If this gritty city in northern New Jersey is any example, South Los Angeles faces a long, painful recovery from the devastation of last week’s riots.
Twenty-five years after the violent race riots that rocked Newark’s predominantly black Central Ward, leaving 26 people dead and more than $10 million in property damage, the wounds left by the death and destruction are still visible in the community and among its residents.
“We’ve earned a Ph.D in rioting,” said Mayor Sharpe James. “We know about the scars from the burning, the looting, the indiscriminate firing by National Guard and police.”
Springfield Avenue is a prime example. It was the epicenter of the civil disorders that were sparked by the alleged beating of a black motorist by white police officers. Once a bustling commercial thoroughfare, it is now a wasteland of rubble-strewn vacant lots, abandoned buildings and boarded-up businesses.
The few marginal enterprises that remain--among them, a television repair shop, a small furniture mart, a mini-market and a few bars and liquor stores--stand in sharp contrast to the thriving rows of specialty shops, jewelers and stores for clothing, furniture, appliances, groceries and hardware, as well as movie houses, that used to line the avenue.
“On Saturdays, Springfield Avenue was like this with people,” recalled Edna R. Thomas, a longtime black community activist, interlacing the fingers of her hands to show how thick the crowds were. “Blacks didn’t have to go downtown to shop. We had shops here that downtown didn’t have.”
Surveying the desolate scene on Springfield from outside the drug abuse clinic she runs on nearby Prince Street, she added wistfully: “I don’t think Springfield will ever come back. Certainly, not any way near like it was. It’s like all the hope is gone out of the neighborhood.”
Many residential sections in the ward, which stretches westward from downtown Newark out to the city’s border with suburban Irvington, have the same problems.
Abandoned public housing projects tower over streets pockmarked by the burned-out hulks of homes and apartment buildings. Corner mom-and-pop stores struggle to stay alive. Neighborhood churches are ringed by Cyclone fences topped with barbed wire to keep out thieves and vandals.
James, a former Newark city councilman who is in his second term as the city’s second black mayor, says the riots led to the formation of a black-Latino political coalition that was instrumental in the election of the city’s first black mayor and first black city council members in 1970.
But, he added, the political dominance of blacks in this largely black city did not translate into the economic and social renewal of the Central Ward.
Over most of the past 2 1/2 decades, he contended, regeneration efforts have been hamstrung by misplaced political priorities at City Hall, uncertain federal assistance programs and a dramatic citywide exodus of people and jobs after the riots.
Since his election as mayor in 1986 on a campaign theme of change and economic renewal, the city’s landscape has been transformed by more than $2.5 billion in new business and residential development.
Most of this has been focused on Newark’s long depressed downtown, although the Central Ward has reaped some of the benefits.
On a 40-acre site charred by fire during the 1967 riots rises a sparkling, new housing development of three-story, neocolonial-style townhouses. Called Society Hill at University Heights because of its proximity to downtown Newark’s complex of universities and colleges, the low- and moderate-income project has become a popular address for both blacks and whites who like close-in urban living.
When the first of the more than 500 units were opened, Mayor James recalled, “People were lined up for a week to move into them.”
Not far away stands the first major supermarket in the ward since fire consumed the old one during the riots a quarter-century ago. Opened in 1990 after more than eight years of efforts by community groups, the $12-million Pathmark emporium is a godsend for residents who often had to travel hours by bus or car to get groceries, usually in the neighboring suburbs.
“It’s fine, fine, fine, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” 67-year-old Alberta Thompson said of the Pathmark as she loaded two bags of groceries into her car one afternoon this week. “I had to drive all the way to East Orange before. It was a 25- to 30-minute trip. Now, it only takes me five to 10 minutes from where I live to come here and get back home.”
The city pumped $2.5 million into refurbishing and reopening a massive recreation center near the decaying Stella Wright public housing projects, and ground will be broken soon for a $4.8-million six-screen multiplex cinema on Springfield Avenue.
But whether these encouraging beginnings turn into a solid wave of redevelopment remains in question.
Newark’s economic renaissance was boosted by the strong economy of the 1980s; now the slump of the ‘90s is slowing efforts to continue development.
The city also continues to suffer from formidable economic and social problems, including an unemployment rate that is double the statewide average, a per capita income rate that at $9,242 is more than 25% below the poverty line, and a particularly high rate of automobile theft along with the usual array of urban ills, including AIDS, drugs and homelessness.
In addition, the population continues to decline. The 1990 census showed the city with 275,221 people--a decline of more than 16% from the previous decade and 32% from before the riots.
Many Central Ward residents complain that they have remained unaffected by improvements downtown and elsewhere in the city.
“Nothing’s gotten better. If anything, they’ve gotten worse,” said Rashaan Zulu, 33, who contends that neighborhoods are being shortchanged at the expense of downtown development. “Sharpe James calls it a renaissance; we call it selling out.”
To James, who says the economic vitality of downtown is crucial to the economic well-being of the entire city, such complaints simply highlight the difficult task in rebuilding from the riots.
“It’s a long road to recovery and it’s a painful road,” he said. “But the phoenix will rise again.”