Big Data and Historic Preservation in New York City

What can a data analysis of New York City’s landmarks reveal about trends in the historic preservation movement?

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The video above is a visual history of landmarks preservation in New York City.

All records are downloaded from NYC Open Data. Soundtrack is from freesound.org

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Introduction

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There is an ongoing debate between in New York City between developers seeking to rebuild the city in the image of global capitalism and preservationists seeking to slow the rate of change and protect the appearance of the city’s many and distinct neighborhoods. This debate plays out every year in the hundreds of buildings  and structures that are added to (or rejected from) the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s running list of landmarks (LPC). Once added, landmarked buildings cannot be modified without first seeking approval from the city. And, to date, there is no process for de-listing a landmark once added – unless (sometimes intentional) decay by neglect requires demolition. This aspect of preservation is particularly contentious for developers because the legal barriers of preservation law are permanent, binding, and affect all current occupants and future owners.

Historic preservationists are the arbiters of taste. The sites they preserve will become the aesthetic lens through which future generations will appreciate the city’s past. The sites they do not preserve or neglect to protect from demolition will be lost to history – no longer a living testimony to vanished builders, architects, and immigrants. On the individual scale, preservation is about protecting structures of value. On the larger scale, preservation is part of a larger historical debate: Which aspects of the past are worth preserving? And what kinds of narratives can historians tell about cities, based on the material evidence that survives?

In this debate, there are many factors driving preservation: fear of losing heritage, fear of change, well-intentioned activists in the spirit of Jane Jacobs and NIMBYism, or concerned scholars and public servants who see something unique in the sites they add. The objective of this paper is to assess arguments made in favor of or against historic preservation through an analysis of publicly-available landmark records from the New York City Open Data website. We identified two datasets, both containing ~130,000 spreadsheet entries for every single LPC listing. The first dataset is entitled “Individual Landmarks” 1 and describes the date entered in the LPC database, the address, lot-size, the geographical coordinates of every single structure, etc. The second dataset is entitled “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” 2  and includes the construction date, original use, style, and address of all structures. We downloaded these two datasets as .csv files, imported them into mapping software called Tableau Public, merged them into a single file, and then conducted a data analysis – the results of which inform all the statistics presented here and drive the conclusions drawn in the following pages.

From this research methodology, we identify heretofore hidden trends in historic preservation. Firstly, we identify contextual preservation and historic districts as a means to protect the human scale of neighborhoods. Secondly, we identify a marked and potentially unjustifiable preference of preservationists for protecting pre-1945 structures. And thirdly, our data hints at the strength of market forces and developers in shaping the scope of preservation.

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Case Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs

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Above is a tree map of the distribution of the 128,594 landmarks across the five boroughs. This includes both buildings and non-buildings, like street lamps, parks, statues, etc. The size of each rectangle corresponds to the number landmarks within one historic district. Or, in the case of the largest rectangle for each borough, the box represents the number of individual landmarks outside historic districts for that borough. The size of the box reflects the number of buildings within each district – the larger the box, the more buildings within that category. Each historic district is color-coded by borough and grouped alongside all the other districts within that borough. Manhattan. Brooklyn. Queens. Bronx. Staten Island.

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125,594 records above

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At first glance, we notice several trends. The densities and locations of preserved districts do not correspond to the most densely populated areas. For instance, Manhattan, with population only 19.3% of the citywide total, 3 has 30.46% of the landmarks. By comparison, Staten Island, with only 5.55% of the population, has 16.24% of landmarks – the greatest per capita number for all five boroughs. Or, the Bronx with 17.06% of people has only 5.36% – the lowest per capita. Given that the land area of Bronx (42.47 mi²) is comparable to Staten Island (58.69 mi²), and given that their histories are equally rich, then does the Bronx objectively have fewer landmarks worth preserving? Or, do preservation trends follow patterns of economics and race – with economically advantaged neighborhoods having stronger legal and political leverage to maintain and restore the appearance of their architectural heritage?

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Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island
% of NYC population in this borough 19.30% 30.72 27.36 17.06 5.55
% of NYC landmarks in this borough 30.46% 25.65 21.98 5.36 16.24

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Historic preservation does not operate off of a tabula rasa with objective standards and processes for listing, despite appearances to the contrary. There is an undeniably spatial pattern to urban growth and income inequality with a city segregated into districts by age of construction, race, and income. Historic preservation may operate on this unequal economic fabric.

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128,212 records above

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Case Study Two:

Contextual preservation?

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One of the most common criticisms of the preservation movement is that it limits economic development by preventing the demolition of older structures and their replacement with larger and more desirable new ones. Additionally, historic preservation is linked to a lengthy (and expensive) approvals process that developers must pass through. A committee of historians reviews each application and suggests revisions to ensure that new development is either a) “contextually” respectful of its neighbors if involving construction on vacant land or b) preserved the existing fabric if involving rehabilitation of an already landmarked building. 4

Developers often claim that historic preservation discourages development and reduces the potential of land to be profitably developed. To support this, developers will acknowledge that there doubtless are structures worth preserving, but that the same legal protections extended to genuinely historic structures are also extended to their less-significant neighbors. This criticism of preservation applies to vacant parcels within historic districts or more modern buildings that are surrounded by historic ones. Our data does not support this claim.

Within the city’s unequal fabric with pockets of concentrated, wealth, poverty, and history, we identify three general categories of protected buildings. First, there are individual landmarks, such as bridges, large railroad stations, statues, or street furniture. While aesthetically and historically important, these individual sites are rarely adjacent to other landmarks. Also, new development can occur adjacent with few restrictions on zoning. No approval from the LPC is necessary – only construction permits and variances as needed. The case for preserving these structures is strong, as application for each was individually made and individually approved on a case-by-case basis by city government and often with approval from the landowner at time of designation. Grand Central Station and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are two examples. These structures, on account of their height, size, or appearance are genuine landmarks and place-makers in defining neighborhood identity.

Second, there are historic districts, comprising continuous stretches of smaller buildings. This includes structures of various age, use, function, and size. Preservation here is justified on the grounds that 1) the individual structures are historically unique or “significant” and 2) the relationships between these structures and the human-level streetscape they form are worth preserving. Here zoning and use restrictions may be restrictive as the majority of historic districts fall within mostly residential neighborhoods. Height limits are also stricter with the frequent stipulation that new additions must be setback from the main façade line and under one story. From the text of the 2018 city-wide zoning ordinance, zoning aims: “to protect the character of certain designated areas of historic and architectural interest, where the scale of building development is important, by limitations on the height of buildings.” 5

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Third, there are contributing and vacant parcels within these historic districts. The protections applied to category two buildings are extended to category three on the grounds that development on these less important sites will affect the quality and aesthetics of adjacent structures. The best example of this kind of contextual preservation comes in the form of a series of structures. Most may retain their original appearance, but a few interspersed between post-date the neighborhood’s age, are built in a different style, or suffered from demolition before the area was preserved. Above are two examples of these kinds of contributing structures.

If ever a case is made against historic preservation, the flaws seem greatest with this form of contextual preservation because these structures are preserved and their modification legally obstructed solely on grounds of their location. Additionally, there are numerous vacant lots within historic districts, where the argument could be made that the legalities of preservation disincentive the kind high-density development that is preferable to developers. However, an analysis of our dataset reveals that non-designated structures comprise less than 15% of all items within historic districts. The data is broken down on the table below, by borough and for the city as a whole:

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Borough . Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

NYC

Totals

Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560

17,325

 

5,344 109,285
Non-designated structures within historic districts 6,465 3,783 2,626 3,118

1,512

 

17,504
Number of vacant parcels within historic districts 40 457 74 444 29 1,044
Percentage of buildings in historic districts that are non-designated and/or vacant 16.731% 13.713% 9.5541% 17.054% 22.38% 14.74%
Borough totals 38,881 30,920 28,260 20,887 6,885

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This yields 128,594 6 protected buildings (designated and non-designated). According to NYC’s public database, there are 857,271 structures total in the city. 7 Meaning that protected buildings comprise slightly less than 14% of all structures in the city. In addition, the non-designated and vacant parcels within historic districts comprise less than 2.16% of the city’s fabric. These values stand in contrast to comparable world cities like Paris and London, which are millennia older and have protected a greater percentage of their historic fabric. Below, for instance, are two comparative maps of the conservation areas (green) in the Westminster area of London 8 versus those in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (purple). 9

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Case Study Three: Keeping up to pace?

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When the first batch of 2,312 historic structures was landmarked in 1965, their average year of construction was 1882 – representing an 83-year gap during which these structures were not protected. In 2018, the average construction year of newly landmarked structures is 1908, representing a 110-year gap. Thus in the 53 year life of the landmarks movement from1965 to 2018, the average age of a building when landmarked has increased by 37 years.

The more recent inclusion of modernist skyscrapers, like the Lever House (1982) and Seagram Building (1989), may give the impression that the criteria for what qualifies as aesthetically important and worth preserving has expanded. Our data does not support this conclusion, because while recent years have seen newer landmarks granted legal status, the rate of designation has not kept up with the rate of construction and, in fact, has fallen behind.

The graph below illustrates the date a structure was registered on the horizontal axis measured against its construction date on the vertical axis. Every single protected structure is plotted on this graph by color. Individual dots represent individual sites. The black trend line indicates the only moderate increase in the numbers of modern structures receiving protection.

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5,451 records above

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Is historic preservation falling behind, even though the rate of construction and population has increased? Or, is the city no longer building the kinds of structures deemed worthy of preservation? This 16-year gap could be a fluke, or it could be indicative of larger trends.

To qualify for landmark status in NYC, a building must be older than 30 years or older than 50 if added to the National Register. From a publication by the The Trust for Architectural Easements: “LPC property must be at least 30 years old – no exceptions – whereas a National Register property must be at least 50 years old, unless it is found to be of exceptional significance, in which case there is no age limit at all.”  10 When the LPC was formed in 1965, none of the buildings from 1935 to 1965 would have qualified for designation. Today, as of 2018, any building from before 1988 could qualify. However, less than 5% of all listed structures date from the 43 years from 1945 to 1988 – a significant time in this metropolis’ history as it transitioned from an industrial economy to the world’s financial center and a major hub for tourism.

The graph below illustrates the age range of all landmarks and the distribution of landmarks by year. The horizontal axis corresponds to years, and the vertical axis represents the number of landmarks built in that year that are now included in LPC listings. Clearly, the vast majority falls within the 90-year span of 1850 to 1940, with few landmarks falling outside this range. The peak is in 1895 with 13,275 records from this year alone – a surprising anomaly. The rise and falls on this graph may also correspond to roughly 20-year periods of boom and bust recessions, along with corresponding halts to new construction. The shortage of pre-1850 sites is easily explained by the vagaries of time and the relatively smaller size of the city before 1850. But, the chronic shortage post-1940 may hint at a broader historical oversight or change in the way new buildings are designed and age.

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93,691 records above

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The LPC was created partially in response to the demolition of New York Penn Station in 1963. And, it was an attempt to prevent further destruction of aesthetically significant buildings, many of which had already been lost to progress and urban renewal. By the 1960s, urban renewal was winding down and New York was entering the prolonged recession of the 1970s and 80s, during which the rate of urban renewal and highway construction ground to a halt. In this light, the LPC originated as a post-facto response to demolition that had been going on for decades.

Despite the history of the LPC, must land marking occur after destruction has begun? There are doubtless hundreds of post-war buildings of significance – that have not yet been identified or deemed worthy. The question is not: Should we list these buildings? Rather, the question should be: Why are we not listing these buildings before they are threatened? And why should LPC status be limited to buildings older than 30 years? The demolition of the city’s American Folk Art Museum by MoMA in 2014 is one example. 11 The Temple of Dendur and its custom-built exhibit hall is another instance of an interior landmark completed pre-1988 and potentially eligible for LPC status.

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Case Study Four:

How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?

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As land values increase, and as it becomes increasingly unsustainable to develop land with single-family residential structures and townhomes, newer buildings are more likely to be commercial, mixed-use, and multi-family. However, the historic preservation movement exhibits a preference toward land-marking residential structures. The table below illustrates the types of buildings preserved, their quantity, and the percentage of the total number of preserved buildings this quantity represents. The buildings are listed below by their original functions. So, a building designed as a factory but more recently converted to residential is still listed as “industrial.”

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Type of Building Quantity Percent of Total
Residential 35,575 27.66%
Civic 16,920 13.16%
Street Furniture 13,943 10.84%
Commercial 4,574 3.56%
Infrastructure 2,490 1.94%
Transportation 2,145 1.67%
Institutional 2,026 1.58%
Religious 1,509 1.17%
Mixed Use 1,324 1.03%
Vacant 1,178 0.92%
Military 759 0.59%
Industrial 436 0.34%
Outbuildings 12 32,391 25.19%
All other uses 14,970 11.64%
Totals 128,594 100%

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The most salient figure in the above table is the disproportionate representation of residential and civic buildings that are preserved. For instance, as of 2018, Manhattan has 39,172 landmarked items. Of these landmarks, 35% (= 13,816) are residential use, 9% (= 3,443) are commercial, and 1.5% (= 650) are mixed-use. Mixed use, in this case, is defined by commercial on the lower level and offices or residential on upper floors. However, there are more commercial and mixed-use buildings in Manhattan than there are residential buildings. 13 So, the percentages of landmarked buildings are not representative of the percentage of residential versus commercial and mixed-use buildings that exist. In short, our data supports the conclusion that residential buildings seem more likely to receive landmarked status than commercial structures.

The numbers of landmarked civic structures strengthens the above conclusion. New York City owns 14,000 properties 14 across five boroughs. This MAS estimate does not include public monuments, statues, civic buildings built by the city and later sold, or civic buildings originally built for private use but acquired by the city. Yet, there are 16,920 landmarks designated as serving “civic” functions, including 11,726 landmarked items relating to hospitals and 571 related to armories. In fact, among all the 440 types of landmarks in this city, civic-related structures have the highest rates of landmark status and the rate of preservation closest to 100%.

What explains these inequalities? One explanation could be that civic sites, particularly those built in the early 20th century tend to be high quality, well built, and designed to articulate the civic values of democracy and government through the beauty of the neoclassical style. Therefore, these buildings are more likely to be deemed worthy of preservation. But, this interpretation is doubtful because there is little factual basis to assume that civic structures are “better than” commercial and mixed-use.

A more believable explanation could be that civic and residential structures are easier to landmark than commercial. The maintenance and upkeep of civic structures is managed by government and elected officials, who are responsible to voter complaints and community pressure. And, the public can threaten to vote out of office any leaders who neglect historic, city-owned properties. Additionally, there are few reasons for developers or residents to object to land-marking civic sites, as legally protecting these structures adds more red tape, not to city residents, but to the future bureaucrats who restore these sites. Again, this is speculation.

Still yet, there is a stronger factor influencing preservation. Civic structures are not subject to market pressures, and city-owned buildings do not have to help their occupants make a profit. For instance, the cost of rehabbing a historic public school building might more expensive than just demolishing and rebuilding it new, but the city is under less pressure to demolish the structure because, fortunately, city government is not run like a profit-driven corporation. And, so historically valuable but functionally outdated city buildings may be more likely to be landmarked and restored than demolished, as illustrated by the unequal distribution of building types in our data.

By contrast, commercial and residential structures are subject to strong market pressures favoring demolition. An old factory that has outlived its designed lifespan and is no long suitable for modern-day production line assembly will be abandoned or demolished if it cannot be converted. But, the process of conversion may require completely gutting the structure, environmental remediation, and a lengthy approvals process. If the cost of renovation is more expensive than the income the renovated structure can bring in, then there will be greater pressure to demolish than to preserve the fated structure. City-owned libraries and hospitals face less of this kind of pressure.

Our data also reveals a spatial concentration of residential buildings in historic districts. For instance, most of Manhattan’s residential landmarks are concentrated within historic districts in the Upper West, Upper East, and skyscraper valley between Midtown and Downtown. Residential sites are more likely to be collectively landmarked as part of districts. As illustrated in the table below, 94.93% of residential landmarks citywide fall within historic districts, and only 5.07% are outside these districts:

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Residential All Other Types
Within historic districts 35,029 = 94.93% 61,124 = 66.66%
Individual landmarks outside historic districts 1,872 = 5.07% 30,569 = 33.34%
Total Number 36,901 = 100% 91,693 = 100%

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What explains the disproportionate protection of residential structures? One possible motivating factor could be income-levels in historic neighborhoods and associated protectionism. The map on the following page overlays the locations of historic districts over 2018 block-level census data for income levels and length of residence. Our analysis reveals a spatial overlap between historic districts and areas with higher incomes and longer-term residents. For instance, the average length of residence for residents in the Brooklyn Heights historic district is between 17.1 and 48 years and incomes range between $51,500 and $289,000, while the rest of Brooklyn averages between 10.3 and 12.8 years and under $51,500 income. Similar patterns play out in the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. In short, residents in historic neighborhoods seem more likely to stay-put, and length of residency may be a proxy for measuring the degree to which residents are invested in maintaining the physical appearance and improving their community. From this data, we posit that the relationship between historic preservation and length of residency is too strong and too consistent across the five boroughs to be correlation. There may be causative factors at play between income, emotional investment in one’s community, and preservation, yet this remains to be conclusively confirmed by future data.

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Click map to launch interactivity − opens in new tab.

Individual landmarks in red outside historic districts in brown tend to be commercial structures.
There is no immediately identifiable relationship between the siting of commercial landmarks,
and the income levels of their adjacent community.

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The spatial relationship illustrated above is surprising for another reason: gentrification. Normally, gentrification in the past 20 years is associated with rising income levels and the displacement of existing residents. The physical appearance of historic neighborhoods should also make them more desirable for gentrification. However, the average length of residency is longer in historic than in non-historic districts, even though income (and presumably rent, too) are higher in historic districts. That is, neighborhoods with historic preservation more often have high and rising incomes with long length of residency. This seems contradictory because high-income areas should be more likely to push out longer-term tenants from the pre-gentrification era.

By contrast, neighborhoods without the benefit of historic preservation more often have high incomes and lower length of residency, meaning a high turnover rate. The Williamsburg neighborhood is one example with incomes over $51,500 (similar to Brooklyn Heights) but length of residency under 10.3 years. Additional research should examine if rent-stabilized apartments are more likely to be concentrated in historic districts. There is the possibility that the legal barriers of preservation make it more difficult for developers to push out existing residents, gut an old building, and then rebuild it to charge higher rent. Unfortunately, New York City Open Data has no information on the spread or geographical clustering of rent stabilized apartments.

These possible relationships between historic preservation and gentrification need to be confirmed by further analysis.

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Conclusion: The Future of Historic Preservation

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There are limits to our data – these statistics cannot reveal the intricacy of historic sites, the unique identity of each, or the reasons why each justify (or do not justify) protection. But, this data can reveal big picture trends in preservation, its biases, and some of its problems. While these trends are not visible from walking the street or looking at individual sites, they become visible through the lens of data. This data may also reveal causative relationships between income, length of residency, and the political strength of preservationists.

From this data-driven analysis, we can make deduct several conclusions:

  1. Historic preservationists prefer to landmark and protect pre-WWII buildings, even though numerous post-war examples may qualify. As a result, there are a disproportionately high number of pre-war buildings with landmark status, and comparably few post-war landmarks – less than 5%. Similarly, the rate at which landmarks are designated has not kept up with the pace of new construction.
  2. The market pressures to demolish civic structures are weaker than the market pressures to demolish commercial and residential. As a result, a disproportionately high percentage of city-owned or institutional buildings are preserved, and a disproportionately low percentage of commercial and industrial.
  3. Tangent to the previous point, a disproportionately high percentage of landmarks are for residential use and fall within residential districts. This may indicate that landmarks preservation is a strategy for neighborhood protectionism – that is, an effort by residents to ensure that the appearance of their community is not changed due to new development. Neighborhoods of lower-density old buildings, like the West Village, retain their popularity, charm, and high property values thanks to strong legal barriers against change that could lead property values to depreciate. While these barriers may discourage and prevent developers from reaping larger profits by building higher and larger, they also ensure that existing residents’ investment in their condos or homes will remain more stable.
  4. The, economic success of New York on a global scale and its continuing construction boom has led to the demolition of many non-residential commercial landmarks that might have otherwise qualified for landmark status had New York not been as successful. In the words of Professor Kenneth Jackson: 15

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History is for losers. By that I mean, cities which have chosen to preserve all their historical monuments and locations usually do so because no one else wants the land to develop. Modern progress has passed them by. New York’s history doesn’t litter the streets visually, it can be hard to find sometimes, but that is because the city is an economic winner on a global scale.

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New York is indeed a winner “on a global scale,” with Wall Street as a symbol of America’s economic power, the United Nations as a symbol of political power, and the city’s over three million foreign born as representative of power of immigration and globalization to shape a city. But, this progress comes at a historic and aesthetic cost – the consequences of which are reflected in the dark and sterile skyscraper canyons of Midtown, the worsening congestion in cars and subways, and (more pressingly) this city’s fragility when faced with ecological pressures, such as flooding, hurricanes, and climate change. At the level of historic preservation, this progress comes at the cost of losing New York’s distinctive architectural heritage to the force of globalized change. The Gilded Age mansions on Fifth Avenue and the built-to-last-forever Penn Station are gone, as are the picturesque skylines and distinctive ethnic neighborhoods of Berenice Abbott’s 1930s photographs. The New York of today is different – whether it is architecturally poorer for progress can only be judged in retrospect. Historians prefer not to speak of what-ifs when writing about history, but would it have been possible to accept the benefits of progress without sacrificing history? This, however, is a question beyond the limits of data to contemplate.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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Footnotes

This author is not affiliated in any way with NYC Open Data, LPC, or the New York City government.

  1. “Individual Landmarks,” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Individual-Landmarks/ch5p-r223 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/LPC-Individual-Landmark-and-Historic-District-Buil/7mgd-s57w (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  3. New York City’s 2017 population estimate is 8.623 million.
  4. More on this topic: Rachel Mollie Levy, “Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City,” (Master’s diss., Columbia University: Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation, 2015) https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8HD7TVM (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  5. “General Purposes of Residence Districts,” in The Zoning Resolution: Web Version, (published by New York City Zoning Department, 2018), pp.252-53. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/zoning/zoning-text/allarticles.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  6. The total for all five boroughs is 127,833. Including landmarks not registered in any borough, like Ellis Island, the total is 128,954.
  7. New York City Planning Department, “Spatial Data Properties and Metadata,” from MapPLUTO, (published to the web, 2018), pp.5 https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/open-data/meta_mappluto.pdf?v=18v1 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, https://www.westminster.gov.uk/conservation-areas (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Historic-Districts/xbvj-gfnw (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  10. Anthony W. Robins, “Differences between Landmarks Commission Designations and National Register Listing,” in Similarities and Differences between Landmarks Preservation Commission Regulation and Donation of a Preservation Easements, (Prepared for The Trust for Architectural Easements, 2009), pp.10, http://architecturaltrust.org/~architec/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1a-2009-0512-Robins-Report.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  12. “Outbuildings” mostly include garages, stables, street furniture, and accessory structures, generally small. This category skews our results. Since many accessory structures were turned into residential structures, the actual percentage of residential dwellings should be slightly higher than 27.66%.
  13. Manhattan has more residential than commercial landmarks even though more people work here than live here. On weekdays, 3.1 million people work in Manhattan, while only 1.6 million live here.
  14. “New York City owns or leases 14,000 properties around the five boroughs—a public asset roughly the size of Brooklyn.” From: “Public Assets: Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York,” The Municipal Art Society of New York, https://www.mas.org/initiatives/public-assets/ (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  15. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, http://culpa.info/quotes?professor_id=97 (retrieved 5 November 2018).

Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

 

In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. The area was zoned for buildings no higher than eight stories, which was respectful of the small and community scale of the existing structures. City officials, however, proposed rezoning a large section of the Ironbound for 18-story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.

Motivated by profit, a large parking corporation and other landowners lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowable height – thereby increasing the value of their land and threatening the existing community with gentrification. The small streets and infrastructure of the Ironbound would not have been resilient or large enough to support such a large increase in density.

To oppose this ill-devised proposal, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed. This computer simulation and the proposed legislation were also the subject of a Star Ledger article by human-interest reporter Barry Carter. I am providing the link to this article here. This computer simulation was also watched by members of the City Council and the property owners effected by this legislation. I also spoke five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this project and argue for development in Newark that is genuinely sustainable and genuinely respectful of the existing community and the city’s people.

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Computer Simulation

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Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19

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The text of this speech is transcribed below.

I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.

To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.

MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.

Why?

inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.

But, when an area is zoned for larger and taller structures developers can build more and larger structures WITHOUT requesting a variance to build larger. And when developers do not need to request a variance for height, it is less likely they will need to include affordable housing in their project.

In effect, MX-3 will remove the requirement to build affordable housing in the effected area. When zoning is overly generous to developers and zoning permits overly large scale, develops do not need variances. And when developers don’t need variances, they do not have to built affordable housing.

In addition, since MX-3 could be expanded to anywhere within a half mile radius of Penn Station, it is quite possible that MX-3 could be expanded in the future. In effect, this would eliminate the requirement for developers to build affordable housing in this area. Upzoning does not benefit affordability.

Secondly, what is sustainability?

Sustainability and transit-oriented development is not just about a short distance to Penn Station. It is not just about green roofs or any type of development.

Sustainability is about affordable housing that we the people can afford to live in. We don’t want luxury condos for the 1% in the MX-3 area. We want development that our residents and you can afford.

All of us can agree that WE ALL WANT DEVELOPMENT. But, we want development that is 1. Affordable 2. Respectful of the Ironbound community. And 3. Respectful of our city’s diversity and history.

MX-3 is none of these things. It is about landbanking and benefiting the 1% wealthiest outside our city. I encourage you to strike down MX-3 and to encourage instead an open dialogue with the community about SUSTAINABLE and AFFORDABLE development in our city.

Developers should come to Newark and development should happen. But, we should not upzone entire sections of our city, in effect removing the requirement for affordable housing, undermining the inclusionary zoning we just created, and jeopardizing the recent master plan we created with public participation.

What does “progress” mean to the American city?

PostcardT.

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.

 

Say no to Edison Parking!

Interactive Map of Newark’s Blighted Parking Lots

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Comparative Views of Downtown Newark, Then and Now

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Newark’s Parking Crisis

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Edison Parking, among many other local institutions such as Rutgers and UMDNJ, has engaged in the systematic destruction of our city’s heritage. In the James Street Commons Historic District, for instance, Edison Parking and Rutgers are the single largest contributors to demolition between 1978 and today, both demolishing dozens of nationally landmarked properties. As Edison Parking continues to consolidate its properties into larger and larger parcels, the question arises: How will this entity develop this land? Will future development respect old Newark and our threatened architectural heritage? These questions remain to be answered. But new development, from Newark’s 200 million dollar arena to Prudential Insurance’s 400 million new headquarters on Broad Street, reveal that our new architecture is often out of time, place, and scale.

Too often the name of progress is invoked to justify the destruction of old. But, not often enough do Newark leaders realize that progress is only attained by using the past as the literal building block toward the future. One can walk through Brooklyn or preserved parts of Manhattan and then ask oneself: Where would Newark be had it preserved its architectural heritage? I do not know, but for certain our city would be in a very different position to rebuild its heritage.

The degree of what was lost only reinforces the need to preserve what remains. Click here for interactive map of Newark past and present.

Below is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on May 19th.

 

 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.

 

My name is Myles. I am a proud, lifelong Newarker.

 

Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.

 

To the south lies our port and airport, comprising 1/3 of Newark’s land area. Our airport handles 40 million passengers a year. Our port handles over a million containers of cargo a year. Both pollute our air.

 

Our city is surrounded by highways: Route 78 to the South, The Parkway to the West, Route 280 to the North, and McCarter Highway to the East. Millions of car travel these congested highways every year.

 

Our urban core is buried in asphalt. Thousands of commuters per day. Millions of cars per year.

 

Edison Parking is beneficiary of this pollution. Their 60 thousand parking spots are valued in the billions. They make millions on the land of buildings they demolished often illegally. They pay no water bills; their water runs off their lots and into our sewer mains. For a company so wealthy; they contribute little to the health of our city.

 

One in four Newark children have asthma, far above the national average. Chances are that your children or the friends of your children also have asthma.

 

I too have asthma. Always had. Always will.

 

Enough is enough. It is time to develop our city sustainably. Public transportation. Public bike lanes. Public parks. Sustainable infrastructure.

 

Edison Parking is not a sustainable corporation. When our zoning board approves of the illegal demolition of our historic architecture, they are complacent in this violation of our law. When our zoning board sits silently as Edison Parking uses our lands for non-permissible zoning use, they are not upholding the laws they are subject to.

 

It is time to change. You, as our elected officials, are in a position to enact the change your public needs. You, as informed citizens of Newark, are responsible for holding corporations accountable to our laws.

 

This is not a question of complex ethics or morality. It is a matter of common sense. Edison Parking has and continues to demolish our heritage, pollute our air, and violate our laws. Edison parking is breaking its responsibility to the public. Will you hold them accountable?

 

Please consider the city you want for our children and our future.

 

Thank you.

New York Walks

The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York

(Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty)

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of the Upper West Side. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Even further, and I reach the mindless bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading “Here is New York” by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past 60 odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

To read more about my walks in New York, click here.

A Tale of Two Places: City & Suburb

Growing up in inner-city Newark and attending school in suburbia, I have always wondered how these two environments were so distinctly different. How could so many cultural and socioeconomic differences exist in communities only a few miles apart? Furthermore, how did the suburban environment of my school effect the urban environment of my home?

Between the Streets: A Story of the New York Grid

I have spent much of my life walking around New York City. And, the layout of this metropolis’ streets has always interested me. I relish in discovering new ways to walk between two places and in finding new streets I have never seen before. Inevitably, I ended up asking myself the following question: How does the layout of New York City streets reflect its history and heritage?

 

Full Version:

(36 minutes)

 

Abridged Version:

(18 minutes)

Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, are oppressive. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or… It can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]

Despite the seeming differences between them, most dystopias share one common trait: they resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal police state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestionable control.

 

 

The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see diagram below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

2013 Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. But, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are firmly divided. Whereas in the panopticon, this is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, bars, and brute force, in dystopian society, this is a metaphysical or political arrangement where the government values control and observation over communication between citizens.

The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopic police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.

 

 

Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,

To arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)

The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the intendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s bureaucrats. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” in which the inmate is its “bearer.” Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.

The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”

The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, one must guard one’s body, one’s language, and one’s thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation”, like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]

Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. And, this constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct”. Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body.

 

 

Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.

Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. And, punishments for human communication and self-expression are draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.

As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail.

 

 

The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. As already discussed, the citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. But, the state also starts to function independently of its operators. This consequently insures control and order, two of the primary tenets of autocracy.

The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.

 

 

Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often adopts the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose every manifestation is totalitarian and dystopic. The word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.

As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.

 

 

Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,

Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)

Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.

Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle of creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, they are almost interchangeable.

The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But, the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:

There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)

According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.

Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. But, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?

 

Panopticons Throughout History

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).

 

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipédia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Livable City

Livable City

In July of 2015, to encourage more bicycle initiatives and to protest the spread of parking lots downtown, I joined several members of PLANewark to speak before the Newark City Council:

Here are a few facts:

 

One: Bikes are affordable.

 

On the one hand, the average used car costs $16,000 (National Automobile Dealers Association). On the other hand, the average bike costs less than $500. Cars are 32 times more expensive than bikes, and that’s discounting gas, maintenance, and environmental costs. In a city whose average wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.

 

Two: Bikes fight poverty.

 

Over 29% of our population is in poverty. Over 31% of our male and 38% of our female population is obese. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). Poverty, obesity, and lack of exercise are closely correlated. Biking is a form of exercise. Exercise fights obesity and poverty. Newark needs bikes.

 

Three: Bikes fight childhood obesity.

 

Newark’s been ranked as one of the least walkable cities in America. We must do something about that. 30% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unfit for walking, running, or biking. 44% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unsafe due to automobile traffic. And, only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Rutgers Center for State Policy). Maybe, there’s a correlation here. Improve the livability of our streets; help our children.

 

Four: Bikes are sustainable.

 

Newark is 27 square miles. The average commute within Newark is 11.5 minutes and under 4 miles (US Census). Yet, despite the small size of our city, the average commuter goes by bus and car. Why not by bike? Why not by bike?

 

Five: We need more bike lanes.

Our city has 320 miles of streets. But our city has few miles of exclusive bike lanes (NJDOT). Bikes are the way to the future. Cars aren’t. We don’t need more room for roads and parking lots. We need more room for bikes.

 

Now…

 

The culture of the car caused white flight from our city, gave asthma to our children, and destroyed much of our city’s culture and heritage. Newark needs fewer cars. Newark needs more bikes.

 

We can’t give every Newarker a car, nor should we! But, we can give every Newarker access to biking opportunities.

 

Every idea has a start. It is true that our bike lanes are not as busy as those in Amsterdam or New York. It is also true that our city government is not enforcing legislation intended to protect our bike lanes. Build our bike lanes well and protect them; people will use them with time.

 

Change takes time. We don’t have the firm roots of a bike culture. We have only the seeds we need. Plant and grow these seeds of green bikes, green bike lanes, a green waterfront and a green city; and these seeds will take root.

 

If not now, then when…? If not with bikes, then with what…? If not in our city, then where…?

 

As a Newarker, I see so much potential in our city. Our city, at the doorstep of New York, is currently the confluence of planes, trains, and buses. So, moving forward, we have the foundations for a more sustainable Newark. Starting today, with bikes, we can create a greater Newark for us all.

 

Thank You..

Vanishing City

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about redevelopment in Newark, my birthplace. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots. Through this series, I document the beauty behind decay, destruction, and rebirth.

 

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I am witness to the frighteningly beautiful decay of my city’s cultural heritage.  An abandoned barge slowly sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home.  An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body.  As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, firmly anchored to the wall, reaches to the sky.

But, behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the ephemeral.  It is the realization that what was built to last forever, will not last.  It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city.  And, it is the hope that someday the past will become cherished in its entirety because a culture without history is like a body without life.

Yet, to replace this storied past, the flashy future promised by developers and politicians is hardly a substitute.  The so-called “Gateway Center” skirts the city with its corporate skywalks and backdoor facing the city.  The blinding glass monoliths that rise in the graveyard of history are alien and indifferent to their city.  The proposed casino, in a city where 32% of children are in poverty, speaks to blatant inequality and the excesses of capitalism.  The shoddily built strip mall, gated community, and superhighway hardly convey a culture of urbanism and civic consciousness.  Developers and politicians promise progress, but bring troubled change instead.  The promised rebirth of tomorrow does not justify the ongoing destruction of today.

The ephemeral nature of my environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes in the protean vortex of memory.  Years from now, my city will continue redefining its identity.  Years from now, I will assess my memories with fresh experience and nuanced perspective.  And, although today’s present may become tomorrow’s past, the present will survive through our collective consciousness.

 

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When one visits the ruins of past civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  These ruins are powerful because of their decay, not in spite of it.

The battered past should remind the proud present of its transience.  I look at the built world of today and ask: Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure?  What will the future remember us by?  Roman roads lasted millennia; will our potholed highways last as long?  Obelisks of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusty skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Greek forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society with its twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?  Maybe the question should be different: in a culture of blind “progress”, what past will there even be to preserve?  Time will tell.

 

Downtown Newark

Growing up in Newark, I’ve been inspired and saddened by my inner city environment. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. But I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of ostensible progress. “Renaissance City” depicts the Newark of my childhood with garish signage blanketing my city’s architecture in a medley of color and consumerism.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Parking vs. Preservation

On a warm Sunday this August, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space.  Although the first floor was sealed with unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago windows and intricate terracotta fretwork.  In the neo-classical tradition, the structure sported a detailed cornice, white ornamentation, and copious bunting.  The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure.  When the outside walls finally fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and hundreds of re-bars for added durability.

Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District.  Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but . . . The property’s owner is Edison Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City.  Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line.  His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City read — “Bloomberg is gone.  Time to put the bikes away.”  To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without doing anything.  While waiting, Edison Parking generates huge revenue from surface parking. Often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot.  Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

In fact, demolition is in Edison’s best interest.  Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land.  Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden.  Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption.  In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking.  Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.

Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art.  In this case, the property Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law.  But, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land.  Then, it secretly removed the property’s windows and poked holes in its roof.  Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property.   Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission.  In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.

When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late.  The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.  Sitting directly behind me was a heavy, suburban lady, obviously working for Edison.  Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and  promptly left the meeting.

Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

My name is Myles.  I am a life long Newark resident.

Parking is a travesty. I have seen . . .

Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.

Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.

Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.

This blight of so-called “development” must stop.

Newark is a city with a strong history.  Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.

Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.

Newark is a lawless city.  Its buildings are testament to that.

Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers are not above the law.  They think they are anyway.

Those who break the law must be held accountable.

Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.

Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”

A thief does not think he will be caught.  A thief does not stop until he is punished.

I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals.  But this commission has . . .

The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.

The power to prevent continued parking construction.

The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.

I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far.  I encourage you to do more.  I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers.  Even if victories may be pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.

In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district.  In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed.  Each time I review these images, I painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage.  Edison Parking is not alone.  Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity.  For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site.  It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures.  As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.

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Detroit: Year Zero

Detroit is living misery. It is the very antithesis of urbanization and a victim of America’s senseless auto culture. Thousands of homes lie vacant and decaying. Copious infrastructure built to serve millions serves only thousands. Highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods serve a city devoid of life in many parts. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full of empty storefronts and a labyrinth of rotting art deco architectural gems.

During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment it rolled out. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities (like Dresden) to smithereens. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit has been bombed to smithereens. Except this time, it isn’t a B-27 doing the dirty destruction, it’s a culture of decay and the very society that erected this metropolis.

After Detroit’s 1967 Riots, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit for good. They left behind a racially divided city. They wiped their hands clean of decades of corruption and let the “blacks manage themselves.” White corruption became black corruption. Out with the old rascals and in with the new. And the birthplace of the automobile plummets ever lower.

Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen stature make a mockery of progress. An empty monorail endlessly circles a downtown devoid of life. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the helpless city. Renaissance Center is a corporate Death Star accessible only by car. The ominous Greektown Casino abuts the city jail. Whites commute to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field and then flee afterwards. Everywhere there is parking, parking, parking . . . Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert even proposed creating a demolition countdown clock that listed the number of vacant buildings to be demolished.

Detroit is a failure on countless levels. It represents the failure of government to stem the victorious forces of suburbanization and cars. It represents the failure of short-sighted planning and American industrial might. It represents the failure of democracy to level the playing field of racial divides. De facto segregated Detroit has become de jure segregated Detroit. Detroit is by all means a failure. Then and again, the forces causing the downfall of this metropolis are just as guilty. Government. The free-market. The auto industry. Capitalism.

Detroit’s Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”

We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.

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Panasonic Petition

I am often aghast when I walk through downtown Newark. The corporate towers of the “Renaissance” Center ignore the very city that gave them millions of dollars in tax breaks. They erect austere metal fences and protect their towers with zealously obedient “security” guards. They are scared of Newark. Ironically, they shun the very hand that fed them.

When Panasonic decided to move their national headquarters to Newark, I hoped they would buck the trend of icy disrespect. But, I saw that their new building turned its back to the city like all the other lifeless behemoths downtown. I wrote the following petition, signed by Newark children during the opening of Riverfront Park.  On June 11, 2012, when the Central Planning Board asked Panasonic to open their grounds for public access, I read my petition.

Panasonic Poster

 

Dear Mr. Taylor,

We are children of Newark, the new home of Panasonic North America.  We would like to start with Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant”:

There was once a “selfish giant” who had a most beautiful but closely guarded garden, where, to his dismay, all the little children were found playing. Scaring the children away angrily, he built around the garden a high wall, with a sign: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”  Children could no longer go in to play, but dreamed about all the fun behind the wall.  With the children’s absence, the trees never blossomed again, the animals disappeared, and the garden was always barren.  The selfish giant no longer heard the birds or smelled the spring air.  Then, one day, to the giant’s amazement, the garden was in blossom again.  From the window of his fortress, he saw the children had crept through a hole in the wall to play in the garden again.  Finally, the spring had melted his icy heart.  The giant “took an axe to knock down the wall,” and played with the children in the beautiful garden.

When you moved to Newark, we were hoping to have a socially responsible new neighbor.  We expected your home to be different from the corporate winter gardens we have often seen here.

As your glassy home steadily rose, we were mistaken.  Surrounding the building, a tall metal fence with spearheaded points rejects the surrounding world and separates the lonely giant from the city.  Strategically located at the gateway to our city’s newly energized waterfront, the Panasonic winter garden, however, tells a story of the giant in the fortress, his feebleness, his fear, and, most of all, his old urban biases.   We, the children, who were born and grow up in the surrounding neighborhoods, ask you, the giant, to “take an axe and knock down the wall,” and to open your garden to Newark and its people.  As a neighbor, this is the least you can and should do.

Sincerely,

The Children of Newark

Panasonic Petition

This petition and the poster above were featured in a June 2017 exhibition about about planning and urban policy. The exhibit was organized by Damon Rich, former planner for the City of Newark, and exhibited at the Yuerba Buena Center for the Arts.

 

 

 

Save Our Water (Newark)

 

Newark City Hall

Newark City Hall

On September 11, 2011, the Newark City Council was on the verge of passing landmark legislation: The Save Our Water Ordinance. This ordinance would effectively guard the city’s public watershed from corporate privatization. I spoke before the city council in favor of the proposed legislation.

MUA’s do not work: to see, look no farther than Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg. In 1992, the cash-strapped city sold its garbage incinerator for 42 million to The Harrisburg Authority, their MUA. The incinerator, already plagued with problems, only further deteriorated under private hands.

In 2003, only 11 years later, the federal government closed the incinerator because it spewed dioxin, science’s most dangerous substance. Instead of permanently closing the incinerator, as the city would have done, The Harrisburg Authority borrowed one hundred and twenty million dollars to rebuild and expand the incinerator. THA’s “solution” was riddled with shady, mismanaged deals. So it was no surprise when it could not repay the loan. But, since the loan was city guaranteed, Harrisburg was stuck paying for THA’s failure.

Everything went downhill from there. The city was swamped with 120 million in new debt, 108 million in old debt, 30 million in lawyer’s fees, a dioxin-spewing incinerator and its toxic landfill, and the highest garbage disposal rates in the nation—288 dollars per year per family. Altogether, the city owed more than 300 million, more debt than any American city. If equally distributed among the city’s 49,000 residents, each person would be stuck with 6,200 dollars of debt.

The result?  The city went bankrupt and was taken over by the state. The hijacked city is now selling its parking, water, sewer, and perhaps a park. But this only covers a fraction of the debt; the city will have to also cut back on basic services. Harrisburg is stuck in debtor’s prison for life.  But don’t worry, Newark could very well become Harrisburg’s cellmate for life.

When an MUA controls Newark’s water, it can easily hold the city hostage. There is nothing, at all, to stop it from raising our water rates when we refuse to guarantee its debt. The money that the MUA offers us is bait. One nibble and our beloved city is buried in a mountain of debt.

This city will follow Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Atlanta, Buffalo, Puerto Rico, Guam, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Gary, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Harrisburg if this council passes the despicable MUA. A scepter is haunting Newark, it is the scepter is of privatization. You must prevent Newark from receiving the MUA’s lethal dose. Pass the SAVE OUR WATER ordinance today!

 

Save Our Water (Trenton)

David and Goliath

Water is a basic human right that private corporations may not monopolize. For several years, my beloved Newark has been trying to privatize its public water system. On July 14, 2010, Newark’s attempt at water privatization needed approval from the Department of Community Affairs in Trenton. I went there and spoke the following before the approval committee:

I, Myles Zhang, born and raised in Newark, care passionately about my city’s past, present, and future. I find it the duty of the Department of Community Affairs to seriously question the plan’s merits, timing, and intended purpose.

On December 12, 1888, Newark’s Mayor Joseph Haynes said, “I want to say emphatically and positively that speculators have no power at all to touch a drop of that water in spite of their boasts […] It lies there awaiting the cities, and when Newark wants, Newark can go and take it.” Four years later, in 1892, mayor Haynes and the city concluded their 30-year effort to establish a publicly operated watershed. In the process, they had to overcome catastrophic public health issues, great financial sacrifices, and coordinated legislative battles. Contrary to this history, the current city plan of privatizing the watershed has only been prepared in extreme hast and secrecy. The citizens of the city and state have not been debriefed on a single convincing feasibility study.

For decades, as well as for the past four years, the City of Newark has been operated in a most wasteful fashion. For instance, according to city budgets in current years, the City Council’s and Mayoral Offices operating funds are three to four times higher than compatible Jersey City, which itself is not known for financial frugality. Meanwhile, the weak city government has caused a deep financial crisis with shrinking revenues. Further borrowing through an MUA without careful study about how to spend it will only lead to a devastating loss to the city and its struggling citizens. The decisions that you make today will effect my generation and others to come.