Newark in the 1970s was synonymous with urban despair. During the “Long Hot Summer of 1967,” Newark became the site of one of the race riots sweeping across some 159 American cities. The four-day uprising, sparked by police brutality against Black cab driver John William Smith, resulted in 26 dead, 15,000 wounded, 1,600 arrested, and $10 million in property damages.
Soon thereafter, the Nixon White House instituted a policy of “benign neglect,” denying basic government services to Black and Latinx communities as a means to further systemically oppress the poverty-stricken underclass. By the mid-1970s, Newark had fallen on hard times. The January 1975 issue of Harper’s Magazine ranked the 50 largest American cities in 24 categories, from parking space to crime. The article concluded, “The city of Newark stands without serious challenge as the worst city of all… Newark is a city that desperately needs help.”
Despite it all, Newark maintained a style and identity all its own, perfectly exemplified by Arts High School, a public school dedicated to nurturing the talents of inner city youth. Established in 1931, Arts High School was the first visual and performing arts high school in the United States, and counts Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan, Pose’s MJ Rodriguez, jazz icons Sarah Vaughan and Wayne Shorter, and Broadway stars Melba Moore and Savion Glover among its alumni.
At the outset of her career, Constance Hansen, now one half of the husband and wife photography team Guzman, arrived at Arts High School after graduating from Pratt Institute with an art education degree in art therapy in 1971. “Newark was still fresh from the riots. It was pretty rough. Everything was falling apart. The city was underfunded, as was the school. There was a recession, money was tight, but I never thought about any of that,” Hansen says.
“I was teaching photography and printmaking to juniors and seniors. The school had a great darkroom, and we just took the cameras and went for walks around town in the morning. I was chasing light because it can sing for you. You’re always hunting, looking, and responding to the environment.”
Art is My Hustle
When Hansen wasn’t calling AGFA to beg for expired photo paper for the class, she was booking professional artists to give classroom talks. One year, she brought in Emilio Sousa from SITE Projects, an architecture and environmental arts studio that had just opened in New York. “SITE was a darling of the 70s art world. They were wild. They would bury cars in a parking lot! The firm called their design method ‘de-architecture.’ ” Hansen says of the company known for its philosophy of “environmental thinking,” which fused visual art, building design, urban planning, and landscape architecture.
Hansen struck on the idea of a collaboration with SITE: a small photo book produced by the Architects in Schools program, which as supported by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. “My students were asked to document their environment: to view Newark with their needs for shelter esthetics and ecology,” Hansen says.
“The goal was to record the visual fact of Newark in their photographs. The architect helped sensitize the students to their surroundings and the various systems that shaped their environment to illustrate the parts that make up the whole. We looked at transportation networks, housing, parks, manufacturing areas, public institutions, and the people that inhabited these spaces. My photos of Newark were taken during our daily walkabout.”
Scenes From the Walkabout
Almost every day, Hansen and her students would walk the streets of downtown Newark. Although the architect wanted to focus on the buildings and the structure of the city, the project reflected the concerns of the students themselves. “I remember there was a picture of two young people in the car kissing, and one of a little boy leaning on a porch,” Hansen says. “It was about young teenagers’ view of their world and what was happening. It was honest, straight up documentary photography through their eyes.”
After the book was completed, Hansen continued to bring her students to the streets. At the same time, Hansen was making her own photographs, which she had put away for years, only to rediscover them in recent years. “It didn’t occur to me I was documenting an era; I didn’t know it was an era. I was so in it. It was life. When I rediscovered these photographs I was struck by just how much things had changed. Time adds content to the work. You pick things out, then history gets added to it, so it becomes something else when you look at it years later,” Hansen says.
“I see the kids, the clothing, the things that were going on, the people who have died, the transformation of society, the things that disappeared, and the arrival for big corporations. Burger King and Newport were moving into Newark at that moment. There were cigarette girls giving out free cigarettes. That was deliberate. I was a smoker, no filters, and I told the kids, Don’t take those cigarettes. Because they were addicting a population: here, taste it. We weren’t thinking of the maneuvers of corporate America. We were oblivious to it. We were just kids.”
Hansen too was just passing through, her destiny to be fulfilled somewhere else. But in that moment, she captured side of Newark rarely seen in the mainstream press. “Everything about Newark was beautiful,” she says. “There’s a lot going on: art, poetry, music. Some of our best artists came out of Newark because it has maintained its integrity; no one has run over to gentrify it. With my students, I wanted them to have eyes open, observe their surroundings and interact with them. There was no grand design about anything. It was feeling the moment in your life.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
More information on the Guzman couple here.