12 December, 2012

My father’s father was a builder. Max Slade journeyed from Russia to America at the turn of the century – a teenager eager to start a new life for himself. Actually, there was a more pressing reason for him to leave home. His parents owned an inn that officers in the Czar’s army frequented. Often, while the soldiers were inside drinking, young Max would untie their horses and chase them away. Whether this was an act of Bolshevik rebellion or a teenage prank, I don’t know. But at some point it was suggested to my great-grandparents that it would be best if their eldest son left the country… as soon as possible. A ticket was purchased, family friends who had previously emigrated were contacted, and Max came to America. To Newark, New Jersey where the “lantzmen” had settled. Max quickly acclimated to his new home. More than acclimated, he thrived. He apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker, where he mastered the art of fine woodworking. Discovering he had entrepreneurial skills in this land of opportunity, Max soon began his own business building private homes with beautiful custom woodwork (thank you to the cabinetmaker). His business grew and he began building apartment buildings in addition to the private homes. His fiancée joined him. They married, and began raising a family (my father being the much youngest of four). Max bought land (including a large undeveloped tract on the Jersey shore). He brought over the rest of his family, and set up his siblings in businesses.

Max was extraordinarily successful. My father remembers that as a child they had servants, a chauffeur and multiple cars (Max loved cars). Max continued to build beautiful apartment houses and private homes, and in 1929 was about to begin work on several buildings, including one huge project. The standard high-interest bridge loans were secured, contractors and workers hired, materials and supplies bought. Then came the Crash. As the Great Depression engulfed the nation, the people who had contracted for the various buildings walked away from their obligations. All over the country people defaulted on loans, reneged on contracts and promises. If Max had followed their example, he probably could have weathered the loss of his Wall Street investments. But he didn’t. Though his every project had shut down, he insisted on honoring his obligations. Though others defaulted on money they owed him, he refused to default on money he owed others. He paid off the loans on the projects that would never be completed. He satisfied every vendor. He paid every contractor, employee and worker the salary they’d been contracted for. “I’d given them my word. They were counting on those salaries to feed and clothe and house their families. If I didn’t take care of them, who would?” Max sold off all the properties for pennies on the dollar. He liquidated his investments for whatever he could get for them. He sold the acres of undeveloped beachfront property he owned on the Jersey Shore. He gave severance packages to the servants and chauffeur. He sold the house he had built for his own family. He essentially bankrupted himself making good on every debt, because it was the right thing to do. His integrity took most of what the stock market didn’t. And though he managed to earn a living and provide for his family, he was now a poor man whose wife, at times, took in other people’s laundry.

I grew up on, and have always taken pride in, these stories of my grandfather. And on tours my father gave me through Newark to see the many private homes Max had built that were still standing, as well as the last standing and last erected apartment house Max built… a beautiful, curved structure by Weequahic Park.

Though my father left Newark shortly after marrying my mother, he has remained a booster of the city all these years. His business is still there. He has become a vocal supporter and pal of Mayor Cory Booker. And he’s been proud of the resurgence his city is having. He has also continued to take periodic drives around the city to see his father’s legacy. A few weeks ago, he called me. “I was driving by Weequahic Park today… they’ve torn down your grandfather’s last apartment building. They’re putting up a big new, luxury residential tower.” Though there was sadness in his voice, there was also something else. “It’s going to make a big difference in that neighborhood.”

Like my father, I’m glad to see the resurgence of the city my grandfather loved. And his mark is still there, thanks to a number of the private homes he built. Still, it’s sad to know that the last of Max’s big projects (like his fortune) is no more.

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