Skateboards clatter and beat against the smooth ledges that border Washington Park in Newark. The frigid January breeze can’t stop the hours these skaters put into perfecting their tricks. Their tattered shoes and bruised heels show the pure dedication that’s alive in, every Newark skateboarder. Meanwhile across the street, Rutgers business students quickly rush to their classes to study for their upcoming exams. As the day winds down, skaters, college students and artists seek refuge in the Downtown Newark Arts District.
Halsey Street is at the center of the Arts District. Art filled coffee shops, bars and restaurants line the street. At any time of the day you could find students mingling with Newark skaters, artists and musicians. The skateboarding, street art and music subcultures truly bring a whole new creative sense to Newark. Business owners, like 47-year-old John Murray are no strangers to the wealth of Halsey Street. Murray used to run the Coffee Cave, a successful coffee shop that was at the forefront of Halsey. In recent months, he decided to pursue his passion of live music and is now in charge of Newark’s newest subculture incubator, The CAGE.
“These individuals tend to think outside the box and continue to create,” said John Murray. “They are different minds that are looking for an alternative to the cultural stimuli that they have been brought up in. Subcultures are planting a new seed in Newark. The branches may not connect to everybody, but can influence anybody that finds shade under them.”
A few paces away from Murray’s old spot, is Kilkenny Ale House, a textbook Irish pub. The warm embrace of good laughs and great beer fills the room. On an off day you’ll be sure to find skateboarders like 35-year-old Jay Wilson sharing a drink with his homies to recharge his body for another skate session.
Wilson, a multicultural Newark native has found his path in art and skateboarding. As a pioneer in Newark Street skating, he was the first to wax the Washington street ledges, making it skate-able. His talents and passions for art and skateboarding led him to create a skateboard company called Score Brx. At Score Brx, he provides all the artwork for the skateboard graphics and acts as team manager, while creating a place to build up the local youth skateboarding talent.
“Score Brx is a lifestyle brand based on the love of art and skateboards,” said Wilson. “It’s a community that boosts up these little kids and gives them an outlet. Skateboarding is in pockets. These little kids bounce out of the hood and come to the ledges to skate.” Wilson strongly identifies with his community and fully supports Newark. However, the Newark Wilson and other Newark skaters grew up in is quite different than Halsey Street.
The art spaces and music venues are swapped out for liquor stores and corner stores. The bohemian college student sipping on a craft beer at Kilkenny Ale House is transformed into a sullen working class man headed to the liquor store. A withering fighter searching for a can of Steel Reserve to get the taste of neglect and lost hope out of his mouth.
“The hood mentality is, I ain’t supposed to be shit. It’s the greatest downfall. If I can make it, you can make it,” said Wilson. “Newark is my fucking city. It’s a rare breed, you can’t walk in our shoes. Outside people come here to get some legitimacy, capitalizing off people who are in a struggle. They are social vampires sucking the city dry. You’ve got people like Cory Booker who really just care about getting a seat as governor than actually helping Newark.”
For the past 40-50 years, Newark hasn’t been a place that many out of town people have frequented for entertainment. Most have stayed out of Newark out of fear. However, these arts subcultures have been bringing a renewed emphasis on Newark.
“Historically Halsey Street was known for jazz clubs. After the riots the whole city was shutdown, said Murray. “The present day artists that have come in are pioneers. They have gone into neighborhoods where they can create relatively safely.”
Some out of town art gallery and mural curators have taken an interest in Newark. They see endless possibilities that art can bring the city. Some even believe art could be a key factor in changing how outsiders view the city. Curators such as Jonathan LeVine have been notorious for bringing counterculture forms of art such as graffiti and punk concert flyers to art galleries. His main goal with Newark is to create a set of murals.
“Newark is an interesting place with great architecture even though the city is half vacant,” said LeVine. “I’ve been trying to develop a mural project that could stimulate tourism in Downtown Newark. Newark is easy for public transportation and great for restaurants.”
Authentic streets artist like Wilson have felt a sense of disrespect for being an artist. People question his motives and if they’re even worth it. But Wilson knows what he’s doing and let’s people believe what they want.
“When you’re an artist nobody knows how you make money,” said Wilson. “There was this one time I was on the train and this Spanish girl saw me drawing and asked me why am I an artist and if I even make money. I told her straight up, I do it cuz I want to.”
Wilson does see positives in street artists participating in being a part of art galleries or painting commissioned murals.
“I worked on the Broadway mural, it’s based on a Maya Angelou poem. It was part of the city mural program,” said Wilson. It helps all the mother fuckers to get off their ass, take themselves seriously and believe in their art. It’s as authentic as it’s gonna get.”
John Murray agrees with the positivity in having venue spaces to showcase the arts. He believes that artists could excel with having venue spaces.
“They weren’t really taken seriously, now we need the galleries to authenticate all these works,” said Murray. “We have to work with the system. Some graffiti artists have been considered criminals but now the platform has been legitimized.”
There’s been a clear shift in how Newark’s community reacted to the arts. Arts such as skateboarding have been packaged by big companies. For instance, the Prudential Center has been holding the Street League skateboard competition finals that bring the world’s top professional skateboarders to Newark. For Wilson he remembers clearly what being a skateboarder was like in the early nineties.
“The stigma of being a skater is changing. People used to laugh at me, tellin’ me this ain’t Cali, the fuck’s wrong with you,” said Wilson. I was skating before it was cute. I remember when Payless used to sell fake Airwalk skate shoes, now they sell the real ones.”
Jonathan LeVine and other curators share the ideas of being casted away by bringing murals into a community. These curators are unsure if the whole Newark community will be open to outsiders coming into their hometown and getting spaces to display art.
“It’s all about creative place making, creating a place for people to go to,” said LeVine. “Newark has had a really bad rep because of crime. If you have artists paint, people will come to see the rest of the city. Opponents to these murals will say it’s gentrification. It’s not about gentrification; it’s about creative place making. I have no control of who will come but the hope is that they will be multicultural people who will embrace the city and integrate with the people and culture within it.”
The art that Newark breeds is unlike any other. It has its own substance and stands for something much greater. Newark is about community and that’s what sets it apart. A great sense of community and pride is a dominant force in Jay Wilson’s life. It is reflective in his skateboard company, his art and the way he carries himself through everyday life.
“You should want the best for everyone. Don’t disrespect what others represent and stand for. It’s all about integrity,” said Wilson. “Why would you wish somebody not to do well? I don’t want to be labeled and I don’t have a right to tell people what to do.”
John Murray also has a strong sense of community reflective in his new music venue. It’s all about Newark and the idea of being open to anyone and everyone. When a community falls down it reflects on every citizen of the community. When a community rises it reflects on every citizen of the community.
“We’re inclusive to all forms of expression whether it’s visual art, spoken word, music, or skateboarding,” said Murray. “We don’t try to define what art is. We are open to give people a chance to express themselves.”