By Lawrence Krayn
Newark is living history. It is also paved over, crumbling, repurposed, and refurbished history. Driving main thoroughfares, walking obscure alleyways, or gazing up at the ceilings and walls of a favorite bar or a friend’s house, one can sometimes glean the remnants of times past. There are centuries of personal stories, families come and gone, and a raging current of social and political narratives flowing through every expanse.
At some point about six years ago, I became fixated on the fantasy of going back in time, to be able to see buildings that had been demolished, rallies and debates that had taken place, and even the reclamation of Newark’s northern and western most frontiers. I’d grown tired of some of the second-hand binaries regarding late 20th century crime, mid-20th century social unrest, and detrimental development (or destruction).
History students, early in their pursuits, learn that there are both primary and secondary sources that they can look to while conducting research: secondary sources being interpretations of the historical record from other researchers and historians, and primary sources being actual statements, photos, film, and any other artifacts much closer derived from the historical period being studied.
I do not remember how I stumbled upon the initial rare piece of film, but a few years ago, it provided me with the key to traveling back in time to the best extent humanly possible: YouTube. Yes, the modern tech company oozing with everything from rampant conspiratorial misinformation to some of the most informative “How to” videos ever created, is also one hell of a portal to the past. I was mesmerized, sitting there looking at Newark as it went about its day in 1926! I could see that many of the traffic and parking patters were the same. The same public spaces and some of the same buildings I found myself in on a daily basis, were also frequented by people long gone. I got to see some fixtures of the current skyline actually being constructed. I felt one with the past, and it gave me a deep nostalgic joy as I traversed the city for the next several weeks.
The old Prudential building was an absolute work of art, and the parks, public spaces, and churches of Newark remain timeless and beautiful to this day. What follows are some entries from my journeys, and a guide for others who wish to traverse through Newark’s history in the same way.
Not long after my discovery of the 1926 film, I got the opportunity to ride along McCarter Highway on the old Pennsylvania Railroad (now part of NJ Transit/Amtrak) in the 1940s. I was awe struck that much of the scenery remained the same despite some notable changes over the years, including the National Newark Building and 1180 Raymond Boulevard.
Due to my day job, among other things, I’d long wondered about crime in Newark. As kids growing up in a nearby Monmouth County suburb, we’d be told by Brooklyn and Newark transplants to stay clear of most of the city, save for the ironbound, because crime was simply out of control. Upon my arrival in the late aughts, I saw what appeared to be the typical level of criminal activity of any major city, and had begun to wonder if the whole crime thing has been nothing more than an overblown myth. My hypothesis was quickly shattered upon visiting a few neighborhoods in the 1981, courtesy of a concomitant newscast, however.
Things were pretty bad. Burglaries and stick-ups weren’t the only things plaguing the city at that time however. I got to ride around and have steaks with former cop Mike Russell, who went undercover in the North Ward in 1984 to take down a faction of the Genovese crime family. Seeing them drive, walk around, and talk first hand, it looks like Martin Scorsese did a heck of a job capturing the essence of that era of mafia life in many of his films.
HBO’s infamous documentary “Life of Crime” used to be available as well, but has since been taken down. Too bad. It featured shots of current Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura as a young Newark Police Officer, and a court house, law enforcement, and crime culture that has not changed much. A trailer is still available:
Obviously one of the biggest focal points of any discussion on the history of our city is going to involve the racial tension that occurred in the mid-20th century, culminating in what many today call the Newark “Rebellion.” For a very long time, I’d thought that the term “rebellion” had only later been coined in an effort to better describe what had occurred on those fateful days in 1967, and that “riot” had been the generally accepted term up to that point. I’d also held the simplistic view that the upheaval was completely organic in response to the beating of a cab driver by law enforcement. I simply did not have a comprehensive understanding of what had actually occurred during that time. The roots of the conflict go much deeper, and certain individuals leading the charge for political change in the months leading up to the conflict had always described what was coming as a “rebellion”. There is much more to this conflict than what is generally discussed, and I learned that by going back to 1967, and simply turning on my antennaed TV to ABC news:
Since, I have utilized some of the names and information disclosed in the ABC piece to conduct my own research.
Sadly, as with today, racial strife did not end in the late 1960s. I have recently visited 1973, and have gotten the chance to hear from people coming from two very different parts of Newark at that time. Taking a drive though various areas of Newark in the early ’70s, one can see just how neglected large swaths of the city were. One can also see that other areas of the city remained quite prosperous and maintained at that time. It was heartbreaking to hear from families who were forced to live in decrepit and dangerous conditions, and jarring to hear racial slurs and vitriol tossed back and forth in a debate over the construction of new public housing in the North Ward. Still, the perspective I came away with was far more complex and informed than any secondary account I had read or heard. The people who appear and speak in this video are some of the most famous and infamous in modern Newark lore, but seeing them in their own elements and time is an eye-popping experience. I highly recommend that you visit as well:
And don’t forget to see what Mayor Gibson and his electoral opponent Anthony Imperiale had to say about the issue in 1974:
During times of struggle and uncertainty, art often takes root and flourishes profoundly. In the 1980s, I got to ride along as a documentary film maker interviewed young graffiti artists, who were leaving their own creative mark on a scarred city that was soon to rise back up from its late 20th century vicissitudes:
The city then, in certain aspects, markedly different from today. In other aspects, markedly the same.
I also often enjoy time traveling with a soundtrack, and what better soundtrack than the Artifacts to go back to 1994 and get a glimpse of the skyline:
R.I.P. Tame One. And while on the subject of late greats and the Newark skyline, R.I.P. Alfred Hitchcock and the old First Ward (1:28-6:27):
Hopefully my diary has provided you with some guidance as you embark on your own journey. I’ll see you someplace, or some time around Newark.
Lawrence Krayn Jr. is a Newark resident and lifelong New Jerseyian. He graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a B.A. degree in Political Science and received his J.D. at Rutgers Law School-Newark. A practicing attorney by day, Larry spends much of his spare time engaging in creative projects. He sees Newark as a vibrant hub for the arts, and is an avid fan of various local creators. He has been a musician for many years under the moniker “IL Lusciato”, and hosts a weekly live podcast on current events, entitled “The Logic and Larry Podcast”. Whether fiction or non-fiction, his writing is heavily influenced by his immediate surroundings and his own life experiences.
Featured photo by Lawrence Krayn