The summer of love was hardly the case for Newark in 1967. It was the scene for one of the biggest and most destructive riots in the U.S. history. The city exploded on July 14, detonated by police brutality, urban decay, lack of political representation, and social forces outside the city—like the Vietnam War and the human rights movement. Twenty-three people died during three days of rioting, with an estimated $10 million (more than $58 million in today’s dollars) in property damages.
Nearly 40 years later the Brick City has moved on from those dark days, but like Detroit (whose riot was six days later) and unlike urban centers like New York and Philadelphia, it hasn’t seen an economic boom in the last 10 years. Those looking for prime examples of urban decay can find it throughout Newark, in the crumbling buildings, signs for businesses long closed, and vacant lots.
That is not to say that the city of 278,500 is still a war zone. Opened in 1997, the $187 million New Jersey Performance Arts Center (NJPAC) has quickly positioned itself as one of the finest facilities in the world, with a wide variety of performers passing through. The New Jersey Devils’ new $310 million arena is under construction across the street from City Hall as well. There are other signs of change too, with people moving here who are looking for an urban living environment without the hefty price tag.
Only six miles from New York City, the city’s decline and cheap rents has long made it seemingly appealing to intrepid urban pioneers priced out of NYC but unwilling to leave the area. It has the infrastructure to support a renaissance, but political corruption, bad luck, limited resources, and poor judgment have been stumbling blocks yet to be surmounted.
“It’d be nice if the gentrification of Hoboken and Jersey City reached all the way to the end of the PATH,” says Cindy Byram, who grew up in Newark and remembers vigilantes driving around with shotguns sticking out of their cars in ’67. “Maybe it will do that if the economy stays strong enough, but we keep waiting for it to happen.”
While public projects like NJPAC and the hockey arena are touted as bright spots, the emergence of the vibrant Ironbound neighborhood has injected new life into the city. Hemmed in by railroad tracks (hence the name), this old manufacturing and residential neighborhood features the largest concentration of Portuguese people outside Portugal as well as a large Brazilian population. Adjacent to Newark’s Penn Station and downtown, it has the neighborhood feel of an ethnic enclave—one that has yet to be annexed by gentrification or commercialization. It’s more unique and multi-faceted than any amount of civic planning could create.
“One of the finest facilities in the world.”
Boundaries: Belleville to the north, Elizabeth to the south, the Passaic River to the east, and Irvington to the west.
Transportation: The PATH train runs to the WTC in 22 minutes, or you can transfer to the 33rd St. line at Journal Square and Grove Street, which takes about 40 minutes total. The NJ Transit trains reach New York’s Penn Station in 20 minutes. The city is served by a quaint subway line and buses.
Main Drag: Ferry Street is the main artery through the Ironbound and has countless bars and restaurants along it. University Avenue has bars, pizza joints and cheap food for Rutgers students. Broad and Market Streets are main thoroughfares.
Prices to Rent and Buy: To rent: one-bedrooms: $700-1,000; two-bedrooms: $1,000-1,450; three-bedrooms: $1,300-1,600. To buy: From $100,000 for a single family or condo; from $300,000 for duplex or apartment building.
What to Check Out: NJPAC is a 10-minute walk from Penn Station/Newark. Just behind it is the home of the Newark Bears, a triple-A baseball team. The nationally acclaimed Newark Museum features 80 galleries and the largest Tibetan arts collection in the world. Aljira, a center for contemporary art, has an ongoing community-based education curriculum and an ambitious schedule of shows.
Hangouts, Restaurants: The Ironbound has countless spots that range from little mom-and-pops cafes to large Brazilian Churrascaria with live acts from the homeland—those looking for the famed rodizio style steak houses can check out the fantastic Brazilia Grill and the cheaper Buffet. If you want to mix with the city government insiders, catch the lunch scene at Spain Restaurant. Hamilton’s Pub angles for the business clientele with decent bar food and a good selection of beers, while Rutgers students can be found at Skipper’s Plane Street Pub.
Crime: The number of murders in 2004 was 84, which up 3 from 2003. The number of rapes was 15 percent below the national average at 73 and down from 85. There were 1345 robberies, which was up from 1304. Double the national average, aggravated assault was 1365, which is up from 1261 in the previous year. Larceny or theft was lower than the national average at 5252, and down from 5562. Five times the national average, car theft was 5788, which is down from 6018.
Politicians: Mayor Sharpe James is in his fifth term. The city council includes Council President Donald Bradley, and an eight member governing body.