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
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
Mike Dobrzelecki, Palmer, Pa.