Renaissance: 1. the great revival of art and letters, under the influence of classical models, which began in Italy in the 14th century and continued during the 15th and 16th century; also, the period during which this movement was in progress. 2. any revival, or period of marked improvement and new life, in art, literature, etc.
Newark is a city that often fixates on words, and fights about them. Take a look at the six day period in 1967 when Newark was in the full throes of civil unrest and protest. For decades, it was de rigeur, whether in academic circles or in the general press, to refer to the events as the Newark Riots, a seemingly random eruption of violence over a summer week. As time passed, scholars, activists, and residents of the city worked to reclaim the narrative by describing those days as the “Newark Rebellion.” Great care has been taken to shift our language to the most fitting term, and what has resulted is a more nuanced discussion about this defining moment of Newark history.
Which is why it always irks me that people haphazardly use the term “renaissance” around the cultural, economic, and political fortunes of this city. Rather than describing a specific event, “renaissance” evokes a feeling, a sense of renewal and of unbounded opportunity, that Newark will “turn around” finally and achieve the place among the pantheon of cities it so richly deserves. Most people probably do not give it two seconds of thought. “Renaissance” is a handy go-to when you want to evoke a period of artistic flourishing, a return to form, or an emergence from a period of “darkness.” Who doesn’t want to associate Newark with Florence of the 1400s or Harlem of the 1920s or even Disney Animation of the 1990s? But the closer you look at the word’s history, the clearer it becomes that the word is outdated and maybe even harmful to our own perception of the past and what we see for the future.
The word itself is the French expression of an Italian idea. In the 1300s, a paradigm shift slowly unfolded in the Italian peninsula—catalyzed, funny enough, by the devastation wrought by a pandemic. Writers began to speak out against the power structures that had come to dominate medieval Europe. For them, the offender-in-chief was the Church centered in Rome, which had controlled the political, cultural, and spiritual lives of Italians for the previous five centuries—since the fall of the Roman Empire. Writers like Petrarch, Dante, and Bocaccio began to tap into what they saw as a greater time, a time before the Church existed, a time that celebrated earthly human achievements in arts and sciences. The movement then spread to painting, sculpture, music, architecture, philosophy, natural science, and politics and began to seed new centers of intellectual ferment throughout Europe. It seemed like a new breath of life filled the intellectual soul of the continent, creating enduring masterpieces that remain a touchstone for the period. Just think of the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel or Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Left in the ash heap, unfortunately, were the achievements of the so-called Dark Ages, a term created by the writers of the Renaissance to demonize the times of their near-ancestors and create a brilliant white-wash over that past. The “Dark Ages” did not lack similar achievements in those fields of painting, sculpture, music, architecture, philosophy, natural science, and politics; they just didn’t serve the narrative needs of the time. Italians of the 1300s needed something to demonize so they could hold up the ideals of the Greco-Roman/Classical world, a time itself filled with just as much political chaos, grotesque violence, and artistic backwardness. The intricate beauty of church architecture like in the Notre Dame of Paris got labelled “gothic,” the drawings that graced icons and illuminated manuscripts lacked “visual perspective,” and the intricate economic and political ties that bound society together became “feudal.” Those ages, thus, became “dark,” a period that needed to be moved past and from which nothing of value could be gleaned.
Newark, similar to those Italians, became obsessed with the concept of “renaissance.” Starting in the 1980s, this European word crept into the vocabulary of civic and business leaders as they attempted to attract outside firms and residents into the city. Fresh in the minds of both these leaders and people across the country were the flames and destruction of the 1960s and the economic stagnation of the 1970s. “Renaissance” meant a return to the days when Newark was an industrial dynamo, producing beer by the millions of barrels, textiles to clothe the nation, where celluloid film was first developed, where immigrants entered by the hundreds of thousands, and where all of North Jersey came to shop in grand department stores.
“Renaissance” conveniently declared that the “darkness” of the previous two decades was now over, and reintroduced into people’s minds a Newark that was once great and was about to be great again. In fact, “renaissance” worked so well, it started to pop up in all the promotional material about the city. The word became so much of a crutch that it graced the crowning jewel of Newark’s turn around: the Renaissance Mall. A revitalizing project that would change the downtown area into a shopping destination, complete with an international food court, piano bar, and horse and buggy rides, instead, turned into an embarrassment. For fifteen years, the shell glowered over City Hall clad in raspberry-gray marbling and emblazoned in Helvetic steel lettering.
Rather than the center of a “renaissance,” it stood for a “renaissance” that was out of reach. Because of this, many Newarkers think of this mall when they hear the word “renaissance,” a sad metaphor for the many failed promises made by both insiders and outsiders of the city. To quote Mayor Baraka, that was the renaissance to us. Yet, the term still creeps, almost unnoticeably, into references about the city. Case in point, Newark’s Wikipedia page lists “Renaissance City” as one of the current nicknames of the city.
“Renaissance” is not without its psychic costs. It implicitly turns the 1960s to today (the period that I grew up in) into Newark’s “Dark Ages,” a period of unending gang warfare, political corruption, environmental pollution, educational malpractice, and societal deterioration. Nevermind that that same period saw the election of the nation’s first Black mayor of a major Northern city. Nevermind that Newark saw the flourishing of hip-hop, rap and house music, of drag balls at Club Zanzibar, and of incisive political writing that critiqued the American System. Nevermind that this period produced Savion Glover, MJ Rodriguez, Whitney Houston, Michael B. Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Redman, and Queen Latifah. It elevates the time before the 1960s as some marvelous era, despite the city being at its most segregated, its most economically unequal, and its most violent to its non-White population. Worst of all, it may even fool us into thinking that Newark is just days away from full employment, the complete absence of crime, and being the cleanest and healthiest we’ve ever been.
To leave this perpetual state of renaissance, we’ll need to stop using the word. We should use a word that focuses on celebrating the achievements of the city’s entire past and that reckons with the ghosts hidden in the gilded mausoleum of the past we have constructed. More importantly, we should strive to create something better than anything than our predecessors ever achieved. We cannot let the “renaissance” lull us into complacency about the hard work that still needs to be done to make this a just, equitable, and socially wealthy Newark.
mantunes is a native Newarker and current resident who writes about the city.
Featured image by Pexels