The first thing you need to know about Robert Curvin is that on the night of July 12, 1967, when the air outside of the Fourth Precinct in the Central Ward was fraught with anger and tension in response to a black cab driver named John Smith being beaten and dragged into the police station by his feet, Robert Curvin was the young black civil rights activist who twice got on top of a car with a bullhorn and urged the people in the gathering crowd not to resort to violence.
“I mounted a car that was parked in front of the building and told the crowd that the prisoner was alive, that this was another example of police mistreatment of black citizens, but that we should not respond with violence,’’ he recalls in his book, Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation. “We could not win or accomplish anything that way. I urged the crowd to organize a peaceful march to City Hall where we would let the mayor and city officials know that we would not accept this kind of treatment anymore.’’
Of course, as history tells us, that did not happen. Rocks started flying, and the city exploded into five days of violence that left 26 people dead and over 200 seriously injured. Property damage was estimated at more than $10 million. Inside
Newark (Rutgers University Press, July 2014) is Curvin’s take on the last 60 years of Newark history, with an emphasis on how the city has struggled to transform itself since the devastation of 1967.
It is a subject Curvin knows well, both as a long-time Newark resident and as an expert in urban politics with a long and impressive resume that includes the following: member of many Newark non-profit organizations; donor and adviser to political campaigns; Ph.D in political science from Princeton University; member of the editorial board of the New York Times, director of the Ford Foundation’s Urban Poverty Program; professor at Rutgers University and City University of New York.
Indeed, today, at age 80, Curvin is one of Newark’s well-respected elders. Or, as Curvin more modestly puts it in the introduction, “I’m the guy who gets the Newark questions at the party in New York or on a plane ride to Washington. Were you there during the riots? Do you know Cory Booker? Do you think he’ll be president someday?’’
Machine politics, the rise of black power and a modest agenda
The book covers a lot of familiar themes. There’s de-industrialization and the flight to the suburbs that began in the 1930s; the entrenched corruption and boss politics that seems to be a historical through line that still pervades city life today; the rise of black political power in the wake of the 1967 riots. Curvin ends the book with a seven-point “modest agenda’’ which essentially comes down to two things: fix the schools and increase civic engagement.
His hope, Curvin told me in an interview last week, is that the book will help promote dialogue about the depths of difficulty that exist in fostering change in an urban community like Newark where poverty is so deep and so pervasive.
The book is meticulous in its analysis and use of interviews, with more than 100 key figures about Newark’s recent past, as well as documentation culled from dozens of newspaper articles, academic studies and personal papers. Even Curvin’s acknowledgements are useful; they are a Who’s Who of people who know the city well. (By the way: Of those 100+ interviews, about 60 were videotaped, and Curvin hopes to eventually make them available to the public through the Newark Public Library, a priceless gift.)
Dissecting the civil rights movement
Readers may be particularly interested in Curvin’s take on the civil rights movement in Newark, given his role as the co-founder of the Newark-Essex chapter of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and the organization’s chairman from 1962 until 1966. He was not chair at the time of the 1967 riots.
Curvin, who at the time was a case worker for the Essex County Welfare Board, says CORE was on the vanguard of local civil rights efforts, taking on issues like discrimination in employment and education and the problem of police brutality. He chronicles, for example, how, in 1963, CORE, a racially integrated organization with members from Newark as well as the neighboring suburbs, worked with other local organizations to orchestrate a major campaign against discrimination in the building trades by picketing the Barringer High School construction site.
The efforts, he says, “accomplished a major objective by forcing the problem of racially closed unions onto the public agenda.’’ CORE and other groups also took on New Jersey Bell Telephone, and the resulting negotiations lead to the development of a training program on civil rights for management employees and a documentary aimed at minority high school students about how to prepare for a job.
In contrast, Curvin argues, the Newark branch of NAACP had a cozy relationship with Newark’s boss mayor, Hugh Addonizo, making the organization reluctant to really shake things up. “Paradoxically, throughout the early 1960s, as protest throughout the nation attracted many new members to the NAACP, the Newark branch was effectively co-opted by the (Addonizo) administration, and thus became less effective,’’ Curvin writes.
Curvin also addresses the role of Tom Hayden and Students for a Democratic Society, who arrived in Newark in 1964 and then left after the 1967 riots. While Curvin offers a respectful critique of their organizing efforts, he notes Hayden’s group only operated in the Lower Clinton Hill neighborhood and ultimately concludes SDS could “only point to a few tiny victories.’’
Rating the mayors
Nor does Curvin hold back on some scorching criticism of the three black mayors who succeeded Addonizio, starting with Kenneth Gibson in 1970. Although Curvin concedes Gibson governed in difficult times, Curvin is ultimately disappointed with Gibson. “On the basis of the three important characteristics for effective mayoral leadership, Gibson might fairly receive an okay for management. However, on the matters of vision and integrity, he failed,’’ he writes.
As for Sharpe James, Curvin credits him for a lot of good things that happened in Newark – most especially for being the driving force behind the construction of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center – but he also argues that James’ record “is terribly marred in several ways. First, there is the stain of his conviction [in 2008, James was convicted of fraud in connection with the sale of nine city lots to a friend] and his transgressions for which he was not tried that continue to leave impressions of abuse of the public trust. Then there is the flaunting of conspicuous symbols of wealth like a Rolls-Royce, which is not a crime but certainly not something to convince the people of Newark he is worthy of their support. His record is also marred by his meanness and ruthless retaliation against organizations that did not support him. It is especially spoiled by his failure to focus on the needs of Newark’s poor citizens, particularly children.’’
Booker, too, is taken to task. While Curvin concedes Booker helped the city materially, he ultimately concludes: “The people in Newark, who initially bought into the vision and inspiring promises of Booker, ultimately saw a leader who overpromised, did not remain true to his pledges to avoid the traditional shady deals; was not around much and could not gain the support of the African American community, partly because he did not need it.’’
It’s the poverty
At its core, Curvin’s message is sobering. Despite all the hype about Downtown redevelopment, Newark’s “overarching problem,’’ he says, is concentrated poverty. “Its complications are most prominently manifested in the dysfunction of the schools, the pervasive violent crime, and the reality of joblessness for thousands of people, many of whom are young and who have no legitimate options for a safe and crime-free livelihood.’’
As Curvin sees it, dealing with pervasive unemployment is critical, and he advocates “a massive public service and public works program that can provide work opportunities for any adult who can show up.’’
So is fixing the schools, another huge undertaking that he says will require a rethinking of education in order meet the needs of a district where close to 40 percent of the children live in relatively deep poverty. “The problem of education in Newark is not the children, but the careless politics, and the antiquated, ineffective approaches that are simply inadequate to meet the special needs of poor children,’’ he writes.
Despite having spent the bulk of the book documenting the less-than stellar track record of Newark’s elected leaders, Curvin does have faith in people, and he ends the book with a call for increased civic engagement that brings all stakeholders – residents, non-residents, civic and business people – into the conversation.
“Newark leadership cannot alone solve the problem of unemployment or the shortage of affordable housing,’’ he writes. “But local leadership can take actions to make the city a better place. Granted, there are some people who will say that politics is politics and it will never change, particularly in a city that has been behaving in the same way for almost a century. However, I have seen the good and strong people who continually try to make Newark a better place. There are many, but they need the help of others and they need better leadership.’’
Robert Curvin will be talking about Inside Newark at a book signing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Monday, July 28. The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will also feature a panel discussion with four veteran observers of Newark life and politics: Walter Chambers (moderator), Richard Cammarieri, Rebecca Doggett, and Warren Grover. The event is free and open to the public, but attendees are asked to RSVP at NewarkHistorySociety@verizon.net.