Newark Celebration 350’s Central Ward meeting was equal parts planning and trip down memory lane

newark celebration 350 cardYesterday the Newark Celebration 350 ward meetings moved on to the Central Ward – or the Old Third Ward of yore, as several attendees consistently reminded the group – and revealed themselves to be as much occasions for remembrance unto themselves as they are a series of citywide celebration planning events.

This time, about 30 attendees gathered in the basement of Abyssinian Baptist Church. As with the two previous planning meetings, celebration executive director John Johnson, Jr. opened the session with brief remarks before handing the reins to celebration chair Junius Williams, who played the role of meeting facilitator.

After a round of familial hugs and salutations among the attendees, Johnson called the meeting to order with a history lesson: the church, it turned out, was formerly a synagogue back when the neighborhood was a Jewish stronghold. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also preached there just before his fateful trip to Memphis in 1968. And Abyssinian had incubated at least three other churches in Newark: Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, and Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

Williams then took the floor to a mild spattering of clapping (“thank you for that generous applause,” he quipped) to offer some thought starters before attendees discussed their own celebration programming proposals.

“We have a lot of churches in Newark,” Williams said, picking up where Johnson left off. “That in itself should be celebrated in some way.”

To date, Williams said, the celebration’s online proposal intake process has generated 75 programming proposals. Some had been accepted, others rejected outright, and still others sent back for more detail, and Williams lauded the “breadth and depth” of the ideas that the celebration’s programming committee has seen to date.

Those assembled then took the floor to deliver their ideas, which Johnson dutifully wrote down on large pieces of paper hanging at the front of the room. The overriding theme for the evening was history and memory preservation, particularly in the face of anticipated demographic changes in Newark that will result in much of its history being washed away if Newarkers aren’t intentional about preserving it.

“A lot of the history of Newark is not in book,” said a woman named Dana, who opened the proposal portion of the evening. “I would love to bring seniors and young people to a round table to share stories,” she said.

Most of the attendees’ ideas took history and memory as their core themes, as well. Linden Brown, a parishioner at Abyssinian, said he wanted to see a citywide trivia contest.

A 25-year-old woman named Karshan Ruffin commented that she wanted to commemorate the Newark riots of 1967, saying she knew more about similar conflagrations in other cities than she did about the one that took place in her own hometown.

A woman named Vivian Clark reminded the group that Newark was once an “educational mecca” where recruiters from historically black colleges and universities descended en masse to recruit its high school students, and that companies like Westinghouse and General Electric used to be located here. (“Yep. Right across the street form my house,” cosigned one woman, referring to the site that now houses Central High School.)

Williams then called up a woman named Georgia, who he’d chatted with about her idea before the meeting began. She proposed that Newarkers should intentionally “make memories” by taking pictures of their neighborhoods, because the city will be as unrecognizable 40 years from now as aspects of the Newark of the 1970s are today.

Victor Nicholson, the director of the Newark YMCA, reminded the group that next year will also mark the organization’s 135th year operating in the city. The YMCA will be collating pictures and stories of notable Newarkers who have used, lived in, or served the YMCA over the years. He proposed aligning that exercise with Newark Celebration 350’s programming.

Programming ideas that centered around more diverse activities also had history at their core.

Henry Appiah, program director for Playworks New York/New Jersey, proposed organizing regular “playdates” at local parks in order to “bring play back to the community.” The twist: older Newarkers could teach younger ones how to play the games of their youth, like stickball, tag, and running bases. “We can’t let the dangers of the community overshadow who we used to be,” he said.

And Sean Battle, a professor of English at Essex County College, poet, and founder of arts education startup EvolveNJ, proposed connecting Newark Celebration 350 with a planned poetry conference that EvolveNJ will host next April.

“In order to make it as an artist, I had to experience Newark,” he said. He proposed producing an anthology featuring Newark poets past and present.

Allison Capel, a librarian at the Springfield Avenue branch of the Newark Public Library proposed creating a “Newark Community Cookbook” filled with original recipes by Newarkers. The process would entail online submissions of recipes and live submissions of the prepared dishes. A tasting committee would then winnow down multiple entries (“we can’t have seven different entries for collard greens,” she said), and the winners would be included in the cookbook, which will also feature biographical information about those whose recipes are selected.

As the meeting wound down, Ruffin, the 25-year-old woman, reiterated a point she’d made earlier about a generational disconnect in the city that she said stalled the transfer of oral histories here. She cited to the composition of the room, which skewed older, as a case in point.

“It sounds like you just volunteered to spearhead an initiative to bring more young people into the process!” Brown said with a smile, as the rest of the attendees chuckled in agreement.

As with the previous gatherings, Monday evening’s meeting officially concluded with the nomination of a Central Ward committee chair and a call for volunteers to serve on that committee. But even as Williams tried to enforce the end time, the attendees, energized by what they’d heard posited throughout the previous hour and a half, were still bent on sharing more memories and ideas. They clamored to chat with Williams and each other even as the 7:30 p.m. end time came and went.

Upcoming community meetings

  • South Ward: Tuesday, October 6, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m., Donald K. Tucker Center (27 Elizabeth Avenue)
  • North Ward: Wednesday, October 7, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m., Third Presbyterian Church (395 Ridge Street)