1874 view of Newark, looking west

Long Division

By Carrie Stetler

Newark’s ward system was created in 1836, after the city became one of the most important industrial centers in the nation.  A population explosion transformed Newark, suddenly filled with immigrant laborers, and the creation of wards was viewed as a way to run it more effectively and impose law and order.

“Do you wish to have an efficient watch  protect your wives and daughters from insults in the streets?” a newspaper editorial of the era asked rhetorically. “Do you wish to have disturbers of the peace, riotous houses, and all other offending against good order brought to speedy justice?”

Officials divided the city into East, West, North and South.

As the population redistributed itself and political factions grabbed for territory, the wards were subdivided, and subdivided again. By 1871, there were 15, although two years later they were reduced to nine. In 1906, they ballooned again to 16.

In 1954, Newark returned to the original ward system in an attempt to combat corruption and patronage. “Political candidates had a lot of ethnic loyalties and would  dole out jobs and contracts to people who were loyal to them,’’ said John Johnson Jr., a Newark historian and assistant professor of history at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City.  “There was a lot of corruption in Jersey in general, and a push for charter change and a mayor and council form of government rather than commissioner system.”

Ward politicans reflected the predominant ethnicities within their borders: the North Ward was largely Italian, the South Ward had a large Jewish population and the East and West Wards were mostly Irish and Slavic.  But in 1954, a fifth ward was created, the Central Ward, home to many of the city’s Black residents. “It created a Black voting block and so people were able to vote for someone who represented their interests,’’ said Johnson Jr., who grew up in the South Ward.

The designation resulted in the first Black ward leader, Councilman Irvine Turner, namesake of Irvine Turner Boulevard, which runs from the Central through the South Wards.