The Newark Riots Through the Eyes of a Child of the Ironbound

by Michael Dobrzelecki


In July 1967 I was 11 years old. My family lived on 20 Cortland Street, a side street off Ferry Street, in the Ironbound section of Newark, a couple of blocks east of the old Ballantine Brewery. It was a polyglot mixed-ethnic neighborhood with Polish, Irish, Italian, Black and Hispanic people, all living together in homes, apartments and low-income projects. With the extra money my mother made from working as a seamstress, she usually managed to scrape together enough disposable income to afford a week-long summer rental for the family down the shore at Belmar. Rates were actually affordable back in those days (about $70-90/week), especially if the rental location was a mile from the beach off 18th Ave around Pine Street. Our idyllic vacation that summer of 1967 came crashing to a halt with the news of the riot breaking out in Newark.

The scenes on TV of buildings on fire, armored vehicles manned by the New Jersey State National Guard rumbling down the city's avenues, gunfire, police beating, arresting and shooting looters and demonstrators filled me with fear. Was our house destroyed? Were any of our friends and relatives hurt or killed? My grandmother and two uncles lived on Chapel Street across from one of the projects. Are they OK? What about my Aunt on Vincent Street. As an eleven year old kid, I could not understand the anger and frustration that had built up over decades in the black community in Newark. The two hour drive back home up Routes 35 and 1 & 9 filled us with anxiety and fear. By the time we reached Newark Airport we could still see some smoke wafting over the center of the city. Exiting on Delancy Street, we were somewhat heartened by the lack of signs of destruction in the Ironbound. Even as we drove past the projects bordered by Hawkins and Horatio Streets, all seemed to be normal and calm.

We turned onto Cortland Street and approached our house, which was opposite the backside of the Hawkins Street Grammar School. Our sense of relief vanished as we noticed the sidewalks, street and schoolyard strewn with red brick debris. "Oh my God, we thought, "the rioters blew up the school!" The truth was somewhat more prosaic. Apparently, there was a violent summer thunderstorm that same week and lightning struck the peak of the multi-story 19th century A-frame red brick schoolhouse facing Cortland Street knocking out an 18 x 10 foot section from the facade, raining bricks down on ground below. My father, who worked as a truck driver for Igoe Brothers hauling steel, had to work that week and he did not accompany the family on vacation. Coming home from a long hot day on the road he decided to take a nap. The crash of the lightning strike on the school across the street literally 'knocked" my father out of bed and he rushed outside in his underwear armed with his hunting rifle ready to shoot the mad bomber. Thank God, no one was around.

Walking around the neighborhood that day, it was apparent that the riot had not really had much of an impact on our section of the Ironbound. The only damage caused by local residents was a single broken window at the "Martinizing" dry cleaners on Ferry Street between Cortland Place (the alley behind our house) and Cortland Street. Later we would learn that all streets running under the elevated train tracks along Route 21 were blocked off by the police preventing any movement of would-be looters eastward into our neighborhood. Despite the lack of damage, things were not the same for a while after the riots. The neighbors on my block formed an ad hoc neighborhood-watch that week - the men staying out on the porches, guns within easy reach, for a couple of nights afterward. Of course, looking back on it, this was an over-reaction on their part. It did not seem to be at the time.

That fear filtered down from the parents to their children. White kids and black kids who used to all play together alternately in the Hawkins Street School yard and the local projects' play areas, now kept more to their own kind. We felt that we needed to not be alone on the streets. We started to hang out more in groups, go together as a group to the Hayes Park East Pool on the summer mornings. As time passed the fear subsided and kids in my neighborhood began to re-establish contact with each other and began to play together again. With the last vestiges of the innocence of youth, I guess that we were able to do that more easily than the adults could. My family stayed in Newark for several years afterward. My father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 1973. My mom finally moved us out in 1975 to South Plainfield.

My family never really lost its attachment to Newark, however. My father and most of my uncles were WWII vets and belonged to the American Legion Hall Howard F. Schwartz Post 408 on Cortland Place. My brother, Dan, retired from the Newark City Fire Department several years ago . I graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. Degree in Economics from Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. One of my favorite elective courses that I took at Rutgers was the "The History of Newark", the first year it was offered as taught by the eminent Dr. Clement Price, who often comments on Newark city affairs and history in the media. I wonder if he ever kept a copy of my paper I wrote for his course. I still remember the title, The Polish Community in Newark - An Ethnic Enclave" - I got an "A" for it. Dr. Price remains on my list of the top five teachers I had in my academic life. A few years ago I re-established contact with Dr. Price via email promising him to get together and treat him to a tour of "my Newark" one day. Sadly, it was not to be - Dr. Price passed away in November 2014.

Although I moved to Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, in 2004, I still return on occasion to my old neighborhood and favorite haunts in the city, namely Mc Governs Tavern, the Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants and, before they closed their doors - the Newark Bears.

Although I believe that things are getting a little bit better in the city, Newark's problems still remain after all these years. The Booker administration did a fairly decent job in his quest to improve the City of Newark. Newark still deserves the support of the city residents, the people that work there and former residents, like myself, who never lost their love for the city. I'll continue to do my part by supporting the local Newark economy during my visits "back home".

Mike Dobrzelecki, Palmer, Pa.


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