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Chancellor Avenue


 

Through the fiction of Philip Roth, Weequahic's Chancellor Avenue is one of the most storied streets in all Newark. Beginning at beautiful Weequahic Park and leaving Newark just after I-78, Weequahic's Chancellor Avenue is short in length, but long on historical interest.

Chancellor Avenue has had several names in its long existence. During the American Revolution homemakers along what is now Chancellor Avenue gave out chicken pot pies to soldiers in the retreating Continental Army. This deed was remembered in the less-than-majestic name of the street, "Pot Pie Lane."

During this area's Clinton Township days, roughly 1834 to the turn of the Twentieth Century, "Pot Pie Lane" was called "Prospect Avenue." When Weequahic was joined to Newark, Newark already had several streets with "Prospect" in their titles, so "Pot Pie Lane" became the august "Chancellor Avenue," after Chancellor Oliver Spencer Halstead. Halstead had grown up in the area in the 1790s and went on to become Newark's fourth mayor in 1840. Though he was officially entitled "Chancellor" for only one year, for the rest of his life he used the style "Chancellor Halstead."

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This area was once called "Lyons Farms," a name that survives in the form of Lyons Avenue. The area was called Lyons farms for no reason other than a large number of families with the last name Lyons lived here.

Chancellor Avenue begins at an intersection with Elizabeth Avenue on Weequahic Park. On the south side of Chancellor Avenue is a house; on the north side of Chancellor is an addition for a Methodist Church. The north side is the more historical, as this is the former site of the Lyons School, the very same building that is now in the backyard sculpture garden of the Newark Museum.

The Lyons School was built of local brownstone in 1784, replacing an older wooden structure that had burned down. The little schoolhouse was used until 1902. It was the oldest school in Newark when it was moved to the Newark Museum in 1938.

Moving west away from Weequahic Park Chancellor Avenue is a shady residential street with many attractive, well-kept houses.

The Weequahic district of Newark was the last to be developed. Frank J. Bock principally developed the area in the first decade of the Twentieth century. It was Bock who applied the name of the then undeveloped Essex County park - Weequahic - to this district.

Bock had a vision of an upper middle class paradise. On side streets Bock installed center malls for plantings, flowers, and trees. Houses would be built in a variety of unique styles, with many amenities. Bock himself lived on Custer Avenue.

The house on the left was lived in by William M. Untermann, after whom Untermann Field at Weequahic High School was named. William Untermann was a Newark attorney active in the Democratic Party and Jewish causes. Untermann was a Freemason and president of the regional B'nai Brith organization. He died in 1944 at age 53.
Moving up the hill from the park one begins to see some very fine pre-World War II apartment buildings.
This house belonged to Dr. Michael J. and Lili Kaufman, a son-in-law and daughter of Sholom Aleichem. The Kaufmans were both Yiddish writers and Michael worked at Beth Israel Hospital.
The Normandie apartments opened in 1952 and were immediately fully rented. The fact that the developer of the Normandie Apartments also built apartments in Rego Park and Forest Hills, Queens gives you an idea of how nice Weequahic used to be at mid-century.

A sister of Aaron Copland, Mrs. Josephine Copland Bergman, lived in the Normandie Apartments until her death in 1967, a few weeks before the riots. Mrs. Bergman and her husband owned the Academy Auction Gallery here in Weequahic.

Weequahic's synagogues seem to have been more functional than architectually grand. Now the Good Neighbor Baptist Church, this structure used to be Kehilath Israel. Kehilath Israel was the union of four orthodox shuls in Newark, the oldest ancestor being the Briska D'Lito synagogue on Prince Street. Prior to moving to Chancellor Avenue in 1960, this synagogue was located at the intersection of Hawthorne Avenue and Osborne Terrace. When the cornerstone for this building was laid in 1960 there was no indication that Weequahic's Jewish days were numbered. But by 1969 Kehilath Israel was no longer holding services, and in 1971 the building was sold to the Good Neighbor Baptist Church. In 1979 Kehilath Israel completely dissolved itself and formally merged with Ahavas Achim B'nai Jacob & David in West Orange. The old plaques from Kehilath Israel and its ancestor synagogues are in Israel.

Another anecdote that indicates just how unexpected the transformation of Weequahic was to its 1950s residents is the saga of the Chancellor Avenue YM-YWHA.

The Chancellor Avenue Y was built as the replacement for the High Street Y, which closed in 1954. Its architect was Erwin Gerber. As related by Nat Bodian for oldnewark.com, the leaders of the Jewish Federation refused to spend more than $1 million on the Chancellor Avenue Y due to the conviction that Jewish Weequahic would ultimately be as ephemeral as the Third Ward, High Street, and every other Jewish urban neighborhood. What is tragic is that the leaders of the Federation believed that Weequahic would have enough Jews to support the Y for thirty years. Ultimately, the YMHA was sold to the Board of Education in 1968, thus, the Chancellor Avenue Y did not even make it to one-third of its projected lifespan.

What is interesting about this story is that in its first year the Chancellor Avenue Y was such an enormous success that it actually had a waiting list of people wanting to join. The Y's director said in the New York Times, "we have repeated evidence of familes who have indicated that they no longer have to flee from Newark."

This building is now a mosque, but it used to be a Jewish orphanage called the Hebrew Sheltering Home (there was another orphanage with the same name in the North Ward). After the population of Jewish orphans shrank to nil the home was turned into a home for the aged, and then a drug treatment shelter. The building was sold in 1983.
Finally, we come to one of the greatest academic institutions in Newark, Art Deco Weequahic High School, designed by Guilbert & Betelle. Weequahic High School was built in 1931 and was 95+ percent Jewish through the 1950s. In that time, Weequahic was one of the nation's best high schools. Of Weequahic in its golden days, Principal Benjamin Epstein said "We had kids who came to learn, and we had teachers who loved to teach and they knew their business . . . It was not only one of the finest schools in Newark, it had a sterling reputation among colleges and universities for producing superb students."

Epstein's comments are more than just rose-tinted nostalgia and the bragging that all principals make. "In the 1950's and 60's, the Commission of Secondary Schools of the Middle Atlantic States Association of Colleges and Schools repeatedly cited Weequahic High School as 'one of the most outstanding high schools in the country,' and in 1963 the school ranked first in New Jersey in the number of graduates who had earned Ph.D's in the previous five years." (New York Times, Sept 17, 2006)

In Portnoy's Complaint Philip Roth gives a sense of what Weequahic was like through two (legendary) Weequahic fight songs:

 

Give a yell, Give a yell,
A good, substantial yell
And when we yell, we yell like hell
And this is what we yell
Ikey, Mikey, Jake, and Sam,
We're the boys who eat no ham
We play football, baseball, soccer
We keep matzohs in our locker.
Aye, aye, aye, Weequahic High!

 

White bread, rye bread,
Pumpernickel, challah,
All for Weequahic,
Stand up and hollah!

 

Weequahic High School looks wonderful, but it is not necessarily safe. This bundle of flags and ribbons marks the spot where a police officer was killed in 2005.

Weequahic's academics are are not what they once were. Prior to the change in SAT scoring, WHS' average SAT score was 700. In 1995-1996, not a single student reached 1000.

Philip Roth Detour

Philip Roth's old house is on Summit Avenue, about one block from Weequahic High School.

Roth was born at Beth Israel hospital in 1933. His father made $125 per week working for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Roth seems to have had a charmed childhood in the heart of a flourishing, tight-knit ethnic neighborhood.

Despite their wonderful childhoods, neither Philip Roth nor his brother ever lived in Newark again after they went off to college in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Roth's brother went to college intending to be a graphic designer, Philip went to Bucknell to be a lawyer. Thus, Jewish Weequahic was doomed by the upward mobility of its children as much as it was by the construction of I-78, post-WWII anti-urban policies, and the Riots.

After Weequahic High School Chancellor Avenue slopes down a hill to a zone of small churches, small stores, and underused lots.
While I mentioned the upward mobility as a cause of Weequahic's decline, there was a reason that these upwardly mobile children did not find their futures in Newark. In Philip Roth's opinion the most significant cause of the decline was I-78, saying in an interview, "The neighborhood was destroyed by the highways as much as anything else."

Indeed, the construction of I-78 was highly destructive. Hundreds of houses and stores were demolished to make make for the eight-lanes of asphalt. After the land was cleared, it took three years to begin construction of the roadway. During the vacant time the zone of I-78 was a long route of weeds, rubble, and ratholes.

 

Newark ends not long after Chancellor Avenue ends at I-78. The last sight in Newark is the eccentric old Alderny dairy processing plant.
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Text and HTML by J. Bennett Photos by J. Bennett and D. Druce Special thanks to Shah Ali Permanent URL: www.newarkhistory.com/chancellorave.html

 

 

The source of the fact about Weequahic's SAT scores came from:

Carter, Barry. TRUE TO THEIR SCHOOL: Alumni strive to boost Weequahic's grade Star-Ledger, September 25, 1997.

The source of the info about Weequahic's old excellence came from:

Smothers, Ronald. Long-Ago Graduates of a Newark High School Help It Build Some Good New Days The New York TimesSeptember 17, 2006.

The Epstein quotation was from a 1969 New York Times article written in the wake of Portnoy's Complaint.