For years, Liz Del Tufo refused to follow white friends and neighbors who fled New Jersey in droves after deadly July 1967 riots that left the city of Newark in ruins.
Half a century later, her stubborn streak is paying off.
Del Tufo, 83, has forged a friendship with Junius Williams, an African American activist who documented police violence during the uprising, which saw young blacks torch and loot dozens of shops along Newark’s Springfield Avenue from July 12-17, 1967.
It took the National Guard five days to quell the mayhem — an outpouring of pent-up rage against daily discrimination against a growing African American community after police beat up a taxi driver.
“All that was left was confrontation,” recalls the 73-year-old Williams.
In the end, 26 people were killed, and more than 1,000 others were injured.
Williams and Del Tufo are now both working to improve Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city, which is best known for its crime rate and international airport 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Manhattan.
She is the president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee. He works to improve city schools.
“Ebony and ivory” says Williams with a smile.
Their friendship attests to ongoing efforts break the vicious cycle of poverty and violence in the city.
If signs of poverty are numerous — dirty streets, boarded-up homes and idle residents loitering on street corners — there are also growing signs of regeneration in the place where novelist Philip Roth grew up before white flight.
Newark’s population, which fell from 405,000 in 1960 to 272,000 in 2000, has started to rise again and today has more than 280,000 residents.
Though gang violence and drugs remain endemic, Anthony Ambrose — Newark’s public safety director — says crime in 2016 fell to its lowest level since 1967.
Upscale new buildings are being built in the center of Newark or along the Passaic River. Millennials priced out of New York are moving in, as are service industries — both unimaginable a few years ago.
“The city did not get better for a long time,” says Del Tufo. Convinced she would have to move after her husband died in 1970, she’s now “really glad” she stayed.
“Things have started to change,” she says.
If Williams remains an activist at heart and now worries about the negative side-effects of gentrification, he also admits discrimination has waned.
“Is it as egregious as it was in 1967? No,” he says.
Three years after the riots, the city elected its first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson. All subsequent mayors have been African American, reflecting a population that is now 52 percent black and 33 percent Hispanic.
The make-up of Newark’s police force has also changed dramatically with 78 percent of officers now black or Hispanic.
The crime-ridden housing projects — which were the nerve center of the riots — have been torn down, replaced by entire streets of houses reserved for low-income residents.
Yet a large segment of the minority population remains unemployed. A report published in April showed that despite the onset of regeneration, only 20 percent of new jobs being created are going to people from Newark — a problem that Democratic Mayor Ras Baraka has made a priority.
Crime and unemployment remain a toxic cocktail. Williams says that if the risk of rioting has fallen, it is because blacks have “internalized” their anger.
Del Tufo believes that the much transformed Newark police, still under federal control, no longer “give the minority population the reasons that they had back then,” to riot.
But Ambrose, a Newark native and former city police chief for 20 years, doesn’t dare exclude the possibility of outbreaks of violence such as that seen in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 or Charlotte, North Carolina last year, after fatal police shootings of black suspects.
“I think people have to be patient — they have to remember where we came from, where we are at and where we want to go,” he said.
“We have a long road ahead of us, but we are going in the right direction.”
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