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 not.
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 (the ENTIRE black 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.