The city of Newark, New Jersey, was founded in 1666 by colonists looking to set up a Puritan theocracy. Newark’s industrial boom began in the early to mid-1800s, when it was known for its leather factories and breweries. The construction of the Morris Canal and various railroads turned Newark into a bustling port city. Newark’s insurance industry also took off in the mid-1800s, and today Newark remains the second leading seller of insurance in the nation.
A public housing project in Newark before its demolition.
Economic troubles, social strife, and other major problems developed for the city in the 20th century. The Great Depression brought on the start of Newark’s urban flight, and manufacturers steadily left the city, taking their jobs with them. By the 1960s, Newark was a poor urban center surrounded by but disconnected from its middle class suburbs. As its white population shrank from 363,000 in the 1950s to 158,000 in 1967, its black population grew from 70,000 to 220,000 during the same period. The African American population had very quickly become the majority, and found itself concentrated in substandard housing projects and struggling with unemployment and political disenfranchisement. In 1967 racial tensions between the black community and the mostly white Newark police force led to disastrous riots, which ended in 26 deaths, 1,100 wounded, and $10 million in property damage. As the city continued its economic decline in the 1970s and 1980s the middle class population continued its exodus, leaving behind poor and polarized minority communities.
Population of Newark throughout History
By 2003, the population of Newark had more or less stabilized and was estimated at 277,911. Thirty-one percent were living below the poverty line and the city’s unemployment rate was 12 percent. Fifteen percent of people between the ages of 16 and 19 were high school dropouts. Nearly 60 percent of the population was African American, nearly 30 percent were Hispanic or Latino and 18 percent were white. Newark now contains the largest community of Portuguese immigrants in the US.
Newark is New Jersey’s largest city and its industrial center. It is a major East Coast distribution and shipping hub and it is home to Newark Liberty International Airport, one of three airports that service New York City. Recent efforts at revitalization under the administration of Mayor Sharpe Jameshave included the 1997 opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and a minor league baseball stadium. However, areas like the Central Ward still suffer from high levels of crime and poverty. The latest major development plan for downtown is a $355 million arena for the New Jersey Devils hockey team.
Past Political Turmoil
Newark’s political history is checkered with episodes of corruption. Although accusations of wrongdoing have trailed Mayor James’s administration, the two mayors who preceded James set the stage with their own fair share of scandals.
Hugh Addonizio was mayor from 1962-1970. He was the son of Italian immigrants, a World War II hero who had served for 14 years in Congress prior to being elected as mayor. He ran on a reform platform, defeating what he characterized as the corrupt political machine of Leo Carlin, who had been mayor since 1953. Ironically, Addonizio was also accused of corruption. A state investigation into his administration on the heels of the 1967 riots led to the discovery that Addonizio and other city officials were taking kickbacks from city contractors. He was convicted on federal charges of extortion and conspiracy in 1970 and sentenced to ten years in prison.
Kenneth Gibson, Newark’s first black mayor, was elected in 1970. Gibson won on a platform of reform. Before turning to politics, he had been an engineer, first for the state of New Jersey and then for Newark. He is credited with keeping Newark stable during his four-term administration, but, like Mayor Addonizio, he left office under suspicion of wrongdoing. During his last term he was indicted on state charges of conspiracy and misconduct but was eventually acquitted.
After leaving office, Gibson was involved in a scandal over a school construction project his engineering firm was managing. He was indicted on charges of bribery and stealing more than $1 million from the project. He also pleaded guilty in 2002 to one count of tax fraud, for which he received three years probation.
Sharpe James defeated Gibson in the 1986 mayoral race and is currently serving in his fifth term as mayor of Newark. He was elected to the city council in 1970 on the same spirit of reform and civil rights as Gibson, at a time when the city was still struggling to recover from the devastation of the 1967 riots.
In 1995 and 1996, James’s administration experienced a series of scandals. Council President Gary Harris and Councilman Ralph T. Grant were both convicted of bribery. Chief of Police William Celester, who had been hand-picked by James, was convicted of using police funds for trips for his girlfriends. The biggest blow came when James’s chief of staff and relative by marriage, Jackie Mattison, was convicted of bribery — he had been hiding $156,000 under the floorboards of his apartment. James survived these controversies and has been mayor of Newark for 19 years.
» Associated Press. “Hugh Addonizio, 66; Was Mayor of Newark During the 1967 Riots.” Boston Globe, Feb 2, 1981.
» Kleinknecht, William. “Gibson Gets Three Years Probation.” Star Ledger, November 1, 2002.
» “Newark.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 24 May 2005.
» Smother, Ronald. “As Newark Bounces back So Does Mayor.”, New York Times, January 31, 1998.
» Sypeck, Jeff. “I Love Newark; Get Ready. The city America loves to mock is starting to blossom.” The Washington Post, March 19 2000.
» hotos of Hugh Addonizio and Kenneth Gibson from the Collections of The New Jersey Historical Society.