A Recollection of Newark of 1939 and After the Riots

by Nat Bodian


Most of my life in Newark was sandwiched in between my delivery by a midwife on Barclay Street in Newark's old Third Ward in 1921 and my departure in 1942 for wartime duty.

So the Newark from which I have drawn most of my Old Newark memories have been drawn from my knowledge and experience of that era.

However, I also hold vivid recollections of the riots1 in Newark, which I believe was a major turning point in Newark's 20th century history.

During the riots, I had sat on the front porch of my Hillside home, just 800 feet from the Newark line, listening to the gunfire emanating from the Newark side...and concerned about the welfare of my widowed mother living alone, in Newark, in an Elizabeth Avenue apartment opposite the park...and being turned back after the gunfire had ceased at the Newark-Hillside line by rifle-toting National Guardsmen.

Later, after the riots, I recall, in visits to the Newark YMHA Health Club in its seven-year old Chancellor Avenue building2, I listened to stories from victimized fellow members, Newark merchants, how businesses had been stripped bare, buildings set afire -- even one account of a Newark butcher who had locked himself in his ice box for protection. He had vowed to me that he would never go back to his former business site, even to reclaim any remaining possession of value that might still be there.

Recollection From a Different Perspective

Lou Kleinman recalled the riots from a different perspective. At the time of the riots, he was employed by the City of Newark as a mechanical repairman, and his job was keeping all City-owned vehicles running.

He recalled for me that, during the riots, he had been called out to service fire engines in need of repair. As he told it to me, "I sat between two Newark policemen with rifles posed outside each rear window as we drove to the scenes of some of the fires that had been started. It was an experience I'll never forget."

Newark Prior to 1967 Still Great City

But up until that summer in 1967, I continued to regard Newark as a great city with my most enjoyable years there being the four I spent as a student at Central High School on High and New Streets from 1935 through January 1939.

I graduated from Central High in January 1939 in a class of 210. None of us went on to fame and fortune. The only Central High graduate I know of that made it "big"3 was Dore Schary. He went on from his family residence at 604 High Street, corner of Court, to a life of fame and fortune as a Broadway playwright, Hollywood producer of dozens of classic films, and head of MGM studios.

And just as I viewed my high school years and 1939 graduation as a peak in my life in Newark, so, too, did I view Newark as a city at its peak. Here are some statistics for Newark in 1939 that support that view.

What Newark Was in 1939

Newark in 1939 had 429,000 residents--approximately 36 percent more than at the present time. Its population had been relatively stable, showing a population increase of only 14,000 over the 19 years since 1920.

Newark's Newspapers in 1939

In 1939, Newark had four newspapers--all with "Newark" in their name. There was the Newark Star-Ledger, The Newark Evening News, one morning paper and the other an evening paper. On Sundays, there was the Newark Sunday Star-Ledger and the Newark Sunday Call.

Today, only the Newark Star-Ledger remains, and it is now the "Star-Ledger" with the "Newark" dropped. That name-drop took place during the mid-1960s. The Star-Ledger is today the 16th largest circulation paper in America. Its daily circulation in a recent audit was 402,107. In 1939, it was 140,000.

Retail Stores in 1939

In 1939, Newark had 7,986 retail stores, among them five large downtown department stores. The retail stores of Newark in 1939 employed 28,454.

By contrast, Newark today has 2,271 retail trade establishments and of the five downtown department stores that existed in 1939, none remain.

A Leading Industrial Center

In 1939, Newark was also one of America's leading industrial centers. Despite its limited area and one of the highest population densities of any city in the country, Newark had 1,277 plants employing 58,264 workers.

Its huge population of factory and retail workers included very few car owners and most got to their places of employment on the bus lines of Public Service Coordinated Transport at 80 Park Place, or the Newark City Subway which had opened on June 21, 1937 with most of it in the bed of the old Morris Canal, covered over by Raymond Boulevard.

In 1939, Newark had 72 Public Service bus routes. Today it has 44.

1939 Newark Wholesale and Insurance Home Offices

In 1939, Newark was also home to 1,006 wholesale establishments, 169 more than the present count. It had the highest concentration of Insurance home offices in the U.S. It hosted the home offices of ten life and casualty insurance companies with combined assets of 5 billion dollars (over 60 billion in today's dollars). Today, the Prudential is the only insurance company left.

As I see Newark Today

I keep reading that the Newark of today is undergoing a renaissance and slowly rebuilding itself. John T. Cunningham, in his new Third Edition of his classic book "Newark" early in 2003, hailed the new $180 million Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) as a single step on Newark's arduous road to recovery.

A minor-league baseball team (appropriately called "the Newark Bears") is a recently-added downtown attraction and, I understand, the 34-floor Newark and Essex Bank Building, Newark's tallest, now boasts a Starbucks! And at Newark's Penn Station, there are now working elevators and escalators to all track levels, and a Path (formerly Hudson Tubes) railway system that runs 24 hours a day. (I once waited overnight in New York, after a late night date, for the first morning train to Newark).

Downtown Newark has also re-established itself as an educational center with a host of colleges and universities4. Further, Newark has one of the nation's busiest airports5, and Port Newark is one of the nation's leading seaports. And, too, the city is undergoing a housing boom of immense proportions.

Crime Improvement

One area where Newark seems to be lagging, from statistics I've seen, is in the area of crime. Back in 1939, I could walk up to my Third Ward home on Montgomery Street from downtown Newark in the late-night hours without looking over my shoulder. Newark's streets, as I recall them, pre-World War II, were relatively safe to one and all.

Current crime statistics for Newark, while showing recent improvement, still suggest much more crime in most areas than the Newark I recall of 1939.

From published statistics, I learned that in 2001, for example, Newark crime (per 100,000 pop.) was 34 percent higher than the national average. Car theft was 3.57 times the national average. I have no idea what the 1939 statistics were, but I lived with the feeling that Newark at that time offered a safe, secure environment in which to live and work.

Newark Jewish Cemetery Experience

Newark's crime statistics notwithstanding, I go by my own recent experience. For many Jewish institutions of Newark in the first half of the 20th century, their cemeteries were strung along Grove Street from South Orange to Central Avenue.

It was always convenient for Newark's Jews to stop off at a Grove Street cemetery to visit buried loved ones, either periodically, or traditionally before the start of the Jewish New Year.

However, in the recent past, the cemetery area has been a danger spot for visitors, and for some years now, the Shomrim Society, a metropolitan area association of Jewish law enforcement personnel, have been setting aside one day a year when they provide police protection so that Jews can make safe Grove Street Cemetery visits--usually just before the start of the Jewish New Year.

My wife and I go each year on the one "safe" day to visit the graves of her parents, buried on Grove Street.

A Closing Thought

Newark has come a long way since it bottomed out in the summer of 1967, but its recovery has been slow and painful.

It is my feeling that, no matter how much progress is made, it is unlikely that the Newark of the future will ever retain its former status as a prosperous and relatively crime-free city.

I'm thinking back to the days when many of us old-time Newarkers used to walk around downtown on Saturday nights, under the lighted marquees of Newark's 13 downtown theatres, and take in a show and later stop in at the Petty's Drug Store soda fountain on Broad Street, two doors south of Branford Place, for an ice cream soda.

Petty's was open 24 hours a day, carried top-of-the-line Breyers ice cream, and made the best ice cream sodas in downtown Newark.


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