I recently had a spirited discussion with a local gallerist — a Newark lover who keeps an ear to the ground concerning any developments that might bode negatively for efforts to make the city a more desirable destination for business and pleasure.
I learned during that conversation that some who care about Newark are starting to think it’s time to move beyond “Brick City” as its nickname, and that even Mayor Ras Baraka is on board with this view.
Understandably, the mayor and others who are rooting for Newark want to dispel the harmful stereotypes the city has suffered for decades, often the butt of jokes for late night comics and movie punch lines. But I’m convinced that, even by any other name, Newark would continue to be fodder for humorists until they’re given a stronger, more substantial reason to stop laughing.
In 2009, Conan O’Brien made on-air jokes at Newark’s expense.
The nickname of a city will only have negative connotations when the inhabitants of that city internalize the criticisms leveled at it by haters, and when they continue on a social, economic and political trajectory that invites scorn from outsiders.
Look at Newark’s municipal sibling across the Hudson. The “Big Apple,” as does Brick City, has no inherent value as a nickname – at least not on its face. The Big Apple has luster and panache associated with it only because of the way New Yorkers carry it. Period.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, during a downturn in New York City that included its near bankruptcy, blackouts and the wild west heydays of Times Square, the Big Apple was a target for the doomsayers. Like Brick City, some were writing its epitaph. The editorial cartoons in the tabloids were depicting apples infested with worms, or sunbaked and wilted, or plain rotted to the core.
Rotten apple. Left: Long before Conde Nast readers voted Newark “Unfriendliest City,” these “Welcome to Fear City” pamphlets were distributed to would-be New York City tourists by plainclothes police at area airports back in 1975. Right: That same year, the New York Daily News responds to president Gerald Ford saying he wouldn’t bail out a financially wrecked New York City.
Now that New York has successfully rebounded from 9/11, and internalized and reflected that success, its Big Apple image is one of vigor and vitality.
So let’s not be in a hurry to throw out the baby with the bath water. Negativity associated with Brick City may actually be, in large part, negativity internalized by the Newark community and reflected back to the world. “Newark, the perpetual underperforming underdog,” we tell ourselves. Perhaps that statement is true in part because we repeat it so much amongst ourselves. By contrast, I think that if the people and institutions of Newark are positive, upbeat, forward-thinking and industrious, that’s the way the world will eventually recognize this city.
I learned a generation ago, from the generation before me, that Brick City has a centuries-long, illustrious reputation as a bustling, vibrant locale. As a young college kid and native Baltimorean, my virgin brain struggled to absorb the plethora of anecdotes fired at me from the mouth of my employer and mentor, Tony Zangari, about his beloved “Nork.” And Mr. Z, as I called him, was specifically intrigued with Newark as a “Brick City.”
That’s because Mr. Z was a builder.
As a new resident of Newark at the time, I had a distinctly different outlook of the city than most natives, who are already used to the “look” of the city by the time they’re able to grasp their surroundings. What was visually typical, normal and mundane to their eyes was unique, magnificent and wondrous to the eyes of one who’d never witnessed the physical structure of Newark.
Indeed, Newark was a visually stunning city to behold. Bricks, bricks everywhere. The Prudential and Mutual Benefit Life buildings notwithstanding, most of Newark’s downtown office towers in the late 1970’s, when I first encountered Newark, were brown brick – and beautiful.
Several of these buildings still adorn the central business district today – and are still beautiful. There’s also Penn Station, the library, the museum, NJPAC, the brick-lain Prudential Plaza, the historic brick brownstones on James Street, the beautifully architected and brick-hewn Broad Street Station, and lovely brick churches too numerous to catalogue. Back then, even Mulberry Street was made of brick — it hadn’t been paved yet. And as I traversed the city, I recognized the unique character of Newark’s neighborhoods and communities that also lent well-earned aplomb to the appellation “Brick City.”
NJPAC, Newark Broad Street Station, and James Street
At that time, more than 300 years after the city was born, it was obvious that Newark’s settlers recognized a “brick” as a magical thing. A material on which to build Newark’s foundation, and upon that, all that Newark would be and has become.
Three-hundred fifty years later, the building continues, and a funny thing happened on the way to today’s gleaming glass and steel from the original brick and mortar: Newark built a structural “brick city” while also attempting to build a community, a culture and a commerce. It’s a project that has certainly fallen short over the years, but excitement about finally hitting that trifecta — and in ways that benefit all Newarkers — is tangible, palpable, and electric in some of the initiatives I’m witnessing here now.
A significant level of pride in the Brick City moniker itself is also still on display today. Witness the many ventures that have absorbed “Brick City” into their own names, including this very publication.
Many who disdain “Brick City” disdain Newark regardless of what name the city goes by. Haters would associate any alternative name for Newark with an overgrown ghetto. But if Brick City were held in high esteem by Newarkers, it would stand a much greater chance of being praised and applauded universally, because it would be a reflection of our self-esteem as a city.
Newark has been built up over 350 years. With its geography, infrastructure, institutions and people, it has significant raw assets to boast. Brick City is an organic, homegrown, nostalgic brand, so let’s change Newark’s mindset and fundamental prospects, not its nickname.
Regi Taylor is a Baltimore native, illustrator, sculptor, writer and public relations professional who currently resides in the suburbs of Maryland. He cut his teeth in Newark politics and business development as a young man under the mentorship of Carl Sharif, on the public relations staff of former schools superintendent Dr. Columbus Salley, and as an unofficial apprentice to Balozi Harvey, former United Nations trade liaison on behalf of the City of Newark. Image: a handmade “Newark” wire sculpture by the author. Contact him at email@example.com.
Disclosure: While working in Newark as a young man, Regi Taylor also co-created BrickCityLive.com founder and editor Andaiye Taylor.