Jack Cashill is a documentary producer, media consultant, and author, most recently, of Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
Your book challenges the conventional “white flight” narrative. In brief, what were whites fleeing, if not black Americans moving into their neighborhoods?
I got the book’s title from a childhood friend, the last guy to leave our block. When I asked him why he left, he said, after a moment’s reflection, the neighborhood had become untenable. When I asked what “untenable” meant. He said, “When your widowed mother gets mugged for the second time, that’s untenable. When your home gets invaded for the second time, that’s untenable, too.”
Newark had become untenable for people of all races. Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother, writes “Our home no longer resembled the safe haven we had envisioned for our children. After the riots, John [Houston] and I started thinking about leaving Newark.” Three years later, they left.
Why the words “white” and “ethnic” in the title?
For various reasons, none of them good, only whites were shamed for leaving—thus the word “white” in the book’s title. As to “ethnic,” it does a disservice to everyone to lump all urban ethnic groups together as simply “white.” Each group had its own culture. Each responded differently to external pressure.
Is there any truth to the conventional narrative that racial unease drove the exodus?
I did not address the South, but in the Northeast and north-central U.S., attachment to neighborhood was a more powerful determinant than racial unease. The unease rarely caused flight until it became tangibly associated with crime and school disorder. Homicides in Newark increased sixfold from 1950 to 1972. That is a hard indicator to dispute or overlook.
Tell us a bit about your own family’s history and experience in Newark.
My family’s history is in many ways typical of ethnic families throughout mid-century America. We identify as Irish. My mother did not go to high school. My father went to Central High, a vocational-tech school—Junior Soprano’s alma mater. Like most dads of that generation, he did his stint in World War II. He then came home and joined the Newark police department.
In 1954, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he bought a $7,000 fixer-upper on an integrated working-class block. Among my friends, my family was the only one not renting. The neighborhood, in the words of several people I interviewed, was “idyllic.” Within 20 years, though, it was “untenable.” In 1982, I came back to Newark to work for the Newark Housing Authority. By then, Roseville, my neighborhood, was a corpse, and the city was on life support. Few people have had the kind of ringside seat to urban implosion that I did.
How did you go about collecting the stories in the book?
I chose to tell the story of Roseville in a way that readers would enjoy on its own literary merits. Neighborhood and school alumni groups on Facebook proved very helpful in reaching out to living witnesses, about 50 of whom shared their stories.
I was able to broaden the canvas through external research, including census data, government reports, news items, and other sources. Especially helpful were those books—several self-published—by people, black and white, who experienced Newark’s collapse up close. Famed catcher and spy Moe Berg was a Roseville guy who ends up getting mugged like everyone else. The “Radium Girls” came from my neighborhood, as did radical Amiri Baraka, father of current mayor Ras Baraka. I looked for compelling stories from elsewhere as well—Chicago, Gary, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among other cities.
What did you think of the depiction of the 1967 riots in David Chase’s Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark?
Glad you asked. As a major fan of the series, I was stunned by the clumsiness of the film. Chase grew up liberal deep in the Newark suburbs and rooted for the rioters. The George Floyd mania apparently revived his inner wokeness. In 1967, even Alabama police did not behave the way that he accused Newark cops of behaving. As the son, nephew, and cousin three times over of Newark police officers—one of whom gave me a two-day tour of the city for this book—I register a hearty protest.