunni” rule, and the analogy is not that far off.  It was also something that had to change, if there would ever be any kind of Newark renaissance – such an unrealistic dream, that it pains me to use the word.  But we did give it a shot; in retrospect both too many dollars and too many days short.

It was particularly poignant and painful, therefore, watching the implosion below my window that night.  I was on my way out, having already started a new job and new life in New York.  Ironically it wasn’t the riot that was making me go, but the aftermath of trying to prevent it from happening, and we really tried.  It was the 1960s when we thought any problem could be solved if you only put your mind and muscle to it.  I was shockingly young at the time when a group of us founded the United Community Corporation.  It became the nation’s first community action anti-poverty program funded by Lyndon Johnson’s Equal Opportunity Act.  That we got it accomplished under crooked Hughie’s watch was nothing short of a miracle.  He was probably thinking of skimming when we were thinking of solving.  But somehow it happened.  We assembled an incredible board, dominated by blacks and Hispanics though electing the expected white man as its first president.  Fortunately, it was the straight-as-an-arrow C. Willard Heckel, dean of Rutgers Law and elder of the Presbyterian Church (of which he would one day become national presiding officer).  From the start, he was committed to being succeed by a more representative President.  We convinced Haryou veteran, the brilliant and visionary Cyril DeGrasse Tyson (later to hold senior posts under Mayor Lindsay in New York), to become our first executive director.  He has written a detailed account in “Two Years Before the Riot” (Jay Street Publishers).  Ken Gibson, then an engineer in the Housing Authority and community leader, and I served as Vice Presidents; he would eventually become the city’s first African American Mayor.

Under Tyson’s leadership, the UCC set up programs for kids and adults, all directly controlled and staffed by the community.   It was an intentional structure that laid the groundwork for an eventual transfer of power in the city itself.  It was the first time that the majority had experienced any modicum of control.  True to his word, Heckel turned leadership (sometime after the riot) over to Timothy Still, an ex-boxer and a leader of housing project residents.  But nothing could stop July 12, 1967 from steamrollering its way toward all of us, and transforming Newark into Riot City, USA.  It’s an image that has taken hold, even though there were other riots in places like Detroit and Watts. 

In reading this past week, that former Mayor Sharpe James had been indicted; I had the unmistakable feeling of déjà vu.  Another long-serving mayor, another potential of “go directly to jail and don’t pass go”.  It’s a bad movie that keeps on giving.  Corey Booker, his successor, has promised to be a different kind of leader.  I have no way of knowing if he will be up to the challenge, much less whether the Newark that is, and has always been, will let him.  Most of what led up to the riot remains in place; a ghettoized city, a culture of corruption, inadequate jobs and the like.  Those terrible brick boxes have been bull dozed and both Hughie and Lou are long gone, but Newark these 40 years on, remains more of a question than an answer.

I didn’t leave Newark because of the riots.  But it was the UCC, and my deep involvement in it, that became the catalyst for my departure from the city, not to mention a change in professional direction.  In the early spring before the riot, an officer of my congregation came to see me.  He indicated that he was speaking informally, but representing the views of his colleagues.  Apparently they were not so happy about my involvement in Newark affairs and, using the fact that my father was also engaged in outside activities as an excuse, he said, “We don’t need two rabbis doing that”.  While never asked to do so, because naively they never thought leaving was an option for me, I asked myself what might happen if I had to make a choice.  It took a remarkably short time to answer.  Speak of unintended consequences.  I resigned weeks later and would find myself living in New York by the fall.  Do I remember the riots?  You bet I do.

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