I am saddened 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 obedient security guards that threaten pedestrians with arrest. They are scared of Newark.
When Panasonic decided to move their national headquarters to Newark, I hoped they would buck the trend of icy disrespect. However, I saw that their new building turned its back to the city like so many other lifeless behemoths downtown. I wrote the following petition, signed by Newark children during the opening of Riverfront Park. On 11 June 2012, when the Central Planning Board asked Panasonic to open their grounds for public access, I read my petition in support of the city.
This poster and petition were featured in a June 2017 exhibition about about planning and urban policy at the Yuerba Buena Center for the Arts, entitled Space Brainz. The exhibit was organized by Damon Rich, a MacArthur Fellow and former lead city planner for the City of Newark.
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.
On September 11, 2011, the Newark City Council was on the verge of passing landmark legislation: The Save Our Water Ordinance. This ordinance would 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. Yet, 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!
Water is a fundamental human right that private corporations cannot 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 voiced my objections before the state 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.
When Mayor Cory Booker tried to privatize Newark’s water system, thousands of citizens protested by signing an initiative called the Save Our Water Ordinance. Privatization would jeopardize the city’s 35,000 acre watershed, permitting its forests to be developed by private companies. After much public outcry, the city was forced to reconsider privatization.
However, the city government still needed to close the corrupt and semi-private agency managing the watershed, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). The presiding judge formed a committee to manage the closure. Yet, months later, the procrastinating committee was still not finished and was even trying to sue the impoverished city for over a million dollars. Even worse, the same law firm that started the privatization hassle was managing the closure, a clear conflict of interest. At a February 2014 board meeting in Newark, I read the following statement:
My name is Myles Zhang. I am a seventeen-year-old resident of Newark.
I do not have the speaking capabilities of high-priced lawyers. I am unable to twist and mutilate reason and logic, making a mockery of our nation’s justice system. I am unable to magically conjure obscure legal justifications. But, I see needy Newark every day.
On the way to school every day, I pass by the veritable old institution of the Newark Public Library. Its doors are often shuttered to the public. Its budget is too slim to serve Newark’s needy citizens. On the way to school every day, I pass the empty lots of this needy city. They are overgrown and waiting for development. On the way to school every day, I see a city that is in dire need of help.
Today, I ask you the question: How are Newark’s limited resources to be spent? Are they to be spent paying a corrupt and greedy law firm millions of dollars? NO! Are they to be spent on spoon-feeding lawyers and former employees of the NWCDC? NO! Are Newark’s limited resources to be spent fighting for the people? YES!
The corrupt farce of the NWCDC has dragged on far too long. Needy Newark has been deprived of a clean water department for years. You were appointed, with the full faith and credit of Newark’s people, to kill this monster once and for all. More than six months later, I see mountainous legal bills, a court case, and little discernible progress. Nobody should drag Newark’s already tarnished name through the mud again.
The next time I walk by the Newark Library, I would like to see it open to all people at all hours. The next time I walk by City Hall, I would like to be rest assured that this city has a clean water department delivering clean water to a clean city. You have a responsibility, no a duty, to help this city. Act now.