Newark Is a Magic Trick

by Judith Altschule Lieber


Newark is a magic trick. Now you see it, now you don’t. And like all good magic tricks it reappears again. A magical glimpse into the old Newark on a website, a miracle of modern technology. But its reappearance is not wholly satisfying because what has been lost, what we truly yearn for cannot be reclaimed. The way of life, our youth are gone forever. 
My own personal journey began in Beth Israel Hospital and continued briefly for a couple of years on Summit Avenue and then on Hansbury Avenue for a few more formative years. When I was seven years old my family moved to California.  
This drastic move was set in motion by a news broadcast on television. The newsman, perhaps John Cameron Swayze, talked about a ‘police action’ in a place I’d never heard of called Korea. I could tell by the faces of the grown-ups that this was not good news. They grumbled in disgust that ‘police action’ was just another way of saying ‘war.’ I knew very little about war except that my mother had lost her brother in World War II. That’s the way I had always heard it. He was lost in the war, his plane shot down over Japan. For years I imagined my uncle wandering around unfamiliar streets in a country where they didn’t speak English trying to find his way back to Newark. The news broadcast must have included pictures because I remember thinking that the people in Korea looked like Japanese people. They had the same kind of eyes. The only other thing I knew about wars were that they were won or lost. America won the last one, what if we didn’t win this new one?  
The next day my sister and I were playing jump rope in the alley. My over-active imagination must have been in full force because I was suddenly struck by the idea that we lost the new war and the Koreans won it and my sister and I were surrounded by Korean men who took our jump rope away and tied us up with it.  
Shortly after that my family and I were on a train traveling west. My father’s job took him to California to open and run a USO Club near Camp Roberts, an army camp about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That was the defining moment in my short life and culture shock of momentous proportions. My new home was a very small town that had certain charms but absolutely nothing similar to what I knew in Newark. 
My young life in Newark had been a familiar heartbeat--family and friends and neighborhood with a consistent pace of measured pleasures defined by seasons. 
Summer was playing outside with the other kids--points with a pink ball against the stoop or A My Name Is, or hopscotch or jacks or going to Weequahic Park to play in the sandboxes where it was cool and damp under the temple-like structure. It was nights when the grown-ups sat on the stoops while we kids played hide and go seek or ring, ring alerio in the street. Or we were catching lightning bugs in jars or smoking punk. (They must have been sticks of incense used as mosquito repellant.) Summer was coffee ice cream with jimmies on top at Belfar’s candy store down the street on Maple Avenue or something from the Good Humor truck. It was a trip to the shore—Bradley Beach—wearing a little locker tag on your bathing suit and little rubber slippers on your feet and swimming inside the ropes. Or a trip to Olympic Park with your family or a picnic at Lake Apacon (surely this is misspelled.) It was playing in the empty lot on the corner of Chancellor Avenue—the small billboard sign was suddenly a ship or some other convenient vessel for transporting us to make-believe. 
Winter was leggings and galoshes or rubbers (which meant boots in those days) and hats and mittens and slush. It was sledding down the hill on Hansbury Ave. or by what seemed like a huge incline at Untermeyer Field. It was playing in ‘the courts’ in school because the weather didn’t permit outdoor play. (Just the cloak room change of clothes was enough to make it prohibitive.) It was going home for lunch for a hot meal or maybe a cream cheese and jelly sandwich if you were lucky. It was indoor play with paper dolls or making horse reins from yarn on a little wooden spool with prongs atop it. Sometimes we would play with mother’s mah jongg tiles or we build houses from cards. Or I’d go across the street to my friend Sheila’s house and we’d play make-believe princess games in her basement that was like a real room. 
Spring was dandelions to blow and make wishes on. It was those maple tree seed pods that we’d open up and put on our noses for no reason whatsoever except that we could. 
It was warm but not humid so nearly everyone was always in a good mood.  
Fall was piles of leaves to fall into and roll around in until a grown-up told you to go away, couldn’t you see that they had been raked? Saturday was trips to the grocer and the bakery with my mother or an aunt. There were pickles to be selected from the barrel and if something was needed from a high shelf, Irv the grocer would get it down with the long stick with the movable claws at the end of it. At Mittleman’s bakery we would get rye bread, pumpernickel, Danish and if I had been good, a Charlotte Russe. The air was getting cooler and the days were getting shorter and my days in Newark were numbered. 
After we moved to California there were summer trips back to Newark to visit family. As I got older the trips got fewer. The last couple of trips I didn’t go to Newark at all because none of my relatives lived there anymore.  
I got married in the summer of 1965 and lived in Los Angeles. I watched the Watts riots on TV that summer. Two years later when I was pregnant with my first son I sat in front of the TV and watched the Newark riots and wept as my beloved hometown went up in flames. 
I’ve visited Hansbury Avenue only twice since then. One time during a later visit my cousin Abram, the only one brave enough to do it, drove me through the old neighborhood. It looked like a war zone. My old house was a burned out shell. Most of the other houses were also burned out or boarded up. The second time was about ten years ago when my husband and I were living in Philadelphia. Again, Abram, drove us through the old neighborhood. This time all the houses were rebuilt and occupied by families but that was its only resemblance to the neighborhood I held in my memories.

The very last time I saw the neighborhood was in a film made by my son for my father’s ninetieth birthday. He and one of his film school friends left New York through the Holland tunnel with a video camera in tow. With directions I had provided to him they toured the Weequahic section of Newark and took movies of Weequahic Park, Beth Israel Hospital and Chancellor Avenue School or Weequahic High (it was hard to tell which because the majestic brick frontages I remembered were nowhere in sight). They videotaped Hansbury Avenue and our old house until a resident chased them away.

The film was shot, narrated and edited to perfection but nothing of my old Newark could be found in the film. Only the last shot brought back the serenity and warmth of my memories. It was a shot of the lake in Weequahic Park, pink and orange from the setting sun. A reflection of sunset on water is always magical. And Newark is a magic trick.


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