Newark, the third-oldest major city in America behind Boston and New York, was founded as a farming community on the banks of the Passaic River by a band of Puritans in 1666. During Colonial times, the city became known for beer, cider and leather, and by the mid-19th century, was manufacturing nearly 90 percent of the nation’s leather goods. Mutual Benefit and Prudential set up shop there. Three centuries later, industry is gone, but more insurance is sold from Newark than from any other city except Hartford, Conn.
After New Jersey was connected to nearby New York City by railroads and the Morris Canal, Newark became the country’s most heavily industrialized city, with a bustling downtown. Visitors poured in to shop at department stores like Hayne & Company, L.S. Plaut and Company and Kresge that lined Market and Broad Streets–then the busiest intersection in the country, known as the Four Corners. In 1922, Newark boasted 63 live theaters, 46 movie theaters, and an active nightlife.
Singer Billie Holiday frequented the Coleman Hotel and, in 1935 at the city’s Palace Bar, gangster Dutch Shultz was shot down and killed by the Luciano-led syndicate. The city’s burgeoning industries and port attracted a number of powerful organized crime thugs from Philadelphia and New York, like Abner “Longy” Zwillman, who expanded his grip on bootlegging and gambling during the Prohibition era to include Newark’s industries, labor unions and politics and controlled Newark’s Third Ward until his death in 1959.
The popular HBO series, The Sopranos, is partially based on the real-life Newark crime family of Ruggiero “Richie The Boot” Boiardo, a capo in the Genovesse family, his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and Angelo Ray DeCarlo. After Zwillman died, the Boiardo’s took over his territory. DeCarlo fixed the mayoral election in 1962 to bring in Democratic Congressman Hugh Addonizio, the son of Italian immigrants, who ran on a reform platform against what he called the corrupt political machine of Leo Carlin, who had been Newark’s mayor since 1953.
But Addonizio’s administration also was rife with corruption and graft, and he was indicted in 1969 for numerous counts of extortion and bribery, as well as tax evasion. He remained unfazed and confident during his trial and even ran for a third term as mayor. He received 45 percent of the votes, losing to the city’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson. Later, Adonnizio was convicted of extortion and sentenced to ten years in prison.
Gibson took office three years after bloody race riots erupted in Newark under Addonizio’s watch, resulting in 26 deaths, 1,000 injuries and $10 million in property damage. Setting the stage for the violence was a majority African-American population that found itself concentrated in substandard housing projects and struggling with a lack of healthcare, poor schools, police brutality and high unemployment.
The city’s white population shrank from 363,000 in the 1950s to 158,000 in 1967 and its black population grew from 70,000 to 220,000 during the same period. Taking office in 1970, Gibson noted that, “Newark may be the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation.” Gibson also ran on a reform platform, but, during his 16-year watch, the city’s unemployment rate nearly doubled and its population continued to decline. Newark lost all its movie theaters and only one supermarket remained. During Gibson’s fifth term as mayor, he was indicted for handing out a no-show contract, but was acquitted. After losing his mayoral seat to school-teacher-turned-politician Sharpe James in 1986, Gibson was involved in several scandals and pled guilty to tax fraud in 2002. Meanwhile, James carried on Newark’s tradition of political bossism and ties to organized crime.
The city’s problems likely took root in the 1930s, when whites, who had lost faith in Newark’s crooked government, began moving to the suburbs. Their exodus was made easier by the creation of Interstates 280 and 78 and the New Jersey Turnpike, all of which cut into and divided whole neighborhoods. Through the 1980s, the more affluent and predominantly white Newarkers continued to flee the city and middle-class blacks followed. The Federal Housing Administration all but abandoned the urban core in favor of backing mortgages in the outlying areas.
City leaders enthusiastically pursued the federal government’s offer of 100 percent low-income housing financing and built enormous super blocks that wiped out Newark’s original grids. One example is the city’s mostly Italian-American First Ward, where 15 small-scale blocks were reduced to just three, upon which the massive high-rise public housing project, the Christopher Columbus Homes, was built. That project was abandoned in the 1970s and torn down in 1994. Newark would eventually have the highest percentage of public housing in the nation.
But bad dwellings predated even government-subsidized housing. Vast areas of the city were filled with unhealthy and poorly constructed wooden tenements and, according to a 1944 city-commissioned study, only 17 percent of Newark’s units were owner-occupied. Newark in the 1960s was a poor urban center surrounded by, but disconnected to, its middle class suburbs, and most of its manufacturers had long since moved on to regions where it was easier and cheaper to do business.
Newark has been a poster child for the nation’s poverty, social isolation and bad urban renewal, while all around it, neighboring jurisdictions have thrived. But by all rights, the largest city in the country’s most densely populated state should be enjoying the same prosperity.
Newark does have pockets of health, such as the Ironbound Restaurant District, directly east of Penn Station and Downtown Newark. That area, sometimes called Little Portugal, because of its large Portuguese speaking community, was once the poorest in Newark. Today, it is a vibrant, multi-ethnic community popular with a hip crowd from New York City. That neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city by railroad tracks, but local developer Edison Properties, which owns about an acre of land east of downtown, has proposed building a pedestrian bridge over the tracks to connect it with the downtown core, the new arena and the mixed-use development that is in planning along the Passaic River.