One of the most jarring things is the playground. When I went to Chancellor Avenue Elementary School in Newark 36 years ago, the paved back lot seemed filled with excited kids. In memory, at least, the sun was shining, the teachers and kids cheerful. We kindergartners chased one another, watched big kids on the green ball field nearby, and busied ourselves weaving multicolored strands of plastic gimp into treasured keychains and whistle-holders.
Now, the lot is often empty. At lunch, Chancellor kids play there briefly, though the gates are locked to keep them from wandering off or mixing with the drug dealers who loiter nearby. Teachers and administrators watch their backs as they come to work and leave. The playground is marred by ugly circular skid marks, signs that car thieves have been "doing doughnuts," breaking into the lot for fast-spinning joyrides. And no one has time for anything so innocent as weaving gimp.
Much has changed in the Weequahic neighborhood I once called home. A corner Chinese restaurant, where I learned to love bitter tea in brilliantly colored porcelain cups, is now the New Faith Evangelical Gospel Church. Mittleman's Bakery, where as an 8-year-old I walked alone to buy warm, freshly sliced, seeded rye bread, is a down-at-the-heels pizzeria. And there's no trace of a cozy luncheonette where a few coins fetched an egg cream, a seltzer concoction with neither egg nor cream in it, a taste of heaven to a chocolate-loving kid.
To get a sense of how much has changed in my hometown, I spent some time in the few blocks that once made up my world. All of my extended family lived here before straggling off to the suburbs in the late '50s and '60s. My family was part of the white flight that left Newark a symbol of urban decay. Going back, though, I hoped I'd find a world not much different from the sunny one I'd known. After all, the Weequahic section is home to current Mayor Sharpe James. The ethnic mix had changed, with blacks taking the place of Jews, Germans, and Irish. But I thought I'd find a middle-class neighborhood where homeowners maintained their properties and spurred their kids on to still more comfortable lives.
"IT'S SO BAD." I found a war zone. The homeowners are there, to be sure, and they do proudly keep up most of the homes. In fact, my family's house looks only a bit worse for three decades of wear. But down the block, sullen teens pitch drugs to passing motorists, silently making hand signals in a new kind of urban semaphore. Shattered glass dots the bits of grass near the curbs, where thieves have smashed car windows to make off with the radios or the cars themselves. On May 6, firefighters found two murdered people set ablaze in sprawling, once-bucolic Weequahic Park. Chancellor staffers fear walking or even driving too near the corner-denizens, some of them former students. "At night, I don't stop at red lights," says Evelyn H. Shorter, 56, a school aide for 29 years. "They'll steal your car. It's so bad."
Things are also bad in the schools once celebrated by novelist Philip Roth, a Weequahic High graduate. Last year, Newark's schools were taken over by the state, which charged mismanagement and academic failure.
At Chancellor, hard-pressed administrators and teachers struggle to arm the students against the problems that press in on them. Some of the faculty are themselves examples of bootstrapping. Principal Geneva W. Campbell grew up in Newark's impoverished Central Ward. "I tell the kids that my mother was a domestic worker. She cleaned houses," says Campbell, keenly aware of how powerful role models can be.
Like the kids who now live in middle-class Weequahic, I come from a working-class background. My father, who never got a high school degree, worked for one of the first Pathmark supermarkets, on Lyons Avenue, laboring side by side with sons of the chain's founders. Pathmark was a bustling, expanding business, with lots of advancement opportunities for people with little schooling. It was a blow to the neighborhood when, sometime after the 1967 riots, Pathmark sold the Lyons Avenue store.
We had moved on long before. My father feared that we'd run with a tough crowd if he didn't take us out to the 'burbs. So I left Chancellor to attend safe and well-equipped suburban schools where college was the goal. My family pushed education. I'm one of seven kids, and five of us finished college. With scholarships, I attended the State University at Rutgers, then went on to Columbia University for a graduate degree.
The challenges for the kids who now occupy the high-ceilinged old classrooms are greater than anything I faced. Well-scrubbed as the school remains, outside, on the street, eighth-graders have been robbed at gunpoint in the morning. Principal Campbell says as many as one of every five of her students suffers from such problems as fetal alcohol syndrome, emotional or learning difficulties, and chaotic home lives. Campbell points out those among her 375 students who can't sit still, can't focus.
Of course, many Chancellor youngsters aspire to something better. "My life is going to be perfect," wrote sixth-grader Katria C. Archie in a composition her teacher proudly posted in the hallway. "When I become a lawyer, I will know what to do....I will become a Supreme Court Judge....Part-time I will become a model...[and I] will help the homeless." A classmate wrote that she plans to become a doctor or a hairdresser, drive a Lexus, and buy a big house for her family.
How likely is it that these kids will achieve their lofty goals? I can only wonder. Chancellor Avenue students start out scoring above national averages in standardized tests, but by eighth grade drop 25% below national median scores in reading and nearly 17% below in math. What's more, kids will have to steer clear of the seductions of the street, especially the easy money from drugs. Alphonse Baskerville, an eighth-grade teacher, recalls one student who visited a few years ago to talk about his successful parceldelivery business in Baltimore, but he can't recall many other success stories.
Bleak futures and threatening daily realities in my old neighborhood are the legacies of a peculiarly American apartheid. Unmandated, of course, the segregation in these streets is nonetheless as tragic as any legal separation. How different Weequahic would be today if race riots just a few miles away hadn't killed 26 people? What if instead of fleeing, white families such as mine had accepted the newcomers, whose aspirations surely were no different from their own? Almost certainly, Geneva Campbell would not have pointed to the school's few outdated computers and asked if I had any to spare. "I'd like to have what the suburban schools have, four or five computers in every classroom," she says. "My kids don't have access to that."
Another almost unbridgeable gulf is clear from assignments posted in the hallways. As a pride-building exercise, fourth-graders wrote letters to Martin Luther King Jr. To an outsider, the message is jarring. "Dear Father, I was very proud of you because you helped African Americans and our family," wrote one girl. "When I saw you on TV, I was scared at first because the white people were throwing garbage cans, water, and other things." A classmate elaborated: "I don't like the whites beating on the blacks. We wouldn't do this to the whites.... I would not want blacks getting beat or getting spit on...."
The flagrant interracial strife of the 1960s is now rare, but Weequahic's residents hardly seem better off. Few of these youngsters will have carefree, safe childhoods to reflect on. They can't walk unafraid around the neighborhood. And certainly outsiders like me can't.
Changing neighborhoods are part of a harsh urban reality. Maybe it's inevitable that 3 1/2 decades have worn deep creases in the pleasant-faced community I once knew. But for me, it's not the same: It's not home anymore. For the kids there who may never know how potent a healthy neighborhood can be, the changes are just sad. For them, it's a far-too-tough break that Weequahic's glory days have become only some stranger's distant memory.