A Brief History of Mulberry Bend

At the intersection of history and the immigrant experience

Written for Kenneth Jackson’s Columbia University undergraduate course “History of the City of New York”

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Mulberry Bend c.1896. Buildings on left side of street are now demolished.[1]

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Mulberry Bend, nestled between the New York County Criminal Court and the tenements of Chinatown, is at the geographic crossroads of New York City history. At 500 feet long and 50 feet wide, Mulberry Bend is between Bayard Street to the north and Worth Street to the south. Named after the slight turn the street makes midblock, the Bend has a rich, over 350 year history: marsh, city slum, site of urban renewal, and now heart of the Western Hemisphere’s largest Chinese enclave.[2] Through its rich history, the Bend’s brick and wood-frame tenements hosted waves of immigrant groups: Irish, Italians, freed blacks, and now the Chinese, one of New York’s most resilient immigrant groups whose presence in Chinatown reaches as far back as the 1830s. Consistent to these immigrant groups is their struggle to survive and prosper in America. Many of these immigrants, such as the Irish and Italians, have long left the Five Points neighborhood where the Bend is located, leaving few traces of their presence. But the neighborhood was vital as their first point of contact in the New World, a way station between their country of origin and future prosperity in the Promised Land. As such, the Bend exemplifies some of the trademarks of the immigrant experience: a working-class community populated by an immigrant diaspora that emulates the language and tradition of their country of birth. Though their homeland may be distant, in Italy, Spain, Germany, Ireland, or China, they recreated a familiar world beneath the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Neither fully American nor fully foreign, neither a quiet residential street nor busy commercial thoroughfare, the Bend existed and exists as a community of transient identity.
When the Dutch first settled New York, the area of Mulberry Bend and Chinatown was wooded and marshy land. The Bowery, one block east of what would become Mulberry Bend, was a Lenape Indian trail traveling from the tip of Manhattan to the heights of Harlem, about ten miles distant. The New York County Criminal Courts, one block west of the Bend, was the site of colonial New York’s main source of drinking water, the Collect Pond.[3] Change came when the city’s tanning industry developed at the adjoining Collect Pond because it could carry away their industrial waste. The Ratzer Map of Manhattan, dated 1776, even plots the Bend, which bends to avoid the marshy topography of the Collect Pond. Despite this moderate industrial development and gradual filling in of the pond with soil, the area remained marshy and unfit for living.[4]

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Excerpt from the 1776 Ratzer Map of Lower Manhattan. The area labeled as “Common” is now City Hall Park, the “Fresh Water” body was known as Collect Pond, and the “Tanners Yards” was the center of the future Five Points Slum. Mulberry Bend is the line in bright red. The dotted land pattern indicated low-lying marshes and woods that have yet to be developed. The grid of streets had been laid out, but had yet to be populated with tenements and businesses.[5]

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After the Revolutionary War, New York prospered, first as the new nation’s capital and later as the nation’s largest city. With growth came new challenges in the Mulberry Bend. City leaders faced the difficult task of developing the marshy area. Some enterprising officials even proposed turning the area of Collect Pond into the city’s first park, designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, chief planner of Washington D.C.’s city plan. After all, the natural lake and rolling hills of the area could have lent themselves to scenic purposes. But in the end, economic and pragmatic concerns won out as the industrial development of the area continued and the Collect was filled in 1808. Maps from the time attest that wood frame tenements, industries, sweatshops, and breweries were built on the Bend.[6]
Draining Mulberry Bend solved neither the area’s pollution nor development problems. The low-lying land remained damp and muddy, a problem compounded in summer by the city’s mostly dirt and wood-plank roads. The area soon attracted some of the city’s marginalized residents, such as Blacks, prostitutes, and later the Irish after the 1840s Potato Famine. By the 1850s, the area had become the city’s disreputable slum named Five Points after the intersection of five city streets at the southern end of the Bend.[7] In his 1843 visit to Five Points, Charles Dickens described the neighborhood as worse than anything he had seen in Britain; it was “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” concluding that “all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”[8]
Evidence is rich of Mulberry Bend’s historic ties to poverty and injustice. One block east of the Bend was the city’s first tenement at 65 Mott Street, a squat eight-story affair with small brick windows and no light wells. One block west of the Bend was the city’s notorious prison, nicknamed The Tombs. Though no longer surviving, The Tombs were designed by architect John Haviland in 1838 in the Egyptian Revival style.[9] Due to the area’s marshy topography and the poorly covered Collect Pond, the Tombs and neighboring tenements were damp and fetid most of the year. In fact, the settling of the lowlands was so pervasive a problem that The Tombs, built of heavy granite, started sinking into the wet ground just five months post-construction. Before the advent of efficient sewer systems and indoor plumbing, the area would have been difficult to live in most of the year. Hence, independent of government intervention, the neighborhood surrounding the Bend continued to attract new waves of the poor and newly arrived who had little choice but to reside in tenements on marginal land.[10]
A new group arrived at Mulberry Bend beginning in the 1830s: Cantonese speaking Chinese, now some 40,000 strong. According to Mae Ngai, a childhood resident of Chinatown and now Columbia University historian of the Chinese in America, “The first Chinese came over in the early to mid 19th century as sailors or crew members in the China trade because, at the time, there was no transpacific trade through San Francisco. All cargo from China went to New York on a six-month journey around the tip of Latin America. Many were sailors and actors who chose to live in Five Points and Mulberry Bend. Many were forced to live there due to exclusionary rental policies in other parts of Manhattan.”[11]
Early Chinese immigrants settled on streets adjacent to Mulberry Bend, such as Mott, Bayard, Pell, and Doyers. According to Mae Ngai: “Due to the absence of Chinese women, many of these predominantly male immigrants married Irish women, who were already an established immigrant group. The Irish owned many of the Bend’s boardinghouses and flophouses frequented by Chinese sailors.” These immigrants also found niche employment in the city’s laundry business, which was an unskilled job in the era before laundry machines. The city’s laundry industry was at one time a majority-Chinese industry spread across the five boroughs and associated with New York’s Chinatown. Numbering less than a thousand at first, the Chinese population would grow in the following century, turning Chinatown into the largest Chinese enclave in the Americas.[12]
The neighborhood remained impoverished and a target of housing reform groups after the Civil War. From its earliest days, Five Points was the subject of significant attention from social reformers and city leaders. On the one hand, Nativists and Know-Nothings would have pointed to the neighborhood as evidence of the perils of immigrants, Catholics, the rowdy Irish, and the “filthy” Chinese. Many Protestant Americans feared the growing numbers of Catholics and Eastern European immigrants, many of whom settled near or on the Bend. On the other hand, enlightened social reformers, like abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher Stowe, would have pointed to the neighborhood as evidence of social inequity and the need for the slum reform efforts of groups like the Five Points Mission. Even Abraham Lincoln toured the Five Points Slum during his 1860 campaign for President.[13]
The most famous campaigner against the Bend and New York slums in general was Danish immigrant turned documentary photographer in the 1880s, Jacob Riis. Many of his most famous photographs were actually taken in the Bend, at that time occupied by the some of the worst slums in Five Points. From rag pickers to sweatshop workers and inebriated immigrants in Chinese-run Opium dens, Riis documented the deprivations and difficulties of immigrant life in bustling New York. In his now famous report How the Other Half Lives, Riis devoted an entire chapter with accompanying images just to Mulberry Bend.[14]
Nonetheless, Riis’ photos and method of documenting the Bend reveal prejudice against the area’s Catholic, Chinese, and other immigrant groups. As examined in later scholarship, Riis saw the poor he photographed as social menace and tried to frame their community as a criminal infested underworld. His subjects in the Bend avert eye contact with the camera lens, and his subtitles such as Bandit’s Roost and Rag Pickers’ Row sensationalize images of poverty. In his eyewitness account of photographing in an opium den near the Bend, Riis twists the account to depict the Chinese as ignorant and proud of their crimes. Chinese poverty becomes not evidence of society’s injustices against them but instead of the Chinese people’s own moral decay. How the Other Half Lives presents a biased view of Chinatown as violent, dangerous, and crime-infested.[15]
In reality, Five Points and Mulberry Bend were not statistically more dangerous than wealthier neighborhoods in the city. As contemporary analysis of Coroners’ Reports at the city morgue reveal, the murder rate in the Sixth Ward that included the Bend was not higher than the city average.[16] Despite the higher than average numbers of foreign immigrants in this neighborhood than the rest of the city, as the 1850 Census reveals, the Sixth Ward was no more dangerous.[17] But the neighborhood was largely Irish, Catholic, Italian, and Chinese, all ostracized immigrant groups that were depicted in the era’s yellow journalism as dangerous for public health and safety. Kenneth Jackson writes in Empire City: “Chinatown’s reputation had suffered in the late 1870s and early 1880s when sensationalist tabloids depicted the Chinese as opium addicts who were stealing American jobs and corrupting American women.” Considering Riis’ background as a journalist and crime photographer, his conclusions are part of this same tradition of media sensationalism.[18]
This does not serve to discredit Riis’ photos of Mulberry Bend or Charles Dickens’ description of Five Points; Riis’ photographs remain some of the most iconic images of the American immigrant experience. Rather viewers should be cautious when approaching these primary source documents that are not as objective as may first seem. After all, the majority of primary source documents about Mulberry Bend were created by the city’s wealthier class of White Protestant males writing about illiterate and non-native foreigners. Nonetheless, exceptions to the largely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant account of Five Points do exist such as Wong Chin Foo’s article for Puck Magazine, in which he recounts the racial prejudice faced by Chinese immigrants. In his account, he is not the aggressor or criminal on American soil so much as the victim of intolerance. As he writes: “I have been systematically styled a ‘pig-tailed renegade,’ a ‘moon-eyed leper,’ a ‘demon of the Orient,’ a ‘gangrened laundryman,’ a ‘rat-eating Mongol,’ etc.”[19]

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Bandit’s Roost [20]                    59 ½ Mulberry. See below for map.[21]

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Despite their problems, Riis’ damning report and poignant images of Mulberry Bend led to the creation of the Tenement Commission whose aim was the elimination of poverty and the reform of tenement building codes, both of which led to the city’s first slum clearance project at Mulberry Bend Park. After almost a century of relatively unregulated development, the area of Five Points had no public parks for school children and families. City streets, which were growing congested with traffic and hundreds of tons of horse manure per day, were not ideal places for child recreation either. City planners singled out the Bend as one of worst slums, and in a pilot project that would play out in other places across the city, they demolished the neighborhood to build Mulberry Bend Park. The park opened in summer 1897 with public fanfare and the approval of one its main proponents, Jacob Riis. Mulberry Bend Park, now known as Columbus Park, was originally nicknamed “Paradise Park,” a fitting name for what this park must have meant and felt like for people living in such a dense neighborhood deprived of any other outdoor public spaces.[22]

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Mulberry Bend Park in 1906. Mulberry Street is at right. Original caption reads: “Mulberry Bend Park contains two and three-quarters acres of well-kept lawn. Innumerable seats, a rest house and fountains are provided for the comfort and pleasure of the people.” [23]

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Comparative Sanborn fire insurance maps of Columbus Park in 1857 (left) and c.1905 (right). Mulberry Bend is the curved street at right between Bayard and Park. Note the replacement of hundreds of tenements and small sheds with the unified design of Calvert Vaux, one of the fathers of the City Beautiful Movement. The location of Riis’ earlier photo of Bandit’s Roost was at 59 ½ Mulberry Bend, shown in red on the 1857 map (left). A few decades later (right), few walking along Mulberry Street could have known that one of the most iconic photos in New York history was taken at this very spot. [24] Note: Surviving buildings on the other side of Mulberry Street are not shown in the c.1905 map and were not demolished.

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The construction of a park at Mulberry Bend was the beginning of larger scale social change as New York’s government reassessed and expanded its role in civic life. In following decades, much of Five Points was demolished to construct the city’s civic center. Around 1904, the tenements southwest of Mulberry Bend were cleared to build the imposing hexagonal New York County Courthouse, built of granite to emulate a Roman temple. Similar civic and institutional structures were added in subsequent decades, such as the present New York City Hall of Records, the imposing 1930s Criminal Courts with ziggurat-like roofs, and the 1980s Metropolitan Correction Center on the site of the demolished Tombs.[25]
The era of Robert Moses in the 1940s and 50s brought more change to the neighborhood when tenements south of Mulberry Bend were demolished and replaced with Brutalist style government-subsidized housing. Despite the dawn of the automobile and the gradual suburbanization of American cities, Mulberry Bend remained a high-density and low-income neighborhood, occupied by growing numbers of Chinese, peaking in the year 2000 at 60,000 people. Today, the Bend remains Chinese with sounds of Chinese opera emanating from musicians in the park and the sight of the elderly playing Mahjong, a game similar to Dominoes.[26] The Chinese feel of the Bend is as visible as ever.
Mulberry Bend is also notable for its several Italian funeral homes now affiliated with the Chinese. The dwindling presence of funeral bands in the area is evidence of demographic change. As of 2000, the funeral bands of the Bend were composed of Chinese and elderly Italians, a vestige of when Italians were the majority of residents in Mafia days. Of equal note is the Church of the Transfiguration around the corner, which was built for European immigrants but now serves the Chinese Christian community. The name Chinatown is a misnomer for a neighborhood that is not fully Chinese and is in many regards influenced by western culture and the footprints of past immigrant groups.[27]
A walk north up Mulberry Bend reveals a contrast between two visions of New York from across time. At left are Columbus Park and the imposing towers of New York’s courthouses and bureaucracies. At left is the somber wall of civic power and authority that replaced Five Points. Meanwhile, at right is the edge of Chinatown and the small five- and six-story tenements, representative of Five Points and the structures demolished to construct Columbus Park. At right is the opposite of the civic power seen at left: the living and breathing wall of an immigrant community. The Bend thus represents the physical and cultural division between two distinct New York neighborhoods, each of which embodies a different era in New York history. On one side of the park, the rundown buildings of old New York. On the other side, the oppressive and sterile towers of Lower Manhattan and a modern vision of the American city.
Chinatown illustrates the tension inherent to the immigrant experience. The immigrant to America is tied between the familiarity of their culture and language vs. the remoteness of an unfamiliar city. The immigrant finds and remains in her enclave, surrounded by fellow immigrants who speak her language, eat her food, and share her values. In the unfamiliarity of a foreign city, she finds her own community in which she attempts, however imperfectly, to replicate the values and lifestyle of the old world. Yet the foreign city of Americans and Uncle Sam is never far away. At Mulberry Bend, the towers of foreign New York City both physically and symbolically loom over immigrant Chinatown. The nearby Metropolitan Correctional Facility, city jails, and courthouses are a symbol and implicit threat that the government is gatekeeper to the opportunities of life in America. The immigrant community of Chinatown and Mulberry Street struggles onward encircled by a gentrifying city and beneath the watchful stare of the New York’s courthouses and bureaucracies.
Mulberry Bend has passed through many forms in its storied history from marshy forest on Lenape territory, to site of the city’s first drinking water and tanneries, to New York’s first and arguably worst slum, to the birth of the city’s slum clearance movement under Jacob Riis’ mixed intentions, and finally to the vibrant Chinese community visible today. For a street so small, it has witnessed so much. As gentrification displaces some residents and as younger generation Chinese choose to move away in search of better housing in the suburbs, Chinatown will continue to change. Change has been a constant in this neighborhood for three centuries. As Mae Ngai confirms: “Chinatown has never been a static place. It has always had different characteristics depending on the nature of the community.”[28]
Will the Bend evolve for the better or for the worse? Thousands of tourists frequent the neighborhood in search of Dim Sum and “Chinese” culture. Future changes to the demographic landscape of Chinatown should preserve the complexity of culture and the richness of history that hides just below the surface of this unassuming street and just behind the colorful facades of the walk-up tenements. Only time will tell what changes will be next.

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Ink and watercolor drawing of Chinatown by Myles Zhang.
The band of green trees is Mulberry Bend Park.

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Endnotes

[1] Jacob A. Riis, “Mulberry Bend in 1896,” digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 17, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mulberry_Bend-Jacob_Riis.jpg#filehistory.

[2] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1857 and c.1905,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[3] Hilary Ballon, “The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811–Now,” in The Greatest Grid, Museum of the City of New York, April 15, 2012, http://thegreatestgrid.mcny.org/greatest-grid/.

[4] Hillary Ballon, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[5] Bernard Ratzer, “The Ratzer Map of 1776,” digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 1, 2011, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1c/NYC1776.jpg.

[6] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “Collect Pond,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 250.

[7] Ibid., 414-15, “Five Points.”

[8] Ibid., 186-94, “American Notes for General Circulation by Charles Dickens.”

[9] Historical marker in vicinity of the Church of the Transfiguration at 29 Mott Street, “A Century of Chinese in Five Points,” October 23, 2016. In the 1830s and 1840s, many cities chose to build American civic structures in the style of Egyptian tombs and temples. The colonization of Egypt and East Asia provoked intense interest in all things “foreign” and “oriental” in both Western Europe and America.

[10] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “The Tombs,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 1190.

[11] Mae Ngai, interview by Myles Zhang, Office Hours Visit at Columbia University, November 1, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Tyler Anbinder, “The Most Appalling Scenes of Destitution,” in Five Points: The nineteenth century New York neighborhood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 235.

[14] Jacob Riis, “Chapter VI: The Bend,” in How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922) 59.

[15] Sally Stein, “Making Connections with the Camera: Photography and Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis.” Afterimage 10, no. 10 (May 1983): 9-16.

[16] Sarah Paxton, “The Bloody Ould [sic] Sixth Ward: Crime and Society in Five Points, New York,” research thesis, Ohio State, 2012, https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/52011/3/Bloody-Ould_Sixth-Ward.pdf.

[17] U.S. Census Bureau, “1850 Census,” Table II Population by Subdivisions of Counties [and City Wards], https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html.

[18] Kenneth Jackson, “Experience of a Chinese Journalist, from Puck Magazine by Wong Chin Foo,” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries,” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 329.

[19] Ibid 230-31. The greater intolerance Chinese immigrants faced vs. the comparatively lesser intolerance faced by Irish and Italians can explain why the Chinese chose to remain in Chinatown for so long. The existence of immigrant enclaves is evidence for difficulties with social cohesion.

[20] Jacob A. Riis, “59 1/2 Baxter Street,” digital image, Museum of Modern Art, http://www.moma.org/collection/works/50859?locale=en.

[21] Jacob A. Riss, “59 1/2 Baxter Street.” digital image, Museum Syndicate, http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=42895.

[22] “Columbus Park,” NYC Parks Department, https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/columbus-park-m015/history.

[23] Jacob A. Riis, “Scenes of Modern New York,” Digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 17, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scenes_of_modern_New_York._(1906)_(14589480310).jpg.

[24] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1857 and c.1905,” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1857: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-8021-d471-e040-e00a180654d7. 1905: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/96e7ad32-1e9e-5c64-e040-e00a18064991. This map was incorrectly dated as 1884 in the NYPL’s database. Mulberry Bend Park was completed in 1897 and renamed Columbus Park in 1911. The actual date of this map is therefore between 1897 and 1911.

[25] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “Chinese and Chinatown,” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 215-18.

[26] Jimy M. Sanders, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave,” review of Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave. American Journal of Sociology, July 18, 1993, 215-1, April 10, 2010, http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=socy_facpub.

[27] Min Zhou, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[28] Mae Ngai, interview by Myles Zhang.

Evolution of the English Country House

Developed with Paul Barnwell, historian at the University of Oxford

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Music: Piano Trio in E Flat, Op. 100 by Franz Schubert

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This animation traces changes to English country house design between 1660 and 1715. In 1660, the typical Elizabethan style country house was compact, fortified, and square. By 1715, the emerging Baroque and Palladian country house was spread out, less compact, and better integrated into the rural landscape. The gardens became an extension of the house. This animation illustrates the aesthetic and architectural changes during this era.

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Newark Metamorphosis

A story of urban change told through picture postcards

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Developed in collaboration with the Newark Public Library
for a summer 2018 exhibition on the history of Newark’s built environment

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An interactive map and photo project about Newark past and present, 1916 and today
Over the past century, Newark lost much of its architectural heritage and urban fabric. Along with cities like Chicago, Camden, and Detroit, Newark’s built environment evolved in response to population loss, urban renewal, and suburban growth. Explore the changing face of Newark in this interactive map with 150 comparative views of past and present streetscapes.
All historic images in this series are selected from the Newark Public Library’s collection of c.1916 postcards. All new photos were taken in 2016 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Newark’s 1666 founding. My images capture Newark around 1916, at a moment just before American cities entered the automobile era. Postcards were a medium of communication popular in the early twentieth century. Many postcards feature views of Newark’s important landmarks; others are of mundane street scenes and structures. Through color corrections, careful editing, and marketing, these postcards present a curated and idealized view of Newark as postcard artists, business owners, and city planners desired the city to be remembered.

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Trouble navigating map? Watch video tutorial below.   |   View all images on a single page.   |   Spot a mistake? Contact Myles.

A city is more than its monuments, skyscrapers, and grand civic architecture. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has preserved its large monuments but has not maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, wood frame houses, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are humble and unimportant. Yet collectively, they constitute the living fabric of the city. Too many have been demolished in the name of progress, creating a cityscape radically different from the city’s height in the early twentieth century. For a short video about Newark’s evolving neighborhoods click here.

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Postcard

Launch map and read essay about urban change.

(Link opens in new window.)

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Related Projects

Old Essex County Jail
My exhibit on a long-abandoned Newark landmark
Newark Vanishing
A reflection and art project about demolition in Newark
Growing up in Newark
Essay about my childhood experiences in this city

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Newark, a century after 1916

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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and in 2016. Note how the building at right, under construction in 1912, is now abandoned in 2016.

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In the turn of the century view of downtown Newark, one sees the architectural styles popular at the time: stone and granite victorian and gothic structures. At left, is Prudential’s old headquarters demolished in 1956. At left, is Newark’s central post office. Unlike today, the postal service was central to the functioning of society and was often the most important structure in a town. This post office happens to be in the Romanesque Style popular in the 1880s. After the post office outgrew this structure and moved elsewhere in 1934, the structure was soon demolished in the 1940s to 1950s to construct an unimpressive dollar store. All buildings in this image are currently demolished.

Prudential Insurance headquarters (left) and the City Post Office (right) c.1916. Both now demolished.

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Prince Street

Prince Street in 1916 and 2016. The complete and total loss of a neighborhood.

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Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article "Newark 58 Years from Today"- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.

Drawing by Winsor McCary from a 1928 article “Newark 58 Years from Today” shows a futuristic city that never came to be.

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Launch map and read essay about urban change.

(Link opens in new window.)

The Panopticon and Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, have undertones of conformism and oppression. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or it can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power against its critics, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]
Despite the seeming differences between them, many utopias and dystopias often resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal surveillance state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestioned control.

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The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, an English-born philosopher, social reformer, and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see image below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

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View computer simulation of panopticon.

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The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship between inmates and guards, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. In contrast, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are divided from each other by cell walls. In the panopticon, there is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, and bars that enforces the power structures. In dystopian society by contrast, there is a metaphysical or political arrangement, where the government demands total control of speech and surveillance, all the while isolating citizens and denying them freedom of speech.
The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopian police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable and diffused across institutions. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.

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Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,
To arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)
The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the attendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s functionaries. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” between attendant and inmate in which the inmate is its “bearer” and victim. Because the guard and state see the inmate while the inmate cannot see the guard, the inmate does not know when she is watched and therefore must always be on the lookout. Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.
The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”
The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, she must guard her body, her language, and her thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation,” like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]
Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. This constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct.” Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body. Gilead and Oceania are not physical panopticons like Bentham’s image, but the operations of these dystopian societies function like panopticons.

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Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.
Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. Punishments for human communication and self-expression become draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.
As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail. The panopticon aims to suppress communication between inmates in the way that the surveillance state aims to suppress communication between people. The panopticon might accomplish this aim through physical barriers, while the utopian state uses a mixture of social norms, spaces, and oppressive institutions.

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The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. The citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. This self-censorship, consequently, insures control and order, two of autocracy’s core aims.
The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.
Bentham observes that the panopticon should be opened to members of the public so that anyone can come and see how prisoners are confined. Bentham, unfortunately, neglects to mention that allowing anyone to supervise the panopticon can lead to a corruption of power. What happens if someone unscrupulous controls the systems of surveillance and weaponizes Bentham’s utopian project into a dystopian society? Bentham envisioned his panopticon as part of utopian society, but the recurrent imagery of panopticism in dystopian novels and dystopian states hints at the underlying problems behind Bentham’s utopia.

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Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia’s leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often falls back on the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

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Plan for the factory and community at Arc-et-Senans in France, designed in 1771 by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Note the panoptic arrangement. The factory is above the semicircular courtyard. The worker housing is ringed around the semicircle. The intendant’s office is at the top, in the center. From his office, he can survey his workers in panoptic fashion. Ledoux envisioned his factory as a self-contained utopia. Dystopic panopticon or utopic society? Arc-et-Senans is both.

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Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose many manifestations are totalitarian and dystopic. For Orwell, the word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.
As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. Bentham similarly prescribes a single cell of set dimensions for all inmates of his society; his is a society of conformism. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.

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Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,
Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)
Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.
Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. Social media, the most notorious vehicle of state and corporate surveillance, is itself a place of spectacle and exhibitionism, where people curate their self-image and choose how to present themselves to the world. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, the spectacle and surveillance states are almost interchangeable.
The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:
There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)
According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of what Orwell calls thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.
Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. Regardless, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?

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Endnotes

[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).

 

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipedia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Love and Longing in New York

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

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Walking is my form of enlightenment.
I live in Newark.  My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment.  The airport.  The port.  The downtown.  All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert.
Tens of thousands of cars, and one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, spew their fumes into my city.  Returning home, the smell of burning garbage often greets me.  As a child, I had asthma.
At night, I am alone.  Nobody my age lives in my neighborhood. From my front window, I see a parking lot for corporate commuters. From my back window, I see a vast parking lot for university students.  Both are desolate after dusk. As an infant, my first words were “demolition” and “truck.”  As a child, I never had play dates; my suburban “friends” feared my city.  As an adult, I hope to see my city’s vacant lots developed.  I keep on dreaming.
The streets of my city are not made for walking.  They are made for driving.  I walk.  I stop.  I wait.  Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
But I love walking in New York City.
When I walk, I am free to choose.  Each street guides me forward.  Each intersection is a choice.  Each destination is irrelevant.  When I walk, I sometimes choose a random order of directions, left, right, left, right, right, left, left, straight.  I see where they lead me.  I know not where.
When I walk, I am free to move.  I love walking on the High Line.  I float above the cars that prevent the city from realizing itself as a community.  I see the crowded streets twenty feet below.  I see the gardens on either side of me.  I let the verdantly landscaped path channel me forward.
When I walk, I am no longer alone.  I walk in the footsteps of the millions who passed before me.  I am one among millions, all of us on our separate voyages.  Lawyers.  Butchers.  Tourists.  Homeless.  We all walk alone.  Yet, we are together in walking alone.
When I walk, I see the world.  In Spanish Harlem, street fairs sell traditional Mexican foods.  In college town Columbia, well-dressed university students amble on their way to class.  In the Upper West Side, the shabby chic push their grocery prams.  In Times Square, tourists lug their large shopping bags from theater to theater, store to store.  Finally, after many neighborhoods, I reach the ceaseless bustle of Wall Street.  Tired after many miles of walking, I descend the subway steps.
When I walk, I achieve tranquility. I am happy.
One of my recent projects is painting New York City, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each day, I choose a new district to stroll through.  Then, equipped with my miniature watercolor palette and notepad, I walk and paint.  I discover the city block by block.  I aim to capture a fragment of what I see through painting.
Like a pianist who memorizes music by heart, the flâneur (or urban pedestrian) embraces the street symphony with his soul and feet.  People’s voices and buildings serve different, but equally important, clefs in the symphony.  As le Corbusier wrote, “… first to look, and then to observe, and finally to discover.”  My countless urban walks enhance my passion for cities, their architecture, their history, and their planning.
Living in Newark inspires me to dream.  Walking in New York City enlightens me to walk.  I am ready to walk my next journey.

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Growing up in Newark

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

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Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.
Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.
At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”
At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.
In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.
From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”
Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

The Legacy of Vitruvius

Rome left a footprint on the built environment.
What will our society leave?

Essay selected from successful 2014 application to the Telluride Association Summer Program

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Visitors to the ruins of vanished Greece, Carthage, and Rome do not see whole structures, so much as shards of memory and the detritus of a lost civilization. Ruins’ emotive power comes less from seeing them intact and more from imagining them as they once were. There is something powerful about “the lost cause.” The imagery of loss draws viewers in to imagine a civilization that was or still could be if history had gone differently. Roman culture and art left a visible impact on the built environment, and on how later civilizations constructed their own identities through claiming legitimacy (real or imagined) descended from Rome. The aesthetics of the southern plantation house, the US state capitals, and thousands of old bank buildings evoke the imagery of Roman columns, white marble, and solid proportions. What material legacy will our own civilization leave when it, too, splinters apart? Who or what is included in the process of memory making? Who is left out?
There are many ways to answer this question. One way is to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture, and to see where they diverge. This divide is well illustrated by one book: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written around 30-15 BCE by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer. From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, architects drew on the content of this book as a user manual and their profession’s “Bible.” Vitruvian design principles guided Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man. In the face of centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards. The globalized world of today with its shimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology makes Roman technological achievements seem small and quaint by contrast. Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in the ornament of tradition and precedent that modern architecture dispenses with. Roman culture seems to have little do with, or say about, modern culture and architecture.

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In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of good architecture: beauty (venustas), quality (firmitas), utility (utilitas). The built environment must fulfill all three; to pass the test of time is the measure of good design. I will establish the relevance of each of these principles to modern design thought.

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Beauty—Venustas

Aesthetic principles guided the architecture of Vitruvius’s time. Vitruvius emphasizes how architecture must relate to the human body, “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14). Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures. As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so too must architecture. Consequently, the architect becomes an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings. As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top. As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right. As the human body measures each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature. The gendered language is Vitruvius’, not mine.
Yet behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice. “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173). There seems to be the following implication: If humans are perfect creations in the image of the gods, then a perfect building should draw from the perfect human. Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world. The creation myth that Roman people are descended from the gods via Romulus and Remus, as well as the sophisticated appearance of the Roman built environment, is used to justify conquest and colonialism. Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress. In comparison, the narrative of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism’s claim to technological progress seems to claim, like Vitruvius, that our own civilization is the most advanced and best. It is the end of history.
Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics. Like Vitruvius in service of his client, the Roman Empire, modern architects can also be agents of injustice through their design of prisons and institutions that perpetuate violence. Unlike Roman structures, the modern built environment has turned toward functionalism, rationalism, and cost-saving measures at the expense of hand carved stone ornament. All of Vitruvius structures were designed by and for people to live and work in. Today sees whole new varieties of structures for different types of “people” – houses for cars, houses for airplanes, houses for industrial equipment, electricity generators, and computers. The superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman roads and crumbling obelisks of antiquity. Building materials have changed from stone, earth, and wood to sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic. The constraints of economy dictate that modern structures need not model the human form. The built environment has become alienating.

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On the one hand, the erosion of human aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy. On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder. Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi reads the respective urban plans of Rome and Las Vegas as symbols for different philosophies of space. Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in obedience to Vitruvius’ principles. Most Roman structures have a well-defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale. Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their human-scale density and orientation to the sun. The scale is human; the city is a microcosm. By metallic contrast, Las Vegas, an asphalt civilization constructed in the desert, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty. The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper. The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle. Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are exaggerations of Main Street and the roadside America of strip malls, car washes, and prefabricated houses. With technology comes freedom of movement and aesthetics but also an associated disorder and non-Vitruvian decadence.
One should ask if it is possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society. Probably not. To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different. Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests. Architecture seemingly does not play a comparable role in twenty-first-century society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts. The profession of architect is also different. In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to describing engineering methods to be employed by architects. In our time, the architect is no longer an engineer because the technical complexity of a modern building like an airport or hospital is far beyond the design abilities of any single person. Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest who collaborate on construction. In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society. While Vitruvius expected three rustic qualities of architecture – quality, utility, and beauty – occupants today expect a lot more: electricity, gas, plumbing, heating, wifi, etc.
Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse. Architecture, even if the aesthetic ideal is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style. As urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson writes: “History is for losers. Preservation is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.” We cannot and should not unquestioningly emulate Rome because the cultural forces shaping our respective societies are uniquely different.

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Met 4

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Quality—Firmitas and Utility—Utilitas

Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not. Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.
Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures. He writes: “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53). Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last. In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time. Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as durable in ten years as it will be in a hundred. This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow. A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple. A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.
Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition. In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes: “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6). An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius. The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers. The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial. Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations and refines the built environment through incremental change.
Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan). Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated. He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment. This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture. The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory. For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function. Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture, even if they seem to differ in their materials and construction methods. As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes: “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

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St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for concern?

Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long? Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long? The Roman forum became legendary; this architectural space become a powerful symbol for democracy and government long after the Roman buildings themselves had decayed. Could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru? The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the grandeur of our society? Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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In the end, who am I to judge? The broken statues, pottery, and amphora displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind, nor would they be valued by Romans in the shattered state the public now sees them in. The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction. If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments the Romans left behind. These accidental histories, like broken pottery and Roman garbage, reveal the lives of common people as they saw Rome. Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one. Perhaps we, too, may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent. The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives. Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask: How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end? Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world? Only time will tell.

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St. John the Divine 1

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Further Reading

Robert Venturi et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.
Marcus Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.