In Newark, Cultures Clash Over Whose Day is Columbus Day

The Christopher Columbus statue in Newark's Washington Park.

Not long ago, Christopher Columbus was honored in Newark with a parade along the North Ward's Bloomfield Avenue that drew many Italian-Americans. 

The parade ended in 2000 and now, Columbus has been relegated to the dust bin of history, at least in Newark.

Through an 2017 executive order that received little attention at the time, Mayor Ras Baraka recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Newark on the second Monday of October. Newark was the first New Jersey municipality to recognize the day, followed by Princeton this year. About 60 other municipalities around America also recognize the second Monday of October as Indigenous People's Day. 

The controversy over Columbus Day can be encapsulated in two diametrically opposing views of the man who led the 1492 expedition, acknowledged by many as the first European to successfully sail to the New World. 

"Columbus was to be honored as a daring but imaginative sailor, but A, he got lost, and B, he was an enslaver," said Junius Williams, official city historian of Newark and founder of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark. "That to me is not worthy of a holiday. To change it is a good move."

Columbus's contributions to American history may be controversial, but the Italian-Americans impact on the civic and cultural fabric of Newark is irrefutable. 

The former First Ward, centered on Seventh Avenue, was where Joe DiMaggio took Marilyn Monroe on dates to eat Italian cuisine, forget about New York. Frank Sinatra, New Jersey's greatest Italian-American icon, had bread delivered from the neighborhood Giordano's Bakery to wherever he was to help fuel his Rat Pack fervor. Another New York Yankees great, Yogi Berra, honed his idiosyncratic idioms playing minor-league baseball for the Newark Bears during the same post-World War II period. 

Infamous Newark gangster Richie "the Boot" Boiardo dedicated a stained glass window at Saint Lucy's Church, perhaps a shot at redemption. Meanwhile, up in the North Ward, Democratic power broker Stephen N. Adubato Sr. built a different kind of power base, making the alliances that helped save what became the city's most Italian-American neighborhood from post-1967 Newark riot despair. 

But times change, and so do demographics. 

While remnants of Newark's vibrant Italian-American life can still be seen at places such as the Caffe Intermezzo at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and North 12th Street, most of the North Ward's Italian population long fled to the West Essex and Morris County suburbs. 

Yet certain more obvious mementos remain, such as the statue of Columbus, erected in 1927 by members of Newark's Italian-American community, which stands prominently in Washington Park downtown. 

Salamishah Tillet, Rutgers University-Newark faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark, noted that public art such as the Columbus statute gives all Newarkers a moment to think about what October 12, 1492, and its clashing commemorations, mean.

"I think celebrating Columbus seems to be a disingenuous way of promoting Italian-American pride. Indigenous people predate most of us, and so recognizing their contributions and their history is long overdue," said Tillet. "As for the statue, we should figure out how to engage it more forthrightly. You remove it, or you can reimagine it. It's up for grabs."

Cavaliere disagreed, seeing Columbus's place in American and Newark history rooted as strongly as the statute's pedestal. 

"There have certainly been issues that resulted after Columbus's arrival. But condemning the man, and forgetting the event, is to deny the importance of history," Cavaliere said. "To that we take great objection, and find that it's also an insult to many Italian-Americans who hold dear their heritage, and to the importance of Columbus's journeys."

Salvatore Benvenuti, executive director for UNICO National, an Essex County-based Italian-American cultural and service organization, offered a solution for the predicament of dueling October 12 holidays. 

"There are two sides of the street here, and on one side we can still maintain the dignity and importance of Columbus Day, while Indigenous People's Day can be a separate event entirely," Benvenuti said. "We can't control what every municipality does and doesn't do. But Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, and only the federal government can change that."

Benvenuti also noted one inevitable factor in American society that crosses cultural battle lines.

"I have yet to see an ad for Indigenous People's sale day. It's always the Columbus Day sale, " Benvenuti said, laughing. "We have that going for us."

Meanwhile, Bloomfield Avenue has no marching bands or paradegoer spectators today. If you dance around traffic, you can barely see the faint red-green-and white stripe painted on Bloomfield Avenue going past Calandra's Bakery and Dickie's Dees where the Columbus Day parade used to be held.

Williams tired to make sense of the competing holidays as part of Newark's past, present and future, a place where friction will always be felt.

"People are awakening to the true history of this country. Columbus is part of that tapestry," Williams said. "I think that Italian, Irish, black people, whoever, everybody is taking a second look and probably making a decision about who they should honor."

"From my point of view, Columbus is not somebody who should be honored as a hero. But you can have an Italian-American Day, and I think that would be better because Italian-Americans have made so many contributions to this country. They are entitled to their heroes, " Williams said. "That's important to be honored, especially in this town."

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