I must admit to having an over-glorified view of urban ethnic enclaves. Perhaps, as my detractors argue, they’re a thing of the past. But as a committed contrarian, I’ll keep up the good (albeit quite possibly futile) fight. Among those enclaves that I’ve lauded is Newark’s East Ward, also known as the Ironbound neighborhood.

A home to everyone ranging from Germans, Polish, Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, and Hungarians in the 1800s, it was taken over by mostly Portuguese and Spaniards starting in the 1930s. To this day, the area is still known for its strong Portuguese presence, as they own most of the businesses and houses. Unlike Newark’s other ethnic white communities, they’ve largely resisted the temptations of White Flight, even as new Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Salvadorian, and Mexican neighbors have moved in.

Part of the Ironbound’s appeal is that it has maintained the ethos of being an “old neighborhood.” Neighbors usually know each other and socialize regularly. People can be found out and about in the streets, frequenting businesses and restaurants, nearly all of which are owned and operated by locals. The only exceptions are a Dunkin, a McDonald’s, and two Walgreens. Other than those, there are pretty much no chain stores.

The fact that most of the businesses are locally owned means that owners and managers are personally invested—it means something to them, filling them with a sense of pride but also of duty (think of Sal and his pizzeria in Do The Right Thing). Oftentimes, running the business is a family affair, and (in the best cases) employees become part of the family. Surely the lack of bureaucratic structure makes workers more vulnerable to mistreatment, but this also makes it easier for them to be treated like actual people. I think of the numerous friends I have who have worked for these businesses, whose bosses helped them out during rough times—whether that was financially, or giving them time off or moral support when they needed it.

This “personal touch” bleeds over into the dynamic between owners/workers and patrons, who are more likely to be treated as familiar faces rather than anonymous walking dollar signs. One restaurant owner who attended the school I taught at (and whose son I taught) would always roll out the red carpet when members of the school community came to eat at the restaurant, offering drinks on the house and making time to come by the table and catch up on the latest gossip.

The sense of communal belonging extends beyond the business into the neighborhood in the form of sports team sponsorships or involvement in churches, street festivals, or chambers of commerce. The owners’ personability and involvement in the community earns them respect. When trouble arises, everyday people will usually step up to support and protect the business.

This is hardly the case in the chain stores. A friend who works in one of these businesses tells me the horrors that have been ensuing. An uptick in shoplifting and violent crime has unveiled the stark differences between the two business models. This particular store is located near the border of the Central Ward, home to both poverty and crime and rapid gentrification. The nexus between the two wards is Newark Penn Station, where homeless people and drug addicts congregate. The conditions near Penn have been exacerbated by the increase in joblessness and mental health issues post-Covid, as well as the stress put on homeless shelters by short-sighted city policies that once did a better job alleviating the conditions of those below the poverty line or living on the streets.

Those struggling mentally and who lack access to basic necessities are often driven to steal out of desperation, though much of the stealing is also done by those “up to no good”—looking to sell products on the black market—so my friend tells me. Needless to say, it’s much easier to shoplift from a chain store where the depersonalized ethos of anonymity makes managers, workers, and patrons more apathetic, as there are no incentives to be personally invested in the safety of the store or for potential shoplifters to have any sense of remorse for the repercussions of their actions on faceless bureaucrats.

Though the management used to pay private security guards to keep the store safe, the loss in profits from increased shoplifting has led them to forego the guards (except for during the wee hours of the night). The effect on workers is twofold: they are afforded no protection, and their hours are cut in order to save money. The overworked and underpaid workers are then left to fend for themselves and stop shoplifters—risking their own safety—all the while attempting to carry out their regular tasks.

I’ve been told that workers have had to step away from the register while checking out paying customers to chase away repeat shoplifters as they hurled all kinds of epithets at them…on top of one elderly worker having a milkshake hurled at her face. As much as middle management feels bad for the workers, there is little within their power to alleviate the situation, as most of the power is in the hands of distant (and indifferent) bureaucrats.

Surely there are incentives for both corporate elites and locals to turn toward centralization and automation. “From a business perspective,” writes Matthew B. Crawford, “it is ideal if we become dependent on some proprietary and opaque system to do what we once did for ourselves, issuing in what Ivan Illich called ‘radical monopoly.’” Needless to say, it’s much easier to offload toilsome labor and responsibility to a machine-like system. This logic is mutually reinforced by the fact that “as the space for intelligent human action gets colonized by machines, our own capacity for intelligent action atrophies, leading to calls for yet more automation. The demands of skill and competence give way to a promise of safety and convenience, leading us ever further into passivity.”

It’s also worth noting here the extent to which racial tension plays a role in this scenario. The Central Ward is home to mostly Black residents, whose once thriving communities were ravished by imprudent housing and economic policies. Residents, as well as property and business owners in the Ironbound, have been notorious for trying to keep Blacks out in the name of preserving the neighborhood’s safety. The small but steadily growing presence of gentrified residential buildings in the Ironbound should raise concern, as it will only bring more economic tension and emotional disinvestment from the neighborhood and will propel forward the process of White Flight.

Mayor Ras Baraka, whose anti-bourgeois and pro-grassroots sympathies have garnered him attention, has been working hard to keep Newark’s small businesses afloat and to drive down the force of gentrification, once commenting: “In cities and even suburbs across America, institutional investors are eroding the American dream of homeownership as they convert owner-occupied homes into corporately owned rental units. In Newark, where we have worked hard for years to expand homeownership, we will do everything possible to combat this dangerous trend.”

His initiative known as the Equitable Growth Advisory Commission, which aims to “create stronger and more equitable laws, regulations, and policies to ensure that residents share in the growth of our city,” is commendable, though without support from the state and federal levels it will likely prove impotent against the mammon of corporate interest.

Such a subsidiarist spirit is what brings the “virtue of hope,” as Pope Francis once said, to local communities: “collaboration from the top to the bottom, from the central State to the people, and from the bottom to the top: from the institutions of people to the top…gives hope in a healthier and more just future; and we build this future together, aspiring to greater things, broadening our horizons.”

And it is my personal hope that the vibrancy of the neighborhood–from its neighborly charm to its thriving small businesses which bring cultural richness and social solidarity–will inspire not only policy makers but also residents to avoid the temptation to passivity that Crawford warned of, and to advocate for what will ultimately bring them the most hope in the long run.

Image credit: Via Wikimedia Commons

Local Culture
Local Culture
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  1. Hope cannot be lost for this inner city deterioration. Yet, government intervention is not an answer for the government corruption and skewed social planning that created or at least facilitated it. I frequent Jack Cashill’s Breakfastarians table to know Newark specifically from his new book “Untenable”, a truer account of ethnic flight away from crime ridden cities. Please read it. White flight is a misnomer. Decency flight is more like it, because respectable people of all ethnicities have moved on up and out, including of-color. Further, to lump all euro-ethnicities into one “white” category assumes all cultures originating from the continent are the same. Your point about the Portuguese proves that is not so. They have a strong sense of what is a good neighborhood and hold fast. Please rebuke the term. It is just people leaving threatening and dangerous places to have security. To stay and have your mother mugged repeatedly and having to put bars on windows to become a prisoner of your own home is “untenable”. In one word what has been lost in the inner city is “RESPECT”. Decency and dignity follow along. Inner city culture has at-large, gangsta and gimme entitlement mindsets. There is low work ethic when there is no work. Yet, is it the egg or the chicken? Being against or resentful of people with money does not make anyone richer. That is just creating some false boogie man when the boogie man is in the citizenry. When neighbors do not know each other and do not share what is common-good to set expectations for what it means to be a civil neighbor, then chaos wins the day. The agreed-upon common-good starts with G~D. I’ll pray.

  2. Stephen, you need to take a look at my new book, “Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities.” I focus on Newark, having been born and raised there and having lived through the riots and the ensuing collapse. In it, I quote councilman Steve Adubato who, I presume, is your father or grandfather. My take on the Ironbound is quite like your own. Love to get your take on the book.

  3. In 2006 my 80 y.o. father, now deceased, moved out of an ethnically mixed Pittsburgh suburb due to “ghetto creep.” As he put it, the area was “getting bad.”
    Thing is, the ghetto that was doing the creeping was itself of mixed race: the drug/crime culture that accompanied it had that common rust-belt feature — black and white co-criminality. I think you’d see a similar dynamic at work in many rust-belt communities, which indicates that the problem is more one of class/culture than of race, at least in those types of communities.

  4. I struggle sometimes with how to think about the appropriate role for small businesses. I agree that they are essential to the vibrancy of communities, but I worry that by themselves, they are not capable of creating enough economic opportunity to sustain these areas.

    I reviewed The Other Side of Prospect in FPR. It documents the decline of the Newhallville neighborhood in New Haven, literally across the street from Yale. The cause of Newhallville’s decline was the loss of a Winchester gun factory (by no means a small business). With Winchester paychecks gone, the small business ecosystem then dried up as well, and the drug trade took over. I’m not sure there’s any collection of small businesses that would realistically be capable of replacing the jobs lost when Winchester left town.

    Which is to say that I wonder if the important distinction is not between “big” vs. “small” business, but rather between “local” (i.e., planning to stick around in a specific area) business (hopefully of a variety of sizes) and “non-local” business. I suppose the issue is that in today’s business environment, there may be no such thing as a “local” business beyond a certain size because shareholder primacy dictates that companies maintain no ties whatsoever that cannot be shed as soon as there is more profit to be had elsewhere.

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