It has been more than 55 years since the civil disorders of 1967 tore through Newark’s Central Ward, when both political leaders and the media wrote Newark off as one of the nation’s most hopeless cities.
The disorders that preceded the creation of New Community Corporation (NCC) left 23 dead, more than 1,000 injured, nearly 1,600 arrested and $15 million worth of property in ruins. The real toll was far deeper. The disorders were a disaster that threatened lives and homes and ripped apart the very fabric of the community.
Shopkeepers fled, most never to return. Residents were left without essential services. There were no homes, no jobs and no hope. The Central Ward of 1967 bore a closer resemblance to the bombed-out cities of Europe after World War II than to the largest city in New Jersey, once one of the most prosperous states in the nation.
Neighborhoods Left In Ruins
Damaged by white flight to the suburbs for decades, Newark had hit the bottom. Much of the Central Ward lay in ruins and its residents, mostly poor minorities, desperately needed housing, employment and social services.
Incumbents in Newark’s City Hall showed little interest in neighborhood problems. Little of the federal anti-poverty money directed to Newark filtered down to benefit the poor. It fell to grass roots citizens to create interest in the plight of their neighborhoods and to take the steps to turn things around.
“I used to tell people I was convinced someone was going to put a fence around Newark and we’d end up living on a reservation,” said NCC founder Monsignor William J. Linder. “My own thinking was that we needed to get a development corporation committed to low-income neighborhoods, and the disorders forced us to get together and start implementing.”
The 1967 disturbances laid bare the pressing needs and outrages of life in Newark, a city without many of the most basic resources and services taken for granted in most urban centers. Huge numbers of people desperately needed work, but there were few jobs. There were growing numbers of young families, but day care was virtually nonexistent and parents had no place to leave their children. Hospitals were strained by a crush of patients and health care was difficult to obtain. Decent, affordable housing was virtually impossible to come by.
Born Out Of Destruction, A Will To Rebuild
New Community was born in 1968 from disorder, poverty and despair. The organization, founded by Father Linder and a dedicated group of associates that met at Queen of Angels Church, where he was a young parish priest, had no money and no political influence. It faced overwhelming odds against success.
The original NCC Board of Directors included Willie Wright, President; Timothy Still, Vice President; Elma Bateman, Secretary; Arthur J. Bray; Monsignor Thomas J. Carey; Joseph Chaneyfield; Robert Curvin; Kenneth Gibson; and Father Linder.
A Bold Yet Simple Vision
Their goal was simple and bold: to develop safe, decent and attractive housing for poor residents in a new community within the Central Ward. They sought to use the new housing to spur neighborhood revitalization. To promote interest and pride, they developed a process for community participation in developing the new housing, including actively involving residents in the design process.
They proposed developing a 45-acre tract — South Orange Avenue to the north, 15th Avenue to the south, Jones Street (now Irvine Turner Boulevard) to the east and Bergen Street to the west — covering 14 city blocks in the heart of the Central Ward.
NCC began by purchasing two acres of land. The Board envisioned the development of this land as a small beginning, which would have a significant impact. “The two acres — and from them the entire 45 — will stand as a symbol of a community that rebuilt itself physically and spiritually,” the board wrote at the time.
The early days brought severe challenges. There were numerous confrontations with black nationalists and activists who were acquiring a large local following. White conservatives, who were anxious to block political or economic gains by blacks, objected to NCC’s efforts to improve life in the Central Ward and to its visible attempts to oppose their racially inflammatory tactics.
There were few models for the kind of resident-led community development NCC was trying to achieve. It took years of struggle to develop housing plans that would be approved by state and federal authorities, to secure financing for construction and to cultivate skills members would need to undertake the complex task of housing development.