Newark on film: This is Newark, 1966

This is Newark, 1966 is a short industrial film that has left few traces;* the sole reference to it that I can find is a passing mention in the opening pages of Brad Tuttle’s How Newark Became Newark, which explains that it was funded by the Port Authority (which ran Newark’s airport and seaport) and ran on a loop at the Newark Museum during the city’s 300th anniversary celebration that year.**

As a booster film, it fails profoundly. While a male narrator drones on about Newark—New Jersey’s “greatest concentration of population and finance, that’s worn and blighted… but we have the spirit and vigor to grow and build anew”—the visuals reduce the city to set of sterilized skyline shots, mostly of corporate towers and new buildings that drive home why Brutalist architecture got its name:

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We see my own beloved home institution, Rutgers-Newark, along with our neighboring NJIT, expanding, and the sight there too, I’m afraid, is less than flattering:

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This is Newark celebrates urban renewal, boasting that Newark has undertaken more of it per capita than any of America’s other thirty largest cities; “in our time, 1/5 of our city will have been rebuilt.” It proudly presents new housing projects, including the Scudder Homes in “the old 3rd ward,” as one signal achievement:

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We also get shots of Branch Brook Park, the airport, and the port:

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What we don’t get is a single non-aerial shot of the city—which is one reason This is Newark, 1966 is such an inadvertently chilling film. It presents a city entirely devoid of a human population, where sprawling slabs of concrete replace the citizenry. I’m reminded of Edward Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, in which he links the new meanings of the postwar skyline opening shot to military newsreel films, where they became “inextricably bound up with social planning and control.” (He quotes General Marshall in 1944:  WWII “has seen the development of two new weapons: the airplane and the motion picture”).

The dangers of such an abstract approach to human issues is obvious—and if it isn’t, just ask Harry Lime (or whatever soulless functionary punches in the code for American drone strikes). The much-vaunted Scudder Homes, rather than solving social problems This is Newark only vaguely alludes to, were left to deteriorate, until their destruction (apparently preserved, in part, on YouTube) in 1987 (vigorously protested at the time—as Camilo José Vergara noted in a passionate New York Times piece that I highly recommend, the problems of high-rise housing projects were obvious by the 80s, but unlike the symbolically fraught Pruitt-Igoe projects that St. Louis tore down in the 1970s, Newark had no ready means to relocate displaced tenants).

Of course, it’s impossible to watch This is Newark without constantly thinking of that 1966—the year before the national narrative of Newark would change with the riots, popularly blamed then and still blamed now on the impoverished residents of the city rather than the racialized systems and structures of containment, disfranchisement, and state-sponsored violence that made the uprising a sociological near-inevitability. We live in a society that likes to assign Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” but never seems to want to actually read the damn words about what happens to dreams deferred. It’s tragic and infuriating—and banal triumphalist narratives about the glories of urban renewal like This is Newark, 1966 do little to help establish the much-needed empathy so absent from much of American history.

It is neat to look at even in its cold bloodless distance, though, I will give it that.

——-

* I know of the film’s existence only by fortuitous chance: I happened to mention my aspirations of blogging about Newark on film to my colleague Clem Price—who just so happens to be perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the history of Newark, as witnessed in the fact that the New York Times seems to consult him nearly every time they turn their attention to the city—and he generously loaned me a VHS tape bearing the exciting title “Films of Newark” (more shorts to follow!).

I’m also grateful to my colleague Mark Krasovic, another wonderful Newark historian, for subsequently hooking me up with a digitized version. I have very cool colleagues (who are also, to be sure, friends!).

** In the footnote to his brief discussion of the film, Tuttle cites “Newark Museum archives, box 98.” Now I’m curious what that contains…

3/10/15 edited to add: came across a newspaper clipping about the production of this while sifting through the Stanley Winters Scrapbooks at Newark Public Library. Less than revelatory, but what the hell, might as well throw it on:

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6 thoughts on “Newark on film: This is Newark, 1966

    • 100% agreed, on both counts. The only copy I know of is housed at the Institute for Culture, Ethnicity, and the Modern Experience in Newark, but I’d be happy to see if I can get a loaner copy, or–maybe even better–get it placed in the Rutgers library. I’ll be traveling to a conference that’ll take up most of this week, but if you want to send me a reminder after this Friday, I can get on it.
      And thanks for coming to the screening!

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