Growing Potential – Newark, New Jersey, United States

Growing Potential
Newark, United States

When I told friends of my plan to take a day trip to
Newark, most of them had one question: “Why?” To be
honest, I could understand this reaction – most of what
I had heard about the city could be summed up by the
phrase “dirty and crime-ridden.” Nevertheless, I was
resolute to go, because I had also heard that the city
was reviving itself, and because locals had praised
two attractions there. One was the Newark Museum,
known for the largest collection of Tibetan artwork
anywhere outside Tibet. The other was the Portuguese
Ironbound district, said to be home to the best
Portuguese food anywhere in this country. These places
made me curious, and I figured that they added up to
one-day trip.

From my hometown near Washington, Newark was
an easy, if uneventful, three-hour trip by Amtrak. The
train is the best way to get there, since Newark’s
Union Station (like most big-city train stations) is
very close to everything downtown. The first thing I
saw after arriving was a downtown like that of other
cities of the same size. Downtown Newark is compact,
walkable, and dominated by skyscrapers and older
art-deco structures, with lots of diverse people going
about in that utter frenzy that people like me, who
love big cities, find so exhilarating. One sees
closed businesses, but also real signs of revival, the
most conspicuous of which is the fancy modern New
Jersey Performing Arts Center, which is a short walk
from the train station. I looked east from here and
saw the Manhattan skyline across the river, a quick
reminder of the city that overshadows Newark in so
many ways.

Newark’s city museum is one of the places most
affected by this lack of attention. It is certainly
much less visited than New York’s famous Metropolitan,
to which it is quite similar. Both are “museums of
everything,” surveys of a great variety of world
cultures. The Newark Museum need not be seen as a
poor substitute, however; it is perfectly capable of
standing on its own. The variety here is astonishing.
There are substantial collections of Native American
ceramics, African clothes, sculptures, antiques, and
modern paintings. The place even rates high on the
“something for everyone” scale, offering several
exhibits that might appeal to people not otherwise
interested in art museums – a coin collection, a
planetarium, a zoo with small animals, and a
Victorian-era house, complete with replicas of
artifacts from that era that visitors can handle. My
favorite of these was the stereopticon, an early
three-dimensional picture viewer that was a sort of
precursor to the View-Masters of more recent times.
The stars of the zoo are two cotton-top tamarins,
endangered monkeys from Panama with brilliant white
pompadours, who delight in jumping to the front of
their enclosure to startle human onlookers.

As advertised, the big hit show of the whole
museum is the Tibetan collection, and the core of that
show is the Tibetan Buddhist altar. An incredible
extravaganza of painting and design (it took a lot of
effort just to assemble the proper honorifics to go
with it), the shrine was actually built by the
curators and a hired artist in the 1980’s, and then
dedicated by the Dalai Lama himself in 1990. Luckily,
the museum has a cushioned bench directly across the
hall from the altar, allowing a viewer to sit down and
take the time to study all the fine details.

After several hours in the museum, I made my
way back through downtown to the Ironbound district,
which sprawls to the south of Union Station. A few
minutes of strolling down Ferry Street, the
neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, and I quickly forgot
I was in the United States! The Ironbound is one of
those precious few places in the country where one can
walk for blocks and not hear a word of English.
Legions of folks were going in and out of fish
markets, bakeries, and gift shops littered with
Portuguese merchandise. The largest selection seemed
to be several blocks up Ferry Street at Portugalia
Sales. While teenage employees in aprons flirted and
joked in Portuguese, I examined all manner of plaques,
shot glasses, vases, miniature ships (complete with
rigging), and tiny die-cast black roosters, the symbol
of Lisbon. To be sure, there was a lot of junk, but
there were also treasures lying in wait for a patient
eye. I liked many of the beautiful creches, but there
was no way I was going to get any of them home on the
train. I settled on something more modest – a potholder printed with a black-rooster logo and a blue
stripe pattern.

My souvenir in hand, I decided to try some
Portuguese cuisine. I soon discovered that being a
vegetarian was going to make that a challenge.
I walked between several of the Spanish colonial
brick buildings that housed some of the neighborhood’s
famous restaurants, but found nothing to satisfy my
requirement. By this time, I was tired, and I wanted
to sit down somewhere and have a soda. I settled on a
place on Ferry Street called the Roque and Robalo.
The dapper and very dour waiter brought me my soda, as
well as a basket of delicious sourdough bread and a
large glass salad bowl. This was plenty to eat, and
when he came back, I explained to the waiter that I
was a vegetarian, that I just wanted to relax in the
restaurant and have a drink, and that I was willing to
pay a few dollars for the food he had brought. A
short time later, he came back with a totally
unsolicited plate covered with a huge pile of cabbage,
potatoes, carrots, and broccoli. There was no way I
could eat even half of it, but the generosity of it
stunned me. A lot of places will make you a tepid
vegetable plate on request, but few go to the trouble
of making you a good one. The potatoes were especially
good – they were boiled to a near-perfect texture.
Even without the plate, the bread would have been
worth the visit all by itself. When he noticed how
much I liked it, the waiter brought me another whole
loaf to take home.

What were my impressions as I rode home on the
train? Even after visiting Newark, I do not expect it
to give Orlando and New York serious competition as a
tourist town. That said, the resilient little city,
like most others its size, does have its share of
things that make it worth visiting. Newark is an
underrated place that rewards a traveler willing to
take a chance.

More Information
Tony Porco lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb with his wife and son. His writings have appeared in Connecting: Solo Travel News and the newsletter of the National Aquarium in Washington. His poetry can be read in several literary magazines.