NEWARK — The year was 1978 and Newark was burning.
It was an urban, inner-city plague that year. From Oakland to East St. Louis to Boston to New York, the pervasive smell was of ash and scorched timber.
In Newark, the fires were extra body blows to a cash-strapped, jobless city still staggering from the riots a decade before.
“It was Newark’s long nadir, a decade when no one was sure the city was salvageable,” remembered Rutgers University professor Clement Price. “When I think of that time, I remember the sound of fire sirens.”
Five Newark teenage boys disappeared on a muggy August night in 1978, but it would take investigators nearly 32 years to connect them with a fire that took out three buildings on Camden Street that night.
Last week’s arrest of two men charged with taking the boys to an abandoned house, restraining them and leaving them to burn to death raised horrific images and a lot of questions. Perhaps the most compelling is: How could five people die in a fire and nobody notice?
There is no easy answer, but those who lived and worked in Newark back then say it was a tragic combination of circumstances that make sense only to those who lived through them.
Eleven years after the riots, Newark was a city in chaos. People and business were still fleeing, abandoned buildings dotted the landscape, and the crime and arson rates spiraled upward as the city was laying off hundreds of police and firefighters.
“You have to remember, this was before gangs and crack and guns trashed Newark,” said educator and activist Ras Baraka, 40, who grew up just a few blocks from where the teenagers went missing. “Crime was probably worse then, but we didn’t know it. If somebody disappeared, the first assumption was it was by choice.”
In fact, police would not even start a missing persons investigation until three days after the boys failed to come home for the first times in their lives, their parents said.
By that time, firefighters, who were in charge of arson investigations, had walked away from the gutted wreck at 256 Camden St., assuming it was empty.
Ever since the riots in 1967, people had left Newark in droves, leaving behind old, mostly wooden buildings that were not worth the taxes owed on them. Some were torched for insurance, but according to a report by Carl Stoffers, chief of the arson squad to city council in 1978, profit was only the fourth most common cause. Vandalism was a more likely reason, particularly for the 833 empty structures set on fire. Then there was garden-variety pyromania. But the top cause of arson, Stoffers said, was spite — or vengeance against someone who crossed the wrong person…Read full story