Monday, March 14, 2011

A conversation with Robert Bowser, Mayor of East Orange NJ.

Transcript of Phone Interview with Robert Bowser, Mayor of East Orange NJ. April 27th, 2009 Regarding Edward T. Bowser Jr. Alix Bryant, interviewer. 

Edward T. Bowser Jr. & Carmen Bowser

Robert Bowser – Um, he was, he was my oldest brother, there were four boys. And I guess the opinion is, just generally that he was too smart. Because he was an A student all through his public high school years and everything. If he got anything less than an A it might have been in Physical education or something. But when he graduated from East Orange High school he began his college studies at Howard university in Washington, Washington DC. I think he left at the end of his freshman year and he went to Rennselear polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy New York. Okay he graduated with a bachelors in Architecture and civil engineering at the same time. From that school. Then my time schedule is a little bit off. But he went into the navy, and I believe he was commissioned in the Navy. But while he was in the navy, he got another bachelorʼs degree in Marine engineering from Purdue. And as a result of coming out of that he did a fellowship with Le Corbusier in France. 

Alix Bryant – Like a internship now? 

Robert Bowser – Yeah I think they call it an internship now, back then they called it a fellowship. 
And he worked with him for about two or three years, over there, in France. And while he was there his first child was born there, in France. And he completed his internship, he stayed on in Europe, this was after WW2 to help design the reconstruction in many of the towns over there. 

Alix Bryant – So how long was he over in Europe for, then? 

Robert Bowser – I think it was maybe two years, three years. In total maybe five years. But he came back to the states, he came back to East Orange. And um, he worked for an architect, a local architect for two or three years, and he applied to take the architectural exam for New jersey. This was in somewhere around 1949-50. And for some reason they did not allow him to take the exam in New Jersey. There was only one licensed African American architect in the state of New Jersey back then. An architect from Elizabeth, and he was licensed back in 1936. The irony was, my father was an architectural draftsman student and had worked with that architect on many of the little projects that they worked on. I think his name was Frank Reed. Iʼm not saying that they didnʼt allow him to take the test because he was African American, but Iʼm not sure what it was because he certainly had the experience. So what my brother did was he took the national architectural exam, and he was Number 1 that year in the country on the exam. So the state of New Jersey had to give him a license. And He started his own architectural practice right here in East Orange. He designed his own house here in the city, which at that time, back in the early 50ʼs, you know, was a very modern home. I mean, typical Corbusier home, the rectangle and boxes and all that. And it was on display, and he built most of it himself. And he really did not want to design residences, he wanted to do a little bit more. So really home design and residential design was probably the least amount of work that he did. He did you know several apartment buildings, office buildings, but every once in a while he would design a home. And I think thatʼs, Iʼm not sure how old the home is that you are looking at. 

Alix Bryant – Itʼs from 1956. 

Robert Bowser – 56 okay. Usually the residences were designed during a slow period. A funny story was: every Saturday he would have breakfast with my mother, because their houses were right next door to each other, here in the city. And my mother kept encouraging him to enter a competition back then for the design of the headquarters for Ronson Widerer company. And he said “aw well, you know, I canʼt win the contest”. And my mother took the information out of the paper, and she said, “Well go down. You know if you donʼt try, you know, youʼll never know”. So he went down and got the information and he made a design, made a sketch and some renderings for the headquarters which was down in Woodbridge, along route 1 and the garden state parkway. And he took the design down to Ronson headquarters, or office, that was in Newark. And he took the drawings with him. He was sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the owner to come review what he had. And a gentleman about his age walked through the office and he saw him and stopped and said. “I know you from some where”. And my brother didnʼt know or recognize him, so he said “what are you here for?” He says “Iʼm here for the architectural contest for your headquarter building down in Woodbridge.” And he said “thatʼs where I know you from”. He had graduated from RPI, and this was the son of the owner of Ronson. And um pardon my language, but he said “youʼre that smart son of a bitch that got a degree in architecture and civil engineering at the same time.” And he says “let me see what you got” and he looked at it and said “come on and show my father” it was the son, I think the name was Aronson, thatʼs where they got the name Ronson. And he went in and looked at it, and the father loved it. And he won the contest to design the headquarters for Ronson fuel lighter. Um, and that was probably his first large corporate job that he did, and they had another plant or so up in Pennsylvania, and so he became a consultant for them for a number of years. But he did a lot of designs in and around this area of Essex County. He designed the first building that, it was a medical building, doctorʼs offices, that used precast T panels, and he turned them up and they became the exterior wall of the building. That was the first time that pre-cast panels were used and attached to a steel structure as the external wall. And that was here in the city of East Orange. And in addition he was the first in this area that used pre-cast T panels, concrete panels, for floor systems in a department building, and that was also here in East Orange. So he was pretty creative in what he did. 

Alix Bryant – It sounds that way. Are any of these other buildings still around? 

Robert Bowser – The doctorʼs building is gone. Um but there is a department building where he used the pre-cast panels on the floor that is still up here in East Orange on Park Avenue. 

Alix Bryant – Okay 

Robert Bowser – And he did several small, like garden apartments, in this area, another office building. There was another home that he did, I forget the ladyʼs name here, but itʼs in Nutley. I would, I would think that itʼs probably sort of... When you saw these homes you would know that they were my brotherʼs homes. He did one in South Orange, which is still there, although they messed it up. Because he believed in, you know, the use of natural materials too, but I think they covered this one up in some stuff so that it doesnʼt look like what he designed. They had to carve out part of the mountain, sort of put up a terrace and plateau to build this home. Builder, built it, and I always liked that one. I would imagine that it is sort of similar to the one that you are writing about. And he did another one in Montclair. Um, I only remember a few of them because I, I used to the surveying, used to lay out the buildings for him when he got ready to build them. 

Alix Bryant – Oh Okay, 

Robert Bowser – And then, um. oh he did, he did work when um in East Orange there was back in those days there were a lot of what they call Urban renewal areas um and they would go in an really level properties. And here in East Orange he was the one that read the old urban renewal laws and found that if families were displaced, and a group of the people got together they could, they could put 10% of the estimated costs of the project they would have first rights to redevelop the property. And they did that here in East Orange. It was the first, um, housing development built by African Americans and owned by African Americans. Um, and he named the village, named the development Kasuri Kajiji (?) which means happy village in Swahili. And there is a long story that goes with that, but I wonʼt get into that. Now all the workers were pretty much going to build an office building and hotel and had sort of been hand picked to develop this area. And my brother and several other students from what was then Upsula College, the black student union, they went in and protested at the meeting. uh, that this group had, had first rights to develop the property. And um, they were able, I mean, it was four or five of them that got together, and they came up with the money for this project. And um, part of the funding was going to come through a state agency for the housing mortgage finance company. But they would not approve the project, they kept saying that it was going to cost too much per unit or too much per square foot. And it turns out that my brother had to say that the director really was digging in and did not want to approve this project, because you know, discrimination. And then as soon as that got into the paper, two days later he approved the project, which is still standing. However, it does not look like what he originally had intended it to be, as they had change it two or three times to bring down the cost, but there is a whole long story connected with that too. But this was the first housing development owned and managed by African American people here in the state. 

Alix Bryant – Okay. 

Robert Bowser – And then I think one of his old classmates, was connected to the New York Presbytery, invited him to go to Africa. And so he went on the trip, and he went to Ghana. And when he got to Ghana, the chief of the village there really liked my brother, and they took him around. They had this old coco plantation. And there were several buildings that had been abandoned because they shut down the coco plantation. And um he said to him, “Why donʼt you come over here and start a school?” He said “If you come I will give you all these buildings, and you could probably make them dormitories or classrooms, and think about it”. So my brother came back and a couple years later he went back again and spoke to the chief again and he decided to go to Ghana. 

Alix Bryant – Okay 

Robert Bowser – And he went over there and set up a school, sort of like a vocational school, but he took several people form the United States. He took like carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers, and his wife would teach sewing and computer work. And this is the early stages of computers. This is back at least, and Iʼm guessing at this, but probably 1975 or something like that. He had shut down his business, for 4 or 5 years he was the construction official for the city of East Orange. And he had done some work for the State. He did a lot of the reconstruction and additions up at the Clinton reformatory in Clinton, New Jersey. Which is probably about 60 –70 miles from East Orange. Because he had to go up there for uh, you know meetings, and construction meetings, or inspections, it would kill the whole day. So he took flying lessons. Even then he was into his probably 50s then, so he took flying lessons then um got his pilots license. When he went over to Ghana, it was a small village up in the mountains about 20 miles outside of the capital, which is Accra. And the village is Mong Pong Aqua Ten. There are a lot of Mong Pongʼs, but this is Aqua Ten. And they took the buildings and fixed them up. And I think the first year he had about 20-30 students. And they remodeled one of the buildings and made it into dormitories and classrooms. And the second or third year he ended up with 60 or so students, and they fixed up the other two buildings. And um, everything over there grows really in the wild. And he was able to make it so that they were able to really sustain themselves, growing the food that they needed. He wrote back to Rutgers and asked them, you know, how could he, or give him information on how to set up a solar hatchery. And he designed the first solar hatchery probably in the world over in Ghana. So they raised their own chickens, they also set up and had their own fish hatchery. So they were able to supply their own food sources and everything. I think that the young people that went there paid probably 50 or 100 dollars a year to learn. And probably by his 6th or 7th year, he had close to 300 students. About half of them went on to go to college, a lot of them went to the University of Nairobi. So he really, you know, contributed to the education of the young people over there. And back then the president of the country was a Colonel Rawlings, and uh it was, you know, a military run country. And Colonel Rawlings was also a pilot, but he and my brother struck up a friendship and over there they had had all kinds of war and that stuff. And my brother and two other gentlemen over there, they found out in the jungle old airplane parts and stuff. So they actually built an airplane from all these spare parts and thatʼs how he was able to travel around the country. 

Alix Bryant – Oh really? Wow. 

Robert Bowser – He became an honorary chief of probably 2 or 3 different villages, but he was also the planner for them to develop their individual villages. And he was there for about 18 or 19 years. He used to come back here every 2 years. An interesting aside is that they would always come back and they would go to a very large flee market down in Freehold, New Jersey. An outdoor flee market. The little monies that they had, they would come back and buy everything that they really needed for the classes and everything over there and they would ship everything back to Ghana. Um, and I think it was about the 18th year or so… He was also helping small businesses over there really get into the computer age, because they were still doing, he used to always say that it was like living back in 1940. They were still doing business with, you know, index cards at the bank, and he introduced them to computers. And one day when he came back from Europe, they went to the flee market and this guy was selling used computers. And he just had them laid out in the field and there was about 50 of them. And he asked him how much did he want. And he said “ah about 100 dollars a piece”, my brother said, you know, “will you take like 3000 dollars for all of them?” and the guy said yeah. He said “well let me see if they work.” And the guy said “well you have no place to plug them in, weʼre in the middle of a field.” And he said “Okay well I guarantee that they will be all right”. So they shipped them all back. And they set up a, he designed and built a computer school where they could train 40 or 50 students at a time. And then his wife became the teacher for that. And she was, when she was here, she was a fashion designer. So she designed and put together a lot of the ceremonial robes there in Africa. So it was a great combination. And then he developed malaria, I mean everyone over there has malaria, but he got a new strain of malaria and it infected and attacked his brain. The irony of it was that his house that he designed and built was only two blocks away from the hospital, the problem was that you went to the hospital you had to bring your own medicine. And this particular strain of malaria, there was only a few places in Africa where they had medication that could fight it. And he passed away over there, but his wife stayed. Sheʼs still there. He passed away about, I would say, 7 or 8 years ago now. And thatʼs it. 

Alix Bryant – Well itʼs a fascinating life story. 

Robert Bowser – He was very bright, um, and he helped a lot of people. Oh the other thing was that when he was here, thatʼs what I meant to tell you about when he took the flying lessons. He started a started a program at the high school, just sort of like an elective, where he could teach them about navigation. And then he would take some of the kids up to the airport where he flew out of. And he used to take them, fly them down to the beach, down the shore, and they would go swimming and be back in the plane, and be back in the classroom before the day was over. And the other kids in the school didnʼt believe thatʼs where they had gone. And out of that, a minister here, Reverend White, he started whatʼs called Eagle flight. And he worked with my brother. And um, Eagle flight teaches kids to fly and when they graduate Iʼd say 80-85 % of them go on either to be commercial pilots or go into the service. But he was the one that began that program, and I guess they have been in business 25-30 years now, so. 

Alix Bryant – Oh wow 

Robert Bowser – Oh yeah. And he was an amateur photographer. You name it he would try and do it. In fact when he was 16 or 15 years old, he rode a bicycle from East Orange down to visit our relatives in Virginia. He took four peanut butter jelly sandwiches, a blanket, a flashlight, and a bottle of water. And this is going back, um I guess, to before world war II, or early 40s. He just jumped on his bicycle and rode all the way down to Richmond Virginia, um three days later he called back to say that he was there. And father wouldnʼt let him ride back, our relatives then put him on a train and he took the train back. Oh yeah, he had a fascinating life. 

Alix Bryant – What year was he born in? 

Robert Bowser – Letʼs see, I believe he was about 10 years older than me, so he was probably born around 1924. 

Alix Bryant – Okay. 

Robert Bowser – But, there are several buildings that I have some pictures of the house that he designed in Africa. Um my brother who is a genealogist, I think that he may have gone around and taken pictures of other buildings that he designed locally. I could try to find them for you. 

Alix Bryant – Oh that would be wonderful. I came across Alan Bowserʼs flicker photo website. 

Robert Bowser – Okay that is our nephew. He is the next to oldest brotherʼs. My father was also an architect. In fact he got his license after my brother did. But my father was an architect, he had been a councilman here in the city, and an assembly person. He was very active in the community. He was a member of the Masonic lodge for 
about 68 years. My other brother Lucius, who is next to Edward, was a pharmacist, um, he had his own business and pharmacy for a while, and became a genealogist. And he helped start the first poison control centers in the state. He worked for the health department for 29 years. The other brother, next to me, is a graduate civil engineer, with a masters of structural engineering. He had his own construction company for about 35 years, he just retired. I am a civil engineer, was a planner and surveyor, um and a traffic engineer in Montclair, went back to school for traffic studies, and director of public works here in the city, worked for the board of education in Newark and have been the mayor now here for 12 years. So this is our hometown. And weʼve tried to make it better. Edward was the best. And Allan, that you mentioned, Allan is a graduate of Princeton. And now a lawyer, in 4 or 5 states, Heʼs down in Maryland. Worked in the Clinton administration. My son is down in New Orleans, graduated from Duke in Journalism. So we have been doing some stuff. 

Alix Bryant – Yes, it sounds like a very civic oriented family. 

Robert Bowser – Oh yes. Itʼs funny because my father also was, like I said, an architectural draftsman. He went to the school that was the forerunner to was Newark College of engineering that became New Jersey Institute of Technology. And he worked for a structural engineer as a draftsman, um for a number of years. And the irony 
was that when I was in college between my junior / senior years, I worked for that same structural engineer many many years later after my father. And um when my father was in the masons, he was the grandmaster for the State of New Jersey. And he convinced the Masonic order to buy a building in Newark for their home, and it turned out that he had worked on the design, well he did the drawings for building, which was a little unique because it had cantilevered and all sorts of other stuff in it. They named several buildings after my father. He was very active. 

Alix Bryant – I noticed that there is a school in East Orange named after him. 

Robert Bowser – After my father, yes. He was very active in the city here, he was on the police commission, on the planning board, he was a councilman, he was an assemblyman. Just really very active. He too had set up a school with several other people back in the depression when there was a lot of migration from the South coming up here. And they taught a lot of people coming here, you know, about citizenship, and how to get a job, how to buy a house, own property, how to vote, and all of those things. He too was a very active person. 

Alix Bryant – Thatʼs great. 

Robert Bowser – My brother Lucius, the one next to Edward, he may have, because he was a genealogist, he did a lot of family history. And I think he wrote a lot of his stuff up, if you can give me some place that I can send it to you. 

Alix Bryant – Of course. 

Robert Bowser – Well let me look up some of this, and what ever I have I can send to you. 

Alix Bryant – That would be perfect, thank you so much. The email address that I used to contact your office would be the ideal location to send any information to. I personally am leaving tomorrow to start a new job in Halifax, but I will still be working with Frank over the next couple months, and we are hoping to get this exhibition put together fairly soon. 

Robert Bowser – I think that Frank works with our children here. We did an eco-garden and the kids have been very active with a lot of environmental programs and recycling programs, and I see him around quite a bit. But sure, Iʼll put this together and whatever I have I will get it to you. 

Alix Bryant – Again, that would be perfect, thank you so much. 

Robert Bowser – Okay. Alright Alix, great talking to you. 

Alix Bryant – You too, have a great day.