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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Thank you to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and  Tim Crist at the Newark History Society for organizing and hosting my presentation.

PhD Dissertation Project (draft in progress)

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

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Project Brief

“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.

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Drafts of Chapters in Progress

Interstate Highways in Newark

Public Housing in Newark

How an infrastructure project ruined a racially integrated neighborhood
How public housing was designed to fail black families

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Committee Members

Robert Fishman, planning history
Ana Morcillo Pallarés, built environment
Matthew Lassiter, urban/suburban history

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See all my urban history publications about this place

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See all my artwork about urban decline and urban decay

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The Last Two Miles (draft of dissertation chapter)

Published to my website privately, under consideration for publication in Journal of Urban History

Weequahic before the highway, 1960
Same view after the highway, 2023

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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

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Weequahic in 1955 before the highway
Weequahic in 2023 after the highway

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It did not have to be this way…

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.

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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.  →

9,000 words, 21 pages

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Belmont Avenue in 1962
Identical camera angle in 2023

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Two proposals for the path of Interstate 78
A destructive proposal from state planners vs. an alternative vision from Newark residents

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Proposal from State and City Planners Proposal from Weequahic Residents
Length in miles 4.52 About 4.7
People displaced 7,818 Fewer than 500
Demographics 10% black Fewer than 1% black
Homes demolished 2,247 homes 40 homes

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Johnson Avenue in 1961
Identical camera angle in 2023

 

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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).
3. Acknowledgements
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.

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Jeliff Avenue in 1962
Identical camera angle in 2023

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Hillside Avenue in 1962
Identical camera angle in 2023

 

A home is half the promise. (draft of dissertation chapter)

Published to my website privately, under consideration for publication in Journal of American History

How market forces undermined the promise of public housing in Newark

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Building 7 at Newark’s Scudder Homes demolished in summer 1997

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To bring about integration, the first to do is to do it. [….] The change-over to a policy of nonsegregation is not so difficult and troublesome as one anticipates. [….] If a housing authority shows complete sincerity in the change and never retreat from their announced position with respect to non-segregation, the change will be successful. This, in any case, is what we have found to be true in Newark.

– Newark Housing Authority Executive Director Louis Danzig, 1952

 

In 1962, the future of racial integration in Newark looked promising. Newark’s newly elected Mayor Hugh Addonizio praised the movement toward racial integration before a meeting of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Newark City Hall. He described the apparent success of urban renewal to build high-quality public housing projects in black neighborhoods. Thousands of families once lived in wood frame tenements without central heating, interior plumbing, and private bathrooms. They now lived in public housing where, for the first time in their lives, they had their own bedrooms, bathrooms, and year-round steam heating.
Newark’s program of urban renewal cost taxpayers at least 128 million in federal funds (1.4 billion in 2020 dollars) and 53 million in local funds (550 million in 2020 dollars). This program costing by 19677 two billion (adjusted for inflation) gave Newark the fifth most expensive urban renewal program in the nation after New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. An estimated 55,000 more were displaced from their homes in the process, 45,000 for urban renewal and 10,000 for highway construction. By the end of this program, some 37 thousand people, representing about one in every ten Newark residents, lived in public housing.
Just eight years before in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal and that racial segregation laws were not legally enforceable. In the few years before Brown, Newark had already moved to desegregate public housing and to assign residents to whichever of the city’s approximately fourteen public housing projects they preferred. Newark public schools also seemed to offer the promise of racial integration. The city’s population was 66 percent white in 1960 and 34 percent black. This would mean that every public school, if fully integrated city wide, would have two white children for every black child. The mixed incomes and races across Newark seemed to offer the possibility of a future egalitarian metropolis: schools and neighborhoods of both diverse races and diverse incomes.
For all its promises, this program of urban renewal failed spectacularly. By the 1980s, opponents and activists described urban renewal and public housing as “The Second Ghetto,” as high-rise slum housing as dangerous as the ghettoes they were supposed to replace. By 2010, most of Newark’s public housing from the urban renewal age had been demolished. Other lands cleared of homes to build urban renewal projects never found the financing to build and remain vacant lots. Among dozens of high-rise towers of public housing containing thousands of apartments, all but seven towers were demolished. The urban poor were expelled from public housing towers that had become concentrations of crime, drugs, poverty, and decay.
The program had fallen far from its hopeful origins when President Harry Truman signed urban renewal into law with the 1949 Housing Act. Truman announced at the program’s launch: “The private housing industry cannot in the foreseeable future provide decent housing for these families. Their incomes are far too low to cover the cost of new housing of any adequate standard. [….] We have a national responsibility to assure that decent housing is available to all our people.” By 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin famously characterized urban renewal as something “most northern cities now are engaged; it is something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. Getting it means Negro removal; that is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.” In the span of these fourteen years, a program Truman described as the fight to create “decent housing” had evolved into what Baldwin characterized as “Negro removal.”
The reasons behind the failure of public housing are more complex than simple reasons like “Negro removal,” poorly designed architecture, or state hatred for black people. Urbanist thinker Jane Jacobs blamed the failure of public housing on architecture. High-rise towers of public housing, she claimed, were too tall and too modern an architecture for families used to living in old tenements, Victorian townhouses, and rural farms. But the failure of social housing in Newark was not caused by poor design choices, low-quality architecture, or the supposed prejudice of the people who built and directed the program of urban renewal. Nor was the failure of social housing caused by the poor families, and especially rural black families who lived in these houses and were – the legend claims – unprepared for urban life. Instead, the failure has more do with employment discrimination, urban abandonment, and market policies that chose to under-invest in Newark and its people. These private forces collectively ensured the public failure of the Newark Housing Authority’s two billion dollar program of urban renewal.
Fundamentally, public housing in Newark was a two-part promise. Good homes at affordable prices for poor families were one half the promise: a promise met and provided by the public section. Economic mobility and non-discrimination in employment for those living in public housing was the missing half of the promise. It was a promise that the private sector failed to meet in an age of de-industrialization and suburbanization.

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Based on archival records, planning documents from the Newark Housing Authority, and old newspaper articles, read the full report on how public housing in Newark was designed to fail.  →

9,300 words, 23 pages

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Acknowledgements
I thank the archivists of the Newark Public Library and City of Newark Archives for granting me access to the primary sources that make my work possible. I also thank Newark-native Brendan O’Flaherty. His textbook on urban economics framed my understanding of Newark. His unpublished text chapter “How did Newark get to be a city where people aren’t rich?” also provided me a framework to understand the contemporary landscape of poverty in Newark. I am grateful to Zemin Zhang for his research on Louis Danzig and the history of the Newark Housing Authority. Last of all, I am grateful to the residents of Newark public housing, for their struggle and their perseverance to live in a system rigged against them.

Goodbye Baxter Terrace

Written by my father Zemin Zhang on December 2, 2007

 

“I love you darling’
“Baby, you know I do
“But I’ve got to see this Book of Love
“Find out why it’s true”
Every day in 1955, Charles Patrick, 17, and a group of teenagers came together to sing in the Baxter Terrace’s recreation hall.  By 1958, they had sung their heart out and their song, “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” hit the country and even spread as far as Europe and Australia.  “Oh, I wonder, wonder ohm ba doo who….. who wrote the book of love?”  Charles never found the answer and two members of the Monotones, the Ryanes Brothers, died in their 30’s.  Now that Baxter Terrance has been scheduled for demolition, I wonder if people could find some old and broken pages of the Book of Love from the rubble of this 66 year-old project.

 

Immediately after the establishment of the Newark Housing Authority (NHA) in 1938, word spread out that one of  four “low-cost “ projects, a complex of 21 apartment buildings, would be in an area surrounded by Orange, Nesbitt, James, and Boyden Streets.  Among 1,363 buildings in the vicinity, 45 percent residents were black, living in substandard condition, many even without bath tubs and toilets.  (Only 10 percent of the city population was black.)  To construct the largest public housing in the state, the Orange-Nesbitt project needed to clear a few hundred buildings, while the other three (Pennington Court, Seth Boyden Court, and Stephen Crane Village)  would be built on mostly vacant land.  All land negotiations with lucrative commissions were assigned to three white agents, despite of the protest of Harold Lett, the only black NHA member.

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“Where Evil Dwells” at Newark’s Old Essex County Jail

As originally published in The Newarker, December 2020

 

Photo by Madeline Berry

“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.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
When citizens convened in 1836 to incorporate Newark as a city, one of their first orders of business was to discuss the construction of a new jail. Four years earlier, they had set aside land for the new cemetery. The previous year, the old county courthouse and jail had burned down in one of the fires that periodically swept through early American towns of wood-frame homes. All traces of this old courthouse are now gone, except for the building’s basement dungeon where convicts were kept awaiting trial. Remnants of this dungeon are still visible in the dark crawlspace beneath the sanctuary of Grace Church on Broad Street.
This quiet village was already approaching 170 years old. Newark’s population numbered only 10,542 free white Americans, 6,000 Irish, 1,000 English and Scotch, 300 Germans and 358 free colored people in 1835. Within the span of a few months, in 1836, the town’s first two railroads linked Newark to points west and south; oil streetlights illuminated the town center; the first school system for poor children opened; and another fire swept through downtown. In the next few decades, the population would grow almost ten percent every year. Newark was fast becoming a city.
However, Newark remained in many ways a farming hamlet with Puritan roots. Since 1666, the annual town meetings had been held in the courthouse, the “Court Room at Moses Roff’s Taven,” or inside one of the lecture rooms of Old First Presbyterian Church near the corner of Broad and Market Streets. The sexton of Old First was, in fact, paid three dollars per year by the Town Committee “for cleaning the Lecture room of said Church.” The names of attending officials read like a list of street names from a modern Newark address book: Treat, Baldwin, Bruen, Pennington, Doremus, Halsey, Harrison, Frelinghuysen, etc. The lands they farmed and passed down through generations span much of present-day Essex County.
In the expanding town, it was no longer possible “to Farm let” the city’s debtors and poor to the lowest bidder, who in the years before the American Revolution paid £159 for the privilege. Nor was it possible to use fines as punishment for the most common public nuisances, which included escaped hogs and cattle roaming Newark’s dirt streets due to poorly maintained fences. The town records had noted few serious crimes like rape or murder in more than a century. Nonetheless, with waves of “rowdy” German and Irish immigrants soon to come, Newark needed a jail.

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Newark Changing: Mapping neighborhood demolition, 1950s to today


Click to launch interactive mapping experience.

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Newark Changing is a first-of-its-kind visual encyclopedia of 2,400 photo comparisons of almost every street corner​​​, home, and building ​​demolished by urban renewal and the social forces behind urban decay.​ Through an interactive and text-searchable historic map, any visitor can travel in time to explore their street and their building as it appeared in the period 1959-68 vs. today. Thousands of old street photos are brought to life with contemporary 360-degree panoramic photos of the same street scenes today, taken from identical camera angles to the old photos. This is the most extensive collection of photo comparisons past and present ever assembled for any American city.
Newark Changing reveals the scale and devastation of urban renewal, not from the aerial perspective of the city planner’s map but from the human perspective of the street corner and neighborhood. Tens of thousands of individual streets, homes, apartments, churches, and Jewish, Black, and Italian-owned businesses in Newark were “redlined” in the 1930s and deprived of investment. Most of these neighborhoods today have been bulldozed for interstate highways, universities, hospitals, and corporate investments in real estate. Billions in taxpayer money (adjusted for today’s value with inflation) was spent in the period 1945 to 1967 to demolish at least 10,000 buildings, displacing 50,000 people, 65-77% of whom were Black. At the same time, the migration of people and jobs away from urban centers deprived cities like Newark of the industrial employment base they once had. Decades after the 1967 rebellion, Newark still struggles to confront and overcome decades of harm inflicted on the city by de-industrialization and population loss to the suburbs.
Street scenes can be browsed by interactive map, by neighborhood, by subject, by street, or by the public institution responsible for demolition. Visitors can thus travel in time to explore today’s empty fields, parking lots, and desolate streetscapes for the vibrant neighborhoods they were before the automobile age.

Launch interactive mapping experience >

Warren Street School Demolition

As featured in:
1. Darren Tobia for Jersey Digs

2. The Vector, NJIT’s student newspaper
3. Read my analysis of campus architecture for some context on this demolition.

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“Those historians want to keep these old bricks. I can’t see why you’d want that s**t. F**k it. We might just slip in some new bricks. You can’t tell the difference anyway.”

– Conversation overheard between demolition workers at the Warren Street School

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“The university has never demolished any historic building of any value. Name one.”

– President of the university during a community meeting in October 2020

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When walking past the historic Warren Street School in spring 2021, a demolition scene by the local university shocked me. The building had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, together with five other Newark school buildings. Therefore, the drastic destruction should have been under state and local reviews. But demolition was approved on April 1, 2021, on April Fools Day.
The 150-year-old school was built by Jeremiah O’Rourke, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department and the architect of Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the largest civic structures in 1890s America. Before the university acquired the building in salvageable condition, it was the home of American History High School, founded by beloved Professor Clement Price to promote learning of American and local history by coming generations. Even with its windows now stripped out and demolition equipment parked around it, the grand master work for Newark’s proud history of public education was crying for this painful end delivered by the wanton and shameful act of university leadership.
At the orders of the university president, a short-sighted acceleration of demolition around the campus in the country’s third oldest major city has been savagely damaging the city’s history. These actions add to the list of hundreds of buildings already demolished in the area. While institutions like Rutgers and developers like RBH and the Hanini Group have embraced historic preservation, this university still insists on wiping the slate clean of history that it views not as an asset but as an inconvenience.

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The future of any great institution depends on the preservation and appreciation of its own history. I believe in saving old buildings not just because they are pretty. More than an argument for historic preservation on aesthetics alone, history – and the visible presence of history – shapes our appreciation for the sacrifices of those before us. Passing by the Warren Street School for twenty years, I thought every time of the thousands of immigrant children who attended school here for over 170 years uninterrupted. I thought of the Irish and Italian brick masons who carved the school’s terracotta ornaments by hand on wages of 5 and 10 dollars a day. I thought of these children’s parents, who came to Newark by steamship and steam engine to give to their children a better shot at life than they could ever dream of. I thought of the architect who built this building in the 1880s with care and love and hope that better civic architecture will produce better citizens.
It is the burden of history that shapes us, and it is on our commitment (or failure) to interpret and enrich history for the next generation on which each of us will be judged. I am reminded of architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s words in 1963 when she described with horror the demolition of New York Penn Station.
“Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance. Somehow someone would surely find a way to prevent it at the last minute – not-so little Nell rescued by the hero – even while the promoters displayed the flashy renderings of the new sports arena and somewhat less than imperial commercial buildings to take its place.
“It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motivation in this instance was great enough.
“Monumental problems almost as big as the building itself stood in the way of preservation; but it is the shame of New York, of its financial and cultural communities, its politicians, philanthropists, and planners, and of the public as well, that no serious effort was made. A rich and powerful city, noted for its resources of brains, imagination and money, could not rise to the occasion. The final indictment is of the values of our society.
“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

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Learn from the past.
Live in the present.
Plan for the future.

This was the inscription mounted at the Warren Street School’s entrance, which demolition cranes tore off and crushed in the dumpster. A site that once had a past, now has no past to learn from and to inform the present and future. Through demolition, our link with history is severed.

Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

1. Preservation New Jersey: Ten Most Endangered Historic Places  May 18, 2021
2. After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’  May 18
3. Newark Historic District Designated as Endangered  May 18, 2021
4. James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School  May 6, 2021
5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not even at NJIT   February 1, 2021
6. SHPO Delays NJIT’s Plan to Raze 4 Historic Buildings    January 8, 2021
7. NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed   January 7, 2021
8. Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison – But Only If It Survives   July 4, 2020
9. NJIT’s Plans to Modernize Its Campus Could Cost Newark Some History   March 12, 2020

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James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

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Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.

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A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021,[1] and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.

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Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.

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Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)

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Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.

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