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Last of "The Projects"
Comes Tumbling Down

By L. Craig Schoonmaker, Newarker

I was lucky enuf to see the explosive demolition (often wrongly called "implosion") of the last high-rise public-housing project in Newark, and have some still pictures and a little movie of that event, which I offer here.

Before the Demolition

My late mother (left) came up from Monmouth County with my sister Sue Ann (right)
to witness the festive demolition of the last four buildings of the Stella Wright Homes
(background) on a bright spring day.

[My mother and sister before the demolition]Stella Wright Homes was a public-housing project built in 1959 on the model then popular, high-rise blocks of apartments that concentrated the poor in high-density ghettoes separated from the world of work and success, and from the values that people need if they are to break from the culture of poverty. The project contained seven 13-story buildings. Starting with the best of motives, government agencies such as the Newark Housing Authority inadvertently, but in hindsight inevitably, produced debilitating dependency on the part of their charges.

As one Dutch-language webpage (yes, Stella Wright was internationally infamous) observes, in the Stella Wright context, of a government that does too much for people: (machine translation by "The social isolation is complete. For complete districts the border between involvement, care, protection, ... control and enslavement blurs." People are robbed of initiative and responsibility for their own lives, so fall deeper into dependency. And all the negative values of the ghetto find, in diminished egos, fertile ground for self-destructive behaviors, from alcoholism to drug addiction to crime of the most chilling sorts.

So Stella Wright Homes had to be destroyed, and the people victimized by the project scattered and made more self-reliant in low-density housing interspersed with housing occupied by successful working people.

After the Demolition

[Mother and sister after the demolition]

All gone. Byebye!

The webpage "Let’s Demolish HUD" contains this description of the explosions that brought down the first phase of the Stella Wright demolition. We saw the last phase.

The vacant shells of the thirteen-story buildings had been laced with 500 pounds of gelatin-based dynamite called Excel, stuffed into 2,100 holes. ... Promptly at nine o’clock it began: the deep rapid-fire cannonade of twenty-one hundred dynamite explosions. A dust plume formed along the base of the buildings, and then they contorted and collapsed. [Look for the same kind of plume, which looks like smoke, rising from the left side in the movie, below.]

... The 1,206-unit Stella Wright Homes opened in December 1959 and, long before its closure in August 2001, became a national symbol for what’s wrong with public housing. ... Newark Mayor Sharpe James called the last of the city’s high-rise complexes "a failed American dream of trying to put 13 stories of poor people on top of each other."

Stella Wright had become a cancer in the body of Newark that had to be excised by drastic measures. Explosive demolition is the method the City of Newark chose to rid itself of its high-rise "projects". It's fast, thorough, and adds a bit of dramatic emphasis to the city's drive to revamp. There's no mistaking the will to reform, and the event brings in tourists!

There were "37 high-rise building blasts in the city over the past twelve years" before the December 11, 1999 Phase 2 demolition of the Stella Wright project, according to a webpage on the site. Interestingly, it seems from that page, two of the firms that demolished a project named for a woman are headed by women.

"Photos of Stella Wright - Phase 2" on the website shows still photos  of different stages of that demolition, and then combines them into an animation.

I took an actual little movie, perhaps 15 seconds long, that you can view. The first several seconds show the nervous anticipation as the crowd gets ready for the event. Then the buildings crumble. I should have held the shutter down for at least one more second — you don't get a second chance with an explosive demolition — but this is pretty exciting stuff for those of us who were there. A word of caution: this is a Quick Time movie file over 4 megabytes in size. On a 56K connection, it will take several minutes to read into your machine's memory, tho it should appear, ready to play, much faster on a DSL, cable modem, or T1 connection. Once it appears onscreen, you can replay it as often as you like. I've seen it a whole bunch of times.  Even better, you can hold down the backspace button and watch the buildings rise up again! Then replay the fall. It's sort of funny:  tumble down, rise back up, tumble, rise, as many times as you want. Enjoy.

Alas, there's no sound to this filmlet, because I was working with an Olympus digital camera used mainly for stills. My sister Sue Ann, seen above, attended the first phase demolition of this complex, and reported that it was even more dramatic than this one, in that people were able to stand on the grass and the concussions moved the ground, so you could hear the boom-boom-boom-boom-boom and feel it almost immediately afterward underfoot. We had to stand on the pavement, so missed that experience. But it was still pretty durned exciting. (Click here to see the filmlet.) If this does not work from within AOL, try using Microsoft Internet Explorer instead and paste this URL into the browser window: STELLA.MOV. It might also work in Netscape, but I don't know for sure.

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