I’m having this strangely melancholy feeling today.
Late this morning, the City of Newark will host a ceremony launching the demolition of the Seth Boyden Housing Projects.
Those of you who are close readers of my work will remember that Seth Boyden is mentioned in my very first novel, Faces of the Gone. I also spent a fair amount of time there as a young reporter with the Newark Star-Ledger, because—especially as a kid from upper-middle-class suburbia—I quickly realized there was no better place to understand the real Newark than by hanging around its oldest housing project.
In the novel, I describe Seth Boyden as “a festering den of urban despair,” a line I’ve come to regret—if only because my understanding of the place has grown more nuanced with age.
Don’t get me wrong, Seth Boyden’s concrete courtyards could be hard in a lot of ways when I first came across them in the early 2000s. “Death Boyden,” as it was sometimes called, was by then in its seventh decade of service, and it was showing more than just its age. A lot of drugs were done and sold there, in no small part because addicted suburbanites knew that was a place you could always go to get your fix. It was frequently targeted as a high-enforcement zone by the Newark Police, which tended to be a self-fulfilling prophesy: when the police go looking for crime, they’re usually pretty good at finding it.
Along with the crime came fear, which resulted in any number of inhumanities—large and small—that came along with living at Seth Boyden. One that has always stuck with me was that residents couldn’t get FedEx or UPS to bring a package to their door. Delivery people ventured no further than the front entrance.
For this and thousands of other reasons, I understand why the city felt the only way to fix Seth Boyden was to empty it out, knock it down, and start anew.
But it also shouldn’t be forgotten that Seth Boyden was a happy home to thousands of Newark families across many generations. For a lot of them, public housing was an important part of being able to reach for the American dream. Sure, some had their hand slapped away by the forces of poverty. But there were also many who used it as a launching pad to great success.
Beyond that, those garden-style apartments saw a lot of joy—babies being brought home from the hospital, holidays being celebrated, love being shared. When I look back, I think of the people I met there; people who led deeply fulfilling lives; people who raised children, worked, worshipped, and made valuable contributions to society.
More than anything, I soon learned the folly of judging them by their address. Closer examination proved that Seth Boyden contained a fascinating mix of folks. Some were saints of empathy, kind-hearted and endlessly giving. Some were mean-spirited miscreants who lived to exploit weakness in others. Some could sway back and forth, depending on the circumstances.
But when you got right down to it, that didn’t make it very different from the suburban neighborhood where I grew up.
I wish I had remembered that when I sloppily painted it over with that “urban despair” brush.
Perusing some of my old notes today, I found an interview with a woman named Tawana Johnson, who was once crowned Ms. Seth Boyden—because, yeah, they used to have beauty pageants there. And kickball games. And boxing matches. And Police Athletic League contests. And talent shows.
“We were poor,” Tawana told me. “But Seth Boyden’s poor were affluent in other ways.”
And, honestly, the time I spent there made me a richer person, too. Knocking down the bricks and mortar won’t take any of that away, or change the memories forged there.
But it does give me a moment’s pause. And I suspect that today I’m the only one feeling a bit wistful that such a meaningful place will soon be no more.