Notes on Newark and Declining Cities

Avon Avenue Shul in Newark, now a church
Last week Rutgers Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy hosted a talk by Professor Kenneth T. Jackson on Newark’s Decline and Resurgence in the 20th Century. The talk was available via webcast to those watching from a distance. I managed to listen to much of the talk. My apologies to Prof. Jackson for any remarks I may have misinterpreted.

Professor Jackson spoke on the history of Newark, New Jersey and gave possible ideas for reviving the city in the near future. Newark is the largest city in New Jersey. Back in 1890-1900, said Professor Jackson, Newark leaders decided not to annex various neighboring areas when they had the opportunity. This meant that there is little room for larger single family homes in the city, and so when people wanted to own a house, they had to leave the city. The riots in the 1960’s signaled an end to the city’s prosperity, as people who would previously visit, for example, department stores in the downtown stopped doing so. Much of the city’s decline, he suggested, was due to choices of the leaders; he gave the example of Atlanta as a city that worked with African American leaders to keep the city safer and more economically stable. A similar city in decline would be Detroit. Professor Jackson didn’t have much good to say about Lewis Danzig, a city planner for Newark in the mid-twentieth century. Currently, the State of New Jersey pays for much of the Newark public school system, as the city itself can not afford to do so. He feels Cory Booker, the current mayor, is working hard for the city, and he hopes he will succeed.

Another failure in Newark history was poor land use control. Newark was home to various industries such as tanning, brewing and leather goods. Newark allowed factories to be located near neighborhoods. Agent Orange was manufactured in Newark.

Professor Jackson did not devote much time to Newark’s Jewish history, although he did share the slide of the shul that was converted into a church on the top of this post (see another New Jersey shul that is now a church). In the earlier half of the twentieth century, Newark had a vibrant Jewish community. My husband, who grew up by the Jersey shore, remembers old-timers talking about “Shabbos in Newark.”

At the end of the lecture on Newark and declining cities, Professor Jackson shared a few points about how Newark might be revitalized:

  • Newark’s crime rate is very, very high. In contrast, the crime rate in the Bronx has gone down. The crime rate needs to be taken under control.
  • The city should welcome gays and artists.
  • People need to be seen and walking around and not afraid to do so. If the public has the perception that crime is going down, it will help the crime rate go down. If you believe it is safe, it becomes safer.

One of his favorite suggestions for the revival of a city is sidewalk cafes – people get outside together in public in a social manner. He had many examples of cities that have declined and cities that have been revitalized – one he mentioned that experienced revitalization after a long, long period was Athens.

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Are there declining cities where you live? Are there cities that experienced decline but now enjoy some revitalization? Finally, if you live in a part of the world far from New Jersey, have you ever heard of Newark?

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12 thoughts on “Notes on Newark and Declining Cities

  • I have heard of Newark… LOL. Everything has a cycle. I believe he’s right when he suggests outdoor cafe’s, artist and gays. I find that offers a feeling of being a more sophisticated and ultimately safer. Just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Yes, they are good suggestions, but I don’t think they will work until the crime rate or at least the perceived crime rate is reduced.

      FYI, the homosexual community in Asbury Park did a lot to revitalize that city. But I don’t think the crime rate was nearly as high, and it’s a much smaller city that lies on prime property on the Jersey Shore, so in some ways it was easier. But that was rather miraculous, too.

  • The place where I live is still declining, mainly because the largest factories have either closed down (textile) or shrunk (bikes and motorbikes). It is not a happy situation as white-collar workers tend to leave the town and those who remain are either the civil servants (I am one of them) or those who have no other places to go to.
    I am not sure however how the town could be revived. The image of the town needs to change to attract new entrepreneurs I suppose.

    • Interesting – you don’t talk much about where you live. It looks like a beautiful town from the little that you have shown to us.

      Sometimes entrepreneurs come to a town because it is a cheaper place to set up a business. Unfortunately for New Jersey, sometimes that means businesses move to the South (like the Carolinas).

  • This was a really interesting post as I think it’s happened to so many towns, not only in the US, but in the UK as well. Downtowns that deteriorate and move towards mall world is a really awful phenomenon of the past four or five decades. CErtainly in the states the effect of so called ‘white flight’ had all the same effect. But as the talk says if places like Atlanta can & did embrace change then why not other cities. I think in the UK there has been a lot of reclamation of abandoned industrial sites particularly docks in certain cities that have become trendy new places of urban chic with outside cafes etc. But in truth the money stays in the cities that have traditionally had the money. The others are too nervous to take the risk or if they have the economy has just not been there to support it. Thanks Leora.

    • Thanks for your perspective, A. K. I don’t know much about Atlanta, but I do see that parts of New York City are doing better than they were a few decades back. This is in large part due to the money being there – someone decided to gentrify a neighborhood because it’s worth the energy and ultimate profit.

      I could see cities with docks doing well. That’s why eventually Asbury Park took off again – it has a beautiful shore with some beautiful old buildings and the boardwalk to draw in the local tourists.

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