The history of Black and brown ownership in Newark, NJ, in a time where we question not if the city is undergoing gentrification, but where does that leave opportunity for growth and inclusion for natives.
“Meet me on Broad and Market.” A commonly used local phrase illustrates the four corners, the city’s first intersection bearing a long history in Newark, a metropolis affectionately known by natives as “Nork” or “Brick City.”
Herein lies the heart of the city—Broad Street and Market Street—the part of the body controlling the source of a system that can either flourish or become stifled. While it is only right that this location is where the first phases of economic expansion start, just up the hill, in one of the larger wards of Newark, the West Ward is still plagued by old, dreams deferred.
Whereas the Central Ward, the site of the four corners, is being recognized for its potential through concentrated development, in other wards, residents live in neglected communities lacking investments. This leaves many who have been in the city for generations, wondering if their Newark is inclusive to their needs and wants. Or, are they outsiders in their own communities?
In theory, through new developments and renovations of old buildings and businesses, gentrification moves the financial infrastructure of a city from predominantly poor to middle-class. However, it is important to understand the community and culture you service.
Early Newarkers, gentrification then
Previously, a predominantly white European city, Newark’s population consisted of roughly 90% Eastern European Jewish and German Jewish immigrants in the 1800s to mid 1900s—the complete opposite of its history in the last 50 to 60 years. But, Newark also had its own Chinatown in the early-20th century, located behind city hall, which eventually, Europeans took over.
In wards such as the Central Ward, also known as the Sixth Ward in the early to mid-20th century, lived Jewish migrants. As well, Jews predominantly resided in and owned the South Ward. On the other side of the city, an Italian community lived in the North Ward until Route 280 caused many to move. Then situated in the East Ward, or Ironbound, community, Portuguese, Black, and Latino people dwelled. Once many African Americans migrated from the south, the face of these communities changed.
Black people moved into the Central and West wards, relocating for jobs in what was then a city full of factories. They moved into apartments once filled with Jewish families where they began to own businesses and thrive. Highway construction and the influx of Black migrants by 1940 also pushed out the remainder of Chinatown’s residents who eventually migrated to New York City. Now, we find Black and brown ownership on a decline for the last 30 years with many mom-and-pop stores closing or selling their businesses because they cannot afford to maintain them.
Building back the block
Evidence of the city’s decline is in its neighborhoods. Newark’s streets are designated by either names or numbers. In most numbered-blocks in the West Ward, you see an abandoned home every couple of houses. This resulted in wards such as the South and West to become run-down, crime-ridden, and residents wanting to deeply change the narrative.
Through Councilwoman McIver, I learned more about where we are as a city, but, most importantly, about the city’s initiatives in bringing back some of that community and family-oriented feeling to Newark. All the while, promoting new economic development and maintaining the face of the predominantly Black and brown city.
“I believe that in Newark in some places we are seeing cases of gentrification, but I don’t believe we have seen a full-blown case of it and I don’t want to see it as a leader as well as a Newark native,” McIver shared in an email response to Ark Republic. She believes that if residents show up and engage in what’s going on in their community, they will stay informed on the opportunities given to them.
Councilperson McIver also believes that the city will never totally gentrify under the leadership of Mayor Ras Baraka. She said. “While we want new opportunities in Newark, new developments and big businesses, we also want the native Newarkers to be a part of it. One of the ways to do that is to put them in position to do that all while growing a city. We definitely don’t want to change the face or scope of Newark by adding people who don’t look like us.”
This afternoon Mayor Baraka joined Rutgers Newark in their Frederick Douglass Field Commemoration. The Mayor was joined by Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Rutgers President Robert Barchi, Congressman Donald Payne, Central-ward Councilwoman LaMonica McIver and Council President. pic.twitter.com/veZX4nx77y
— City of Newark (@CityofNewarkNJ) April 17, 2019
Regarding home ownership, McIver stated, “We currently have a housing shortage. I have been preaching to the community not just in the Central Ward but throughout the city of people buying up their block. If you live between two abandoned homes and you have been cleaning up in front of both of them, why not own them? So we have created the affordable housing fund in order to assist residents with owning their blocks.”
It is no surprise that talks about the city’s undergoing gentrification have consisted of a decade-long conversation with developers such as RBH Group, L&M Development Partners, and many others finding the economic potential of the city’s inner works. But being close to public transportation is a tactic used to increase rent prices for newcomers. At the same time, it challenges rent control in the city.
The dramatic rise in rents force low-income residents who want to be included in Newark’s shift, to wait in line, hoping that their number gets called to move into the near 10% of apartments available for income-based housing. So is it a question of whether the city is undergoing gentrification? Or do we acknowledge this is reality and make sure that in this process of gentrification, native Newarkers with families that are two to three generations in and who may own a mom-and-pop shop, withstand the change and enter the conversation?
“Do you believe that Newark is undergoing the process of gentrification and if so can you explain?” I posed this question to Newark’s Historian, Junius Williams, in a recent phone interview.
He responded, “Gentrification is the process in which one ethnic group or economic group with a lot of money comes in and takes over. It’s a long and slow process. In Newark right now, there are a lot of new faces because it’s conveniently close to New York, but with Jersey prices. So yes, there are people interested in Newark. Most of the new development is happening east of Broad Street . . . so yes, that is a process that’s happening. Now in neighborhoods, there’s not much displacement, but certainly, not much [of] that you can say Newark is gentrified.”
With this in mind, I inquired about the history of Black and brown ownership in Newark, when in the past, Newark has always been a migrant city. Williams replied “when white people began to leave Newark in the 1930s and accelerated in the 1950s when new financing was available in the G.I. Bill and FHA financing and when the highway was built using all of the taxpayers’ dollars. In the late 1960s, Black professionals were allowed to move into the suburbs. But much of the funding that had been available to whites in the 1950s had still not been available to Black people. It was the federal government and segregation that prevented many Black people from ownership.”
Despite learning all of this, my fondest memories of Newark are filled with fun, love, community and culture. Many of those same recollections include visiting my family and friends in the projects on High Street or going to a block party at the International Youth Organization on South 12th Street and Woodland Avenue at the end of the summer. These times illustrate strength of a poverty-stricken community that in the late 80s and early 90s, struggled to get ahead of the curve.
Sushi conversations of visibility
In comparison to Williams’ take on gentrification, Wilhemina Holders, CEO of Newark Secondary Parent Council, said, “Newark is in the early stages of gentrification. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it must be closely regulated to not cause displacement.”
She told the story of visiting a friend who lived around South 7th Street and 15th Avenue. There, Holders saw a sushi spot opened up and wondered who they tried to attract. She asked her friend, “If the purpose of gentrification is to change the financial infrastructure of a community, then why is that these new businesses that have opened up are not required to give back to the communities that they are residing in?”
The new chain of restaurants, which have short term success in areas such as the Central Ward’s business district, thrive off of the dollars of the many different faces of Newark during the week. But then take most of their dollars on the weekends to spend outside of the city, never investing in Newark or the people left behind after they have found their success.
Are we undergoing gentrification? Yes, we are. Is it necessarily a bad thing? That depends on the lens in which we see through. For sure, where there is an opportunity there is a chance for growth.
Since development started to increase, there are ordinances in place to assist with getting more Newarkers jobs to afford housing. Additionally, instituted are programs in place for the city to be more of an “inclusive Newark.”
Maybe it is up to the community to change the narrative of our city and not depend on outsiders to do it. Change comes from within. It starts with a change of heart and then a change of mind, where your perspective lies. When a community works together, it no longer falls victim to views of others but rises above to be the change they seek. Historically, Newark may not have belonged to us, but through the years and through the investments made in maintaining what is in our control as Newark natives and community partners, the blocks belong to us.
This major collaborative exploring gentrification is fueled by passion and power. Now, we need your generosity to keep stories like these circulating, and told. Please donate or become a member. Your money contributes greatly, as we are a boutique media company.
Ark Republic is an independent media company that provides a platform for free-thinking folk to tell stories as complex and colorful as possible. We need your help to keep the wheels churning and the stories flowing. Please become and member or donate to an organization dedicated to giving you stories that keep you informed.