What does “progress” mean to the American city?

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To view photos of progress in Newark, explore the interactive map above. If you are having difficulty using this map, please watch the accompanying video tutorial here.

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In 1916 and with great fanfare, Newark celebrated the 250<sup>th</sup> anniversary of its founding in 1666. Massive classical columns sculpted of plaster were erected at the city’s main intersection of Broad and Market Streets. Soldiers soon off to WWI marched down Broad Street with Colt rifles in hand. A few months later, women followed in their footsteps carrying banners reading: “The girls behind the men behind the guns.” The United States, though not yet in the midst of Europe’s World War, would soon be at battle and suffer 116,000 deaths, mostly caused by disease and influenza. Women had not the right to vote until 1920 and blacks, then a minority in Newark, lacked some of the basic human rights many of them sadly still lack.

 

 

And yet the citizens of Newark, alongside much of America, had come to believe that the future held great things in store for them. In a mere fifty years, America had transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economy, developed the world’s most extensive rail system, introduced electricity in every major city, and could boast the world’s largest industries from Chicago’s packinghouses to New York’s Wall Street stock market to Newark’s 37 breweries, countless tanneries, machine shops, and insurance companies. America had also the world’s most extensive power grid and the world’s most affordable and durable car: Henry Ford’s Model T. The way of life was rapidly changing, often for the better. At this rate of progress, the future looked promising. And as World War One drew to a close in 1919, America told herself that this would be “the war to end all wars” and confidently looked toward the future in hope of unremitting progress.

 

Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article "Newark 58 Years from Today"- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.

Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article “Newark 58 Years from Today”- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.

 

Indeed, leaders of the time predicted what the future would bring to cities like Newark and New York. Artists completed whimsical predictions of the Newark of 1986, a city of dense skyscrapers, railroads spewing outwards in all directions, and all manner of blimps and airplanes flying in the sky above. Planners like Harland Bartholomew drafted a master plan of Newark with infrastructure fit for a city of three million (Newark’s population in 1909 was a mere 280,000). Newark corporations like Public Service planned for the future by building the nation’s largest trolley terminal in 1916, capable of accommodating over 300 trolleys an hour. In fact, even the use of the words “future” and “progress” in printed media sharply increased after World War I, peaking around 1920 and declining every following year until World War Two.

 

Now, as Newark celebrates its 350th  anniversary in 2016, the city has opportunity to reflect on the past, at the Newark of 1916, and ask: What is the nature of progress?

 

A century ago, progress meant change; progress meant ceaseless improvement and the forward march of society. Today, after witnessing a century with two world wars, an almost fifty-year cold war, decolonization, and the emergence of an interconnected world economy, the implications of progress seem more ambiguous and less naively optimistic. Progress <em>does</em> mean an increasing standard of living, greater educational attainment, and a longer lifespan thanks to advances in public health. But, progress has also led to the decentralization of cities and the loss of distinct urban neighborhoods, processes that continue to play out today. Progress now means many much more than it did a century ago. Unlike the planners and artists of 1916, who predicted that progress would mean the never-ending onward and upward climb of Newark and America, society now knows that progress has not delivered on all it has promised.

America's Unhealthiest City

America’s Unhealthiest City

 

In many regards, Newark is a better city than it was in 1916. Newark, alongside the New York metropolitan region, is now more interconnected to the world economy. The average age of death has risen from age 50 in 1920 to about age 80 today. And, unlike the 1890s when the US Census Bureau deemed Newark as America’s “unhealthiest city,” Newark citizens now have better access to medicine at the city’s many hospitals. Admittedly, Newark is still a city of great poverty with 79,000 residents (or 28% of the population) below the poverty line. But, being in poverty today is very different from being in poverty a century ago when private charities were the extent of the public’s social safety net and when government did little to aid those in poverty. Our present society is, in many regards, more democratic, more egalitarian, less socially stratified, and a lot wealthier than before.

 

1911 Demographic Map

Newark’s Predominant Ethnic Groups in 1911

 

At the same time, often in the same name of progress, Newark has sacrificed large amounts of its cultural and architectural urban fabric. In the 1920s, Newark was home to countless densely built immigrant enclaves. Springfield Avenue was home to Newark’s Jewish community and its many businesses. A few blocks to the North was Newark’s Seventh Avenue Italian Community. And, behind City Hall was Newark’s Chinatown with its restaurants and alleged dens of vice. In the following decades, as the predominantly white population of second and third generation immigrants fled Newark for the suburbs, they left behind them the fabric of old and now empty neighborhoods. With time, many of these neighborhoods fell prey to demolition and urban renewal. For instance, the old Jewish and German communities of Springfield Avenue are now predominantly empty land, low-density public housing, and strip malls. A similar fate met Newark’s Italian community when it was forcefully evicted to construct the low-income Columbus Homes, ironically named in honor of the Italian explorer. Meanwhile, Newark’s Chinatown, Greektown, and other small communities are now largely devoid of large population or are dedicated to the ubiquitous parking lots of downtown Newark (click here for interactive map).

 

In the belief that the new is inherently better than the old, much of the city’s architectural fabric was outright demolished or replaced by structures inferior to what they replaced, as these images often testify to. The sterile housing project, strip mall, and block of low-income housing are not necessarily more beautiful than the dynamic neighborhoods of churches, businesses, and tenements they replace. Such is the direction progress can take.

 

Newark in 1873 and 2016

Downtown Newark in 1873 and 2016. Note the near complete loss of the neighborhood and its replacement by the city’s hockey arena at bottom and parking garage at top. In over a century, all but a handful of the structures pictured in 1873 were demolished.

 

A walk through Newark’s Central Ward will illustrate this direction of development. Let’s take a walk up Springfield Avenue, one of Newark’s major commercial thoroughfares linking the city’s center to its outlying suburbs. We stand in a desolate intersection at the corner of Prince Street and Springfield Avenue. In the distance rise the skyscrapers of Downtown. In front is a wide and street empty of pedestrians. Springfield Avenue slices diagonally through the urban grid, a band of asphalt with the faded markings of yellow and white lines indicating where to drive. On one side, is a vast empty lot now being developed into low-income housing. On the other side, is a low-slung housing project built to replace the decaying urban fabric. The scene is one of near desolation with few pedestrians and thousands of cars.

 

But, a century ago, this neighborhood was a vibrant immigrant community comparable to New York’s Lower East Side. Three and four story tenements edged up on either side of the street. Horse pulled trolleys and then electric streetcars plied up and down this street delivering immigrants to and from work. One block ahead was the Prince Street Synagogue, one of the city’s many vibrant churches and now an empty shell. A few block behind were three of Newark’s largest factories now closed, the Krueger Brewery, Pabst Brewery, and General Electric. Around us were crowded streets and the sound of horses on cobblestone pavement. This neighborhood, among many in Newark, was a dynamic one inhabited by subsequent waves of English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and finally Blacks during the Great Migration of the 1930s, each generation of immigrants leaving their mark on the built environment.

 

Prince Street

Prince Street in 1916 and 2016 respectively. The complete and total loss of a neighborhood.

 

As the flow of immigrants slowed and as industry ebbed away, this neighborhood has gradually vanished without the people that cared for and resided in it. Industry too slipped away with the consolidation and closure of nearby factories to move abroad, the subsequent loss of employment, and later riots that rocked the city in summer 1967. Newark and its reputation are still recovering from this loss of industry and employment, as the appearance former neighborhoods like this one attest to.

 

Scenes of contrast much like this one play out across Newark to varying degrees. The manifestations of changes to the built environment may vary from street to street and from building to building but the social and economic factors motivating these changes remain consistent: white flight, the automobile, loss of industry, suburbanization, racial tension, urban renewal, among other factors too numerous to discuss in detail.

 

A city is more than its monuments. A city is more than its grand civic structures and skyscrapers. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully maintained its large monuments: cathedrals, skyscrapers, and civic structures. But, Newark has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, town-homes, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. But, collectively, they constitute the living and breathing heart of Newark.

 

In the turn of the century view of downtown Newark, one sees the architectural styles popular at the time: stone and granite victorian and gothic structures. At left, is Prudential’s old headquarters demolished in 1956. At left, is Newark’s central post office. Unlike today, the postal service was central to the functioning of society and was often the most important structure in a town. This post office happens to be in the Romanesque Style popular in the 1880s. After the post office outgrew this structure and moved elsewhere in 1934, the structure was soon demolished in the 1940s to 1950s to construct an unimpressive dollar store. All buildings in this image are currently demolished.

Circa 1916, the Prudential Headquarters at left and the City Post Office at right. Both later demolished.

 

My belief is that by examining individual instances of changes to the urban fabric, one can gain a more accurate understanding of the nature of progress in the American city. Though individual instances of say a church’s or factory’s demolition and the disappearance of a neighborhood might seem to be events independent of larger social and historical trends, these individual historic events can and do provide hints and are visual evidence of larger historic movements. By comparing scenes of Newark then and now, one can start to understand the bigger picture how cities developed historically, how suburbanization and de-industrialization affected the city, and most importantly one can start to question the nature of progress.

 

In many regards, one can examine these images and wish that society still built structures as tall, as proud, and as ornamented as those of a century ago. But, one must also recognize that the built environment of a century ago was the unique product of its time and is in fact inseparable from its era. The same culture and society that laid forth the grand boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of Newark and New York, and the vast parklands that surround many American cities, was also a society that denied women the right to vote, blacks the right to participate in society, and colonial peoples the right to govern themselves.

 

In fact, one could posit that the beautiful architecture of early America and its vast public works at the turn of the century would not have been possible without the wealth derived from imperialism, the availability of cheap labor, and the masses of immigrants willing to work twelve hours a day in trying working conditions. To embrace the beauty of the past, one must also recognize the concomitant negatives that made this beauty possible to begin with.

 

We can examine these images of vanished urban fabric of tenements, churches, factories, and densely packed neighborhoods. But, we must recognize that neither past nor present is superior to the other. The built environment of each era is merely the product of its society, culture, and economy. The objective of examining this visual history is not to pass judgment on past or present but to objectively understand where Newark was, where Newark is, and where Newark will be in the near and distant future. A century after 1916, we look forward to the future.

 

Click here for an interactive map about Newark’s vanishing heritage.

 

A century after 1916

 

 

A Not So Perfect Past

 

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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and almost a century later in 2016. Note that the building at right, in construction in the first image, is now abandoned and awaiting restoration.

 

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