Civil Rights Rebellion in the Essex County Jail

Season 13, Episode 6 of the series Abandoned Engineering
Streamed June 2024 in Britain, July 2024 in America

A film crew visits and explores the decaying remains of old Essex County Jail in New Jersey, a facility that became a powder keg of injustice that was set to explode in the 1960s Newark rebellions. Learn more about this historic building in our digital exhibit and the oral history video project to remember the hundreds who suffered in this space.
In every episode since 2016, the channel features three abandoned buildings. Each building is selected for its international significance, for important events that took place there, for its aesthetics, for its cultural importance, or the way this site motivates us to rethink and remember otherwise invisible histories of tragedy and pain. For this year’s season, the old Essex County Jail was one of just 24 sites selected from around the world. Other featured sites in past seasons include: parts of the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl, forts built for the Allied landing at D-Day, as well as dozens of equally important but less visited historic buildings and ruins.
Content and inspiration for this documentary grew from my Columbia University undergraduate senior thesis project about this jail, as well as my Cambridge University’s Master’s thesis about the American architecture of solitary confinement. Based on seeing my senior thesis project and reading master’s thesis online, the film crew contacted me about adapting this research for television. I was happy to provide them an interview, all my primary sources from the Newark Public Library, as well as suggested interviews with community leaders Ras Baraka and Fredrica Bey about the carceral state.
For British audiences, view the full series here on SkyTV.
For U.S. audiences, view the full series here on AppleTV. The series is also being syndicated and translated into 20+ languages for international audiences.

 

Launch digital exhibit about the carceral state in Newark.

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Envisioning Seneca Village

A project by Gergely Baics, Meredith Linn, Leah Meisterlin, Myles Zhang

In collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy and the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History

 

Email project authors here if you have questions.

 

Envisioning Seneca Village is a project depicting what this significant nineteenth-century village might have looked like in the summer of 1855, about two years before it was destroyed by the City of New York to build Central Park. It features an interactive 3D model, a non-interactive tour through the 3D model (A Tour through Seneca Village), and supplementary materials. The project is anchored in extensive scholarship and aims to make the village’s history visible to a wide audience. The project is also a work in progress with updates, additions, and new features planned soon.
Seneca Village was a community established by African Americans in 1825, two years before emancipation was completed in New York State. By the mid-nineteenth century, the village was the home of at least 50 families—about ⅔ Black and ⅓ white, mostly Irish. It was situated on an approximately four-block area east of present-day Central Park West between 82nd and 86th Streets, which was then a few miles north of the city’s urban core and between the villages of Bloomingdale to the west and Yorkville to the east. This location offered a safer, freer environment to live than downtown. Villagers built a thriving, complex, and heterogeneous community with core institutions including three churches and a school. Seneca Village’s destruction by the City in 1857 abruptly ended 30 years of successful efforts to nurture families, sustain livelihoods, and create community. It was also the first instance in a long history of the City’s abuse of eminent domain to sacrifice Black neighborhoods for urban development projects—in this case, to build a world-famous park.

 

3D Model References and Methodology. See also: Tips for Navigating the Model.

As residents scattered to different parts of New York and the Northeast, the Park construction crew buried building debris, covering it with landscaped lawns, hills, and paths. The community’s memory faded for a century and a half. Yet the lives the villagers made there left both an archival paper trail and extensive material traces underground. Since the 1990s historians, archeologists, educators, descendants, and artists have mined the fragmentary sources, excavated the site, and sought new ways to recover the village’s history and memory.
Despite all of the information that researchers have unearthed, there is a lot that is still unknown about the village and its community members. It is hard to imagine what it was like to live there. No photos or drawings survive, the present-day Central Park site is devoid of above-ground traces of Seneca Village’s built environment, and this region of New York City was quite different in the nineteenth century than today. Envisioning Seneca Village addresses these blindspots by creating a visual interpretation of the village that integrates social historical, archival, and archeological evidence into digital cartographic and architectural reconstruction. Through this model we seek to amplify existing scholarship, help visitors to learn more about the village’s history, catalyze new research with the questions the model raises, and above all, keep the memory and spirit of this past community alive in the present.
Further Reading on Seneca Village
Envisioning Seneca Village is a collaborative project between Gergely Baics, Meredith Linn, Leah Meisterlin, and Myles Zhang that integrates our expertise in archaeology, social history, historical geographic information systems (GIS), and digital architectural reconstruction. The project has been aided by research assistants, additional support from the Central Park Conservancy, and generous guidance from a diverse group of Seneca Village advisors and stakeholders. Learn more about the project and team.
Project Table of Contents (site map)

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University of Michigan Campus Drawing

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I made a map of each place where I lived an extended period of time: Newark, New York City, Oxford University, Columbia University, and now the University of Michigan. This map depicts almost every major landmark on the University’s central campus and took about 300 hours to create over the past 18 months. Click the image for full resolution or scroll down for details.
Medium: ink on paper with watercolor wash
Dimensions: 26 by 45 inches (66 by 114 centimeters)
Sources: synthesized from Google Earth, satellite images, maps, and street view
Please contact [email protected] to order artist quality prints of this image. The image can be printed at any size you need: as small as 10 inches to as large as 180 inches wide with no loss in image quality.

 

View full size image >

Image is provided at resolution suitable for viewing, but not for large-format printing.
Please contact me for the source file.

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1. Image Annotated with Building Names:

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2. Work in Progress:

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3. Detail Views:

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Image is provided at resolution suitable for viewing, but not for large-format printing.
Please contact me for the source file.

Setting Up Sex Offenders for Failure

How the intersection of law and city planning exposes sex offenders to longer prison sentences

Published to the AGORA: Issue 18, 2023-24
The Urban Planning and Design Journal at the University of Michigan

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Abstract:

Our nation’s laws for sex offenders, although designed to protect the public, often have the opposite effect: increasing the chance sex offenders will be re-arrested and re-convicted for new crimes. The core of the problem is not that public safety rules, like Megan’s Law, are too weak. The problem is that these laws are written too strongly and too powerfully that they have the reverse effect: increasing the chances that sex offenders will commit new crimes. There are many problems with sex offender laws: too weak in areas they should be stronger; too strong in areas where they should be more flexible. But today I will examine just one aspect of the sex offender registry (the home address requirement) and how it affects one place (New York City). This analysis of New York City points to concrete and better ways to protect public safety than the current system: ways that reforming Megan’s Law will increase public safety.

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Article:

Download article as PDF / open in new window >

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Acknowledgements:

Thank you to dissertation advisers Dan O’Flaherty for his research on homelessness and Mary Gallagher for her advice on case law. This essay was originally written for Heather Ann Thompson’s fall 2023 PhD seminar on The American Carceral State. Most of all, thank you to editor Jessie Williams for her patient and insightful line edits.

Homeownership and the Racial Wealth Gap

Presented March 5, 2024 at the Newark Public Library

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The world’s largest concentration of wealth is in the New York City metropolitan area, yet the region contains many under-resourced cities, including Newark. What historical factors created this division between low-income Newark and its wealthy neighbors along lines of race, housing, income and social class?
The agents of change are more complex and nuanced than a simple narrative of redlining and white flight following the 1967 uprising. From discriminatory actions by the Federal Housing Administration and highways that carved through the urban fabric, to suburbs that pulled middle-class families away from Newark and factories that relocated outside of the city, contemporary poverty in Newark was more than a century in the making.
Drawing from the archives of the Newark Public Library, this presentation examines the range of challenges Newark faces and how the city overcomes. This is a Newark History Society program, co-sponsored by NJPAC and the Newark Public Library. Light refreshments will be served.
The presenter is Myles Zhang, urban historian and doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This presentation will evolve into my dissertation entitled:
“An island of poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity”:
Homeownerhip and the Racial Wealth Gap in Newark

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1959 Map of “Blighted” Areas by Newark Central Planning Board

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View event on NJPAC website

Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective

This project in two parts is a brief history of city planning in Jersey City
and a building-level interactive map of the entire city in 1873, 1919, and today.

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Read / download book as PDF

Download opens in new window

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Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective
A booklet about the history of the master plan

Over its four-century history, the evolution of Jersey City mirrors the larger history of the New York region. Each generation of Jersey City residents and political leaders have faced different urban challenges, from affordable housing, to clean water, to air pollution, and income inequality. Each generation has responded through the tools of city planning and the master plan.
Jersey City’s six master plans – dated 1912, 1920, 1951, 1966, 1982, and 2000 – capture the city at six historical moments. Reading these plans and comparing them to each other is a lens to understand urban history, and American history more broadly.

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Classroom Discussion Questions

1. How has the built environment of Jersey City evolved in the past century?
2. Who has the right to plan a city?
3. Who has the right to shape a city’s future?
4. Do you feel you have power over the plan of your city?

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Mapping Manhattan Chinatown’s Public Realm

Inspired by reading the book Manhattan’s Public Spaces:
Production, Revitalization, Commodification
by Ana Morcillo Pallarés
Created with architect and urbanist Stephen Fan for City as Living Lab
Funded by the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship

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View full size image.

Chinatown’s Public Realm

Along Mott Street, boxes of fruits and vegetables from the US, Latin America, and China flow from the private open storefronts and onto the public sidewalks and curbs. Forklifts navigate around crates and delivery trucks as vendors, residents, tourists, and shoppers–from regional Asian restaurant owners to West-African immigrants–animate the narrow walkways. After business hours, private produce stands become public places to sit, chat, people-watch, or nap as a sidewalk masseuse sets up two chairs on the public sidewalk to provide his private services.
Away from the commercial corridors, teenagers sit in circles sipping on bubble tea on the Pace High School track while senior citizens slap playing cards on a makeshift table along the track perimeter. Inside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, teachers begin their Chinese language class while protesters in Columbus Park call for ending violence against Asian Americans.
In creating this map, we hope to stimulate conversations about how public space can be better used, designed, managed, and reimagined: to inspire action in shaping a more resilient and inclusive public realm.

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Read the map in English and Chinese PDF. 阅读简体中文版

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Process

This map illustrates the public/private uses/spaces of Manhattan Chinatown’s pedestrian life. The map is divided into two sections: the upper depicts public spaces, and the lower section private spaces. From left to right are a spectrum of private to public uses.
In consultation with Chinatown residents and based on a series of walking tours and community forums, we developed the themes and activities shown on this map. We were inspired from reading Jane Jacobs and Michael Sorkin’s descriptions of street life and the delicate balance of public vs. private uses that play out on the city sidewalks. We hope this map will be a classroom and community resource to equip the public with a language and questions to interrogate their own built environments.
Below are scenes from a community event we held in summer 2021. Chinatown residents were invited to annotate an early draft of our map with their experiences and memories of the community.

 

 

 

Chinese music: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum)

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Reflections on my experience as PhD student, halfway through the program

As a third year student, I am more than halfway through the PhD program. So I thought now is as good a time as any to reflect.
In the same spirit of making public my undergraduate application to study at Columbia and my PhD application to study at Michigan, I am sharing the exam essays I wrote as a PhD student. When applying to Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, and now Michigan, I struggled to find online example essays and statements that had worked for other applicants. In my case, I was fortunate to have academic parents to read my application statements and college professors to mentor me on how they saw admissions from the other side of the table. But I also realize that most applicants do not have these kinds of advantages in their social networks and must rely more on the internet for advice.
After 40 credits of coursework to be completed in no more than two years, I am expected to take a series of exams that qualify me to write the dissertation. When applying to PhD programs, I had no idea there were prelim exams or what the requirements were. Each prelim exam is different, unique to the student and my relationship with the faculty committee members on my dissertation. The exams consist of four things:

1. A Prelim Reading List: books assigned to me by committee members Robert Fishman, Ana Morcillo Pallarés, and Matthew Lassiter.
This list is the basis for their two questions.

2. A Minor Essay on Metropolitan History: written in 48 hours timed environment

3. A Major Essay on 20th-c. Urban History: written in 96 hours

4. A 90-minute exam with full committee to grill me on knowledge of reading list and topics not covered in the essays

I am posting them online, not as a “model” for what the ideal exam should look like and more as an inflection point and sample of the document that the members on your committee could expect you to write some day. In full disclosure, I am also sharing the draft of what will become my PhD proposal and the rough draft of three chapters completed. Maybe this reduces the cultural capital required to succeed at elite institutions. At the least, it is the kind of document I wish I could have had and known about when I was applying to PhD programs.

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