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Newark: History

The Real Estate Market's Early Start in Newark

During the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers pulled back to reveal newly fertile soil along the coast of what would become New Jersey. The nexus of rolling hills, roving rivers and endless ocean attracted the first settlers of the United States, hunter-gatherers who had followed game and fur resources to the area. At the point that the first Europeans arrived in the region surrounding present-day Newark in the 1600s, they found it occupied by Native American bands, Hackensacks and Lenni-Lenapes of the Delaware tribe, from whom the territory was purchased in 1667. Captain Robert Treat and the rest of the settlers, migrants from Connecticut's New Haven Colony in search of religious freedom and inexpensive farmland, bought the whole of Essex County from the natives. Located on the Passaic River and a sheltered Atlantic bay, the settlement was named Newark, possibly in honor of Newark-on-Trent, England; some historians, however, claim the name derives from "new ark" or "new work." While religious intolerance was the primary motivation for the move from Connecticut, Newark leaders of the Puritan Congregational Church retained a grip on community affairs for many years.

Newark's strong educational tradition dates back to 1747 when the city was home to what is now Princeton University. The city's first elementary-level school was established in 1676, followed by the laying out of a market along Washington Square and a military training ground in Military Park. The community grew slowly, hampered by its reputation for strong Puritanism. It was not until 1733 that a second church attained a foothold in Newark, when a local version of the Church of England rose up to challenge the Congregationalists' authority.

Early industry in Newark included mining, iron-making, and tanning. Newark became an important commercial site when roads and ferries connected it to New York City. During the Revolutionary War, American General George Washington used Newark as a supply base during his retreat from the British. The retreat took him across the entire state of New Jersey, across the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania. After the war, the shoe industry grew into an economic mainstay in Newark. A process for making patent leather was developed in the early 1800s by Seth Boyden. Newark was also becoming world famous by the 1830s for its jewelry, beer, and hats. The completion of the Morris Canal connected Newark to goods-producing regions to the east in New Jersey, and an expanding network of railroads brought the city into contact with the frontier.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Newarkians were of divided loyalties. Trade with the secessionist South fueled Newark's booming economy, a circumstance that conflicted with the North's growing intolerance of slavery in the South. When the hat and shoe industries received major commissions from the Grand Army of the Potomac, the issue was settled—Newark was firmly in the Union camp, sending some 10,000 soldiers to fight for its cause.

Industry Brings Growth, New Residents

In the 1860s, Newark entered the technological age. John Wesley Hyatt invented a flexible film called celluloid in 1869, laying the basis not only for the hugely lucrative plastics industry but the motion picture industry as well. In nearby Menlo Park, Thomas Edison developed the electric light bulb; when he lived briefly in Newark, Edison also invented the stock ticker. Among the region's literary figures gaining prominence during this era were Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, and Mary Mapes Dodge, who wrote Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. Several prominent newspapers were founded in the Newark area in the years following the Civil War. Also during the latter half of the nineteenth century, ships carrying European immigrants steamed into Newark Harbor. Irish, Germans, Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese came in search of plentiful jobs, many of them in Newark's newly electrified factories. The chemical industry was established in Newark during this time, as the insurance industry gained a foothold through Mutual Benefit (1845) and Prudential Companies (1873).

The Port of Newark opened around 1915, just in time for America's preparations to enter World War I. Newark led the nation's shipbuilders during the country's brief war-time period. These years were significant, too, because they brought the first large group of Southern blacks north in search of defense-related jobs; pesticides had begun to curtail agricultural employment opportunities. By the 1930s, Newark was a major East Coast transportation, retail, and manufacturing base. Newark International Airport, opened in 1930, supplemented the port, rail, and highway facilities. Huge department and specialty stores lined Broad Street. Some of the nation's first and tallest skyscrapers pierced the Newark skyline as its factories turned out machinery and thread. But while Newark enjoyed all the appearances of a boomtown, it began to suffer the first signs of increasing urban decay. A corrupt local government undermined city services, commutable highways lured city residents to homes in the suburbs, and the tax base eroded as some important industries relocated.

Newark's population peaked in 1950 at 438,000 people. Modern Newark began to take shape with the urban renewal programs of the 1950s and with the help of the city's business leaders. Newark's two major life insurance companies renewed their commitment to the city, building new headquarters downtown. Federal structures, recreational facilities, and other office buildings followed. But the burgeoning prosperity of the 1950s masked deep racial divisions and inequalities that simmered, waiting for the tipping point.

In the 1950s, the migration to the suburbs appeared mainly to involve white Newark residents leaving the bustle and increasing crime of the inner city. Middle class African Americans followed, leaving African Americans and other people of color who labored in low-paying factory jobs. By 1966, African Americans were in the majority in the general Newark population, but government offices and the police department were dominated by whites. The economic and political power imbalance was at times wielded like a club—in 1967, in a city where 70 percent of the students were African American, the Newark mayor refused to appoint an African American secretary of education. The mayor went on to raze a predominantly African American neighborhood to make room for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a pricey higher education institution out of reach of most of the displaced homeowners.

Tensions reached boiling point, and the 1967 riots that commenced spanned six days and resulted in 23 deaths, 725 injured, and $10 million in property damage. However, among the riot rubble the city began to prosper again as Newark's first African American mayor entered office in 1970 as a symbol of a more unified municipality with progress in its sights.

Population Begins to Grow Once More

In 1986 Sharpe James, an ardent civic booster and veteran of the civil rights movement, was elected mayor of Newark. Downtown development in the late 1980s brought glittering office towers, though the population declined to about 275,000 by 1990. In the 1990s the city addressed the long-neglected issue of affordable housing. A number of affordably priced, suburban-style townhouses and luxury condominiums were constructed in the mid-1990s, improving the available housing stock. For example, a handsome 1,200-unit townhouse complex in the University Heights area transformed the entrance to the downtown. As of 2000, Newark's single family housing market was surging, with prices rising in all parts of the city; the population was also beginning to increase. In fact, Newark and nearby Jersey City were almost alone among the United States' historically struggling central city areas to have turned around their decline in population.

Mayor Sharpe James continues his efforts to improve the image and fiscal stability of Newark. In 2004 the city's crime rate dropped by more than 50 percent and a number of high-tech industries have been lured to the area. The insurance business has been a mainstay over the centuries, moving Newark into position as the third largest center of that industry in the U.S. The diverse population has generally shown gains since 2000 and is anticipated to surge again in coming years.

Historical Information: New Jersey Historical Society, 52 Park Place, Newark, NJ 07102; telephone (973)596-8500

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