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The City as Carceral State

Context: The following personal essay accompanied my application for the Gupta Values Scholarship from the University of Michigan. I am sharing it here because it speaks more broadly to my background, education, activism, and research interests.


Entrance gate to the Old Essex County Jail


One out of every one hundred black men in my neighborhood of Newark, NJ is currently in prison. At least half have a permanent criminal record as formerly incarcerated people. Most charges are for drug use and possession, often marijuana records from when marijuana was illegal. My earliest memories of Newark are of the homeless walking down our street to the nearby food pantry and young men carrying boom boxes on their shoulders (this was before the iPod). I will always remember observing one woman as she passed our house each day. The first time I saw her, she had been recently evicted and dragged two suitcases behind her. With each passing week, the suitcases gradually grew lighter until – after several weeks – all she had left was a grocery bag of belongings, her dignity gradually stripped away. Up our street was the public housing project of Baxter Terrace – three-story red brick barracks where the urban poor lived under constant police surveillance. Most were unemployed and all were on public welfare.
I remember taking the train to school in the suburbs. In the span of only five miles, vacant lots and abandoned buildings in one of the nation’s poorest cities gave way to large homes on tree-lined streets in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs. The distance of five miles – or in some cases a single city street – was all that separated the poverty of my city from the wealth of its suburbs. At the city limits of Newark, a system of one-way roads, streets without sidewalks, and aggressive “neighborhood watch” signs separated the city from the suburb. On one block, apartment buildings, treeless streets, and bodegas that accepted food stamps. Just one block over, there were century-old trees and four-bedroom homes selling for up to a million dollars. Here in these suburbs, homeowners commuted to Downtown Newark each day and returned home each night, bringing home with them the wealth they made in the city. So little and yet so much separated these two worlds.
Martin Luther King described America in a 1968 speech he gave in Detroit: “There are literally two Americas.  Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. [….] But there is another America. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.” So much and yet so little has changed since 1968. The racial wealth gap is almost the same today as it was in 1970. In Newark, median black family income is less than $30,000. In Newark suburbs, median family incomes are over $100,000.

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If not for these early experiences, I would not be studying architecture and urban planning. My current work and dissertation research examine the carceral state as metaphor and asks: What actions in urban history produced the polarized, divided, and unequal urban landscape? Much blame lies with architects and urban planners, who worked with banks, realtors, and powerful institutions to profit from inequality. The Federal Housing Administration’s 1930s maps of Newark and hundreds of other cities singled out urban areas to deny investment and suburban areas to invest. Institutions require enablers, the realtors to assess the racial composition of neighborhoods, city planners to collect data, and mapmakers to visualize all this information that justified segregation in history.
However, my interest in redlining is more than academic. The implications of this research feel real. The audience for this work includes people I meet and see every day: neighbors down the street who were denied home mortgages because of their race; my own parents who would have been denied a mortgage (if not for the personal intervention of the bank’s CEO); Newark public school children learning about the history of their city; first generation college students at the local Rutgers University; and people like me who grew up with asthma and elevated blood-lead levels due to environmental conditions. Work in the urban humanities and digital humanities must be accessible to people outside the ivory tower of Ann Arbor, people who will live every day with the consequences of decisions handed down from urban planners and architects.
One of my current projects examines Newark’s old Essex County Jail, and the possible transformation of this site from abandoned prison into memorial park. Built 1836, it is the oldest public building in the city, a national monument within walking distance of my home, and a historic site abandoned since 1971. The history of this site challenges us to think of carceral spaces as something that stretches back hundreds of years. Incarceration is an evolving institution from slavery to Jim Crow to the present that has taken different forms at different times, in a constant act of reproducing itself. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1850 in the opening lines of The Scarlet Letter: “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.” As authors also write in The 1619 Project, slavery and incarceration were fundamental to the American project and to the origins of a city like Newark. The city was founded 1666 by Puritan settlers looking to build a utopian “city on a hill.” Upon Newark’s incorporation as a city, the jail was their first act as new city. Advocating for the preservation of this jail widens the stories we can tell and voices we can include in history. All buildings tell stories, and the built environments we preserve or destroy reflect the communities we think are worthy of preservation or destruction. Demolishing a building and neighborhood erases the stories these places can tell about the people who lived and struggled there. In my mind, architecture can and must be an activist practice.
When I started this project in 2018, I was excited to make this history visible. The site is entirely overgrown with trees and largely invisible from the street. To visit it and understand its importance required trespassing on public land and bringing people inside. With the rigorous tools of architectural documentation, I photographed in secret every corner of the site and drew up detailed site plans that will assist in its preservation. All these resources are shared online at the website I designed: OldEssexCountyJail.org. Based on this work, the local architecture school has conducted several studios that examine this site, as well as the first ever concrete plan and cost estimate of how much preservation will cost. Based on this website, my historical documentation, and on-site interviews with me and former inmates of this jail, Discovery Channel will be syndicating this fall a fifteen-minute documentary about this site to national and international audiences with translation into twenty languages for several million viewers.
Beyond incarceration, my larger challenge is to make scholarship accessible to the public. The boundaries around scholarship are intellectual (writing too complex for general audiences to understand), financial (academic writing locked behind pay walls), and spatial (academic spaces that do not feel physically welcoming to outsiders). My other projects from films, to videos, building construction sequences, interactive models, urban history maps, and my several websites all attempt – through research methods identical to the Essex County Jail – to reach audiences historically excluded from elite spaces. For instance, my ongoing collaboration with Rutgers University in Newark will result in a recurring history of Newark course, open for free for anyone outside the university to join. Students will be expected to produce works of public scholarship and narrative histories that examine the legacies of redlining and incarceration. Teaching students from the immediate community at their local university, and including in the classroom the physical presence of community activists, breaks down traditional barriers around scholarship. The course will be taught the first time in summer 2024 and will be funded by the Mellon Foundation, Clement Price Institute, and Chancellor’s office. Up to $150,000 is possibly forthcoming from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant I wrote for Rutgers as co-PI. Collectively, my work – none of which is published in traditional academic journals – has had over seven million viewers in the past four years and about one hundred thousand monthly readers. Visit: MylesZhang.org.
Every year, a few dozen high school students from Newark go on to attend Ivy League universities; occasionally, one or two become Rhodes Scholars. But it is rare for any of them to return to Newark. The city is a space to escape from, in search of wealthier spaces where home ownership is easier and schools are better. Social mobility means leaving behind the city and its ghettos to enter the American mainstream. But for me, the American city – in all its inequality, injustice, and poverty – is the foundation to reexamine our history and to rebuild a more equitable society. The evidence of inequality and the justification for reparations is all around me, from the city archives I visit, to the city street I live on, and to the people I speak with every day. I am proud of where I came from because Newark provides me a foundation and framework to challenge institutions. After completing my PhD at the University of Michigan, Newark is the place I will return to and call home.


Interior of the abandoned old Essex County Jail

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