Artist and Historian
History PhD Candidate
Newark and NYC
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Presented March 5, 2024 at the Newark Public Library
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
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.
Download opens in new window
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.
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?
Created with architect and urbanist Stephen Fan for City as Living Lab
Funded by the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship
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.
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)
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.
Setting up sex offenders to re-offend
and end up back in prison after release
Written for “The American Carceral State”
PhD research seminar with Prof. Heather Ann Thompson
1. Did the crime, did the time… but still doing time?
2. How much do residency requirements restrict housing options in New York City?
3. How much are sex offenders on the registry an actual risk to public safety?
4. Where do we go from here? At least four public policy solutions:
. Reduce the residency requirement from 1,000 feet to 100 feet from a school.
. Eliminate site-specific parole requirements.
. Distinguish between virtual space and physical space. They are not the same.
. In an internet age, fight crimes where they actually happen, not where we think they happen.
Time-lapse animation of the prison’s entire design – building by building virtual model – from the 1820s to present.
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness, allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
– Historic architectural plans (1837 report in French, pp. 124-38)
– Primary sources (1830 description)
– Reports on the historic preservation of this prison (1994 Historic Structures Report, Volume II)
Music by Philip Glass from the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, starting at minute 37:30
Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.
Creating the Divided Metropolis:
How Newark came to be a poor city in a wealthy region
A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture
“Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first” Mayor Kenneth Gibson declared in 1970, as the first black mayor of any major city in what is now the American Northeast and the Rust Belt. The history of Newark’s urban decline is specific to Newark and unique to the details of this city. And yet, Newark’s story is national in its implications, and mirrored in hundreds of other American cities large and small that also experienced decline.
From the 1950s through 1970s, Newark embarked on one of the most extensive programs of state-funded urban renewal in the nation, less costly only than those of New York City (20 times Newark’s population); Chicago (eight times larger); Philadelphia (five times larger), and Boston (twice as large). Newark’s program was certainly among the most ambitious: to clear out the areas called slums, to construct highways, to build public housing, to stimulate the urban economy, and – in the end – to stop urban decline. And yet for all the billions spent and an estimated 70,000 out of Newark’s 400,000 people displaced, the program failed to reverse urban economic and population decline. What mixture of actors and institutions – city planners, politicians, realtors, developers, and banks – caused Newark’s program to fail?
This project describes how two national programs impacted Newark: urban renewal (a program that invested in keeping the city stable) and redlining (a program that deprived investment to make the city unstable). The two programs – both initiated by local, regional, and federal governments and designed to profit real estate developers – coexisted and undermined each other in a decade of flaws and contradictions. Redlining usually refers to the practice when banks choose to not invest in a certain neighborhood or city because of the race of who lives there. Redlining is racial and economic discrimination. More importantly, although rarely framed in such terms, redlining describes the practice more broadly of choosing not to invest in a place because it is a city and considered a less profitable investment. Banks, developers, realtors, businesses, department stores, and the fabric of social institutions vital for urban life all migrated from the city to the suburbs. These other institutions all redlined Newark independently of the real estate lobby. More than anti-black, redlining is anti-urban.
This project frames Newark’s story in national terms. Each chapter examines one form of redlining in Newark, and then frames this form of localized redlining in the national picture of urban abandonment. There are five frames: transportation, finance, housing, welfare, and employment. This range of actors across areas – public and private, local and national – did not collaborate in a conspiracy to deprive Newark and the American city of wealth. But their actions overlapped and mutually reinforced each other to leave the American city behind and ensure that attempts to save the city through state-funded urban renewal would fail. Through anti-urban redlining practices in each of these five areas – transportation, finance, housing, welfare, and employment – urban decline was the inevitable result. The history of all places is told through one place, and the history of one place is told through all places.
Drafts of Chapters in Progress
Robert Fishman, planning history
Ana Morcillo Pallarés, built environment
Matthew Lassiter, urban/suburban history
Published to my website privately, under consideration for publication in Journal of Urban History
How an infrastructure project contributed to today’s urban-suburban racial wealth gap
City planners designed Interstate 78 to destroy a stable and racially integrated neighborhood of 7,500 middle-class homeowners
In 1958, the New Jersey State Transportation Department had a choice: Build Interstate 78 on a route that displaced some 43 families in the suburb of Hillside or build it on a path that displaced some 7,800 Jewish and black families in one of Newark’s only racially integrated neighborhoods. Engineers and planners chose the urban highway path through the Jewish and black neighborhood over the less destructive suburban route. It is a story local to Newark, but mirrored hundreds of times across the landscape of other American cities. The story of Interstate 78 is a microcosm that reveals much about the politics and inequalities of city planning in a suburban and auto age.
Highways slice through Newark on all sides. They cut the city into parts and divide neighborhoods from each other. The millions of cars and trucks that pass through Newark annually emit soot particles that give Newark air the highest concentration in the state of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. To the east of Downtown is the six-lane Route 22 built in the 1930s that divides the city from the Passaic River and restricts public access to the waterfront. To the north of Downtown is the six-lane Interstate 280 built in the 1940s. To the west of Downtown is the eight-lane Garden State Parkway built in the 1950s that divides Newark from commuter suburbs to the west. To the south of Newark is the ten-lane Interstate 78 built in the 1960s that divides Newark from historically and once majority-white suburbs like Hillside.
Collectively, these four roads box in Newark from four sides. New Jersey’s largest concentration of poverty, where the median family income is a mere $38,000, is separated from the rest of the state by a highway moat up to 400 feet wide in parts of Interstate 78. By contrast, the median family income in the Essex County suburbs that surround Newark is over $100,000. Pre-pandemic some 200,000 residents of these commuter suburbs drove into Newark on these highways, parked in Newark, made salaries on average above $50,000, and drove home at the end of each workday, leaving behind some 300 acres of surface parking lots.
It did not have to be this way.
Based on archival records, planning documents from the Newark Public Library, and racial redlining records from the federal government, read the full report on how the Weequahic community fought and failed to block construction of Interstate 78. →
Two proposals for the path of Interstate 78
A destructive proposal from state planners vs. an alternative vision from Newark residents
|Proposal from State and City Planners
|Proposal from Weequahic Residents
|Length in miles
|Fewer than 500
|Fewer than 1% black
1. Further viewing and interactive mapping
Photo comparisons of Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood before vs. after highway construction, in 1962 vs. today
Related publication from my website Newark Changing
2. Further Reading
For a near parallel story, see Robert Caro’s chapter on how Robert Moses drove the Cross Bronx Expressway through the Jewish neighborhood of East Tremont. In a story both local and national, Moses could have routed the highway through an adjacent park on path that would have displaced only a few hundred people. He chose the path through East Tremont, resulting in what Caro claims was the destruction of 2,000 families from a stable working class tenement neighborhood. Read more at:
Robert Caro, “Chapter 37: One Mile,” in The Power Broker (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
I am grateful to my parents for their unwavering support of my studies, as well as my dissertation adviser Robert Fishman. Newark still struggles with the legacies of redlining and ongoing air pollution from its highways, port, and airport. In this fight against environmental racism, the activists at the South Ward Environmental Alliance and Ironbound Community Corporation are key actors. This history essay is written for them.