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A drawing from a British newspaper showing armed rioters clashing with Union Army soldiers in New York City.

The Writers Almanac taught me that during this week in 1863 the New York City Draft Riots began. I will admit to not even knowing such an event had occurred. It was the bloodiest riot in American history.

Hearing about these riots that happened more than 150 years, a lot of the details seemed much more modern, even contemporary.

The rioters were working-class white men against a new draft law put into place by President Lincoln. The draft was the visible reason for the riot, but there was more going on.

There is something about a long, hot summer that seems to feed riots.

The only riots I have ever experienced were the 1967 Newark, New Jersey riots. They happened this same time of summer (between July 12 and July 17). It was four days of rioting, looting, and destruction. It left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

The Newark riots took place in a time of police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs. That sounds contemporary.

On that 1863 hot summer during the height of the Civil War, the richest New Yorkers were making money off the war. Poor people were poorer than usual. There was huge inflation.

A good number of working-class immigrant New Yorkers had signed up to serve in the Union Army. Unemployment was high. Workers kept going on strike, but the strikes were broken.

There were many “sensational” newspapers then and their stories heaped the blame for everything bad on Lincoln, black people, and the new Emancipation Proclamation. With the kinds of stories that always occur before war and revolution, newspapers warned working-class white people that black people would now be moving up from the South in huge numbers and stealing their jobs. They claimed that black men were breaking the strikes.

But the Union Army needed more soldiers. Congress authorized the nation’s first draft law, and on Saturday, July 11th, the lottery began, with a blindfolded clerk pulling names out of a hat.

But the wealthy had an out. For $300 you could buy your way out of the draft. In a time when the average New York City worker earned 85 cents per day, it was the 1% versus the 99% of its time.

A group of  firemen who were drafted decided to protest. They showed up at the draft office with their firetruck full of rocks and threw them through the office windows, burned the draft records, and attacked the officers who worked there. Thousands gathered around the firemen and mob mentality took over.

They pulled up railroad and streetcar tracks, knocked down telephone poles, cut telegraph lines, lit buildings on fire, targeted Lincoln supporters, abolitionists and attacked the offices of The New York Times and The New York Tribune. 

Most of all, the mob targeted African-Americans and their businesses and homes owned by blacks and places associated with them, including the Colored Orphan Asylum. At least 11 black men were murdered.

The Battle of Gettysburg had ended just 10 days before the riots began, and on July 15th, troops were hurried from Gettysburg to New York City to put down the rioting. About 6,000 federal troops were eventually there and the riot ended.

The official death toll was conservatively listed as 119. About 20% of  African-Americans left New York City for Brooklyn or beyond the boroughs because of the riots.

That long, hot summer of 1967 caught fire in Newark when two white Newark policemen arrested a black cabdriver. The cabbie was beaten by the officers and taken to the 4th Police Precinct where he was charged with assaulting the officers and making insulting remarks. Local residents saw the cabbie being dragged into the precinct. A rumor started that he had been killed while in police custody.

Actually the driver, John Smith, had been released in the custody of his lawyer. But police rushed out of their station wearing hard hats and carrying clubs and residents gathered there in protest began to throw bricks, bottles, and rocks. The protest moved to City Hall and after midnight false alarms caused fire engines to concentrate on an area along Belmont Avenue in one of the poorest areas of the city. Looters began smashing windows, and threw merchandise onto sidewalks and particularly looted liquor stores.

During this same period, rioting erupted in Plainfield, New Jersey, a city about 18 miles southwest of Newark, that also had a large African-American population and similar conditions.

The riots didn’t improve conditions in Newark, as the NYC riots didn’t stop the draft or improve conditions. The Newark riots began a deeper decline of Newark and its neighboring communities. In the remaining 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, businesses, industry and the white middle class left the city.


Jersey boy Philip Roth turns 80 today. Once the bad boy of literature and popular target of feminists, he has aged into the preeminent man of American letters. People seem to believe that a Nobel Prize in Literature is due.  (I said that about John Updike.) Even some feminists have been won over.

I never met Philip Roth. I saw him up close at a ceremony in Newark once. But Roth’s Newark is just a few miles from where I grew up. I knew his neighborhood from visits to my grandparents house in Newark every Sunday back 50 years ago.

He grew up in a small clapboard house at 81 Summit Ave. I went there a few years ago when there was a dedication for a plaque that says “Historic Site: Philip Roth Home” and at the corner of Summit and Keer avenues, a third street sign that says “Philip Roth Plaza.”

My own childhood house was also a clapboard from the same time period, but since I lived in “suburban” Irvington, we had a bigger side and back yard and probably a few more trees.

His neighborhood was the Weequahic section of the city. Many places from Newark find their way into the books: Washington Park (Goodbye, Columbus) Clinton Avenue, Weequahic Park and Temple B’nai Abraham (The Plot Against America).

Weequahic comes from the Lenni-Lenape Native American word meaning “head of the cove”.  (Although I see the pronunciation listed as wih-QWAY-ik, we always said WEEK-wake.)  It may have been farmland into the late nineteenth century, but it became a middle-class, non-industrial neighborhood  with single-family homes and no apartment buildings. Weequahic Park was kind of the center of it all. I lived in Irvington on the western border. Weequahic was mostly a Jewish neighborhood prior to the 1960s and was the home to synagogues, yeshivas, Jewish restaurants and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, where I was born, although I wasn’t Jewish.

From his bedroom window on the second floor, he could look out on Summit Avenue with his older brother and roommate, Sandy. On a hot summer day in a time when no one had air conditioning in their house, he says “All the windows are wide open. The radios are on. You hear Walter Winchell, Fred Allen, Jack Benny. You hear people talking in the alley ways. They’d have beach chairs in the driveway, so you’d hear laughter and radios. I’d put the ball game on, the Dodgers. Red Barber was the voice of the Dodgers.”


He went to Weequahic High. In Portnoy’s Complaint, he writes “At football our Jewish High School was notoriously hopeless (though their band, I may say, was always winning prizes and commendations). He includes a chant the boys from Weequahic used to serenade their losing teams: “Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam We are the boys who eat no ham. We play football, we play soccer — We keep matzohs in our locker, Aye aye aye, Weequahic High!”

His weekends and summer vacations in Newark were pretty close to mine. Baseball, softball or stickball games (he played on the field behind the Chancellor Avenue Elementary School — I played at Orange Avenue Park or West Side Park if we were at my grandparents’ house)

“I still have a bad arm from throwing a Spaldeen against the brick wall,” Roth says.

He has twenty years on me, but his dates in those days were not so different from my social world – a movie and off to a diner. His was the Weequahic Diner for hot pastrami sandwiches or burgers at the White Castle. I was usually at Don’s Diner or Kless’ Diner in Irvington or at the White Castle in Union.


Weequahic Diner

I know he rode some of the same buses as I did from reading Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s the first novel I can recall reading that had places that I actually knew and had been to in it. Fiction entered reality.

Next, I read Goodbye, Columbus.  I really liked this story of Neil who falls for Brenda. He’s poor kid from Newark. He works at the main Newark Library – a gorgeous building next to the museum – two places I still love to visit.  Brenda lived in very posh Short Hills. One summer, I fell for a girl from Millburn (next to Short Hills) who was my Brenda. Reading Romeo and Juliet sophomore year, the plot made total sense to me. The novella is a fast read. It was made into a popular film too.

In summer, his family went to Bradley Beach. My family went to Seaside Park. We each had our own boardwalk memories.

He had that common Jewish summer camp experience. He was a counselor in the Poconos at 17. Other than some CYO day camp days and the pool at Olympic Park, most of my summer was spent hanging out on my block and working a few terrible summer jobs.

He went off to Bucknell University to major in English. I couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition and majored in English at Rutgers. (As I recall, Neil in Goodbye Columbus went to Rutgers.)

Of course, now Roth has thirty-one novels on his CV. Local boy makes good. When I became a college professor, I enjoyed his college professor characters, though most of them were not very admirable.

Last October, Philip Roth announced that he would be retiring from being an author. An unusual move for an author. I find it admirable, leaving while you are on top. Still, hard to believe that he won’t be putting pen to paper, even if it is to leave something for posthumous publication.

The Philip Roth Society organized a two-day conference, “Roth@80,” at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark that started yesterday and continues today with writers, tributes, and a tour of “Roth’s Newark.”

There will be an upcoming PBS American Masters episode on him:  Philip Roth Unmasked.

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