Newark in the 1970s was synonymous with urban despair. The riots of 1967, sparked by television news broadcasts of a clash between African Americans and police in the Fourth Ward, left the city in shambles with 26 dead; 15,00 wounded; 1,600 arrested, and $10 million in property damages. More than a thousand businesses were torched or looted, including 167 groceries, most of which would never reopen. Newark’s reputation suffered dramatically, as it was said, “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.”
Urban blight was a tremendous issue during the 1970s and 80s, as it was supported by a Federal policy of “benign neglect.” The policy was proposed in 1969 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at the time on President Richard Nixon’s staff as an urban affairs adviser. While serving in this capacity, he sent the President a memo suggesting, “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.”
The policy implemented a plan of abandonment of urban neighborhoods, particularly ones with a majority black population. As a result, many cities went into a deep decline throughout the 1970s and 80s, as the middle class of all races left the city for the suburbs. For Newark, the result of benign neglect was devastating. In January 1975, Harper’s Magazine ranked the fifty largest American cities in twenty-four categories, from park space to crime. The article concluded, “The city of Newark stands without serious challenge as the worst city of all. It ranked among the worst cities in no fewer than nineteen of twenty-four categories, and was dead last in nine of them… Newark is a city that desperately needs help.”
Without the benefit of Federal services and funds, Newark was on its own. Far enough away from New York City, it possessed an identity and style all its own. Newark was, and continues to be, an African American city that fights for itself, best exemplified by Arts High School, a public school dedicated to nurturing the talents of inner city youth. Established in 1931, Arts High School was the first visual and performing arts high school in the United States, and counts Sarah Vaughn, Melba Moore, and Stephanie Mills, among its graduates.
In 1975, a young photographer just fresh out of the Pratt Institute arrived at Arts High School to teach black-and-white photography, and used the city of Newark as its stage. This photographer would go on to become one half of Guzman, a photography team that has become one of the leaders in commercial work over the past thirty years. [For further reading, a link to The Chic feature Guzman's collaboration with Geoffrey Beene can be found at the end of this article.]
Guzman recently rediscovered street photographs taken in Newark from those early, formative years, reconnecting with a wealth of classic material that becomes all the more prescient for its ability to capture the look and feel of a bygone era. Perhaps this is because of the approach, which was open and free, yet understated and discreet, recalling the subtle approach of Helen Levitt in documenting the everyday life of the common man and woman.
Leading the class out onto the streets in the late morning hours when the sun was approaching its peak, Guzman wanted the students to looks at the city in which they lived with fresh and curious eyes. Guzman recalls, “We had received an NEA grant to create a pamphlet with the students’ photographs and writings, and I wanted them to see what was around them. We walked where we wanted, and no one noticed us. We were completely invisible, and no one could care less about our cameras.”
“I was teaching an incredible group of juniors and seniors. There was serious talent at the school. I was really young then, just a few years older than the students. You couldn’t tell that I was the teacher when I was with the class. I became friends with many of the students; they still call to this day. That class had a lifelong impact on us. “ Not clear where the quote ends
“We went out to the streets because I thought the streets were real. I wanted them to see where they lived and play with that reality. It’s interesting, looking back at the photographs, and seeing things with fresh eyes. Like the woman handing out loose cigarettes to people of all ages, including children, as part of a promotion for Newport. Or the advertisement for Burger King, which was ‘New in Newark.’ Everyone was so slim before the fast food came to town. The change of culture is kind of fascinating.”
“I loved Newark. I thought it was really exciting. It was a black city, and it was wonderful that way. Although it was close to New York, it had its own thing going on. It was just perfect. It was raw, anarchy, revolution. It was a free for all. There was a mix of classes, and it had the full span of everyone. I found it dynamic and exciting. I loved the old buildings, the old signage, the hustlers on the street, the cars, the clothes, the old geezers. Everyone was very stylish. No one paid any attention to us. It was just business as usual.”
“Some of these photographs look like Helen Levitt in the 1940s. There were a lot of mom and pop stores back then. People were living their lives on the street. As long as you are doing your work, you don’t need anything. That’s the key. There’s always a way to meet other people if you are doing what you love.”