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"Heaven" Comes to a Corner of Newark's Old Third Ward

By Nat Bodian

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riviera01.jpg (33548 bytes)

        The Riviera Hotel at 167 Clinton Avenue, in my growing-up years from the 1920s to the 1940s, was a crown jewel in Newark's old Third Ward.

        It was located at the southeast boundary of the old Third Ward astride the corner of Clinton Avenue and what was then High Street (now King Blvd.).

        Although I never entered the Riviera, it was part of my Third Ward neighborhood.  It was my understanding that it was mostly a residential hotel, occupied by Newark businessmen, judges, professionals, politicos, and the like.

        The Riviera was also the longtime residence, during the Prohibition era, of New Jersey's leading crime boss, Abner (Longy) Zwillman.

        The Riviera Hotel location, in those years, was on a fashionable residential street, within easy walking distance of Newark City Hall and Downtown Newark, and close to the handsome 19th century brownstones, occupied by some of Newark's prominent families, who lived in the nearby vicinity of Lincoln Park.


Father Divine's Movement

        In this same era, there was a growing presence in Newark, and mainly in the old Third Ward, of branches of the Peace Mission Movement, founded around 1920 in Brooklyn by Father Divine, an African-American born George Baker on a rice plantation in Georgia in 1880.

        His followers proclaimed him God in the flesh.  He attracted thousands of disciples in various Eastern cities, and amassed millions of dollars from their contributions which was heavily invested in real estate.

        His followers were eagerly sought after by employers as they were devout, dependable, and scrupulously honest.

        Among Father Divine's purchases were hotels in a number of cities.  He called these hotels "Heavens."

        On October 20, 1949, the Rivera Hotel became Father Divine's Newark Heaven.

        It was purchased for $550,000 in cash, brought to the closing by his aides in satchels.  The Riviera was brought from the Carter Hotel Operating Company of New York, although in the 1930s, it had been owned by the Prudential Insurance Company, which had its headquarters on Broad Street near the Four Corners of Downtown Newark.

        The newspaper report of the transaction said the hotel was built in 1922, although I recall seeing a photograph of the hotel that bore a 1920 date.

        Although Father Divine died in 1965, it is my understanding that his movement, now called the International Peace Mission Movement, still functions, and his followers still operate the hotel on Clinton Avenue in Newark as the Divine Riviera.

        It is hoped that readers of this entry who are more knowledgeable can contribute to this memory, correct these recollections, or bring them up to date.

        For me, it is sufficient to recall that in the old Third Ward neighborhood of my childhood and youth, among the ramshackle coldwater flats and tenements, there was once a "Heaven."


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