Wednesday, July 18, 2007
A destructive riot occurred in Plainfield NJ 30 years ago this week.. It was rooted in a mediocre, unresponsive government & the empty shell of a class structure left over from when the city had a resident, wealthy bourgeoisie at the top of the social order. There was a long-standing blindness in the city government to entrenched black poverty, & to the glaring under-representation of blacks in city services & agencies. The school system was stumbling badly. I recall Plainfield back then as looking & feeling segregated, or maybe I was sensing that obvious realities weren't being acknowledged. This was the sorry situation in many Jersey communities, but it was out in the open in Plainfield where anyone could see it. All one had to do was drive from one end of the city to the other to know it. The fuse was lit on Friday night by a crowd of 30 or 40 unruly black teenagers at very tense time - the weekend of the Newark riots. When trouble started again Saturday night, a rainstorm quenched it - talk about luck or divine intervention. There was still hope. Then, Union County Police failed to understand that a city-organized public meeting in a county park on Sunday was crucial for defusing a dangerous situation. The meeting was broken up, a racist decision, & one the County Police - in that era more experienced at confiscating beer & chasing necking teenagers out of parking lots - should not have been allowed to make. When a Plainfield policeman was killed by a mob that night, it was too late. It was so unnecessary, so wasteful, so stupid. All it accomplished was to speed up the exodus of the middle class & retail businesses, & bring on decades of decline & more mismanagment: There have been periods when the Plainfield government has seemed literally clueless, like it believed it had to reinvent the wheel. As an example of botched renewal planning, a gaping hole downtown, an enormous vacant lot, compared for sheer ugliness with Wildwood's deserted pedestrian mall & the massive steel skeleton looming over Ocean Ave. in Asbury Park
I'm not trying to downplay conditions or simplify events in Plainfield in 1967. They were far outside my naive experiences. But the city had less in common with Newark than it did with Somerville, New Brunswick, Asbury Park, Rahway, even Red Bank. It was a manageable-sized city with strengths. In 1967, Plainfield had a solid middle class, white & black, not yet inclined to abandon the city en masse; good single family housing stock (still does); a struggling but attractive retail district with a concentration of historical buildings, churches, & large Victorian houses; a hospital; a newspaper; several beautiful parks; & a tradition of civic pride. The city had a substantial working class. There was also a lot of money in nearby towns of Scotch Plains, Fanwood, Mountainside, Sterling, Westfield, & Berkeley Heights. Without a major riot, which many, many people living there at the time agree was avoidable (unlike Newark, which I now believe was inevitable), more destructive to the spirit than to property, it's not difficult to imagine Plainfield's central business district making a turnaround in the 80s, community-initiated programs & solutions taking hold sooner than they have, & the history of Plainfield finding a different direction.
I owe much to some very nice folks in Plainfield's city government. To this day, you meet people from Plainfield who tell you they "love" the city; people who moved there recently & people who have lived there all their lives. It's always been that kind of town The summer of 1967 broke a lot of hearts in Plainfield NJ.
Labels: bully pulpit
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