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Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Asbury Park Riots of July, 1970!

The Asbury Park Riots


This summer 2010 is the 40th anniversary of what is perhaps the single most significant event in Asbury Park’s entire 217 year history. It was 7 days and nights in the summer of 1970 that changed the economic, political, social, cultural and even physical landscape of this town, forever, known simply as “The Asbury Park Riots”.

To understand what happened that summer, and why a community would turn against itself, it’s essential to understand the context. While perhaps an easy question – the answer is anything but.

What we do know is that:

It was 1970 - Riots, especially race riots, were a regular part of the evening news. These included the 1969 York Race Riots in York Pennsylvania and perhaps most importantly, the “Long Hot Summer of 1967” with race riots in: Tampa, Huston, Detroit, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Newark, and Plainfield. Racial tension was simply part of the national lexicon.

At the local, state and national level, African-American leaders had been advocating for education, job training, recreation and drug programs for youth – for years. And most of those had gone un-met. And things were no different in Asbury Park.

In October of 1970, The Christian Science Monitor would do a story where they reported that “Black teenagers were particularly angry that day, apparently over what they deemed to be discrimination in the lucrative summer job market along the beaches. White kids from far off towns, rather than local blacks were snagging the most pleasant and highest paying jogs in the resort, hotel, restaurant and water front concessions”. It went on to say that “Here were young people apparently ready and eager to work, the sons and daughters of blacks who, in past years had been specifically brought to Asbury Park to work at a wide range of jobs in the hotels and restaurants. Why in the name of all that’s wise and right, should they not have been given the good, satisfying, lucrative jobs”?

There were reportedly over 700 applications for just 246 jobs available at The Neighborhood Youth Corps. Compared with over twice that many jobs available, the year before.

With the temperature in the high 90’s, no jobs, no hope for jobs, no recreation programs, and no real indication that city fathers were listening to their concerns – the west side youth were frustrated, angry and most likely feeling a sense of hopelessness. Once the fighting started, it was most likely those feelings of anger and hopelessness that fuled it even farther.

The trouble started when a group of young people started breaking some windows after a youth dance at the West Side Community Center on the night of July 4th. The violence increased in intensity, and scope over the course of the next 7 nights. While extensive and far reaching, the rioting and damage was essentially limited to the major entertainment, business and retail district of the Springwood Ave, on the west side of Main St. Before it was all over, there would be over $4 million in property damage, 167 arrests, 165 injured, 15 police injured, and countless of families made homeless.

Monday, July 6th was a day of fire bombs and looting. A prime target was a department store on Springwood Ave. Long under white ownership, the business had just recently been sold to another white man who had quite publically outbid a black man.

That day, the rioting increased significantly and Police Chief Thomas S. Smith called in officers from surrounding communities to assist. Mayor Joseph F. Mattice declared a state of emergency and later that day ordered a curfew from 10:00 pm to 6: 00 am. The curfew was to remain in effect for the next three days and it applied to the entire town of Asbury Park as well as the neighboring township of Neptune.

The New York Times quoted the Mayors reaction to the violence as “We’ve been very, very fortunate it’s stayed where it has. Our business area hasn’t been affected at all”. An unfortunate, but telling statement, because the reality was – the entire west side business district was indeed being “affected”. It was in fact, being burned down, looted and destroyed!

On Tuesday morning, West Side community leaders presented a list of twenty demands to the City Council. Two additional demands would be added during the following days. Many of those demands addressed the real root of what caused the problems in the first place, and they included things like: “Immediate employment of 100 youths from the west side, creation of a Recreation Commission, appointment of a black person to the Board of Education, A Narcotics Program, black representation on the Federal Housing Authority, a police review board and dismissal of a municipal judge.

The New York Times reported that after talks broke down late Tuesday night, more fighting erupted, and this time the mobs pushed across the railroad tracks and went three blocks into the “east” side. State police quickly forced the fighting crowds back but that night, 46 people were treated for gunshot wounds, the oldest being 75, and the youngest being 14.

By Wednesday morning, the west side was essentially burned down, destroyed and looted. Unable to depend on City Fathers for help – the community pulled together and relied on each other. They created “Citizen Peace Patrols”. These groups started walking the streets, encouraging people to observe the imposed curfews. Churches and community groups took in and housed the homeless. Some for extended periods of time. The State Police, who had been called in the day before – continued to remain on the west side (in their riot gear and helmets) throughout the evening.

On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Willam T. Cahill toured the West Side and requested that President Richard Nixon declare Asbury Park a major disaster area. All day Wednesday and Thursday negotiations between west side community leaders and the city council continued – but the demands continued to go unanswered.

That night, Howard K. Smith came on the ABC evening news and announced to the world that “the seaside town of Asbury Park had become a battleground of rioting”. While the two minute and twenty-three second story focused mostly on the impact the fighting had had on the beach front economy, it nonetheless put Asbury Park in the national spotlight. Asbury Park had just joined the dubious list of “national riots for 1970” and things would never be the same.

Slow progress on the city’s part prompted west side leading spokesman Willie Hamm to announce on Friday that further communication would be halted until the city council addressed the community’s demands. Talks resumed later that day and by Friday evening West Side leaders and the city council came to terms, and all the demands were at least minimally addressed.

26 comments:

Paul Church said...

Very interesting

WinterBV said...

Mark, thanks very much for posting a history of these events. A young friend of mine is very interested in discovering the facts surrounding the racial tension of the 70s because she feels her education glosses over recent history and she wants to delve deeper. Your article certainly provides the information forming a part of what can only be referred to as "telling the truth."

Linnea said...

Thank you for this post! WHat are ome of the source you used? I'd be very interested to see what those have to say also. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This the first account of the events that happened that Summer that I have seen that was honest coming from the area itself. Now it has been forty years and the area of the Springwood Ave is still open field despite the attempt of changing name to Lake Ave, as if that would erase the history.

Anonymous said...

I was down on Cookman Ave shopping when the state police were in riot gear.. we got out on a bus back to Belmar.. My father had a fit and couldn't get into the city because they didn't let any one down Main Street and he knew we were down there shopping. The bus was the only vehicle that was allowed our of the city toward Belmar.. I remember it because it was scary seeing a mass of blue shirts with men in riot gear lining the railroad tracks by Springwood ave.

Anonymous said...

My dad is Dell Wade, the ABC newsman who was beaten by state and local police while reporting on police brutality during the riots. The police beat him mercilessly, took his audio recorder, and made him out to be a "riot inciter". A sign of the times, he was left in a "he said, they said" situation where he was forced to defend his claims with no proof to a dubious public who were of course steeped in racism and unwilling to consider his report as fact. I was always fascinated by his telling of the story.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article. I use to work as a teacher in Asbury Park and wonder how did a beautiful resort town turn into such a scary place. It's so sad.

Linda Sobel Zisman said...

My father owned "West Side Drugs" on Springwood and Atkins Avenue for many years. "Doc Sobel". He sold out in the late 60's due to ill health. He only had black pharmacists working there for many, many years. I was too young and not in the area to know of the unrest in the 70's. it's sad for me, here in Asbury for a visit to "return to my youth" to find his corner so changed. The new senior building is wonderful and modern. I hope only the best for the "west side" as I had many wonderful memories of working the ice cream counter when my father took me to work with him for a day. I had many fun times visiting with the customers when they came into the store. Lots of luck in changing the "poor" image of Springwood Avenue for the better. I surely hope the city continues with the revitalization. It's a good start. Next to demolish the old "Turf bar" and better the housing in the area. I heard of the urban renual" several years ago. What a pleasant surprise to see the progress. A lot of work to go. "Go Asbury".
Linda Sobel Zisman

Linda Sobel Zisman said...

Forgot to post under my name, Linda Sobel Zisman
Denton, Texas

Anonymous said...

Living in the area at that time, I remember going Fiches (sp) Dept. Store for clothing. I wonder if that was the dept. store referenced in the article?

RobertV said...

Now I see why Asbury Park has become what it is today. I am only 32 and I love Asbury Park!!!! I love the history of the city and the scenery it has to offer! I keep finding out new things about Asbury Park and this is one of the things! I knew race riots were happening all over New Jersey in the 70's but I never knew it happened in Asbury Park. To me Asbury Park is a diamond in the rough!

Anonymous said...

I visited Asbury Park in 1991 while on a trip to Fort Monmouth. I took a side trip to Asbury Park out of curiosity because of the boardwalk and Bruce Springstein history that was there. It was like a ghost town and very dirty. I returned this past weekend April of 2013 and could not believe what i experienced. The downtown has been yuppie-fied and very nice. The boardwalk has a ways to go but like a miracle from 22 years ago. Good luck to Asbury Park on the road to recovery!

bosco said...

I remember it well

Mark Sugar said...

Mark well written! I was 13 and living on First Ave, it seems like yesterday.

Scott Grodberg said...

I had 3 great aunts and uncles living between Asbury ave. and Sunset Ave. They were not able to tell me this much about it. Thank you for your account

Anonymous said...

A fictional character in Philip Roth's novel "Sabbath's Theater", Mickey Sabbath supposedly worked in the ladies' shoes department of Levin's Department Store and mentions shoe stores on Cookman Avenue. And he mentions the riots. Your article fills in the background of what he was talking about. Sabbath could be seen as "morally challenged" in certain ways but he has a love for the beach and for the beach towns along the Jersey Shore that redeems him somewhat and makes the point that Asbury Park and the Jersey Shore beach towns are probably beloved by many more people than anyone might initially imagine.

Anonymous said...

Great article. My family vacationed every year in Bradley Beach. We were there during the riots. I was nine years old and remember that we didn't go to the Board Walk. I remember being young and afraid. I visited Asbury this summer for the first time in 35 years. I was surprised how devastated the area became. I also saw how the city is re building. Your article shed light on the cultural problems of the day. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
I do believe The store in question was "Fishes Department Store". Outside of Cookman Avenue, it was one of the main clothing/shoe stores on the Springwood Avenue on the Westside. Also, don't quote me on this but I believe it was Mr. Carl Williams (owner of Mr. Fashions, on Cookman Avenue),who worked at "Fishes" for many years...who was the interested party in buying the Department Store before it was sold to another white person.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather Mr. Pzrham had a rooming house and own other property on springwood avenue back in the day. And at the time of the riots I was 13. I remember my mother going down to the streets and telling us we could not go with her because we might get hurt. My big brother went down anyway afrer she left and one of my sisters friends was shoot in the back by police.

Yes I remember

Anonymous said...

I decided to look this up because I have seen comments on an Asbury blog that said people were bussed in and they caused the riots. I was there and my friend was called in from the national guard with his buddies to assist the state police etc. It was Fisch's department store that has been referred to in posts. It is true that white kids from North Jersey and New York got those summer jobs on the boardwalk. Thinking about that now makes me sad. I never knew these facts before if they are accurate I would have liked to see the sources that the author used to write this article as referred to by a post. Although this seemed to be a problem in Asbury Park it did not seem that there was any racist problems at Asbury Park where I went to the year before the riots. Perhaps my eyes were not wide open but I never saw this at school. There was discrimination at several beach clubs as I experienced it myself (caucasian) being there with my sister and a friend from Springwood avenue area. The police told us we would have to leave the beach. My sister was so upset she cursed the cop. I went to the Asbury diner with my black male friend and I could not believe the nasty looks we got besides the fact that we were considered hippies. There was a lot of discrimination against hippy teenager's at that time. My family had to pretend to be Jewish in order to get a room at a place in the catskills. When I look back at the documentaries of that time and Martin Luther King I cannot believe how backwards and ignorant the racist attitude was in the country. As a kid I did not watch the news. There is so much prejudice today in other area's now about how people choose to live and love.I visited Asbury Park a few years ago and yes cookman avenue area has spruced up but seems to be all restaurants and very expensive rents. As far as I am concerned I was fortunate to live in Asbury at the best time before 1970. I also remember that Asbury started going down again when some famous people were going to make Asbury Park more interesting. What happened? Some dispute or withdrawal of funds left that huge crane in the middle of the street next to the boardwalk and I believe it sat there for a long time and the project was not completed. This is when I saw Asbury deteriorate. Canadian store closed down property on Main street across from Steinbeck's was being sold for $40,000 I believe.I kept thinking this seems to be the only beach front property along the shore that was in shambles. That is my 2 cents.Christine

Anonymous said...

I was 12 that summer. We lived in Belmar and could see the smoke from the fires from our yard. I also had an Asbury Park Press paper route and of course that was the main topic of news for weeks.

I remember riding down main street with my parents about a week after things got back to quiet. Lots of burned out buildings.

Anyone who knew Asbury Park before the riots know that the city has changed totally. They talk about it coming back but for decades it simply wallowed in self-pity. I don't care about local entertainment hero's, but Asbury Park is just not that nice.


Many of my friends from Belmar were forced to go to Asbury Park High School. Lucky for me I was able to attend Manasquan but several times a year I would go to Asbury Park HS to help the HS band with their concerts. It was weird because we (a few band members from Manasquan) were asked to help but not one of the APHS band members had even one kind word or hint of appreciation for our efforts. This was from 1972-1976 time frame.

Today, while improved, Asbury Park is dysfunctional in the main and will probably always be so.

Anonymous said...

I lived one block from the riot and it was something that at my age you will never forget, I talk about it to my grown children and grand children and they cant believe something like that happened it Asbury Park. So glad to see new buildings and different things is taking place in the city

Anonymous said...

yes they did,they through him threw the meat market window I saw them do it

Anonymous said...

Wow I don't know where you got your info but I was there,first of all the reason the east side business didn't get destroyed was because they were shooting people who tried to cross main st.They brought in racist state troopers who were brutal.things happened before the community center.It was crazy I was there when we destroyed the westside drug store.that corner kicked it off I remember that nite like it was yesterday

Mike McMahon said...

Yes, not one mention of police brutality in this article. I'm sure Mark means well, but the story I received from my parents, who were there, was that there was a series of incidents of police brutality, one against my father and his friends, that led to the riots. I guess some things never change. We're always pushed to the point of desperation in a biased and criminal justice system, then painted as animals that riot for no good reason.

Anonymous said...

I lived west of Asbury Park near Collingwood Auction. I could see the smoke which is close to 10 miles away. I got in my car and went down there. I was on the street that was just north of Springwood Ave. where all the trouble was happening. I went east and wound up at the intersection of Main Street and Springwood Ave. WOW police cars and police everywhere. SCAREY