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:

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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.

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

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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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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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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.

Built on a Billion-Dollar Bed of Corporate Tax Breaks

What kinds of tax breaks are we giving to redevelop Downtown Newark?
Who is getting them?

An investigative report on public funds for private profit.

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“Free enterprise is a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich.”
– Noam Chomsky

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Contents

[1] Who owns the land around Mulberry Commons?

[2] If past predicts future, what kind of past tax breaks have we given?

[3] The problem is not tax breaks. The problem is: Who gets them?

[4] How can we ensure equitable economic development in Newark?
Five policy recommendations.

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Artist’s rendering of Newark Penn Station expansion

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Introduction: A Case Study in Edison Parking

The City of Newark borrowed $110 million to pay for a pedestrian bridge over Route 21. This new link between Mulberry Commons and Penn Station will allow travelers, event goers, and sports fans to walk directly from the trains to the games at the arena. Newark City Hall and the media are describing this as Newark’s equivalent and response to New York City’s High Line. This project follows on the already $10 million spent on building Mulberry Commons.
As part of misguided car-centered 20th-century urban planning, thousands of highways were built in our nation through low-income communities of color, to divide the less privileged in hundreds of places like Newark. Through the tools of public investment in public space, now is a moment to make wrong historical injustices like Route 21, Route 22, Interstate 78, and Interstate 280. Now is a historic opportunity for the urban form as tool of reparations.
However, what parts of the public – divided across lines of race, income, and home address – will benefit the most from this project? Will the benefits of this investment disproportionately go to a few people or institutions, such as Prudential Center patrons and Edison Parking tenants?

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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.

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Entrance gate to the Old Essex County Jail

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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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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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The Paterson Silk Strike in Historical Perspective

1913 to 2023

 

A century later, the mills of Paterson sitting abandoned, their machines silent

Exactly 110 years ago today – on July 28, 1913 – Paterson silk mill workers voted to end their strike. Their strike had failed. But what has changed (or not) since then frames their historical struggle in the context of ongoing labor battles. The motivations of the strikers are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1913: the fight for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, and – ultimately – for the right to work that feels meaningful.
The silk looms of Paterson required a high level of skill to operate: to draw the thin threads into delicate patterns, to weave the silk without breaking it, to never pull the threads too tightly that embroidered patterns curled up into themselves. Machines kept the rooms humid all year round – hot in summer, cold in winter – so that the silk threads remained damp, malleable, and less likely to tear from dryness. Workers suffered in the moisture; cases of asthma and lung diseases were common. Management was threatening to replace their skilled labor with machines. Whatever creativity and skill was still required to operate the looms was gradually being lost. Thousands in Paterson went on strike for five months from February to July 1913. They ultimately failed when management refused to concede to their demands and when workers in other mills refused to join in solidarity.
The machines in Paterson were powered first by water and wood, then coal, and finally electricity. The inventors of mill machines were scattered across the New York region. Factory machines needed to be close to the men who invented them and repaired them when, inevitably, these new inventions broke down. The investors in silk were on Wall Street and Lower Manhattan. The markets selling silk were department stores on Manhattan’s Ladies Mile, better known as Sixth Avenue. (Sixth Avenue was still largely residential.) A popular saying ran: 8th Street down the men are making it; 8th Street up the women are spending it.
The distance between markets and manufacturers was once measured in miles, the distance by train from Paterson to New York City or the distance by foot from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to Ladies Mile. This distance is now measured in thousands of miles. In the 19th century, Jacob Riis shocked the city’s elite with photos of Lower East Side tenements and factories located less than a mile from their Fifth Avenue homes. On June 7, 1913, the Paterson strikers brought the strike to the city. They boarded trains to Madison Square Garden and re-enacted their strike on stage for an audience in the thousands. Some strikers played on stage as police, others as management, and others as themselves. It was one of the the first times in American history that labor was transformed into a public pageant, into a public spectacle that hoped to make visible their struggle to New York City consumers. Pageants were traditionally military and state affairs that celebrated events like battle victories, elections, and fancy dress balls in theaters. To put on as large a public spectacle to celebrate striking and strikers was something new.
Fearful for their property and of socialists on their doorstep, Upper East Side residents organized their own unit of the National Guard based in a custom-built Park Avenue Avenue castle. Nicknamed the Silk Stocking Regiment for the wealth of its members, they paraded annually down Fifth Avenue in a display of wealth and force.

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