Words by Carrie Stetler | Images by Tamara Fleming
The South Ward is home to the Newark airport, the Anheuser-Busch brewery, and the legacy of two literary giants: Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka, who both lived in the Weequahic section.
But the ward’s lesser-known people and places reveal more about its character. CB Dream House Boutique on Bergen Street, a lavender storefront behind a white picket fence, sells dayglo custom-made faux-fur shoes, boots and slippers. On Ghanaian Way, a small stretch of Victoria Street renamed in honor of the South Ward’s African community, goats, chicken and sheep are raised at a small halal livestock market.
Dozens of small storefront churches are also scattered throughout the South Ward, like the Original Glorious Church, located in the midst of a vacant lot on Clinton Place and Triumph Church of the New Age, with its small flat aluminum-sided steeple on Bergen Street.
There is also more poverty and violence here. Eighty percent of the city’s homicides occur in the South and West Wards, according to city officials. The median income level is about $20,000, compared to $34,000 in Newark overall, according to South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James.
But for James, who grew up there, the ward isn’t defined by those statistics. “The perception that people are walking around shooting each other all the time, that everyone is a criminal just isn’t true,’’ says James, the son of former Mayor Sharp James. “Nearly all of the gun violence is committed by a small percentage of people with lengthy criminal records. People who are going about their regular day-to-day business are not getting shot or having crimes committed against them.’’
The fate of the South Ward is a familiar story that unfolded throughout Newark. Jobs left town as a result of a deindustrialization that began in the 1950s and 1960s. An exodus of white middle-class residents, including the South Ward’s Jewish population, abandoned their residential neighborhoods for the suburbs, fueled by federal incentives for home ownership that excluded Black people. Panic in the aftermath of the 1967 uprisings jolted many more to leave.
In the South Ward, which still has many large single-family homes, set on lots with big lawns and greenery, property values and home ownership plummeted. Among the neighborhoods that suffered were Clinton Hill and the Weequahic section, Newark’s most well-known community, first made famous by Pulitzer prize-winning author Philip Roth. In renowned novels like “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,’’ Roth immortalized the Weequahic of his youth in the 1940s and 1950s, the city’s locus of Jewish family life.
Author and activist Amiri Baraka, a driving force behind the rise of Black political power in Newark and a visionary advocate of Black art and culture, lived in Weequahic from the late 1960s until his death in 2014. His son, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, was raised there. He has warm memories of Weequahic in the 1970s and 1980s, a place filled with excitement and empowerment despite the era’s economic upheaval.
“There were issues but there was also a sense of family and community in our neighborhood,” he remembers. “I went to public school, where I met a variety of people. I went to rallies and marches and protests. All of the stuff that’s important to me and gave me a love for my city began there.’’
Newark artist Jerry Gant, who lived on Bergen Street in the 1970s, recalls the many small businesses and federally funded recreational programs in the South Ward of his youth. “You could go to the corner and it would be a mom and pop store. I remember when they would have block parties during the summer. The city would issue police barricades and we would play in the street, Double Dutch and dancing. There were all these community engagement types of activities that are totally foreign to the millennium.”
In recent years, many of Newark’s African immigrants have settled in the South Ward. “We like the vibe here. We love the hospitality in Newark. It’s a mostly Black town and you want to be in a community where you’re comfortable, we started families, opened businesses. We realized that America, and Newark, is the place for us.’’ says Dosso Kassimou, chairman of the Newark African Commission.
Long-time South Ward residents feel the same sense of belonging. Clinton Hill homeowner Donyea Hoffman has lived in the same historic home, built in 1924, for 25 years. With eight bedrooms and four baths, it’s typical of the neighborhood, and wouldn’t be out of place in Jersey’s wealthiest suburbs. “It’s something you could find in Short Hills,” she says.
Hoffman is frustrated by the past decade’s rise in foreclosures — the fallout from sub-prime loans — along with drug dealing and other crimes near her neighborhood, which she attributes, in part, to unemployment and lack of opportunity. Hoffman and other Clinton Hill residents are advocating for programs that will make the community safer and more stable.
“I love the people here. There are people who are in their mid-sixties, who remember how much it meant to buy a home here. You learn so much from them. There are so many assets,’’ Hoffman says.