Description of the Community
Irvington, New Jersey is located in Essex County, which is in the northeastern part of the state. The town is bordered by Maplewood to the west, Newark to the east, Hillside and Union to the south, and South Orange to the north. The Elizabeth River bisects Irvington into east and west sides. To the east the land is relatively flat, but to the west is a section of the Orange Mountains that also roll through many of the neighboring towns.
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Forty years before Irvington got its name it was part of Clinton Township, which also included the areas that are now Maplewood, South Orange, and sections of Newark. Colloquially, the area was known as Camptown until the mid-1800’s when, coincidentally, Stephen Foster composed the recognizable song called “De Camptown Races” (“Our History,” n.d.). The song romanticizes horse track betting and citizens were concerned about the association between their town and an activity that was considered coarse. In response, the town was renamed “Irvingtown” in honor of author Washington Irving and later became “Irvington” when it was incorporated in 1874 (“Our History,” n.d.).
According to the United States Census Bureau (n.d.), Irvington’s population increased rapidly in the early 1900’s and then continued to grow steadily until the 1980’s when it reached over 60,000 residents before it began to drop. The downward trend has continued and the latest estimates from the Census Bureau (n.d.) state that Irvington has less than 55,000 people living within its borders. At the time of its incorporation, and for nearly a century following, Irvington was almost entirely White. Beginning in the 1960’s African Americans began to move to Irvington, predominantly from neighboring Newark. Currently, Irvington is overwhelmingly African American (85.6%) with the next largest racial group being Hispanic (9.7%) followed by White (6.2%) (“New Jersey Population Trends…”, n.d.). Irvington’s racial demographics stand in stark contrast to the national averages. Nationally, African Americans make up 13.4%, Hispanics account for 18.1%, and Whites are the largest demographic at 76.6% (“U.S. Census Bureau…”, n.d.).
History of the Community
Irvington was heavily influenced by Newark, which was settled in the 1600’s by Puritans who left Connecticut in search of a home where they felt free to practice their religion and establish a theocracy uninhibited by outside influences (Tuttle, 2009). This proved difficult as Newark grew, and surrounding areas became more heavily populated. Set along the banks of the Elizabeth River, Newark and subsequently Irvington, were chosen by their settlers because they thought the river would provide isolation. Ironically, the river became a major reason for their growth as it was a connecting point between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers allowing travel and transport to and from New York City and points west. The next two centuries saw Newark in a constant state of growth and urbanization (Tuttle, 2009) and Irvington grew from a rural to a suburban town in the process. Irvington survived a series of attempts by Newark politicians to annex the land as Newark had done with several other suburban towns in the early 1900’s. Newark sought to increase its tax revenue and offered what they claimed to be improved services- fire, water, police, etc. (Tuttle, 2009). Irvington maintained its independence from Newark but continued to reap the rewards of Newark’s growth as they grew in proportion to one another for the better part of the first half of the twentieth century.
The 1960’s were a period of great change and social movements all over the United States. The civil rights movement was particularly impactful for Irvington and this was again related to its proximity to Newark. Many African American leaders of the time professed civil disobedience and peaceful protestation but the practical results and the needed change were not being realized by the poor black communities of Newark. Nationally, the unemployment rate for Blacks was twice as high as it was for Whites and income was half as much (Tuttle, 2009). The civil rights movement was one of false hope for many African Americans in urban environments especially. Newark’s African American population was growing while its white population was on the decline in the early 1960’s. At the same time, the region was losing manufacturing jobs to other parts of the country and the rising unemployment rate was being felt by Newark residents. Although slavery had been abolished a century earlier, segregation was still the law of the land. As Newark’s African American population grew, neighboring towns remained almost exclusively White. For example, Irvington had a population of nearly sixty thousand people in 1960 but only a few hundred were African American (Tuttle, 2009).
As Newark’s population became predominantly Black, the Police Department was disproportionately White at nearly 90% in 1963 (Tuttle, 2009). Stories of excessive force, violence, and corruption by the police were common in Newark. The tension between African American citizens and police grew steadily as more incidents were reported of routine traffic stops that ended in injuries or death of Black people at the hands of the officers. In addition to overt violence by police, the African American community protested Newark Mayor Addonizio’s corruption as evidenced by his appointment of a White man without a college education to the city’s school board over Wilbur Parker the city’s African American budget director who was thought to be more qualified (Tuttle, 2009). The mayor also championed the construction of a dentistry school whose campus would be built on the site of already occupied public housing leading to the eviction of an estimated twenty-two thousand African Americans and resulting in raucous demonstrations at a meeting of the city planning commission. In July of 1967 the pressure was too great to be contained and Newark exploded in six days of violence ending in twenty-three deaths and fifteen hundred injuries (Margolis, 2002). Of the twenty-three deaths, twenty-one were killed by police. The uprising was seen by some as a riot and by others as a rebellion. In retrospect it turned out to be a battle for control of the city as many of the old guard politicians, including Mayor Addonizio, were indicted and later convicted of corruption and Newark elected it first African American mayor soon afterward.
The 1967 riots had a ripple effect on the surrounding area. Many of Newark’s residents left and resettled in Irvington. Some characterized the late 1960’s as a period of exodus from Newark (Margolis, 2002). Irvington’s demographics began to change from less than 1% African American in 1970 to nearly 40% only ten years later and over 70% in 1990 (New Jersey State Data Center, 2001). In the short-term, the influx of African American residents brought with it a smaller scale version of the same racially-linked unemployment issues and poverty that Newark was suffering from. The current median household income and per capita income are both around two-thirds of the national average and Irvington’s percentage of people living in poverty is nearly double (“U.S. Census Bureau…”, n.d.).
Poverty is linked to many negative individual outcomes and has broader implications for the community as a whole. Communities with high poverty rates tend to have higher crime rates, poorer schools, and less available resources (Gordon & Cui, 2016). Community poverty is linked with lower academic achievement and lesser educational attainment (Gordon & Cui, 2016). Additionally, research has found that Black adolescents report lower academic achievement levels even when poverty levels are the same (Gordon & Cui, 2016). In congruence with these findings, Irvington’s predominantly African American community not only faces issues with poverty, but also educational attainment in that the percentage of residents twenty-five years or older that have earned a bachelor’s degree is less than half the national average (“U.S. Census Bureau…”, n.d.). Higher levels of education are important for improving employment opportunities and wages not to mention opportunities for experience and social mobility (Zimmer, 2016).
Irvington’s economic struggles were exacerbated by the housing crisis and great depression of 2007-2009. The results are still evident in the form of abandoned houses and storefronts, empty lots, and high levels of foreclosures. After the housing market collapsed, federal and state governments modified foreclosure laws in an attempt to slow the rising number of foreclosures. The standard processing time for a bank to begin and complete a foreclosure was formerly nine months which inadvertently created a window of opportunity for homeowners to make up for missed or late payments and avoid losing their home. At the time of the housing crisis, that window became fifteen months, on average, due to policies designed to slow the process as well as an inordinate number of delinquent mortgages. New Jersey’s processing average was even greater at twenty-four months which was found to correlate with longer spells of unemployment and greater eventual foreclosure rates (Herkenhoff & Ohanian, 2018). Herkenhoff and Ohanian (2018) found that in New Jersey and Florida (the only other state whose foreclosure processing time increased to an average 24 months) unemployment rates remained high for a longer period of time and the delay did not decrease the likelihood that a foreclosure would be completed.
Members of the community are unsatisfied with Irvington Public Schools. Adrissa Ankrah, who has lived in Irvington for over twenty-five years, states that her older sister attended kindergarten through twelfth grade in Irvington and their mother decided that she would not go there based on that experience. She says that Irvington schools are known for violence, drugs, and poor academics. Ms. Ankrah’s niece is enrolled in an elementary school in Irvington and the family is currently exploring different options, in particular, to avoid her having to attend Irvington High School in the future (A. Ankrah, personal communication, December 5, 2018). These sentiments were echoed by other citizens who have looked for creative solutions to avoid having to send their children to school in Irvington. Angela Campbell, who is a Social Worker in Paterson, NJ at an alternative school for youth with special behavior needs, said she lived in East Orange before moving to Irvington three years ago and chose not to transfer her children to the public schools in their new town. She stated that everyone she spoke to when she moved told her to avoid Irvington schools, which is a source of concern for her right now. Ms. Campbell has gone to great lengths to evade the consequences of the East Orange School District finding out that they have moved because she fears they would force her children to transfer to Irvington (A. Campbell, personal communication, December 4, 2018).
These fears are not entirely perceptual for Ms. Campbell as they are supported by research. One study found that percentage of enrollment of White students in New Jersey has been falling for the last several decades. The 2015-16 school year was the first one in which White students were not more than 50% of the state’s student body (Orfield, Ee, & Coughlan, 2017). This is important for residents of Irvington, like Angela, because the academic achievement gap in America between White and Asian students on one end and Black and Hispanic students on the other end, remains prominent. (Orfield, Ee, & Coughlan, 2017). One potential solution to that challenge is improved integration, which in Irvington, does not seem likely to be achieved based on the current overall demographics of the town.
Irvington residents tend to rely on neighboring towns for a lot of services and amenities. The lifespan and eventual closing of the Irvington General Hospital is indicative of this aspect of life in Irvington. According to long-time resident Daphne Bishop-Brown, the hospital was owned by the town for many years and grew rapidly for its first fifty years (D. Bishop-Brown, personal communication, November 30, 2018). It was bought by a large hospital group in the 1990’s and declined steadily in admissions after that. The hospital was later converted into a Community Medical Center serving low income and poor families in the area. That model also became unsustainable and the hospital spent its last few years being used as a psychiatric institution before being closed. At that time, the building was barely salvageable and had to be torn down a few years ago. Residents are inclined to go to Newark for hospitals as well as other medical needs.
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Health services are not the only area in which Irvington is lacking. Several members of the community talked about the lack of healthy food options. Ms. Campbell said she drives two towns over to Millburn to shop for food at Trader Joe’s (A. Campbell, personal communication, December 4, 2018) and Ms. Ankrah drives to Vauxhall to shop at Whole Foods (A. Ankrah, personal communication, December 5, 2018). Billy Reid, who has lived in Irvington for ten years and owns an auto mechanic shop on Stuyvesant Ave. said, however, that he does not have to leave Irvington for very much. Mr. Reid is originally from Jamaica and lives in an area of town with many Jamaican Americans. He said that his neighborhood has all the Jamaican food that they need, and he rarely goes anywhere else (B. Reid, personal communication, December 1, 2018).
Mr. Reid has owned his business in Irvington for nearly thirty years, but only decided to live in town after his children graduated high school. Mr. Reid’s children are now adults and he admitted that he encouraged them to stay away from Irvington when they are ready to start their own families. Although he is optimistic about some of the change he has seen in Irvington, he is concerned primarily about the school system. He said he has heard stories about the high school from his neighbors and would not want to see his grandchildren have to navigate its dangers (B. Reid, personal communication, December 1, 2018).
One resource that Irvington has no shortage of is churches. In particular, Irvington has many Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist churches to serve the community. Ms. Ankrah remarked on the Christian Love Baptist Church, led formerly by the late Reverend Ronald Christian. She remembered there would be a line down the block to get into the church on Sundays because Reverend Christian’s sermons were so popular. Reverend Christian was a Corrections Officer before becoming a pastor and was able to serve as a conduit between police and the community. Ms. Ankrah stated that he would run programs for people to turn in guns and even had a hand in getting suspects to turn themselves in to the police. Since Reverend Christian’s death in 2015, the community has not had an inspirational leader like him (A. Ankrah, personal communication, December 5, 2018).
Daphne Bishop-Brown runs the reference desk at the Irvington Public Library and said she is very concerned about the children of Irvington. She shares the apprehensions about the schools that were expressed by the other residents, but she added that she views the library as the only remaining resource for afterschool activities that is still free. Ms. Daphne-Brown said she provides much more to Irvington than just help with research. She sees herself as a source of support for youth that come to the library as the only safe place they can go after school when their parents are working or are otherwise unavailable (D. Bishop-Brown, personal communication, November 30, 2018).
Irvington’s parks and playgrounds are in disrepair. Nets are missing from basketball hoops and there is graffiti spray-painted or written with permanent marker on playground equipment. One playground, visible from Springfield Avenue, is situated between two boarded-up houses. In addition to the seemingly arbitrary placement, the abandoned homes are or were in danger of falling down and have been supported by temporary external buttresses. The location is not only undesirable but also appears unsafe. Ms. Ankrah worries about the safety of the playgrounds and travels to nearby Maplewood with her nieces to utilize better parks (A. Ankrah, personal communication, December 5, 2018). One facility that stands out is the Chris Gatling Recreation Center, which was renovated in 2016 as part of an investment initiative led by Mayor Tony Vauss. The center offers programs for children, adults, and seniors. Ms. Bishop-Brown thinks that teenagers are the most underserved group in Irvington and the Gatling center fails to provide activities for this age group (D. Bishop-Brown, personal communication, November 30, 2018).
Impressions and Critical Analysis
It would be hard not to notice the racial homogeneity of Irvington, but it is not a monoculture, which results in an ethnically segregated community. There are neighborhoods that are primarily Jamaican American, Haitian American, and Hispanic American. In all the time I spent in Irvington I saw a very small number of White people and there does not seem to be an area of town that would be characterized as the “White neighborhood.” There does not, however, appear to be a power imbalance between the groups. It appears to be a community of people that are mostly facing the same or similar societal challenges. No particular group seems exempt from the failing schools, the crime rate, or the poverty. Residents seem to be hopeful that current Mayor Tony Vauss, who was elected to office in 2014, can make a difference in the community. They base this on anecdotal evidence in the form of construction projects and his relative accessibility as compared to the last mayor.
There is a sense that Irvington is a forgotten town. In the shadow of Newark as well as surrounded by more affluent neighboring suburbs, Irvington seems to be isolated. There does not seem to be anyone rushing to the town’s rescue to solve its inordinately high unemployment rate or its failing schools. There is the distinct possibility that demographics of the town is a contributing factor. African Americans hold a majority status within Irvington, however the unequal power between races in the country influences the accessibility to resources and support. There does not appear to be very much enthusiasm about Irvington outside of the local government officials. Most people seem to be trying to avoid living there and having to use Irvington’s services.
I live very close to Irvington, so I drive through frequently and my children go to school only a block from the Irvington border. Although I am racially different from most of the residents of Irvington, I feel quite comfortable there. The lines between Irvington and Newark are not always clear giving Irvington an urban feel which is a familiar environment for me. When I am in Irvington, some of the challenges that the town faces are easily observable. The streets are littered, the roads have potholes, and many of the homes are in poor condition. If the observable facts were the only thing I knew about the town, I could develop a negative opinion, but the people that I know from Irvington have a greater influence on my perception. I have a close friend who lives there with his family, two of my coworkers from my field placement live there, and I have had the opportunity to meet several new people through the course of this assignment. I also found myself comparing Irvington to Paterson where I work at my internship. They face similar challenges with poverty, crime, unemployment, and failing schools. Paterson is a more extreme example and comparatively Irvington appears to be in a more manageable condition. My knowledge of Paterson gives me a different perspective on Irvington.
If I were a social worker in Irvington, I would be advocating for our focus to be placed heavily on the schools. In order to improve Irvington, we have to create a sense of hope for the future. By investing resources in our children, we can create enthusiasm about the town and motivation to improve other areas of the town. A major component of the school improvement plan would have to be adequate afterschool activities for all ages that support the arts as well as academics. One study found that an extended school day had a substantial impact on low SES students (Raudenbush & Eschmann, 2015). The public library would be a logical location for these programs to begin but there would also likely need to be an expansion of the Gatling Center in both size and programming. Improvements to the school district also increase the likelihood that property values rise and when that happens private investment is often soon to follow. Also, when property values rise, retired residents who are homeowners have greater equity in their homes to be able to support themselves in their retirement. Irvington is not a lost cause by any means, but it will need considerable care over a long period of time to become a thriving community that reflects the beauty of the people who live there.
- Our History. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://irvington.net/township/history/
- Bergesen, A. (1982). Race Riots of 1967. Journal of Black Studies,12(3), 261-274. doi:10.1177/002193478201200302
- Gordon, M. S., & Cui, M. (2016). The Intersection of Race and Community Poverty and Its Effects on Adolescents’ Academic Achievement. Youth & Society,50(7), 947-965. doi:10.1177/0044118×16646590
- Herkenhoff, K.F., Ohanian, L.E. The impact of foreclosure delay on U.S. employment. Review of Economic Dynamics (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.red.2018.11.002
- Margolis, M.M. (2002). Newark, July 1967. Multicultural Review, 11(4), 30-31.
- New Jersey State Data Center. (2001). New Jersey Population Trends 1790 to 2000. Retrieved from https://www.state.nj.us/labor/lpa/census/2kpub/njsdcp3.pdf
- Orfield, G., Ee, J., & Coughlan, R. (2017). New Jersey’s segregated schools: Trends and paths forward. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED577712.pdf
- Raudenbush, S. W., & Eschmann, R. D. (2015). Does schooling increase or reduce social inequality? Annual Review of Sociology,41(1), 443-470. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-071913-043406
- Tuttle, B.R. (2009). How Newark became Newark: The rise, fall, and rebirth of an American city. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rivergate Books.
- U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: UNITED STATES. (n.d.). Available from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00
- Zimmer, T. (2016). The importance of education for the unemployed. Indiana Business Review, 91(1), 9-16.
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