Newark men see the place they grew up demolished

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on April 24, 2015

The West Side Unit of the Boys and Girls Club of Newark is being demolished.


Sunni Muhammad didn't want to believe what he was hearing when the assignment came for his next construction gig.

It was the demolition of his playground – the West Side Unit of the Boys and Girls Club on Littleton Avenue in Newark.

His reaction? "You gotta be kidding me. This is where I grew up," he said.

He played there as a child and never wanted to leave, like so many other kids who made this place their home after school, on the weekends and in the summers.

"I got so many whuppings for not being home on time, but they were worth it."

That's how much he loved the Boys and Girls Club, a cradle of recreation that made men out of boys, many of whom went onto be successful. There's a mayor, a judge, a pharmacist. There are educators and police officers. Queen Latifah and Shaquille O'Neal were members, too.

"Safe haven" may be an overused phrase, but there's no other way to describe the two-story brick building, where adults taught children about life, about character and responsibility.

The demolition started last Friday, and it didn't take long for the word to spread among former members that another city landmark was on its way out.

Somebody posted a picture on Facebook and others made telephone calls to friends in disbelief.

Craig Canzater stopped by to see the razing of the building the other day. He was talking on the phone to his buddy, Charles Mitchell, another member who remembers when it was just the boys club – before "Girls" was added to the name.

"This is sad, man," says Canzata, pointing to where different sections of the building had stood.

The game room, the locker room and the pool were buried under rubble. He motioned to the area upstairs that had been used for wood shop. In the back of the club, they played football and baseball on a large field.

"This is hard, man," he says. "This was the place."

He had his cell phone on speaker and I could hear Mitchell saying how he had visited the other day, looking for a hole in the fence so that he could grab a couple of bricks.

"My jaw hit the ground," says Mitchell, a retired Newark public school administrator.

"This place set a foundation in building leadership skills in every member that came there. It gave us a sense of community pride."

Every summer, for the past three years, the loyalty they carry from 40 years ago is on display behind the club on Sixth Street, between 12th and 13th avenues.

The West Side Alumni Group, an organization of former members who want to give back to the community, return for a cookout – even though the building closed in 2008. Each July, they spend several hours reliving the old days and setting an example for the youth who live there now.

This past Sunday, after one of their meetings, the fellas in the group drove to the site and didn't know what to say once they were standing there.

"We were all crying like babies," says Jimmy Walters. "I welled up, man."

It's that emotional. Anyone with ties to the club says young people the neighborhood need recreation. When the weather was warm, kids climbed over the locked fence to play basketball because there was nowhere else for them to go. At least they had that. Now, there is nothing.

"This hurts my heart," says Keith Sheppard, a retired Newark police officer who was the club youth of the year in 1980. "There's nothing in place that can produce the greatness of our youth right now."

If there's any solace to be had from this situation, the Urban League of Essex County has salvaged a few keepsakes from the club to be used in a new community center that it will build in the neighborhood.

Vivian Fraser, the Urban League president and chief executive officer, says they have the club logo, basketball hoops, benches from the pool area and sections of floor that were in the dance room. They will also get some of the building's bricks for the new center, which is probably three years away from construction.

In the meantime, people continue to drive past, or stop, as Bernard Watkins did when Muhammad called over to him to share a memory.

"I couldn't swim worth a damn, until somebody pushed me in there," he says.

We all laughed.

Muhammad says he feels bad about having to take down his childhood sanctuary until the mail arrives at his Newark home.

"I've got to pay the bills," he says.

On that note, he had to get back to work.

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