New-and-Improved Newark A Look at New Jersey's Big City

For many years, Newark had it rough. Not only was the city mired in economic and social crisis, but it was the butt of late-night comedians' jokes, the red-headed stepchild of New York City, the charmless wasteland up the river. In the late 1970s, Harper's magazine thought enough of Newark to name it "the worst city in America," and one well-worn joke had it that the winner of a television game show back in the '50s got a one-week vacation in Newark. Second prize was two weeks.

But all of that has changed. Newark's reputation as a dangerous, desolate place is crumbling away, and as the tides of gentrification and development swirl around the tri-state area, the town that produced such cultural icons as poet Allen Ginsberg, NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal, rapper-actress Queen Latifah, and gangster anti-hero Tony Soprano—and that once prompted so much heckling—is coming into its own as a desirable place to live, work, and play.

American Theocracy

Before it was anything else, Newark was a woodland on the banks of the Passaic River. It was home to roving bands of Hackensack and Lenni Lenape Indians until the arrival of a group of Calvinist Puritans fleeing religious oppression in England. According to accounts of the time, the land under what is today called Newark was "purchased" from the Hackensack tribe in May of 1666 with goods that included gunpowder, bars of lead, new axes, guns and ammunition, forged blades, kettles, blankets, beer, tailored coats, and several pairs of pants—a haul valued at around $750 at the time.

Ironically, the goal of the newly arrived Puritans was to establish an ultra-strict theocracy in the New World, and they set about doing so as soon as their buckle-shoes touched American soil. Their first new colony was called New Haven, and its founders felt strongly that only members of the Puritan church should be allowed to vote, and that only the children of church members could be baptized, among other things. Hardlining to that degree didn't sit well with the more liberal colonists, and eventually the New Haven Puritans split with their fellows and moved up the Passaic River to establish a colony on their own very strict terms. By the late 1600's, the colony of Newark was officially established, with major thoroughfares, an inn, a cobbler, and a population of around 500 souls.

True to the founding colonists' vision, the village of Newark was nothing short of a theocracy. Non-church members were officially second-class citizens, and as such were not granted any benefits or protection from the town government. There was only one church in Newark until 1733, when one Colonel Josiah Ogden left the church after a bitter dispute with its leaders. According to the story, a torrential rainstorm forced Ogden to work in his wheat fields on a Sunday to prevent his entire season's crop from rotting before it could be properly harvested. The town elders took a dim view of his behavior, and punished Ogden for breaking the Sabbath. Ogden retaliated by inviting a group of Episcopal missionaries to build an Episcopal church in Newark, which they happily did —thus breaking the Puritans' theocratic monopoly. It wasn't until the American Revolution—and the need for cooperation in the face of war—that the bad blood caused by the split between congregations was mended.


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