NEWARK, NJ - Two downtown corners, one block apart, offer a dramatic example of how much Newark has changed in 50 years.
On the corner of Halsey Street and Branford Place are two restaurants and two clothing stores, all of which have one thing in common: corrugated metal shutters, pulled down every evening after closing time.
The gates were installed sometime after the civil upheaval in July 1967 that led to widespread looting of downtown stores and prompted shopkeepers – at least those that stayed – to adopt a bunker mentality.
One block south near the corner of Halsey and Maiden Lane, the newly opened Tonnie’s Minis bakery in the recently completed Teachers Village looks more like a storefront in suburban Essex County, with a sign touting "world famous cupcakes." There are no gates to cover the expansive plate-glass windows.
More than just a visual contrast, the two scenes offer evidence that Newark has finally emerged from the pall cast over the city after the riot that began on July 12, 1967 and lasted for five days.
During the riot, looters smashed windows of shops throughout downtown and walked off with inventory – an image seared into memory from old black and white photos. The roll down gates that began appearing on stores gave the city a forlorn feel after hours.
But the newer developments that have gone up in the last few years – from Teachers Village, to Prudential’s new office tower to the rehabilitation of the former Hahne & Co. building that sat vacant for nearly 30 years – feature wide open windows that suggest a new confidence in the city.
“There is positive psychic baggage here from memories people have about how Newark used to be, such as the memories of the Hahne’s building – it’s very powerful. Legacy strengths and new energy are coming together,” said Ommeed Sathe, 39, vice president and head of impact investments at Prudential Financial, one of the anchor institutions in the city that did not flee Newark after 1967.
“Optimism and confidence become a self-fulfilling cycle. And no gates helps lead to a feeling of safety and contentment,” Sathe said.
Roland Anglin, who spent 25 years in Newark, including as senior advisor to the chancellor and director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, said that the changes in Newark are part of a national trend.
“The new architecture in cities such as Newark reflect a newly open, post-industrial landscape that helps people look outside a formerly industrial, closed, windowless world,” said Anglin, who was recently appointed the dean of Cleveland State University's Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.
“People are coming back to the cities, which means that we’re at the front end of a shift in population back to Newark,” Anglin said.
In many parts of downtown, the new and the old Newark sit side by side, each a striking reminder of the city’s not-so-distant past and emerging future.
Near Branford on a recent weekend, a sharply dressed man in a gray suit and red bowtie handed out copies of The Final Call, the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam, to passersby. Just down from the corner, the Memories of Soul music store blasted the Isley Brothers out into the streets.
“I would like the gates to be gone, but for my store, not yet,” said Dan Phillips 2nd, 48, the owner of Dan’s Hats and Caps, a haberdashery that has been a fixture on the corner of Halsey and Branford for 18 years. “There was a time when people would run cars through store windows to steal. The opportunity for crime still exists. But Newark’s revitalization is coming. And people will have to prepare.”
Steps away down Halsey at the corner of Maiden, a brand-new convenience store now caters to the residents of Teachers Village. In front of the new apartment complex, which offers lower rent to educators who chose to live and work in Newark, pots of red and purple flowers hang off the side of the building. On sale in the convenience store are the official newspapers of global capitalism – the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
Tonnie’s Minis is located on the same block.
“When you look at where we are, the change has to start with us. I can't be worried if I want to commit” said Tonnie Rozier, 47, the store’s owner, as he took a fresh tray of double chocolate cupcakes out of the oven. “The faith we have in ourselves and our community tends to grow. Therefore, I have no gates. And I’m not going anywhere.”
A New York City native, Rozier is no refugee from his homeland. Instead, he sees himself as a part of a movement.
“Why not Newark?” Rozier said, referring to developers such as Ron Beit, the force behind Teachers Village, and others who encouraged him to come to New Jersey’s largest city. Rozier lives in Teachers Village with his family. “The drive behind what is here now is socioeconomic, not racial. As long as law enforcement is policing crime, not people, Halsey Street can be like Manhattan or Brooklyn. There has to be a continuing flow of new blood and energy from all over country, even the world.”
Phillips wants those bars off, but doesn't want the lifting of Newark’s post-1967 physical and burden to mean the loss of what kept the city alive during its decades-ling time of trial.
“Old Newark can’t die, it's the backbone of the community. But I need a bigger demographic of customers, not just the national orders we get,” said Phillips. “I need more people to come in to my store who are part of the fabric of the community, not just people from outside.”
“The question now is this – is this revitalization or gentrification?” Phillips said. “I think it’s revitalization because there is opportunity for those who have been here to remain here.”
The fear of gentrification prompted Mayor Ras Baraka to propose an ordinance that will require a sizeable percentage of affordable housing to be included in new residential developments. The City Council rejected the ordinance earlier this week, though it remains on the table for further consideration.
The upscale Whole Foods that opened in the Hahne’s building is perhaps the most obvious symbol of a gentrifying city.
Prudential’s impact investment fund helped fuel the renovation of the Hahne’s building, which includes an art gallery, a bookstore and new market-rate and affordable apartments.
Sathe, whose job at Prudential is to help shape the stream of financial capital flowing into Newark, said it is the refurbishment of Newark’s smaller buildings that play just as an important role in transforming the city’s terrain.
“The new properties are intentionally not being designed for commuters from elsewhere, but for residents who walk to them,” Sathe said. “These are not just best practices in urban design, but come ultimately from a belief in Newark’s potential. It’s not a defensive posture. It’s optimistic.”
Transforming Newark has its challenges.
“Downtown Newark was never a residential downtown. It was a commercial and retail center. You have to figure out a way to bring these large buildings back to function in a different way,” said Sathe, a Harvard-trained real estate and land use attorney.
“Progress goes from nothing to all of a sudden, you open a massive building. A lot of land was utilized for institutional use. Parking lots, which are so valuable, are in some ways being mothballed for growth 20 to 30 years from now, but hurts the short run,” Sathe said. “If you look at a map of Newark in 1945, there were a lot more streets. From an urban design perspective, you want as many streets and as many blocks as you can. “
McGovern’s Tavern is another Newark institution that refused to leave the city after 1967. In fact, the downtown bar, opened in 1936, stayed open even when the buildings across the street on New Street were empty, a victim of the flight from the city, a product of its destruction.
Sean McGovern, the bar’s owner, is about to expand his family’s building. It will expand about 1,000 square feet horizontally and become a three-story building vertically. Apartments and studios will be in place both above the bar and into a long-vacant building next door at the corner of New and Washington Streets. Construction is scheduled to begin later this summer.
The original bar next door will retain its dimly lit, historical character, its windows to the world still shuttered. The well-known murals, photos, posted articles and memorabilia will remain and be seen only after customers’ eyes adjust after going through a sole, green metal door.
But the new bar and restaurant will be very different. There, there will be no gates. There will be windows. And there will be light.
“The perceived risk is no longer there, not in our minds,” McGovern, 50, said. “Is the riot over? I hope so and I think so. I’m betting on it.”