A few years ago when powerful developers and institutions planned to turn my James Street neighborhood into a giant corporate parking lot, we started to search over the urban Tri-State area for a new refuge. Soon, we happily concluded that one does not have to go as far as Astoria in Queens for a viable, diverse, and un-gentrified community, with a rich history that reflects our American experience, individually and collectively. It’s found in our own Ironbound, which was the subject for Monday’s panel discussion organized by the Newark History Society.
In a small area of four square miles surrounded by a curve in the Passaic River and the Northern Corridor rail tracts, the Ironbound has been the home for generations of working class Germans, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Jewish and African-Americans. In the past decades, Portuguese dominated the area, increasingly joined by Brazilians and other Hispanics. However, according to one of the panelist Maria Pereira of Luso Americano, her nationally circulated newspaper found that 48 percent of Portuguese residents never responded to the 2000 Census. Therefore, the accurate size of the Ironbound population has always been a subject of speculation.
Many well-known early American immigrant communities have been characterized by their extremely transient living. For instance, an average early immigrant family made Lower Eastside Manhattan its home for only eight months before its “upward” migration. In contrast, the Ironbound has retained many proud long-term residents through Newark’s ups and downs. Another panelist, Alice Schreiner, a manager of Ironbound Senior Citizen Center, was born at 102 Houston Street, where her Polish-American parents settled 59 years ago, not far from their own parents. After attending St. Casimir Academy and Eastside High School, she married and moved from the second floor to the first floor of the same building, where she raised her four children. Alice plans her next move “only when the God calls me.” One of the organizers of tonight’s discussion, Nancy Zak once told me about her treasured Sunday morning family tradition—having pancakes with her older upstairs neighbor. Fighting for a stable American experience has kept her working at the Ironbound Community Corporation, which will celebrate in the coming May over 40 years of community service.
The most endearing presentation was by Walter Chambers and Michael Underwood, who grew up respectively in Ironbound’s Pennington Court and Hyatt Court Homes, two earliest Newark public housing projects. While not glossing over their difficult circumstances, they both enthusiastically celebrated their rich diverse experience both socially and culturally. With an often-ill single mother in the 1950’s, Underwood enjoyed his freedom as an “Ironbound Tom Sawyer.” As a child, he roamed around neighborhood factories, foundries, and even the police auto pound, where he learned from manufacturing workers about the real world. Finding his love of railroads at Ironbound’s edges, he has become a Conrail locomotive engineer and a union leader. Chambers, a 78-years-old African-American, distributed his brief history of Pennington Court (1939-1960), in which he quoted the 1940 statement by Neil Convery, the accomplished Newark architect and first Newark Housing Authority director, “The housing program is truly American. Twenty-three nationalities and two races (white and black) are living in friendly neighborliness in a government-aided project.” However, that was long before the “Real Estate Lobby,” as President Truman called it, mobilized corporate powers to sabotage public housing and create the most economically and racially segregated housing market in the industrialized world.
As one of the participants pointed out, Ironbound’s ethnically diverse history was once well represented by over ten local newspapers of all languages. Forward, a progressive Yiddish newspaper still has its old building standing on Ferry Street. Students of Newark history can also testify about Ironbound’s reflection of national and regional politics through a century of turmoil. For instance, during the World War I, Ironbound’s Hamburg Place was changed into its current name Wilson Street. The area closely witnessed the wartime industrial boom and then the final decline of the country’s manufacturing power. Since 1947, Newark’s port and airport, a part of Ironbound, have been taken over by the Port Authority to become the world’s only comprehensive air-rail-sea infrastructural complex. At the same time, nobody seems to remember that Newark is a costal city while it declines into a mismanaged inward city. However, tonight’s discussion was all about celebrating Ironbound’s diverse, enduring, and ever optimistic people. Walter Chambers closed the discussion by quoting the late Charles Cummings, “People will always be the most valuable resource of America.”
(The Newark History Society’s event in May will be about the Star-Ledger’s history.)