Updated: Oct 17, 2017
In the bygone era of life without GPS or smart phones (or cell phones for that matter), one actually had to learn how to navigate the streets and find your way from point A to B in an efficient fashion. This was done by begging for permission to drive, becoming best friends with one Mr. Hagstrom , and purchasing one very precious commodity - a little red book that was the Newark Cross Street Guide.
With these tools in your arsenal you could set off on a nightly safari through the wilds of Newark, touring the skeletal remains of a city that was still mostly in shambles from the riots of twenty years earlier. The crumbling architecture jutting up in the darkness like the dessicated carcass of a half-devoured creature. In a landscape that was vastly different without the power of sunlight to chase away the beasties, there were hazards both human and non - all victims of time or apathy.
Night after night you set out again and the streets begin to look familiar to you, details that were once alien to you begin to weave together to define a place, an area, a city. The cobblestoned sections on Jelliff grumble beneath your tires, where shod horses once moved smartly over. You learn which has a short light, where the blind corner is, how to find *&#@%$! Synott Place on the first shot via one-way streets.
You learn that you can take Broadway all the way to Clifton (the city not the street) if you so chose, that MLK is a party dress for High Street and that Irvine Turner Boulevard is just a pretentious moniker for good old Belmont. Tracing the wards like the swirls of a fingerprint the city and all its unique facets begins to imprint itself into your memory, it becomes your friend. Knowing the streets takes you where you need to go, true - but it also can take out of where you should not be. Understanding how to get on and off the highways that girdle the city can mean the difference between 5 minutes and 25 minutes.
Driving down ITB there were no pretty townhouses in manicured layouts, just a scarred ward pockmarked with empty lots and debris - overlooking a slight valley which harbored a row of high-rise public housing which epitomized everything negative about life in the inner-city. A menacing row of darkened structures that harbored any number of grievances both from violence or poverty. Most of the time you stick to the high ground, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. However if you're called then so you must, and you make the turn off of ITB and head down into the valley of darkness. You did this via Montgomery Street. Only ... Montgomery Street didn't have a street sign for a decade or two.
No matter, for we all heard the same thing when we started out. Wide-eyed, clutching our little red books and trying to pay attention the guys would say - "Just make a left at the old Krueger Brewery." There, sitting on the corner like a weary sentinel overlooking the ruins of a war-torn nation were the crumbling remains of a massive brick structure. Partial walls valiantly
standing at attention even with their metal vasculature torn out and cruelly exposed to the elements. Paneless windows staring opaquely out across the empty lots, lifeless and broken. Doors tottering on broken hinges and bricks randomly tumbling down like broken teeth. There, nestled in among the obscenity of of a city decimated by hate and poverty was lonely vestige of a city that once thrived, teeming with opportunity for all comers and a functioning economy and unique cultural fabric.
Night after night I made the left turn, glancing at the silent hulking mass as I would sigh and try to steel myself for whatever I would be confronted with just a few blocks further. It became a familiar site, a friendly vista and mental touchstone - because eventually I could say "I know who you are. I know what you were, and so do other guys out here." That sentiment just didn't apply to the sad ruins of an old building, but to an entire city as well.
Eventually the "renaissance" arrived at good old Belmont Avenue and the city decided that it would no longer harbor the creaking corpse of a century gone-by. With much fanfare they announced that the brewery must go - they defiled her even more than time did, filling the crevices with explosives meant to bring her down. Wearing a shiny hard hat and playing to the media the plunger was pushed ... and much in line with the history of this city the brewery thumbed its nose at them, refusing to fall without a fight.
Eventually it lost the fight and with a shuddering groan and the shrieking of twisted metal it gave way to the Newark of the next century, forgotten and alone - all evidence of it now is completely gone, shiny townhouses and a pretty little street sign mark where this behemoth from Newark's past once stood.
The old must give way to the new, it's a cycle of renewal this city cannot afford to be without. Yet with a history as rich as this one has, it would be tragic for it to be lost without even acknowledging its once vibrant life. Watching the fabric of the city and the landscape change has been a unique, exciting and sometimes sad experience.
For nobody knows this city better than those of us who trace its fingerprint day after day, night after night.
"I know who you are. I know what you were, and I'm not the only one."