As it observes the 50th anniversary of the 1967 event that some call a riot and others call a rebellion, Newark ponders a question: Have things gotten better or worse in New Jersey's largest city?

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NEWARK — Donald Trump’s critics say his claim that minority inner-city residents are “living in hell’’ is based on a Nixon-era view of urban America that ignores how much safer and healthier cities have become.
Now, the 50th anniversary of a long hot July when inner city life unquestionably was hellish — riots gutted Newark and Detroit, leaving 69 dead — calls the question. Have things really changed?
In Newark, an unfounded rumor that a man had died in police custody led to five nights of looting, arson and gunfire that left 26 dead, more than 1,400 arrested and the city’s Central Ward in ruins.
People here disagree whether to call what happened that July a “riot,” a “rebellion” or a “disturbance.’’ But this much is clear: The anniversary is both a reminder of how much worse some things were, and of how bad some still are.
“Newark’s recovery has had a dual nature,“ says Larry Hamm, a community activist. At 12 he watched “the rebellion’’ from his front porch; at 17 he was named to the Board of Education by the city’s first black mayor. “A lot of people can’t afford the new Newark. We have dynamism downtown, and poverty in the neighborhoods.’’
Those neighborhoods — like formerly Jewish Weequahic, which produced Philip Roth, and the once-solidly Italian North Ward where Frankie Valli was born Francesco Castelluccio — are the parts of the city now under the most stress.
In fact, “inner city’’ is an inapt synonym for urban misery. Most big city centers are thriving.
Skilled young people of all races want to live and work near the city’s museums, galleries, bars, clubs, restaurants, sports venues and vintage buildings. The city also appeals to older suburbanites seeking something more interesting than another a trip to the mall.


But the “inner city’’ to which Trump refers actually lies outside downtown, between center city and suburbia. Here, all the old problems persist: poverty and crime, crumbling infrastructure and racial segregation.
Max Herman is author of Summer of Rage, an oral history of the 1967 troubles. Despite downtown jewels such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and a new Whole Foods market inside the renovated Hahne & Co. department store building, he says, “Newark, in some ways, is worse than 1967.’’
Violent crime in the city has declined for four straight years, and Mayor Ras Baraka boasts of a ribbon-cutting or ground-breaking a week. But a third of residents are officially poor, and those who do work hold less than a fifth of the city’s jobs. The population, around 280,000, is down by a quarter since 1967.
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Trump made inner city conditions a campaign issue last summer. Speaking before largely white audiences, he called “our inner cities … a disaster’’ and said African-Americans and Hispanics had been neglected by the Democrats they’d long supported. Trump asked for their vote: “What do you have to lose?’’
In his GOP convention speech, he described cities overrun by gangs and used the term “law and order’’ four times. In the first presidential debate, he said that inner-city residents were “living in hell, because it's so dangerous.’’ In his inaugural address, he cited “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities’’ as evidence of “American carnage.’’


Critics were surprised — Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wrote that his “urban ‘disaster’ views sound frozen in the riot years of the 1960s’’ — and are skeptical. They say Trump is less concerned with black lives than white votes and is really addressing his extra-urban base.
But some here concede that Trump had a point. His description of the problem, if not his solution (including aggressive “stop-and-frisk” police tactics) — sounded like concerned liberals’ of what the black sociologist Kenneth Clark once called “the dark ghetto.’’
In July 1967, no ghetto was darker than Newark’s.
Here’s the city’s application that April for a federal grant: Among major cities, Newark “has the highest percentage of substandard housing, the most crime per 100,000 people, the heaviest per capita tax burden and the highest rates of venereal disease, new tuberculosis cases and maternal mortality.’’
Blacks constituted a majority of residents, but were routinely brutalized by a mostly white police force and marginalized by a white-controlled Democratic political establishment. When a school board seat came open, the mayor appointed another white man who’d never gone to college ahead of the state’s first black certified public accountant.
Grievances were endless, from expectations raised and frustrated by the federal War on Poverty to the planned demolition of an entire neighborhood to make way for an academic medical complex. “The city was a bomb waiting to go off,’’ says Kevin Mumford, a historian who wrote Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America.
On July 12, it did.
Two white cops arrested and beat up a black taxi driver they accused of tailgating their cruiser. When a rumor spread that the cabbie had died, a crowd formed outside the police station. One of the protesters broke a window, officers responded, and a melee ensued.


As the violence spread, the National Guard rolled in and sealed off the exits. That did not save Fire Lt. Michael Moran, shot as he responded to a fire, or Eloise Spellman, a mother of 11 who was shot while leaning out of her apartment window.
The presidential commission that investigated the Newark disturbance and the Detroit riot that began on July 23rd concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." It urged a massive public remedial program, including billions to promote residential integration.
But Richard Nixon, the 1968 Republican presidential nominee, drew a different conclusion. The riots underscored the need for law and order, which became a key issue in his narrow victory.
The Newark eruption created some enduring misconceptions.
  • The riots drove out the white middle and working classes.
In fact, they had been leaving for years. By 1967 Newark had half as many white residents as two decades earlier. But the riots did sever the city’s link with its suburbs, ending a symbiotic relationship in which suburbanites would return to their old neighborhoods to shop, eat or worship. After July 1967, most didn’t go into Newark unless they had do. And no one called what had happened that summer anything but a riot.
  • The city collapsed because of the riots.
In fact, Washington, Trenton and the business community at first rallied to the city’s aid. In 1970 Kenneth Gibson was elected the city’s first black mayor. The nation’s eyes were on Newark. “Wherever American cities are going,’’ Gibson said, “Newark will get there first.’’
But the riot stigma was damaging enough. The Watts riots of 1965 did little to halt Los Angeles’ ascent; the city was too big, too rich. And even after its own riots that July, Detroit still had an identity – four major sports teams, a top 10 media market and the auto industry.
Newark, in contrast, was overshadowed by New York City, confined to compact footprint, and stripped of its factories.
  • The rebellion led to a golden age of black political empowerment.
By the time he was defeated for re-election in 1986, Gibson had disappointed both his supporters in the business community as well as ones like the poet Amiri Baraka (Ras’ father), who’d likened the 1970 election to the liberation of an African colony.
Gibson’s successor, Sharpe James (1986-2006), was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 27 months in federal prison. The bright promise of Cory Booker’s administration (2006-2013) was shadowed by crime and failing schools.
Max Herman says that black governance has been no more honest or efficient than white governance, and that economic power in the city is still not controlled by blacks, but by institutions and corporations controlled by whites.


The city has two memorials to July 1967: a plaque outside the police station where it all started, and a stone marker in a small park nearby listing the names of the fallen.
One does not even use the word “riot.’’ Lauren Craig, a local resident and author of the forthcoming Newark installment in the 100 Things to Do before You Die series, says that’s fitting: “It was a case of people reacting to brutality and discrimination. It was not people with no morals running wild in the streets.’’
It would — and could — happen again, says Mumford, the historian: “How is Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 different from Newark in 1967?''