“The State is Responsible”

Racial Segregation in Royal Oak Charter Township and Detroit Public Schools, a Comparative History

Written with urban historian Robert Fishman

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Black children standing in front of half-mile concrete wall, Detroit, Michigan. This wall was built in August 1941, to separate the Black communities of Royal Oak Township / Eight Mile-Wyoming from a White housing development going up on the other side.

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“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men [and women] – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

– Horace Mann (1796-1859) promoter of free public education for all

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If an educated public is necessary for democracy to function, then the strength of our nation’s public schools predicts the strength of our democracy. This observation would seem to be obvious and universally agreed, but in many parts of America it is not. Only seven percent of students in Detroit public schools read at or above their grade level when compared to children from neighboring suburbs. In Detroit metro, forty-seven percent of people are functionally illiterate as of 2017; the large majority are Black. These low levels of even basic literacy exist in thousands of places across the United States, not just in Detroit. In large part, this is the result of urban policies that assume that race should determine the quality of public services the state provides. An autopsy of how and why America came to be this way deserves several books and traces back several centuries. Instead, this article will analyze race-based policies that excluded Blacks from well-funded public schools in just one Detroit suburb: Royal Oak Charter Township.
First, the legal background is presented of Milliken v. Bradley, a key case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 that shaped metro Detroit’s current system of school segregation. Second, the historical case study of Royal Oak Charter Township is introduced: how this township came to be and why its present existence is a continued legacy of state-sanctioned racism. Third, the history and present problems of Royal Oak Township are reflected in its failed school system. The case of Royal Oak Township is also situated in the larger context of Detroit and is linked back to Milliken v. Bradley.

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Lorch Column at the University of Michigan

Lorch Column at Taubman College

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As a new PhD student, the massive Lorch Column welcomed me to Taubman College. On spotting the tall column from a distance, I knew I had arrived at my new home. I later learned this column was architectural salvage from the demolished Mutual Benefit Life Insurance building in my childhood neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. To my surprise, an important lost landmark in my own city had become an important new landmark to the University of Michigan. The column’s ancient stone base and ancient stone top linked by a modern steel skeleton is a fitting metaphor for the synthesis of past and present, the old and the new. In another way, its unusual history of transplantation and loss is a fitting metaphor for architecture’s own fraught relationship with capitalism.
Like many 19th-century insurance companies, Mutual Benefit saw its Newark headquarters as an advertisement to customers. Grand palaces to commerce modeled after the civic structures of ancient Rome would have symbolized to customers that this was a safe and permanent place to park their money. The logic followed that the taller and more imposing the monument the more powerful and wealthy the company that built it. And a monument it was: eight stories of white Dover marble, copper-framed windows, and ornament copied from the temples of ancient Rome. The first floor was a banking hall lined with Vermont marble, while the floors above contained offices. To crown the building, there was a richly decorated cornice. Behind this windowless cornice there was an entire fireproof floor of life insurance records for the company’s thousands of policyholders. In other words, in its original form, the powerful and weighty Lorch Column supported the weight of nothing more substantial than the paperwork of bureaucracy.

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The Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company building (left) and the Art Deco skyscraper that replaced it (right)

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Architect George B. Post modeled the four Corinthian columns and temple portico after the New York Stock Exchange he had completed a few years earlier. Comparing the details of the Lorch Column to the New York Stock Exchange, you will see they are almost identical in height, material, and ornament. The New York Stock Exchange was, in turn, modeled after the Roman Pantheon. A Roman temple to the gods had become an American temple to capitalism.
When erecting the structure that would eventually become the Lorch Column, architect George B. Post faced stiff competition. His building was on Broad Street, Newark’s main commercial street that was lined with dozens of other insurance companies and banks. After Hartford, Connecticut, Newark had the country’s second largest concentration of insurance companies. Across the street, there was the even larger home of the Prudential Insurance Company, built in stages by George B. Post and Cass Gilbert. To the thousands of downtown commuters and life insurance policy shoppers, Mutual Benefit needed to one-up the competition. As The New York Architect wrote in 1909: “The problem was to design a building as different as possible from the Prudential Building and at the same time make it indicative of the strength and greatness of an important insurance company” (source). After some thought, George B. Post concluded that since Prudential’s building was a granite castle in the Gothic style, his building for Mutual Benefit should be a marble palace in the Neoclassical style. In this way, the two structures and two companies would play off of each other: the industrial laborers and proletariat who purchased from Prudential’s Gothic castle vs. the upper class and bourgeois clients who purchased from Mutual Benefit. For thousands of downtown shoppers and commuters, the two buildings stood on opposite sides of Broad Street, framing the entrance to downtown. The giant columns, Post reasoned, would be a fitting advertisement to the upper-class life insurance policy holders Mutual Benefit needed. In its current form, the Lorch Column is a symbol of Michigan’s architecture school. But before the column met its own untimely death, it was an advertisement for others to insure against their own early deaths.

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Views past and present of Prudential’s headquarters, also demolished

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Why was Mutual Benefit’s home demolished, despite its cost of $1,000,000 c.1908, its grand columns, and its important architect? The calculated logic of capitalism dispenses with history whenever the next and newest building can deliver its owner more profit in the name of progress (source). By 1925, Mutual Benefit moved shop to a larger building two miles away and sold its old home to the National Newark and Essex Bank. Looking to turn a profit in the overheated 1920s real estate market and looking to build a suitable monument to their own corporate power, the new owner demolished the six-floor Corinthian palace to erect a 35-floor tower of its own. Opened 1929, the National Newark Building was the tallest tower in New Jersey with its ornate temple roof modeled after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the lost seven wonders of the ancient world.
In another twist of fate, Michigan alumni and builder of the Empire State Building, Colonel William Starrett, gifted the column to Michigan. The Empire State, in turn, is listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Like the 102-floor Empire State Building, the 35-floor National Newark Building was finished just as the stock market crashed. Both entered the Great Depression as largely empty buildings, both urban monuments to corporate ego – hence, the Empire State’s early nickname the “Empty State Building.” Ironically, the Lorch Column built in the image of Roman columns that survived 2,000 years barely survived 20 years. In the end, it was not time or nature or war that brought down the column; instead, the same calculated logic of profit and real estate that built this column demolished it shortly after.
As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.” One monument to commerce replaces another. If not for the foresight of Emil Lorch, the first dean of Michigan’s architecture school, to accept the gift of this column, it likely would have ended in the landfill. As demolition crews hacked away at the monumental old New York Penn Station and carted its carcass to the landfill, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemned its demolition. Her 1963 New York Times article about old New York Penn Station speaks to the fate of that train station as much as to the fate of the Lorch Column:
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 motive in this instance was great enough. (source)
Like the column that once advertised corporate strength but fell when the financial winds changed, Mutual Benefit Life Insurance itself fell apart in 1991. One reason among many: investments in Florida real estate that never paid off and left the company bankrupt. By the 1950s, Mutual Benefit had become entangled in financing real estate, among their largest projects: Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. Mutual Benefit’s fall was, to date, the largest bankruptcy of a life insurance company in American history. The company’s assets were sold off, and the Newark buildings it still owned were sold to the Kushner family, who is now better known for their relationship with Donald Trump than for their real estate speculation. Even an insurance company with offices carved in stone, it seems, could not insure against human greed.
In its afterlife as the Lorch Column at Taubman College, fate still follows the old column. It was capital and a desire to attract customers that motivated Mutual Benefit to build so large a column. It was capital and a desire to make more money that motivated the National Newark and Essex Bank to tear down this column. And it was once again capital and the wealth of real estate development in places like Florida that empowered Alfred A. Taubman to donate to the architecture school that now bears his name. In a fitting metaphor for the power of capital to make or break architecture, the architecture school’s old home on the Central Campus where the Lorch Column was first displayed is now Michigan’s Department of Economics. Where this column goes next in its journey across space and time is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain though, even something carved in stone can change meaning depending on time and place and fate. “So it goes.”

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Related: Essay on the Demolition of Old New York Penn Station

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Branch Brook Park Interactive History Map

As featured by the Branch Brook Park Alliance as the official park map

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Navigate this interactive history map of Newark’s Branch Brook Park. Click on map features to learn about park amenities, recreational spaces, and historic features. Map annotations are paired with explanatory texts and comparative photos of past and present. Beneath each annotation is the Google Maps link that will display directions to that point in the park from wherever you are standing.
All historic images are from the archives of the Essex County Parks Department and Newark Public Library. Browse their digital collections or contact the agency to visit their archives. All descriptions are sourced from the Cultural Landscape Report that documented the park’s history and renovation.
Map created by Myles Zhang
Map texts by Linda Morgan, Curtis Kline, Myles Zhang, Maeher Khosla, and Jack Barron
Contemporary photos by Curtis Kline with Mouli Luo

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Scenes of Branch Brook Park Past and Present

The park’s change over time becomes visible in this series of past vs. present photo comparisons. The once meticulously landscaped gardens and flowerbeds of the old park mature into the large trees and dense foliage of today. At the same time, many architectural follies and ornamental buildings have decayed to the point that no traces remain of their former existence. Old postcard views date from c.1900, while contemporary views were taken by Curtis Kline in summer 2021.

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Southern Division Buildings

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Boat House

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Boat House

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Lover’s Lane Bridge

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Ornamental Arch

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Sand Court

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Bandstand

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Southern Division Landscapes

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Cyprus Tree Promenade

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Reservoir

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Flower Garden

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Flower Garden

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Wisteria Walk

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Wisteria Walk

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Branch Brook Lake

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Middle and Northern Division

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Police Boats

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Wading Pool

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Rustic Footbridge

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Field House

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Tiffany Falls

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The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

Map created by author in QGIS with planimetric data from NYC Open Data

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More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.

About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1

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New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.

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Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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The street as public space

Pedestrians in American cities are confined to sidewalks. Most of the street is for cars. For instance, Manhattan avenues are ~100 feet wide with the middle 70 feet for cars and ~15 feet on either side for pedestrians. Pedestrians walking in the street risk possible death. After a century of the automobile, pedestrians are hard-wired that they must use only the sidewalk.
However, city streets before cars had a more democratic role in urban life. Old films of Lower Manhattan streets in 1911 show pedestrians walking wherever with little concern for the hard edge between sidewalk and street. Before the car, there were no one way streets in Manhattan, no traffic lights, no speeds limits, no road markings, and no crosswalks. There was no need for these features either. Nor was there a need for traffic engineers to optimize the timing of lights and direction of streets. Instead, the street without traffic laws was for everyone: horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, omnibuses, and pedestrians. With residents in dense tenement areas unable to access public parks and playgrounds, the street doubled as recreational space and as an extension of the sidewalk. With lower traffic speeds (horses move ~10 miles per hour), there was little risk of traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries. Fewer vehicles to begin with further allowed streets to serve multiple purposes with large avenues cluttered with pedestrians and traffic, while less busy side streets were alternative sidewalks.

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Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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1. Public space lost to cars (1900 to 1945)

Introducing mass-produced cars had consequences for street life. Firstly, traffic accidents increased year on year and pushed pedestrians to the sidewalk. New York City traffic deaths went from 332 in 1910 to 1,360 in 1929 (source, p.73). Crossing the street against moving traffic became dangerous, and using the street was governed by specific rules about speed limits and parking zones. Expanding the police state was needed to enforce these rules – that is, traffic cops. Not only were drivers punished with traffic laws, pedestrians could no longer use the street with the same freedom they had before the car.
Secondly, specific and class-based rules developed for using public space. The car was a measure of social class: The car owner would, by necessity, need to have enough income to buy a car and enough space to park it. This, in turn, restricted most urban residents from owning cars and using the public space given to car owners.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses was adding hundreds of new parks, pools, and public spaces to the city. But this expansion of public space in some areas must be measured against the contraction of public space in other areas. At the same time, Moses was clearing dozens of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and highways. “Cities are created by and for traffic; a city without traffic is a ghost town,” he said. The value of public space must also be assessed by the rules that govern it. The city was taking away the free-form public space of city streets and was adding public space subject to new rules: Park closed from sunset to sunrise. Do not walk on the grass. No dogs allowed. No skateboarding. Children must be supervised.
Before the auto age, Lower East Side immigrant children played on streets within sight and sound of parents in tenements. Think of the 1969 advertisement for Prince Spaghetti that illustrates an immigrant culture of active and car-free street life. Today, play means a trip to the park with parents for supervised play in a gated enclosure. The car (among other causes) was the technology in urban life that transformed play from an independent activity in the public street to a regulated activity in designated playgrounds.

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The “Anthony! Anthony!” commercial for Prince Spaghetti shows a boy running home from play in the streets. The ad invokes nostalgia to encourage consumer spending on processed food. Ironically, it was this consumer spending at suburban supermarkets that was eroding the urban street life and small businesses represented in the ad. By abandoning the street and theater culture of cities for suburban living rooms with entertainment on TV, the American public was turning away from the very traditions represented in this ad.

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In 2008, 66% of New Yorkers (~5.5 million) commuted by walking or public transit. By contrast, 27% of residents in peer cities like Boston and San Francisco used walking or public transit for work. (source, p.72)
Of Manhattan’s 20 square miles, 36% is for public streets (source). An average Manhattan street gives two thirds of its surface area for cars and one third for pedestrians. So, of the 36% of Manhattan that is public streets, about one third of that is for pedestrians: 12% of available land.
Why are two thirds of all streets in Manhattan for cars when only 22% of Manhattan residents own cars? (source) Should the division of public space in streets be proportionate to the percentage of residents who own cars? Why are the majority of residents confined to the sidewalks that represent the minority of available space?
Taxes on New York City residents pay for paving the ~6,000 miles of roads and salaries for thousands of traffic police. Yet, most residents do not own cars. And most cars are either commercial vehicles on business or the private vehicles of non-New Yorkers commuting to work. In effect, urban residents are taxed for public space they do not use. At the same time, the non-New York commuters who use these streets do not pay for their upkeep. In other words, giving most public space to cars and taxing urban residents for its upkeep is a subsidy for suburban and business interests. Manhattan is the world’s most valuable real estate; there is no reason that the fraction of public spaces that remain should be given to private interests, too.
The city needs a redistribution so that the percentage of public space that is given to cars is similar to the percentage of New Yorkers who own cars. As designer and architectural critic Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a 2009 book about his experiences walking:
There is not exactly a biblical injunction that specifies the proportional division of the cross section of the block, nothing that requires that cars be given three times the space of pedestrians. Of the four lanes reserved for vehicular traffic, two are parking lanes. On our block – as with most blocks in New York – there are no meters, and parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The city, in effect, provides half the area of the public space on my block for the storage of private cars, and approximately forty will fit when all the spaces are occupied. The diversion of public space – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – to the private interests of the least efficient and most dangerous and dirty means of movement in the city is a fundamental affront to the real needs and habits of New York’s citizens, the majority of whom do not own automobiles.

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Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

The site of the World Trade Center complex forms a large hole because the space is owned by a government agency but is managed by corporations. Details of privatized spaces are pulled from map of Privately Owned Public Space and official zoning and land use map.

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2. Public space lost to the private sector (1945 to present)

In addition to reducing the amount of public space, cars empowered the migration of people, industry, and wealth from urban centers to the suburban and rural edge. In the decades after WWII, New York City lost a population of three million white people. Prominent industries relocated, such as Bell Labs that moved from Greenwich Village to new corporate campuses in suburban New Jersey. At the same time, as lower- and middle-class whites drove out of the city on bands of asphalt, minorities and immigrants with lower incomes and less consumer spending moved in. The net population loss increased poverty and made urban neighborhoods less desirable, causing consumer spending and property values to fall.
By the 1970s, the city was challenged with decaying public parks, public schools, city services, and infrastructure. But it did not enough revenue to make improvements. The city took out loans and cut back on public services like graffiti removal, causing a downward spiral with further decay of public spaces, further losses in the values of neighboring properties, and therefore less income from property taxes to pay for public services. With billions in debt and no revenue to pay off this debt, New York City wobbled within hours of bankruptcy in 1975. President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 captured the spirit of economic crisis:
Great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children‘s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. [….] In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
Reagan condemned what he saw as the over-expansion of government into all aspects of American life: welfare, taxes, regulations, and civic spaces. During his eight years as president, he supervised the largest rollback of public services in American history. With the belief in “small government,” Reagan cut back on welfare to minorities, government regulation of airlines, and government funding for infrastructure and public space. With the desire to create a “free market” for corporations to compete, Reagan announced in his inaugural address that “it is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.”
More broadly, Ronald Reagan’s policies in America and Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain gave birth to the political philosophy of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism believes that government is too large and that private industry can do a better job than government caring for the public good. Therefore, public services like water, electricity, parks, railroads, highways, and healthcare should all be entrusted to corporations. Following presidents like Bill Clinton followed Reagan’s lead by slashing taxes and de-funding public services, while shifting management of many public services to the private sector. As Noam Chomsky describes: “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
Neo-liberalism has consequences for public space. Since the 1970s, city government has been surrendering public space to non-government agencies. Since 1980, Central Park has not been maintained by the city’s parks department. Instead, the non-elected and wealthy members of the Central Park Conservancy rely on donations and private funding. The twenty acres of towers, parks, public streets, and memorials of the rebuilt World Trade Center are run by Brookfield, Silverstein Properties, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on behalf of the Port Authority. Green areas like Bryant Park are managed by the non-profit Bryant Park Corporation, while transit infrastructure like Penn Station is owned by National Railroad Passenger Corporation founded 1971. Similarly, streets in dozens of neighborhoods across the city and in Lower Manhattan are now part of Business Improvement Districts. Sensing that the government was not maintaining public space to adequate standards, business owners petitioned the city to form 76 Business Improvement Districts across the city that spend 167 million annually and can enforce their own preferences for the use of public space. (source)
What neoliberalism means for New York City is not so much a reduction in the actual amount of public space but rather restrictions on its use. Central Park is still open to the public, anyone can still mourn at the World Trade Center, or walk through a Business Improvement District. Many areas of Manhattan still appear to be and function as public spaces, but they are now managed by organizations that can restrict their use without being held accountable the way that city agencies report to elected officials.
More problematic is that neoliberalism has injected a corporate and business ethic for the management of public space. There was something civic and sacred about Central Park when it was built in the mid nineteenth century. Business interests like restaurants and trinket sellers were restricted from using the park, and the park was not expected to make an income for those managing it. Instead, park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. saw the park as an investment by itself in the aesthetic and cultural life of New York City residents.
Public spaces today are expected to pay for themselves through incentives and tradeoffs. A common tradeoff is the public allows a developer to build higher in exchange for the developer setting aside a fraction of his building for public space, in effect sacrificing one public need (light) in exchange for another public need (open space). Old New York Penn Station gave the bulk of its spaces to the public. In the interest of profit and making public space pay for itself, the current Penn Station suffocates the public in dark and narrow caverns beneath the sports arena and office spaces above. Bryant Park hosts dozens of restaurants and dining areas that transform it into more theme park and shopping mall than open space. The new World Trade Center PATH Station opened 2016 devotes almost as much floor space to the movement of people and trains as to the selling of luxury goods at businesses surrounding the main atrium. To reach trains, passengers (or should I call them customers?) must pass through the largest shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. Stores at the PATH shopping mall, like Sephora, Apple, and Victoria’s Secret, pay rent to the real estate corporation Brookfield that values the assets under its control at 600 billion. The shopping mall might allow the magnificent and blinding white atrium that cost four billion dollars to pay for its own upkeep, but at what aesthetic and ethical cost? Why must the sacred land where almost three thousand civilians, police, and firefighters died in a terrorist attack become a site of commercialism and a source of profit?

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How much of our cities belong to We The People?

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3. Public space lost to the police state (2001 to present)

Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George Bush reassured a frightened nation:
These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.
The foundation of democracy depends on events of public participation like voting, public meetings, courts of law, peaceful protests, and the inauguration of new leaders. These ceremonies, in turn, require public spaces that are often ceremonial in nature like the National Mall in Washington D.C., courthouses, state capitals, and even the in-glamorous public street. A place like the World Trade Center Memorial is itself a part of democracy: a place to see and be seen, to assemble, and to remember those fallen.
To follow the logic of Bush’s statement that September 11 was “intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat,” then the response to anti-democratic acts of terror should be to build more public space, more ceremonial spaces for public participation, not less. Instead, September 11 has frightened the nation into a retreat from civil liberties and public spaces that are now perceived as dangerous. The public has: their internet activity monitored by the likes of Google; their movements in public recorded on camera; their spending recorded by banks and credit card companies; and their use of public space controlled by armed police officers.
The previous two assaults on public space by cars and corporations could be combated through reason and policy. Cars threaten pedestrians and control too much of the street? Add a speed limit and traffic calming measures. Corporations control too much public space? Pass laws restricting them from, say, harassing protestors and closing public spaces by night. The alliance of corporations and state have too much surveillance? This is a more difficult threat to fight. Corporations and the state resist public demands through the language of “free choice.” This street has cameras on it, but you can choose to walk somewhere else. This airport searches all passengers and steals their “contraband” possessions like shampoo, wine, and food, but you can choose other means of transport. This social media platform monitors your activity to give you advertisements that will make you insecure, angry, or depressed – whichever emotional response will bring the advertiser profit. But you chose to use social media. The rhetoric of “free choice” suppresses criticism of surveillance in public space. Besides, surveillance is for “our your own safety,” so we are told. And if we are not doing anything bad in public spaces, then we should have nothing to fear, so we are told.
However, in Manhattan specifically, constant surveillance erodes the most important feature of urban life: privacy. As E.B. White described in Here is New York, his 1949 reflection on walking in Manhattan: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population.” Anonymity is one of the greatest joys of walking, the joy of blending into the urban crowd while remaining anonymous to everyone, to see without being seen. By forcing knowability and tracking the exact location and actions of every individual, the surveillance state erodes the anonymity that has drawn generations of artists, activists, and social outcasts to world cities like New York. From Occupy Wall Street protestors, to undocumented immigrants, to generations of Blacks and Hispanics that are targeted by law enforcement, surveillance denies them the anonymity that their work and use of public space require. In the past year, the murder of Blacks by law enforcement while shopping, driving, walking, and even sleeping has highlighted the dangers minorities face when using public space. While the car and corporation eroded the physical amount of public space, surveillance erodes the quality of public spaces that remain.

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Public spaces in theory vs. in practice

Of the public space that occupies ~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area:
~25% is for cars; ~10% is semi-restricted or privately-owned; ~10 is for green space in parks; ~15% is for paths in parks and sidewalks along streets *2

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Can democracy survive with eroded public space?

The past thirty years have seen the return of large numbers of middle class young people to New York City, as well as the gentrification they brought. For a few years, there seemed to be a resurgence and reinvestment in public space with new bike lanes, parks, and traffic calming measures in Lower Manhattan. But just over a century since the car arrived in Lower Manhattan streets, the future of public space is again in doubt.
Coronavirus represents both an opportunity and a challenge for public space. Since the virus prohibited indoor dining, thousands of restaurants have expanded onto sidewalks. Entire lanes of parking have been transformed into dining areas, a change that will likely be permanent. While using a parking space requires several thousand dollars to participate in the club of car owners, using a restaurant built on a public space costs only as much as lunch or dinner.
At the same time, the political uses of public space have migrated online. The activities of courtrooms, classrooms, cultural events, and ways people express their dissatisfaction with government have all migrated to online forums and social media. The internet might substitute for some public spaces, but it is not owned by the public. The US Bill of Rights promises that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” during a “public trial.” For generations, a public trial has meant a real space where witnesses voice their accusations in the physical presence of the accused. But can a digital space owned by private company still be considered public? Can the proprietary technology of social media and the video camera substitute for actual public space? Is the World Trade Center Path Station still public space if most Americans are priced out of shopping in nearby stores? Is the High Line still public space if the only people who can afford apartment views of it are the super rich?
E.B. White would cite that diversity and democracy cannot exist without public space. In his stroll across dozens of Manhattan neighborhoods, he observed that urban life forces people of diverse identities into the same crowded public spaces and therefore requires them to coexist and be tolerant of each other:
The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite. In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Time and again, researchers and writers observe that social media and the digital world allow people to self select the communities they are part of and the political views they are exposed to. The rise in both political parties of polarized identity politics and intolerance of anyone who disagrees with one’s views on gender and race are largely the products of a social media world that isolates and radicalizes people.
Public spaces like the city street and subway car mix people of all identities and incomes in a single space and are a lesson in tolerance. It is easy to hate foreigners and people of color when one’s views of these groups are filtered through the polarizing lens of social media, Fox News, and the mainstream media. But prejudice is a good deal harder to feel when one views these groups every day in public spaces going about the same routine as everyone else. While social media highlights the identity politics that make us different, public space highlights the qualities we share in common.
The loss of Lower Manhattan’s public spaces is not just a threat to urban culture. The loss of public space is an existential threat to democracy. More than ever before, this fractured country needs public space.

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City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan

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“With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.” – Kenneth T. Jackson

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Further reading

Michael Sorkin. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. New York: North Point Press, 2009.
E.B. White. Here is New York. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949.

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236,250 = total   |   92,934 = water   |   143,316 = land
Non-public before: 55,558 = 38.8% (rounded to 40%)
Non-public after: 90,826 = 63.4% (rounded to 65%)

  1. * Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space.
  2. .

A Drop of Water

Walking along Newark’s Pequannock Aqueduct from source, to tap, to sewer

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The general public views rural, suburban, urban, and industrial areas as being separate with different land uses, populations, and landscapes. The rural reaches and forests of northwestern New Jersey exist outside the imagination of Newark residents, as if these green mountain lakes with WASPy names have nothing to do with their lived urban experiences in the concrete and asphalt jungle. For the suburban and rural residents of West Milford, Ringwood, Wanaque, Bloomingdale, Kinnelon, Rockaway, Jefferson, Hardyston, and Vernon where Newark’s water supply originates, the experiences and troubles of Newark seem similarly distant, as if the quality of their forest oasis has nothing to do with the health outcomes of Newark residents. However, Newark’s century-old system supplies a half million people with some of the cleanest water in the country and invisibly knits together the fates of diverse communities along its buried path.

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Handmade drawing of Newark’s Pequannock water supply system, dated December 1892
The red line traces the path of the aqueduct from start at the Macopin Intake to end at South Orange Avenue. Green is the area of the watershed. The red graph beneath charts the relative height of the aqueduct above sea level at each point in the route. The aqueduct does not flow in a continuous downhill slope. Rather it hugs the ground just below the surface.

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Map of Newark water supply system in 1946, showing the Pequannock system opened 1892 (lower left) and Wanaque system opened 1930 (upper left). View full size map from Newark Public Library website.

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Over winter 2021, I documented the route of the Newark aqueduct from its origins in West Milford Township to its terminus in Newark Bay. I trace the path of Newark’s 26-mile-long aqueduct and 63-square-mile Pequannock Watershed and 94-square-mile Wanaque Watershed on the interactive map below.

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Click on water features to display details of name, dimensions, or volume.

■   Watersheds
■   Reservoirs (7 total)
~~ Aqueducts (~55 miles total)

■   Towns supplied with Newark water (~10)
■   Towns relying on Newark sewers (48)
~~ Main sewer interceptor (~ 28 miles total)
      Along path of Passaic River from Paterson to New York Harbor via Newark

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When American cities started gathering millions of woodland acres and building hundreds of miles of aqueducts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, water supply was an expensive undertaking and a point of civic pride. The opening of New York’s first water supply of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 was the largest and most expensive project by a single city in American history. Ten years earlier, New York City suffered its deadliest cholera epidemic due to poor sanitation and foul water, which left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) With recent memories of death and trauma on New Yorkers’ minds, the opening of the city’s water supply was a public holiday with parades the length of lower Broadway and a giant fountain erected in front of City Hall. Along the new aqueduct’s path, brick and granite gatehouses, stone markers, and aqueducts modeled after those of Rome and antiquity advertised the otherwise invisible presence of the investments made below. Many of the sites along the route became tourist attractions in their own right with the weekend carriage crowd riding uptown to the future sites of Central Park and the New York Public Library. There they soaked in nature and appreciated the austere beauty of towering dams and powerful gates that released water downstream.
With similar fears of industrial contamination and water-borne disease, Newark’s water supply opened decades later in 1892. Like New York City, Newark was suffering from bouts of cholera for decades. Manufacturers in the “silk city” of Paterson upstream polluted Newark’s water supply downstream on the Passaic River. Unwilling and unable to invest in cleaner supplies from distant locations as New York City had done decades earlier, Newark suffered 107 typhoid deaths per 100,000 people in 1890. Fearing future death and predicting massive population growth, Newark leaders and industrialists (among them the city’s dozens of beer brewers who needed clean water) demanded change. At the cost of six million dollars, building a clean water supply at the Pequannock Watershed was the largest and most expensive project in Newark history, more than two times the size of the city’s 2.5 million dollar annual budget. Like the Croton system designed for one million customers when Manhattan had only had 330,000, Newark’s Pequannock water supply was designed for over 500,000 customers in a city of only 250,000. The Wanaque System was added by 1930 at a cost of 25 million, more than doubling the water available to Newark. Along the path, brick gatehouses and buildings dressed as neoclassical villas guided the flow of water. The image of Newark’s water supply is, therefore, as much a reflection of where the city was as a prediction of what the city would become. The external ornament and attention to quality materials invested in Newark’s water in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal the novelty of the technology, and the fact that for centuries Americans could not take clean water for granted.
After the September 11 attacks, and even for decades earlier, the presence of sensitive water supply infrastructure is no longer advertised aboveground. The razor wire perimeter fencing and warning signs that now surround Newark’s water supply hint at society’s evolving relationship with the land. The architecture once designed to welcome visitors is now closed off and patrolled by guards and security cameras for fear that people would poison their own water. Swimming and powered motorboats are both prohibited in Newark’s watershed for fear of pathogens and oil slick seeping into drinking water. The aboveground features of the underground aqueducts are no longer proudly labeled with carved stone, as they would have been when the system first opened. The public assets that once belonged to society at large still belong to the public, but their existence is now opaque and hidden away for its own safety. The six billion dollars and fifty years New York City spent building “Water Tunnel No. 3” has no visible fingerprints aboveground even though it is the largest water infrastructure project in American urban history. The public passes by unaware of how their tax dollars are spent behind the unmarked bombproof and airtight doors that guard the water tunnels carved 500 feet below. Newark is little different.

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April 1892 plans of the Macopin Gatehouse. The original water supply to Newark was so clean that the water was unfiltered. As water quality standards increased and as runoff from new suburban development encroached on the watershed, this gatehouse was demolished for the water treatment facility now here.

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Humanizing the 2,000 square mile watershed and aqueduct system that provides nine million New Yorkers with the cleanest water in America, architectural photographer Stanley Greenberg writes in Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System:
Soon I came to think of the system as an underground organism, like the giant fungus now regarded as the largest living thing on earth. [….] Eventually I became able to ‘sense’ the water system. Sometimes it was because of the way the road was paved, or the type of fencing along the roadway. I knew which buildings were part of the water system, whether or not they were marked.
Along the path of Newark’s aqueduct, features are still visible aboveground. From little bends in the road to the occasional barbed wire fence, one can “sense” the downward flow of water to Newark. In the lakes and streams of Newark’s watershed, the water supply is left uncovered. The water flows its natural course downstream in the prehistoric riverbed as it has since the Ice Age. At the Macopin Intake in West Milford, the towering mass of a windowless brick building intercepts the pristine river and sucks the water in to be treated, chlorinated, and injected with a cocktail of chemicals. Now sanitized, the water is piped the rest of the way underground. Any new contamination after this point would endanger thousands of lives. Contamination and pollution are existential threats facing any water supply. A few miles further down, the aqueduct skirts under the abandoned location of Nike Missile Site NY-88, an abandoned Cold-War era military installation to intercept nuclear missiles from Communist countries “hostile to American values.” The pair of four-foot diameter brick, iron, and steel conduits snake their way 280 vertical feet downhill at the average rate of about ten vertical feet for each horizontal mile travelled. The water passes beneath roads, golf courses, and green lawns of unsuspecting suburban residents. In some parts, the aqueduct is encapsulated in a raised dirt embankment. Walking along the raised dirt road offers views over fences into the fresh mowed lawns, garages, and children’s swing sets of suburban families unaware that the lifeblood of a half million urban people passes beneath their feet. At the occasional interval, a metal pipe painted green with a mushroom shaped cap points out of the ground. The little green pipes relieve pressure and aerate the water to keep it fresh. Putting one’s ear to the pipe as if it were a stethoscope, the throbbing pulse of flowing water is audible. At other points, a mysteriously vacant but well-maintained lot on a street full of expensive homes hints that something is below. The presence of signs warning of the steep $500 fine for illegal dumping and the absence of realtor signs selling this land reveals that something unnamed and important must flow underground. Nearby, occasional road markers are spray-painted blue on the asphalt so that new roadwork does not accidentally puncture the aqueduct when digging. There are at least five streets in different towns all named in honor of what is buried beneath: Pipeline Path in Pompton Lakes, Aqueduct Avenue in Pequannock, Reservoir Drive in Woodland Park, Reservoir Drive in Cedar Grove, and Reservoir Place in Belleville. The aqueduct continues borrowing under Wayne, Totowa, Nutley, Belleville, and a handful of monotone suburbs known to most people only as the names of numbered exits on the highway.
As the water nears its destination, the suburban landscape changes to the empty lots and corner bodegas of inner city Newark. At this point, the main aqueduct gradually narrows as smaller pipes splinter off at each intersection to serve the city’s approximately 30,000 addresses. Finally, at the intersection of South 8th Street and South Orange Avenue, the old aqueduct ends at the “Reservoir Site Townhouse Development.” The name of this privately-owned public housing project is the only remaining hint of the former use of this site, where a sloping brownstone embankment once stored nine million gallons of water. Across the street, a three-floor brick water quality testing lab with limestone details has a neoclassical entrance with the words carved above: “Bureau of Water: Meter Laboratory.” The water-testing lab was abandoned and is now a non-governmental community health center. The loss of these public assets, and the neighborhood’s gradual population loss, hints at the larger retreat of government responsibility for protecting the public. While water was once a public asset advertised with civic architecture, the responsibility for water supply – and, with this responsibility, the health of thousands of water customers – is now tasked to semi-private and for-profit agencies that charge higher rates. The name of these water multinationals slip off the tongue and sound like the kind of slick words a team of consultants from the Wharton Business School would dream up: Veolia, Suez, Aqua America, and Aquarion Water. New Jersey, Idaho, and Connecticut, in fact, rank highest in the country for the percentage of their public water supply that is privatized, over 35%.
Running a few feet beneath each water line is the wider pipe of the city sewers. The two systems run in concert with each other, one whisking in fresh water and the other flushing wastewater away sight unseen. Rainwater from city streets mixes with the polluted water of houses and businesses and continues flowing over 230 vertical feet downstream to Newark’s sewage treatment plant in the meadowlands. Over thirty miles from where it entered the system, the water exits the system as it entered it—through the vast and chemical-intensive technologies of water purification. The brown slurry is pumped into basins the shape and depth of a swimming pool, where solid matter settles to the bottom. The remaining water is pumped off into treatment tanks resembling the steel drums used to store vast quantities of propane and natural gas. It is strange that Newark’s facility for water decontamination should be so close to and look so similar to the gas storage tanks of Shell Oil across the street, a company responsible for untold water contamination and environmental destruction. Down the street is the county jail where immigrants and inmates are incarcerated as a source of income for the Essex County government. In a fitting irony, much of the $42.7 million revenue generated from the county jails in 2019 was pumped back upstream to maintain and preserve the county’s hundreds of acres of parks, forests, and mountain lakes. One jail visitor writes: “There’s more drugs in there than on the street. It is located right across the street from a garbage dump. The smell in the air, especially in the summer, is absolutely rancid.” In a fitting twist of fate, the source of Newark’s water supply on a quiet country road with McMansions in West Milford and the destination of this water in an industrial wasteland are both named Doremus Road and Doremus Avenue, respectively, in honor of the Newark mayor responsible for building the system.
Water trickles down from the wealthy bedroom communities of northern New Jersey through progressively less wealthy towns, through the low-income community of Newark, and finally past the jail where society’s weakest members and immigrants are held captive. More than a few of these immigrants, no doubt, lived nearby and commuted out to the affluent suburbs to work on the green lawns and sewer systems whose effluent returns to Newark and which they must now smell in jail. At least 200,000 of these white-collar workers commuted in to Newark pre-pandemic, and drew their wealth from this city. From many of their backyards laced with fertilizers and insecticides, water returns to Newark. As the warning on many a suburban manhole reads: “No Dumping Drains to Waterway.” We live in a society divided on fault lines of income, race, and location. The journey of Newark’s water through diverse communities is a reminder that, however divided and segregated our society, the need and the right to water cuts across lines of class, race, and geography. This ends our journey from rural to urban through the suburban landscape of New Jersey.

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Newark water supply air valves, June 1892

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Related

A history of the Wanaque water supply from the Wanaque Public Library
A history of the Newark water supply from the Newark Public Library

Homesteads to Homelots

The history of New Jersey suburbs as told through five data visualizations

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View of the city from the suburbs, author’s panoramic drawing of suburbs with urban skyline in the distance

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“The state of New Jersey offers an ideal setting in which to analyze the distinctive residential landscape of mass suburbia. [….] In time, 70 percent of the state’s total land area would qualify as suburban, so that by the turn of the twenty-first century New Jersey and Connecticut shared the distinction of being the nation’s most suburbanized states.”

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– Lizabeth Cohen, “Residence: Inequality in Mass Suburbia” in A Consumer’s Republic, p. 197.

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Northern New Jersey has long been central to the history of America’s suburban growth. From America’s oldest suburban developments to its most homogeneous to its most diverse, New Jersey’s 565 municipalities span the full portfolio of suburban living arrangements. New Jersey is unique in the sheer number of municipalities, each with its own elected leaders, school district, police, fire, and land use policies. As a result of inefficient and often duplicate public services in competing suburbs, New Jersey has some of the highest property taxes and cost of living in the country. This problem is not unique to New Jersey; it affects the country at large in dozens of other places. So the story of New Jersey makes for a powerful and revealing case study of larger trends in American suburban history.
This analysis examines New Jersey census data from 1940 to 2010. It is not the end point or a full analysis. Instead, each of these data visualizations plots a direction for future research. Telling history through maps and data reveals the history of a larger region and country, in ways that granular analysis of individual places cannot.

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Method

With data from the US Census Bureau, I extracted details on the population of every New Jersey municipality from 1940 to 2010, the period of greatest suburban growth. With spatial data on municipal boundaries from the NJ Office of GIS, I plotted the census data onto the map of municipal boundaries. This allowed me to see spatial patterns and to produce heat maps of population change over time. The spatial data also revealed the surface area of each municipality, which allowed me to calculate the historical population density of each municipality as a function of municipal population divided by municipal surface area. You can browse all the data visualizations or download the open source data here from Tableau. These data visualizations represent analysis of about 13,560 data points for 565 municipalities over eight censuses.

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1. Population loss vs. gain

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The map below reveals that every urban area in New Jersey lost population from 1950 to 2000. Meanwhile, the majority of rural areas gained population to become commuter suburbs. Wedged between the metropolises of New York City with 8.4 million residents and Philadelphia with 1.6 million, New Jersey has no cities with over 300,000 people. Thousands of white-collar workers live in the state’s suburbs and commute out of state for work, at least a quarter million people per weekday pre-pandemic. New Jersey is therefore more of a bedroom community than any other American state. The map below shows the scale of suburban population growth with areas that gained population colored in green. The darker the shade of green the greater the population gain from 1950 to 2000. At the same time, almost every major New Jersey city was losing people. The darker the shade of red the greater the population loss. This map produces two parallel stories of urban decline vs. suburban growth.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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Unsurprisingly, the rural parts of the state with the farthest commuting distance from New York City and Philadelphia experienced the least population growth. Instead of becoming suburbs, the farmlands in the northwestern corner of the state that once provisioned New York City markets with food reverted to forest during the twentieth century. Transportation improvements like Eisenhower’s interstate highways made it cheaper to grow foods in the distant but fertile lands of the Midwest and South and to ship those goods to New Jersey than to grow those foods locally near consumers. At the same time, Central Jersey’s richest and most fertile farmland – along the line of the Northeast Corridor between New York City and Philadelphia – became suburbs. The farms here were pushed farther away, such that, by the end of the twentieth century, New York City food is supplied from thousands of miles away. New Jersey’s nickname of the “Garden State” once referred to the state’s rich agriculture and farms. Today, this name has an unintentional double meaning, as the only gardens left are the green suburban lawns in the ever-expanding crabgrass frontier.

Conclusion one: Despite its proximity to and reliance on major cities, New Jersey’s geography and population densities are almost entirely suburban.

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2. Link between population densities and suburban growth

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From 1950 to 2000, a total of 52 New Jersey cities lost about one million White residents and gained about 400,000 African Americans and Hispanics. As Whites moved out, other ethnic groups moved in. The flight of urban Whites to the suburbs happened across twentieth-century America.
In contrast to the population decline of New Jersey cities, a total of 513 towns and boroughs gained around four million people from 1950 to 2000. New Jersey’s suburban population growth was through a combination of Whites arriving from cities, Whites arriving from other states, and natural birth rates during the “baby boomer” generation. The average population density per square mile of places that lost people in this period was 6,400, while places that gained people contained on average 2,100 people per square mile. Population loss systematically occurred in urban places with high population densities in 1950. Population gain systematically occurred in rural places with low population densities in 1950. In other words, sprawl. Almost all of New Jersey’s population and economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century was concentrated in lower-density suburban areas, often at the expense of the cities where wealth was traditionally concentrated.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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Horizontal axis ranks places by population loss or gain (logarithmic scale). Vertical axis ranks places by population density in 1950 (linear scale). Dots are sized according to population in 1950. Red dots are, on average, larger cities that lost population. Green dots are, on average, smaller suburbs that gained population. All the largest cities with the higher population densities, that is, all the largest dots (with the exception of Union City) lost population to neighboring suburbs. The higher the population density, the greater the magnitude of twentieth-century population loss due to decentralization. Notice how high-density cities with large populations form one red cluster, while low-density suburbs with small populations form a separate green cluster.

Conclusion two: The state has migrated from a centralized economy centered on cities and urban life to a decentralized and suburban economy. This movement has consequently drained cities of people and economic energy.

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3. Municipal annexation and political fragmentation

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dozens of American municipalities were consolidated into larger urban areas. For instance, the 1898 consolidation of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and dozens of small farming hamlets in present-day Staten Island and Queens produced the contemporary city limits of New York City. This 300 square mile area allowed for New York City’s urban expansion, the elimination of otherwise duplicate municipal services, and the central organization of rapid transit, zoning, and land use policies. The metropolitan-scale vision and infrastructure projects of Robert Moses would have been impossible otherwise.
Municipal consolidation never went as far in New Jersey, with a few exceptions. The state’s second largest city of Jersey City with a population of 266,000 (2018) was formed in 1870 by merging the small towns of Hudson City, Bergen City, and Greenville. The state’s largest city of Newark with a population of 282,000 (2018) was reformed in 1905 by annexing neighboring Vailsburg. Yet, as a whole, the state’s geography remained divided with its largest cities unable to increase in population or expand their political power through municipal annexation. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and even before the era of rapid suburban growth, the trend in New Jersey was already toward decentralization with the subdivision of larger towns into ever-smaller units and school districts. For instance, if Newark covered the same surface area in 2019 as it did in 1790, it would be the eighteenth largest city in the US in 2019 with an estimated population of 800,000, ahead of Denver and behind Seattle. Instead, Newark is the country’s third oldest city behind Boston and New York, but it is only the 73rd largest in population.
Suburban towns that are economically reliant on Newark but are politically separate from Newark straddle the city on all sides, isolating a majority-Black community in the inner city from the prosperity of surrounding suburbs. As a result, most of the economic energy generated from urban centers like Newark and political centers like Trenton is drained off through tax revenues in neighboring towns, where white-collar workers employed in these cities actually live. Had municipal annexation succeeded in New Jersey, tax revenue from peripheral towns could be directed to urban centers where that money is needed most and where it came from, after all. In contrast to cities in most other developed countries, most American cities are therefore concentrations of poverty ringed by wealthier areas. As a related consequence, New Jersey cities face chronic and decades-long challenges balancing their municipal budgets and must rely on charity from the state legislature in the form of grants.
Cities like Newark rank higher in their regional and economic influence than their small populations and limited surface area would lead one to believe. Newark is the state’s economic, shipping, rail, airport, and higher education hub, with more of these key industries concentrated in Newark than in any other New Jersey city. But suburban policies resistant to centralized government and municipal annexation have thwarted Newark’s deserved political influence. Kenneth Jackson describes consolidation in Crabgrass Frontier: “Without exception, the adjustment of local boundaries has been the dominant method of population growth in every American city of consequence. [….] Viewed another way, if annexation had not been successful in the nineteenth century, many large cities would have been surrounded by suburbs even before the Civil War.”
Unfortunately, while the rest of the country was moving toward annexation in the nineteenth century, New Jersey experienced municipal fragmentation. For instance, the more urban and higher density borough of Metuchen is entirely surrounded by the less urban and lower density town of Edison. At one time, these two places were part of a single and larger township called Woodbridge. As railroads began linking city and country in the mid nineteenth century, urban residents started moving to Woodbridge and formed an early commuter suburb. The existing residents of Woodbridge were largely Democrat farmers, while the new commuters were largely Republican businessmen. The farmers were content with few municipal services, while the new commuters demanded paved roads, water supply, sewers, and street lighting. In the resulting conflict between rural and suburban, the small suburb of Metuchen clustered around its commuter train station broke off from the larger municipality. At 2.85 square miles, Metuchen is the size of postage stamp on the map of New Jersey, while more suburban Edison is like a doughnut that surrounds Metuchen on all sides.
There are at least thirty towns like Metuchen across the state, known as “doughnut towns” because one municipality encircles another. The average size of these towns is less than three square miles. This unique quirk of New Jersey geography hints at the longstanding conflict between rural and suburban. As the state evolved from a land of homesteads into a sea of platted suburban home lots, existing farmers resented their state’s changing geography and urbanizing economy. The table below outlines these municipal enclaves.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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The county maps from John P. Snyder’s History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries are revealing. They illustrate the division of New Jersey into ever-smaller municipal units. The map below shows, for instance, the original vs. contemporary municipal boundaries in Hudson and Bergen County along the Hudson River. Colored in green are original boundaries vs. the present-day ones in black.

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In many other states, rural farmers went along with the newly arrived residents of commuter suburbs and accepted greater investment in municipal services. In New Jersey, rural residents did not; they insisted on autonomy, independence, and decentralized government. Hence, New Jersey splintered into so many hundreds of places with their own strong, separate, and long-established civic identities. As a result, cities like Chicago and New York cover enough surface area that an African American or Hispanic family can move to a better neighborhood nearby without being in a new suburb. Yet, New Jersey municipalities are so fragmented that a change of address almost inevitably means a change of town with new laws, new taxes, a new civic identity, and a new school district. Recent debates in New York City have centered on desegregating public schools by sending poor and minority students to public schools in better and majority White neighborhoods. In New York City, this is possible because eight million people share a unified school district. The same, unfortunately, is impossible in New Jersey. In this way, municipal fragmentation emphasizes local control but hinders political unity and coordinated planning decisions.

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Conclusion three: Despite having an economy centralized around urban areas, and despite being part of a megalopolis of cities on the Northeast Corridor, New Jersey is politically fragmented and still sees its political identity as rural and anti-urban.

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4. The municipal fabric before suburban growth

New Jersey’s municipal framework for suburban growth was laid out early, even centuries before its suburbs grew. The earliest settlers and colonists in America believed in local control of government. In the New England farming hamlet of colonial days, all eligible White male taxpaying citizens participated in direct democracy. These voters were tasked with passing new laws, improving roads, and maintaining common lands. Over 200 years of early American growth, most of the land within the eight states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were divided into “incorporated communities.” This produced hundreds of New England towns with relative autonomy from higher authorities.
By contrast, the rest of America followed a different development path from the original thirteen British colonies and contained more “unincorporated communities” – that is land and people not part of a local and direct democracy. People in unincorporated communities are still full citizens with voting rights, but the management of their municipal services, like roads and water, is often tasked to a larger and more distant power, like the county government. Several unincorporated villages might also be grouped as part of a larger municipality.
New Jersey’s belief in local control and direct democracy resulted in the early incorporation of municipalities, and a likely stronger sense of local identity than in other regions. The chart below shows that most of New Jersey’s municipalities were laid out in two sweeps. In 1798, 104 rural and farming towns were incorporated as part of the “Township Act of 1798.” Decades later, new residents in the state’s growing commuter suburbs like Metuchen demanded more municipal services like water, fire, and sewer. When residents of the existing farming areas objected, dozens of boroughs broke away to form bedroom communities in the second sweep of new municipal incorporations. The peak year was 1894 when 36 new towns and boroughs were created along the Bergen County commuter rail lines linking northern New Jersey to New York City. However, during the high period of suburban growth from the 1930s to the present-day when New Jersey gained 4.8 million people, a mere twelve new places were incorporated. In other words, the political geography of New Jersey suburbs was laid out before the mass exodus of Americans from cities to suburbs in the twentieth century.

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Conclusion four: New Jersey’s anti-urban outlook and politics are no recent or twentieth-century phenomenon. Nor did these fears of central administration come about during the suburban age. In fact, the groundwork for New Jersey’s rapid twentieth-century suburban growth was laid in the state’s earliest days.

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5. Back to the City?

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After 1980, thousands of Young Urban Professionals (“Yuppies”) returned from the suburbs to live in the cities. In the traditional narrative of urban history courses, the post-1980s period is represented as a rebirth of urban culture and population growth, as seen through the repeated descriptions of Newark and Detroit as Renaissance cities with their respective Renaissance Centers
However, any post-1980 urban population gain was usually not enough to counter pre-1980 population loss. While a few smaller New Jersey cities regained earlier losses from 1980 to 2010, new population growth and new housing construction were concentrated in suburban areas on the whole. New Jersey cities have grown, but they are not growing as fast as the suburbs surrounding them.

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Mixed results of “back to the city”

Color key
Urban growth since 1980 does not offset earlier losses
Urban population growth since 1980 offsets earlier losses
No net population loss 1950 to 1980

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This table above shows that of the twenty-four largest New Jersey cities in 1950, sixteen had a net population loss from 1950 to 1980. In the following period 1980 to 2010, only seven of these sixteen cities have seen population growth (Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Passaic, Hoboken, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). Even among these seven cities, only five of them have seen enough population growth to offset pre-1980 population losses (Paterson, Elizabeth, Passaic, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). In direct opposition to the “back to the city” trend, two of the twenty-four cities have even seen a higher rate of population loss from 1980 to 2010 than from 1950 to 1980 (East Orange and Irvington).
Viewed another way, of New Jersey’s twenty-four largest cities, only nineteen have seen an increase in the rate of population growth after 1980. But among these nineteen cities, population growth has always been from the replacement of Whites with largely lower-income immigrants from Latin America. The only two cities yuppies and middle class Whites were uniquely responsible for “turning around” through gentrification were Hoboken and Downtown Jersey City, both of which still had a net population loss from 1950 to 2010. Cities and city planners need to stop appealing to middle class Whites as the solution to their economic decline. Building more housing for yuppies will not turn these cities around because their numbers are small but lead to gentrification that will push out the people who are actually responsible for urban growth. Immigrants, more than wealthy young people with college degrees, are and always have been the drivers of urban growth in American cities.
The table below shows that New Jersey’s six leading cities of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton, and Camden were always majority White until 1950-1960 when thousands of Whites fled for the suburbs while thousands of Blacks arrived with the Great Migration. The demographic trend lines have not reversed in fifty years. Only small numbers of younger and wealthier Whites have returned to cities, which is not enough to offset the continued White flight to the suburbs. In other words, the urban population of New Jersey cities has stagnated since 1980. Population gains have been small and not enough to offset continuing population loss. Because many cities have not made up for their earlier losses of people and economic power, the story of “Back to the City” can only be applied to a limited number of cities in New Jersey.

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Hover over data points to reveal details. Hispanics not counted in graph because they were not measured on US census until 1970.
White population loss from 1930 to 2000: 330,047 in Newark; 222,306 in Jersey City; 93,838 in Camden; 89,514 in Paterson; 87,446 in Trenton; and 42,486 in Elizabeth

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Hover over data points to reveal details. Hispanics not counted in graph because they were not measured on US census until 1970.

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Taking these charts into account, Newark lost 330,000 Whites from 1930 to 2000. Since then, population loss has slowed; the city gained a mere 400 Whites from 2000 to 2010, a drop in the bucket. In the same period of 1930 to 2000, Jersey City lost 222,000 Whites, Paterson lost 90,000, Trenton lost 87,000, Camden lost 94,000, and Elizabeth lost 42,000. This brings the estimated White population loss of the state’s six leading cities to about 866,000. If including smaller places that also lost their White population, such as Union City, Clifton, Atlantic City, and Plainfield, the urban population loss comes to well over one million people. At the same time, the population replacements of African Americans and Hispanics have not been as large as the population losses of Whites. Cities across New Jersey are smaller and less central to the state’s economy than they were before the auto era.
Despite construction of new light rail systems and improvements to existing rail infrastructure, over 80% of New Jersey residents still commuted to work by car. Even in Hudson County, with excellent transit connections in Hoboken and Secaucus, 66% of commutes were still by car in 2000. New Jersey might be rich in transportation options and railroads, but most of its built environment of sprawling suburbs was not built with these “urban” transit modes in mind.
In other words, the image “Back to the City” with young people riding on bikes and public transit is more of a New York City story than it is a Trenton, Newark, Camden, or Atlantic City story. “The Garden State” was and remains suburban despite surface appearances of a renewed interest in cities. As economic historian Leah Boustan writes in Competition in the Promised Land: “Even though black in-migration to northern cities has tapered off, relative black wages have not rebounded in the North and White flight has not reversed course (despite media reports of a ‘return to the city’)” (p.9). Much of the public thinks that young people prefer to live in cities, and that the age of suburban sprawl is over in the age of the climate crisis. Yet two centuries of urban growth have failed to turn New Jersey into a state whose residents think of themselves as urban, even though it is densely populated and an integral part of greater New York City. The path of decentralization that New Jersey has followed for two centuries will guide it for decades more.
Is “Back to the City” part of a larger cultural shift, or is it a short-term illusion that the pandemic reversed when thousands of high-income young people moved back to the suburbs? If the history of New Jersey is any guide, the suburbs are alive and well and here to stay. As Robert Fishman writes in Bourgeois Utopias, a 1987 study of the origins and future of America’s suburbs:
“The ‘gentrification’ phenomenon has been highly visible yet statistically insignificant. It has done as much to displace low income city dwellers as to benefit them. The late twentieth century American environment thus shows all the signs of the two nations syndrome: one caught in an environment of poverty, cut off from the majority culture, speaking its own languages and dialects; the other an increasingly homogenized culture of affluence, more and more remote from an urban environment it finds dangerous.”

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Levittown, America’s most famous mass-produced suburb, was replicated in Pennsylvania, Long Island, and New Jersey

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Conclusion

Geography is central to the construction of New Jersey’s suburban and anti-urban identity. The basis for this state’s suburban culture was laid out from the state’s earliest days, as reflected in practices of municipal consolidation and political fragmentation. This fragmentation pulls population, political power, and economic energy from the state’s cities that would, in a more centralized political system, command more influence. Moreover, this decentralization, as born out through analysis of census data, contributes to racial segregation and income inequalities between the micro-climates of one town to the other. Most of all, through this analysis, the burden of history becomes visible: Despite a surface appearance of renewed interest in cities, the powerful historical forces of politics and precedent ensure that New Jersey will remain a sea of suburbs. As the world is confronted with the combined crises of climate change and a younger generation locked out of the housing ladder, New Jersey’s suburban culture seems more than ever out of date and warped in time.
If the growth patterns of New Jersey mirror the larger experience of America, the future of urban culture looks bleak indeed. Cities like St. Louis and Detroit might regain some of their former energy and vitality, but it is unlikely that they will become as powerful again as they once were. A 2020 study analyzed satellite imagery and correlated the percentage of paved surface area to the likelihood that people living there would vote Democrat or Republican. Unsurprisingly, the greater the amount of area paved with roads and buildings, the greater the likelihood of people living there opposing Donald Trump. If, as Kenneth Jackson writes, “The space around us―the physical organization of neighborhoods, roads, yards, houses, and apartments―sets up living patterns that condition our behavior,” then efforts to rebuild our cities are very much part of the larger political project to rebuild our democracy.

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Related commentary

Turning Affluent Suburbs Blue Isn’t Worth the Cost,” New York Times op-ed by historian Matthew Lassiter. To win elections, Lassiter argues, democrats needs to stop courting the votes of educated middle class Whites from the suburbs. Suburban voters already benefit from municipal fragmentation, local autonomy, and land use polices that, in effect, bar poor people and Black people from living nearby. “Democrats cannot cater to White swing voters in affluent suburbs and also promote policies that fundamentally challenge income inequality, exclusionary zoning, housing segregation, school inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration. [….] It’s no coincidence that the bluer that suburban counties turn, the more unequal and economically stratified they become as well.” Urban areas are epicenters where the problems of inequality, racism, and gentrification are most visible. Therefore only in appealing to the interests of minorities and the working class who have traditionally lived in more urban areas can Trumpism be defeated. After all, Plato’s Republic and the Greek Democracy originated from the city state, not the suburb.

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Sources

Data for all municipalities:

Population of all municipalities from 1940 to 2000, from NJ State Data Center report (table 6, p. 26-51)
Shapefile of municipal boundaries with 2010 population of each municipality, from NJ open data
List of municipalities by year incorporated, from Wikipedia

Three data sources above are merged into these visualizations, posted to Tableau for free download.

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Data for New Jersey’s six leading cities:

Populations and races of NJ’s six largest cities from 1810 to 1990, from US Census Bureau working paper (table 31, p.78-79) and this documentation page
Populations and races of NJ’s six largest cities for 2000 and 2010, from Census Viewer website because above table was only up to 1990

Two data sources above are merged into this visualization, posted to Tableau for free download.

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Other sources:

NJ population density map, from Census Viewer website
Analysis of transportation patterns, from NJ Department of Transportation report
Satellite imagery of the entire state in 1930 offers a comparative view of the rural “Garden State” before suburban sprawl, from NJ Office of GIS

 

Further reading:

Boustan, Leah P.. Competition in the Promised Land: Black migrants in northern cities and labor markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: the politics of mass consumption in postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: the suburbanization of the United States. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Kruse, Kevin M., Thomas J. Sugrue (editors), and Gerald Frug. “The Legal Technology of Exclusion.” The New Suburban History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 205-19.
Snyder, John P. The History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968. Trenton: Bureau of Geology and Topography, 1968. (link)

 

Demolishing Public Space at New York Penn Station

What does old Penn Station’s loss reflect about the evolution of public space in New York City?

Written with Evander Price, recent PhD student in American Studies and chronocriticism at Harvard. Thanks also to Adam Brondheim for his insights about historic preservation in NYC.

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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The old waiting room, [1] once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot. [2]

Demolition crews began hacking away at the limestone walls, stone eagles, and thirty-foot tall Doric columns of old New York Penn Station in October 1963. In a construction industry where architects typically quote projects as lasting eighteen months, the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station lasted five years. At its 1910 opening, old Penn Station was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever built in New York City. The station’s associated service tunnels stretched 5.5 miles under the Hudson and East River. At 350 feet long and 150 feet high, old Penn Station’s waiting room was the city’s largest internal space. Construction cost $100 million, or $2.7 billion in 2020 adjusted for inflation. By 1963, this was the largest and most expensive structure ever demolished in New York City.[3]
In a 1963 conversation with The New York Times, the developer justified demolition as “putting passengers first” and then clarified: “The outside is the only thing of artistic value as far as I’m concerned. The handling of 200,000 passengers is much more important to me. […] In some areas the land is just too valuable to save anything that doesn’t fully utilize it.”[4] The developer’s aspirations for Penn Station’s replacement, however misguided, were no less monumental in their imagination: to construct a profitable office skyscraper and Manhattan’s largest arena for sporting events and conventions. Office workers and event spectators could move directly from trains to their seats without stepping outside, or engaging with the public space of the city streets.

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1968 advertisement for the new station [5]

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“The fact is that the redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Station into a $90 million building complex will transform the area from a static uneconomic burden on the railroad into a viable commercial and recreational center of benefit to the entire West Thirty-fourth Street neighborhood and the public at large.” – Allen J. Greenough, Pennsylvania Railroad President.[6]

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Architects have long positioned the demolition of monumental old Penn Station as a key moment in the discourse on historical preservation. This was, to quote leading New York City historian Kenneth Jackson, the moment when: “Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”[7] The public realized that even a monument as expensive and permanent as Penn Station could vanish with no mechanism for the public to object. Activists pressured the city government to pass New York’s first ever landmarks preservation law in 1965.[8] Some historians, like Anthony Wood, have posited that the movement toward landmarks preservation began years before Penn Station’s demolition, and that this demolition was not critical in motivating landmarks preservation.[9] Nonetheless, in the following decades, the city protected over 120,000 historic buildings (comprising about 14% of New York City’s built environment).[10]
Less cited and discussed is how Penn Station’s loss parallels a larger late-twentieth-century trend to erode and privatize the commons. The demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station is a lens to examine the competing tensions of economics vs. aesthetics and private vs. public interests. The demolition and reconstruction of old Penn Station mirrors the larger abandonment of government and corporate responsibility for maintaining and upholding public space.

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Although Midtown’s largest building in this c.1911 photo, skyscrapers soon surrounded Penn Station.[11]

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Old Penn Station as public space in a city of private interests

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In a city symbolic of rational capitalism and industry, old Penn Station spoke of an alternative and idealistic vision for future New York: a city of low-rise buildings and ample public space. The station’s architects McKim, Meade, and White disdained New York’s emerging skyscrapers. They toured Europe in preparation for designing Penn Station. European models of wide and long boulevards framing monumental buildings inspired them, such as the Gare de l’Est in Paris. At the time, the average building in Midtown Manhattan was no higher than six stories, and Penn Station – at over 150 feet tall – would have been among the neighborhood’s highest and largest buildings. For inspiration, the architects copied the main waiting room from Rome’s Baths of Diocletian.[12] This reference is more than aesthetic: Rome’s massive baths were as much functional infrastructure in a city without widespread indoor plumbing as they were civic and social spaces for all people to gather and socialize. By analogy, the Pennsylvania Railroad envisioned its waiting room – which was far larger and cathedral-like than the functional operations of boarding a train demands – as a civic and social space, an urban stage-set for the drama of commuting. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist turned philanthropist who launched his business career as an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, wrote in his 1889 article The Gospel of Wealth: “Surplus wealth should be considered as a sacred trust, to be administered during the lives of its owners, by them as trustees, for the best good of the community in which and from which it had been acquired.”[13]
Old Penn Station operated as public space that belonged to the city at large. Ingrained in a visit to the museum (with an admission fee), the public library (with set hours and borrowing rules), or the church (with a dress code and participation rituals) is the management’s expectations of how one is supposed to behave. The rules of these rarified spaces narrow the social class and types of people who visit museums, libraries, and churches.[14] In contrast, the big city train station has fewer expectations of users. It is open at all times and to all audiences and social classes with few restrictions. Like the restriction-free spaces of Times Square and the public park, the monumental rooms of old Penn Station seemed to belong to everyone. It was one of those unique spaces created through private initiative, but where anyone could assemble in the shared experience of urban life.[15]
However, there was a crucial difference between normal public space and the “public space” of old Penn Station. The station was privately owned and subject to the whims of its owner who, unlike a government official responsible to the public, was duty bound only to company shareholders and employees. The public could use this station and construct it in the collective imagination as belonging to the city and the people, but the public’s use was at the property owner’s discretion. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was losing rail passengers to the increasing popularity of the automobiles, highways, and airlines. The company was bleeding money on old Penn Station’s upkeep to the sum of $3.3 million a year. Although the station’s appearance and location were a public service and an enhancement to civic life for the thousands of commuters, there was no profit to be made from this form of public service.[16] In other words, with no “business model” for the space to pay for its own upkeep, old Penn Station slipped into decay as the walls grew black from decades of soot and deferred maintenance.

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Erosion of the commons

By the 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reasons for maintaining old Penn Station started shifting when they argued that they could only support the commons so long as they did lose anything financially. The now aging and indebted railroad no longer had the “surplus wealth” to think of the public interest and the “good of the community” to borrow Carnegie’s words. In demolition proposals, the developer clarified that new Penn Station would be financially self-sufficient. Revenue generated from the new offices and arena aboveground would support the upkeep of the station below ground, all the while generating surplus income to pay off the railroad’s debt. This is a frequent and often repeated claim among New York City developers: The creation and maintenance of public space must generate some profit. Or if no profit is to be made, the public should compensate the corporation for its gift. Hence, the lead redeveloper is quoted as saying about old Penn Station: “If anybody seriously considered it art, they would have put up some money to save it.”[17]
Old Penn Station had tall ceilings and, with no buildings above, ample natural light illuminated the interior. When the public saw this kind of space, they read it as open and public. When the owners of Penn Station saw this space in the 1960s, they read all this “empty” space as unused air rights. (Air rights refer to the space above a parcel of land that belongs to the property owner.) City law might limit building height to, say, fifteen stories. If the developer only builds a ten story building on a site, he will have five stories of undeveloped air rights. The discourse on air rights presents undeveloped (or underdeveloped) sites as not extracting the full height allowed, and therefore reducing the income that could be generated from the most profitable land use.[18] Thus in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s opinion, a vast and open station, although elegant, represented undeveloped air rights and a financial loss. In 1910, the powerful railroad was wealthy enough to sacrifice million of dollars on a monument and its annual upkeep. The railroad’s objective in 1910 was more about making a statement about their wealth and importance in shaping New York’s urban landscape. However, when 1960s developers measured the value of Penn Station heritage by its precise cash value instead of its intangible cultural value, preserving heritage started to look unrealistically expensive – not just an annual loss of $3.3 million but a loss of several hundred million dollars over several decades in unrealized profits that could have been pulled “out of thin air” so to speak.[19]
Beyond Penn Station, the larger discourse on the commons was also evolving. In previous decades, buildings like Rockefeller Center devoted almost half of the ground-level areas and many rooftops for public use, even though developers in 1930s New York received no tax benefits or compensation from the city for doing so. Other examples include the numerous early Manhattan skyscrapers whose ornamental appearance and decorative silhouettes enliven the urban landscape, even though more ornament outside does not boost the builder’s bottom line of more rentable office space inside the tower. However, with ever-rising land values, corporations were no longer willing by the 1950s to cede increasingly-valuable private land for public use (or even lower-density development) unless compelled to or compensated for doing so. In response, starting in 1961, New York City developed an increasingly complicated system of tax and building incentives for developers to be “civic” and invest in the commons. Examples include corporate green spaces and plazas. In exchange for setting aside a fraction of their land for public use, the developer is allowed to build higher or larger than the laws would otherwise permit. These resulting spaces are in some ways like the interior of old Penn Station, private space that has the appearance of public. These private-public spaces have opening hours, and often prohibit certain behavior like skateboarding, panhandling, and street music performances. Incidentally, city government approved the greatest number of these privately owned public spaces during the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, when declining budgets motivated city government to surrender power to the private sector.[20] Politicians today speak of contracting the management of public services to for-profit corporations. Privatized services in many states now include water supply, electricity, highways, immigration services, the military, space exploration (through public-private partnerships), and prisons with companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded “Core Civic” in an Orwellian twist). Capitalism and the profit-driven management of the commons is still seen as somehow purifying, making government more efficient, innovative, and flexible.[21] Penn Station’s demolition is an architectural symbol of the limits of historic preservation law, in particular, and the corporate erosion of the commons, in general.
The state and property owners’ expectations of monumental buildings seem fundamentally different from their expectations of traditional monuments like statues and parks. For instance, it is acceptable for the owner of Grand Central Terminal to think of rentable floor space, or for the redevelopers of the World Trade Center memorial to judge proposals based on how much or little land is set-aside for profitable office towers. By contrast, the land Central Park sits on is many times more expensive in unrealized air rights than the resale value of the timber that occupies the land, but that is beside the point because society does not measure the success or failure of the commons by the income it generates. There was a time a century ago when private investment in shaping civic spaces looked something like old Penn Station, Andrew Carnegie’s donated libraries, or even the New York City subway system’s ornamental mosaics. Even ornate nineteenth-century bank lobbies with imposing neoclassical facades have something “civic” about them and share much in common aesthetically with libraries and museums from the time. If only this kind of benevolent attitude toward the commons could be applied today to all manner of other civic institutions: streets, public markets, subways, or the rebuilt future Penn Station.

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Future Penn Station?

The demolition and replacement of Penn Station sits at an inflection point in the evolving definition of “public space.” Despite public outcry about the demolition of old Penn Station at the hands of powerful private interests, the current station is not publicly owned or managed. The semi-government entity that acquired all of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s assets after the railroad’s 1970 bankruptcy is Amtrak. At least on paper, and although it has never once turned a profit in its over fifty year existence, Amtrak is listed as a corporation with a CEO, stock, and earnings reports. Disgruntled citizens and preservationists cannot speak to or hold them accountable in the same way they can vote out elected officials. As the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Amtrak are both quasi-private “public-benefit corporations,” their executives are all unelected and political appointees. This creates several degrees of separation between those who manage public space and those who use it. What this means for the public is that the spaces the public might see as being public and shared by all – in this case our national rail network and places like the current Penn Station – are effectively private.[22]

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Proposal for rebuilding Penn Station across the street as the Moynihan Train Hall [23]

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There seems to be an innate discomfort among city leaders with the idea of investing in the commons without the intention to make some kind of measurable return on investment. New Penn Station’s current owners collect rent from this station’s commercial tenants, the arena at Madison Square Garden, and companies in the above office tower. However unattractive new Penn Station may be, it is at least profitable, which is as the builders who demolished old Penn Station intended.[24] Following this trend, the half-dozen (and counting) proposals over the years to rebuild Penn Station always included a major element of retail shopping and offices. The rebuilt Moynihan Station next door to Penn Station devotes more room to the operations of shopping concourse than rail travel.[25]
However, what made the old Penn Station so aesthetically pleasing was that the design did not consider retail profit. In the interest of aesthetic effect and having impressively large interior spaces, old Penn Station’s retail was segregated to a half-dozen shallow storefronts in the shopping arcade. The architecture was front and center. Rebuilding new Penn Station would require more than money. More importantly, rebuilding would require rethinking the long-held American assumption that extracting profit is compatible with the commons.

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Train concourse before and after, from the same camera angle

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Main entrance to waiting room before and after

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 Perhaps beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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References

[1] Photo credit: Cervin Robinson and Edward Popko (for the Historic American Buildings Survey). Pennsylvania Station, New York County, NY. Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, www.loc.gov/item/ny0411/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[2] Photo credit: Myles Zhang. “Excavating Old New York Penn Station.” Myles Zhang, July 9, 2020, https://www.myleszhang.org/2020/07/09/penn-station/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[3] Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al. “Penn Station.” In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. 987-88.

[4] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[5] Tom Fletcher. “Penn Station.” New York Architecture, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON004.htm. Accessed 26 July 2020.

[6] Allen J. Greenough. “Redeveloping Penn Station.” The New York Times (letter). August 23, 1962.

[7] Hilary Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. New York. W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.

[8] George Siedel. “Landmarks Preservation after Penn Central.” Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal. Vol. 17, no. 2. 1982. Pp. 340-356.

[9] Anthony Wood. “Chapter One: The Myth of Penn Station.” In Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

[10] Myles Zhang. “A History of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Myles Zhang, November 4, 2018, https://www.myleszhang.org/2018/11/04/historic-preservation-and-new-york-city/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[11] Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Company. “Bird’s-eye view, Penn Station, New York City.” Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016812231/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[12] Ballon. “The Interior Procession.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 60-73.

[13] Andrew Carnegie. “The Gospel of Wealth.” New York. Carnegie Corporation of New York. 2017. (Originally published in the North American Review in 1889.)

[14] Nikolaus Pevsner. “Railway stations.” In A History of Buildings Types. Princeton University Press. 1976. Pp. 225-34.

[15] Carroll Meeks. The Railroad Station. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1964.

[16] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 93-101.

[17] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[18] Philip Weinberg. “Critical Areas: Landmarks, Wetlands, Coastline, Flood Plains, and Takings.” In Environmental Law: Cases and Materials Revised 3rd Edition. Lanham, Maryland. University Press of America. 2006. Pp. 98-108.

Personally, I believe the assumption that “air” is a commercial asset to be bought and sold fundamentally undermines the idea in the commons that air, water, and light are owned collectively by society.

[19] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 95-96.

[20] “New York City’s Privately Owned Public Spaces.” NYC: Department of City Planning, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/pops/pops.page. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[21] Brett Heinz. “The Politics of Privatization: How Neoliberalism Took Over US Politics.” United for Fair Economy, September 8, 2017, http://www.faireconomy.org/the_politics_of_privatization. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[22] Fawn Johnson, Rachel Roubein, and National Journal. “Amtrak Has a Trust Problem in Congress: Democrats want to give the rail service more money, and Republicans are demanding more accountability.” The Atlantic, May 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/amtrak-has-a-trust-problem-in-congress/456042/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[23] Photo credit: Dana Schulz. “Cuomo releases new renderings of Moynihan Station as major construction gets underway.” 6sqft, August 17, 2017, https://www.6sqft.com/cuomo-releases-new-renderings-of-moynihan-station-as-major-construction-gets-underway/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[24] Ballon. “The New Pennsylvania Station.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 153-175.

[25] Justin Davidson. “Every Plan to Fix Penn Station Ranked.” New York Magazine: Intelligencer, January 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/every-plan-to-fix-penn-station-ranked.html. Accessed July 26, 2020.

Architecture of Redemption?

Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary

Master’s thesis at the University of Cambridge: Department of Art History & Architecture
Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge

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The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault

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Abstract

Prison floor plan in 1836

In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.

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Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

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Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.

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Related Projects

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Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

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Eastern State Penitentiary: Decorative Fortress

Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at the University of Cambridge

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Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies

 

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Digital Reconstruction

Created in SketchUp. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison.
All measurements are accurate to reality.

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With ambient music from Freesound

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Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reported as the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between cell blocks. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.

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360° panoramic view from guard tower

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Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

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Research Paper

Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders. The architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of confinement’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent, understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

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Continue reading paper.

Opens in new window as PDF file.

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Related Projects

Master’s thesis on this prison
Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon

New York: subway city of immigrants

Golden Rectangles SuperimposedAs northbound Broadway dips down to the valley of 125th Street, the subway soars over the street. The subway viaduct is a jumble of steel slicing through the orthogonal city grid. The 125th Street viaduct is a massive arch, 250 feet from end to end, two hundred tons of mass channeled into four concrete pylons, resting on the solid bedrock of Manhattan schist. The subway is the intersection, where the underground and aboveground worlds of New York City converge.
New York City is now home to a peculiar race of people. Every day, New Yorkers step to the tune of the stoplight. Every day, they ride in sardine can subways. Like smoked ham on the butcher’s hook, they hang from subway straps. At their respective stops, they scramble on to work, home, and family. All New York is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances as subway doors slide open, and they time their exits to the familiar recording of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please.” 1
The subway’s alphabet lines snake their way beneath the city and above the boulevards. Take the to Brighton Beach, the to Jamaica, or the to Forest Hills. From the towers of Midtown, to the factories of Flatbush, to the shouts of Shea Stadium, the subway is a panoply of color, motion, and people. For the price of $2.75, the world is within reach. Chinatown, Poland, Russia, Greece, India, and Italy are all neighborhoods joined by the subway’s umbilical cord. New York is a world unto herself, knit together by bands of black asphalt and steel arteries subway track.
Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

Once wooded island of the Lenape Indians, Mannahatta,2 is now a city of immigrants and refugees: the Irish fleeing famine in 1845, the Germans fleeing Revolution in 1848, the Italians in 1871, and now waves of Czech and Chinese, Dominicans and Mexicans. As the metropolis pulsates in motion, the spirit of the city evolves with each wave of newcomers, who ride her subways, inhabit her humid tenements, and dream of home, family, and future.
In 1856, Walt Whitman published Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. He writes of immigrants and bourgeois businessmen alike, all part of “the simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” Immigrants are the scheme of the city, the cogs of capitalism, and the human machinery of the metropolis. To each immigrant belongs her place, to each worker his seat, and to each vagabond a place in the breadline. Together they form the metropolis. Whitman also writes:
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide. 3
Rome is nicknamed the “Eternal City” for its ancient architecture and generations of development. New York, too, is an “Eternal City” of sorts. Its skyscrapers may rise and fall with changing tastes and a growing economy. Yet, in the face of all change to the built environment, immigrants remain the eternal constant that marks time and life in this city: a city with over three million foreign born from all corners of the world; a city whose functioning depends on the legions of immigrant window washers, janitors, and taxi drivers without whom this urban machine would screech to a halt. In 1856, Whitman wrote of a fluid and dynamic city of people in many ways like the New York of today.

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New York, you, too, are home to the injustices and inequalities urban life nurtures. Hart Island, New York’s pauper’s cemetery since 1869, is the final resting place of over a million mostly unknown corpses over 150 years, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of immigrant New York. Over a quarter million infants are buried here, each one in an unmarked coffin made of pine, the size of a shoe box. Mass graves are three coffins deep and are buried twenty-five in a row. Nearby Riker’s Island, America’s largest jail, imprisons 10,000 a night awaiting trial in the city’s many courthouses. The South Bronx, with a per capita income $12,500, is a mere mile away from the Upper East Side, with a per capita income over $85,000. The glassy condos of Manhattan are priced at a million plus per piece, but these homes are only made possible by the immigrant workers and janitors paid $10 an hour to sweep the hallways of dust and wipe the windows of grit. Every night, these laborers, too, return to their homes in the gritty outer boroughs. They, too, ride the subway that burrows underground, as generations have before them.
In the 1880s, social reformer Jacob Riis was working on How the Other Half Lives. Through photography, he captured the squalor, darkness, and misery of New York’s impoverished immigrant community. He showed children at work in sweatshops, vagabonds at work collecting the refuse of those more fortunate. He exposed the darkness of another world a few steps from Wall Street and a few miles from the opulent mansions and department stores of Fifth Avenue and Ladies’ Mile. 4 That very same year, on March 26th 1883, the Vanderbilt Family of railroad fortune hosted the largest and most expensive costume ball in New York history, costing six million adjusted for inflation. While the idle rich came dressed as the “Count of Monte Cristo” and “Otho the Barbarian,” the poor slept in squalor a carriage ride away in the Lower East Side. As the New York Sun reported three days later, “[This] festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of the many.” 5

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Though a century has passed since Riis, New York still is a city of social contrasts and economic disparities. Ironically, Jacob Riis’ Lower East Side is now a fashionable community for the upper middle class. All the same, the eternal New York City of immigrants endures in the outer boroughs of Flushing, Queens, Jackson Heights, South Bronx, and Bedfort Stuyvesant. In many regards, their social condition is not too different from Riis’ era. His images of New York testify both to how much and to how little New York has changed. America’s Eternal City still is a place of great injustices, but it is also the place where many of these injustices were first confronted and solved by the city’s activists and artists.
George Tooker depicts the alienation of urban life in his 1950 painting "Subway."

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

As E.B. White wrote in 1949: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” 6 Over 400 years since New York’s founding in 1609 by the Dutch, these words remain true as each generation of Men and Women creates the City in their own image. 7
New York, you have not the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the tradition and pomp of London, or the antiquity of Rome. However, in your diversity of people, cuisine, and culture, you are something far greater. You are home to a city of strangers, a city of neighborhoods, a city of sound, a city of subways, taxis, and buses flowing from the canyons of Midtown to the quiet bedrooms of Westchester and Park Slope, like rivulets of water. Flow on city, flow with the tide, and glide through the eras. Flow on Isle of Mannahatta for “a hundred years hence,” like a ship anchored on bedrock between two proud rivers.

https://mcnyblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/sun-mar-29-1883-critical.pdf

Endnotes

  1. Adapted from “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare
  2. Before Manhattan was settled by Dutch explorers in 1609, it was known by the local Lenape Indians as Mannahatta.
  3. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1856.
  4. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.
  5. The New York Sun, March 29, 1883.
  6. Quoted from Here is New York by E.B. White in 1949.
  7. “So God created mankind in his own image.” Genesis 1:27.