The hair industry is the thermometer of a nation’s economy. As barbershops in Downtown Newark, New Jersey navigate gentrification, they also show the serious struggle of longtime residents against a changing landscape both economically and racially. While they created the city’s culture and swag, Newark leaves many behind.
This photo story is my lens into how gentrification has shaped Newark, New Jersey. This is an ode to the barbers, like me, who sweated it out with all they had, only to be displaced. Often, we are a silent group. We spin chairs and cut hair; however, we are the historians and the social workers of the community.
When I opened Seventy Sixes in 2011, barbershops and hair salons were on many of the blocks in Downtown Newark. More than half have shut down in the seven years I opened. One time, I heard someone say something disparaging about the number of hair shops in the area. However, they didn’t know how crucial barbers were in the history of the city.
The first Black professional group in Newark was that of a barber’s association. It was them who funded the organizations to mobilize Blacks when they began to migrate in large numbers to New Jersey in the 1930s. So this photo story is important on many levels. One, it is to document a dying business in Newark. Two, it shows the people and faces behind the chair who often get overlooked or looked down upon. Three, if it were not for Black barbers, we don’t know what Newark would have become.
Million Dollar Kutz 194 Market Street, 2nd Floor. Above Dunkin’ Donuts, until early 2019, was Million Dollar Kutz, located on Market Street for 15-plus years. Million Dollar Kutz sat 50 yards from the main intersection of Newark—Broad Street and Market Street. Called the “Four Corners,” this intersection is centrally located in downtown and is the cornerstone of the city.
When the building that housed Million Dollar Kutz was sold to developers, the new landlords pushed the owner, Michael Thomas, out of the building by doubling his rent. Corporations like Dunkin Donuts can weather storms like these through tax cuts offered to them because they’ve come into “distressed” neighborhoods. Or, they remain, by simply writing off losses.
Unlike franchise companies, small businesses cannot play out the months in court to challenge developers, so they often close up shop. Million Dollar Kutz was the only shop owned by a Black barber at the four corners. He was an immigrant from Liberia who serviced the community for years and fed his family. I heard he moved down South for a more affordable lifestyle. As you can see, his sign has been stripped since he left, but it used to be one of the few lights on when nobody wanted to come to downtown Newark after dark.