Fifty Years on, Downtown Newark Beckons Again
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Fifty Years on, Downtown Newark Beckons Again

Weequahic, Newark. Via newarkhistory.com/J. Bennett and D. Druce
Weequahic, Newark. Via newarkhistory.com/J. Bennett and D. Druce

Right around the corner from our Aldine Street house, we could catch the 14 Clinton Place bus to transport us from our leafy Weequahic neighborhood to the wonders of Downtown Newark. The ride was less than half an hour, but the journey was from calm to frantic. Downtown was a hub of activity, made for serious shopping and anchored by the major department stores, which seemed indestructible. Hard to believe that 50-plus years later, not a one of those fabled institutions has survived or even morphed into a mall mainstay. Not even “online” can you find any remnants.

But in those hallowed days of my youth, going Downtown was an exciting activity. It was there that we saw the world beyond the scope of our own mainly homogenous neighborhood. Downtown had no kosher butchers, and although it was rumored that there was a shul somewhere in the northern reaches of our city, near Downtown, I had never seen it nor heard of any of my friends attending or becoming bar mitzvah there. Weequahic was a peaceful, tranquil island; Downtown was the real world.

But we didn’t go downtown to experience life; we went to shop, and for that it was a mecca. The department stores could all be found around Broad Street, starting at Market Street and continuing north for about three blocks. All were on the west side of the street, and each had its own character and price range.

My mother’s favorite — undoubtedly because of the genuine bargains it offered — was S. Klein on the Square. It was famous in New York, where my mother had grown up, and she arrived in New Jersey as a young married woman already knowing that this was the place to shop. They were known for their $8 racks, where a determined shopper could spend hours pulling out dresses, usually one of a kind. I’m not known for my trendy wardrobe, but I still remember one of the $8 dresses I bought in the early 1960s. Quite fancy, it came with a matching gold lame stole, and I felt like a real fashion plate as I wore it, again and again (though the stole was quite annoying, keeping my hands from doing anything productive). But it was the price that even then was remarkable. Shopping at S. Klein was a competitive sport, its bargains bringing out the hungry customers’ hostility and aggression.

When I became engaged, we did not have to go to Brooklyn to see what Kleinfeld’s had to entice me. My mother and I walked into S. Klein and emerged with a wedding dress that cost, I think, $29. I was a beautiful bride — and even my father couldn’t complain about the price.

Each department store had a rank of its own. Klein was at the bottom, Hahne’s was securely on top, and in between were Ohrbach’s, Kresge’s and Bamberger’s.

If my mother or I failed at S. Klein, our next stop was Ohrbach’s, also a transplanted New York store. When I think about Ohrbach’s, I recall a very pareve store. I was never enthusiastic about its merchandise; it wasn’t fancy and it wasn’t particularly cheap. No surprise to me that Ohrbach’s failed to thrive and survive as Newark entered its post-riots years.

The most famous store was Bamberger’s, which was a Newark original, founded in 1892 by the great Jewish philanthropist Louis Bamberger and his two brothers-in-law, Felix Fuld and Louis Frank. If any department store was a sophisticated, independent — not a branch of a New York store — gilded, stylish emporium, it was Bam’s, a place where Newarkers could compete with their cousins across the Hudson and feel proud and elegant. Alas, it was ultimately renamed Macy’s, finalizing a relationship that had originated in 1929 but one in which each store maintained its individuality. Now, only the old-timers know that Macy’s in New Jersey was a part of our beloved Bam’s.

Bamberger’s was not a bargain hunter’s dream, but was known for quality and fair prices. And the store was nothing short of grand — impressive and filled with a panoply of goodies.

So, what about the others? Simply put, we never went to Kresge’s, which had a sort of non-Jewish sensibility; I never felt comfortable there, and it eludes me as to exactly why.

Hahne’s was pricey and refined. My mother was refined but not pricey. There was no way to get a $29 wedding dress in Hahne’s and, unlike many of my Weequahic classmates, I was rarely in the market for cashmere sweaters. Hahne’s has now become a fancy condo building, and I wish it much success. Newark needs good anchors.

I wish I could get on the No. 14 bus again. I was never one of those “born to shop” girls, but having a little money and permission to go Downtown and buy something was an exciting, safe and entertaining way to spend some time and enjoy the best that Newark had to offer. And after numerous decades in the suburbs, Newark remains my hometown.

Rosanne Skopp writes regularly for the New Jersey Jewish News.

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