Newark's modern history, as told by Robert Curvin: Q&A

By Tom Moran/ Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on July 27, 2014

Robert Curvin, PhD was a civil rights activist during the time of civil unrest in Newark in July 1967. He is seen at his home in Newark.


In Robert Curvin’s new book, “Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation,” he draws on his own recollections as a key player in the city over the past half-century, and his academic research over the past five years.

A veteran of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Curvin was a civil rights leader in Newark when the violence broke out in 1967. His remarkable career included stints as a social worker in Newark, a teacher at City University in Brooklyn, a dean at the New School and an editorial writer at the New York Times. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University, and serves now as senior policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Curvin spoke about the city with The Star-Ledger. An edited transcript appears below.

Q. You refer to the upheaval that tore apart Newark in 1967 as a rebellion, not a riot. Explain that.

A. A riot connotes wild, uncontrolled, criminal behavior. In a rebellion there is at least the aim to try to affect government actions and policy. Granted, it included a lot of both kinds. But using the word “riot” suggests that all these people out there had no justifiable cause to behave in way they did.

Q. At that time, you were a young civil rights activist, and you were told the police had you on a list of people they intended to target during the chaos. Do you believe today that threat was real?

A. Absolutely. Police officers invited me to an empty lot, saying they’d show you what this is all about, that kind of thing. At one point we had a public meeting to demand the city appoint a civilian review board for the police. About 200 white men, probably police, showed up in civilian clothes, and when I began to speak, they chanted “Kill him! Kill him!” I didn’t put that in the book because I didn’t want the book to be about me.

Q. When the dust settled, what were the lasting impacts of the violence, which left 26 people dead?

A. It polarized the community to a greater extent. But it also unified the black community in a political sense. People were far more determined that they had to organize and take control of the city.

Q. Let’s discuss Ken Gibson, the city’s first black mayor, sworn in 1970. What grade would you give him?

A. B-minus. He was calm, deliberative and reassuring to many people who had great doubts about him, particularly in the white community. And when he got sufficient room, in his second and third terms, he made some good things happen, like the development of the PSE&G building, and the beginning of the Society Hill housing development.

He was a calm and reassuring leader when the city desperately needed to lower the decibels and learn to be more civil about dealing with critical problems. Everything then to a certain extent became a racial issue, and Ken Gibson was able to work through that and emphasize the common interest.

Q. Sharpe James came to office as a reformer, and left with federal prosecutors closing in on him. How did that happen?

A. That’s impossible to answer unless you just say he lost his grip. The record shows that as soon as he became mayor, he began to acquire these properties, not one or two, but enough to make you blink and say, “What’s going on?” But people weren’t paying attention to that. They were seeing a very energetic guy who knew the city well, who knew how to get things done.

Q. What is other side of his legacy? What benefits did he bring the city?

A. There was new housing built in the inner city. Larry Goldman (former president of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center) says that without Sharpe James there would be no NJPAC. He also did a lot of arm-twisting to make the Prudential arena happen, and though I question the value of that, he did get it done. I don’t think there was anybody better than he was at really sparking that sense of hope the city needed. He was a master at that, and it was genuine.

Q. You note several concrete achievements of former Mayor Cory Booker, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that you regard him as fraudulent in some ways. Tell us about that.

A. Booker is a very talented guy, and I wouldn’t use the word fraud. At the same time, Sharpe was absolutely correct when he said this guy is here just to use us as a steppingstone. If you paid attention to the way he behaved, his almost weekly absences from the city, he didn’t manage and control the various city departments. The department heads were basically on their own. I think he really believed he could do some good, but he was torn between the demands of being a celebrity and being a local leader.

Q. We looked at his many trips outside the city and calculated that he raised an average for than $600,000 in philanthropy for each trip he took, much of which went to charter schools, the police and parks. So was it worth it?

A. The city did benefit from those trips in very specific ways. Does that justify the kind of absentee leadership we saw? I don’t think so.

Q. Ras Baraka, the new mayor, won election decisively even though the big money and the machine were opposed to him. What do you expect from him?

A. I hope he stays close to the people of the city, all people, and that he will be a thoughtful and careful mayor helping to make those marginal improvements in the very difficult situation that’s been handed to him — the budget crisis and the lack of adequate resources, even human resources. We’ll need six months to get a good sense of how he’s moving.

Q. You conclude with a sobering appraisal of African-American leadership in Newark, saying it has been less effective overall than previous governments dominated by Italians, Jewish, Germans and Irish. Why is that?

A. The leadership since Gibson has really believed they could behave basically the way in which those Italian, Irish, Jewish leaders did. That is, to engage in a healthy dose of corruption, while also demanding the resources to provide for their communities. It’s a challenge for blacks to do that, partly because the city’s resources have declined so rapidly since those other groups left. The pickings they left were not as great as the pickings they had.

We’ve had some really stand-up honest positive change agents. But we’ve also had people who, as soon as they got into office, were looking for some easy way to enrich themselves. Even Booker, who is supposedly Mr. Clean, one of his deputy mayors was wired and caught taking bribes the week after Booker was inaugurated as mayor. You’d think he would at least wait until the seat was warm.

Q. What worries you most about the city’s future?

A. The absence of an answer for the hundreds and hundreds of young people without work. To some extent, that is the root of the crime problem. And we’re not going to see a public jobs programs like we did in the 1970s. So I worry a lot, particularly when you see young men engaging in almost inexplicable criminal behavior.

I also worry about how education is connected to that. If you get a good education in this society, you still may face discrimination and hardship, but you can find something to do. If you are turned out of school without basic skills to read, write and compute, and to have civil and effective relations with people, then you’re out there with nothing to lean on. And the character side is just as important as the skill side. I think the state rightfully took over the schools (in 1995) but has done a pretty poor damn job since then.

Q. Where do you see the greatest hope?

A. I am really quite impressed with the new chancellor at Rutgers-Newark (Nancy Cantor), who wants the university to be even more deeply engaged in the city, particularly in education. And there are so many other good people.

But they need the help of everybody. Baraka’s election was akin to the kind of mobilization we saw for Ken Gibson’s election. I was amazed by the number of people out on Springfield Avenue on Election Day with posters. Maybe more people will come together and place more demands on our leadership, make them more accountable. For me, it’s always been the people that keep me here. So I’m hopeful about that.

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