It was the best of towns, it is the worst of towns.
Well, maybe I overstate both cases a little, but my how my hometown of East Orange, NJ has fallen. I discovered a book, East Orange, by Bill Hart (ISBN 978-0-7385-4549-3), that says that at one time East Orange was one of the wealthiest cities in the country. It had some of the best schools. It had a great park system. And when Andrew Carnegie donated money to build a public library, some of the residents were insulted, and one stated, “We are a wealthy community able to provide for our own library.”
I don’t remember East Orange being a wealthy town, but I do remember it being a proud and beautiful one. It was a town that regularly won awards for its cleanliness, and a town with a thriving middle class. I’ve mentioned before that East Orange was a small town even though it had 77,000 people because it was physically small. We were only four square miles in size, but with no height restrictions, East Orange was the home of many beautiful apartment buildings. In fact, according to Hart, we were once known for having more apartment buildings than any other East Coast community. But I also remember the beautiful homes on Ampere Parkway, Woodland Avenue, and Brookwood Street.
In the years since I left for college in 1974, East Orange seemed to start going downhill, and actually, the spiral had started while I was still there. East Orange is no longer the beautiful town it once was, and the school system is one of the poorer ones in the state.
What happened? Newark happened. But no, Newark is not the second city in this tale. Specifically, the Newark riots of 1967 happened, causing white and general middle class flight from both Newark and East Orange and an influx of some of the poorer residents of Newark. East Orange now has a black population of 89% and a 19% poverty rate. So much for being one of the wealthiest cities in the country.
And then there’s Bayonne…and Harrison and Belleville while we’re at it. These towns are also right next to Newark, but neither have the huge black population nor the poverty rate that East Orange does. I wondered why it was that those towns didn’t take in as many “refugees” as East Orange did. I had theory; I was betting that it was easier for poor blacks to move into East Orange because of those apartment buildings we were known for, and that to move into Bayonne, Harrison, or Belleville would’ve meant buying a house.
I tested my theory by asking a friend from Bayonne, a town with a 6% black population and a poverty rate of 10%. He said that not only had I hit the nail squarely on the head, but that in the 60s, Mayor Fitzpatrick intentionally had block after block of old apartment buildings in Bayonne torn down and replaced by one and two-family houses. Many people complained that this was blatantly racist, and forced the poor to move out of Bayonne…but they also said that it “saved” the city.
Wow. Could East Orange have been “saved” by tearing down some of the many apartment buildings we were known for? Now before you call me either racist or insensitive, I’m neither. But perhaps a better distribution of people…a little more diversity…would’ve done everyone some good. Perhaps East Orange could’ve torn down some of the apartment buildings and Bayonne could’ve left some standing.
On the other hand, maybe some of those apartment buildings in East Orange are the next stop for the young professionals who find that they’ve now been priced out of Jersey City.
But I'll talk about that next week.