Link Newark Project

In fall 2019, the company that manages free wifi hotspots and advertising screens in downtown Newark invited me to display some of my artwork on their screens. I selected to exhibit drawings from my Vanishing Newark project. Images of this work on digital display are featured below:

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Where in the world is modernism?

What if the nationality of every artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art’s collections could be mapped to illustrate the Museum’s geographic diversity through time? Watch the data visualization below of 121,823 artworks at MoMA.

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Introduction

“The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired its first artworks in 1929, the year it was established. Today, the Museum’s evolving collection contains almost 200,000 works from around the world spanning the last 150 years. The collection includes an ever-expanding range of visual expression, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, and media and performance art.

“MoMA is committed to helping everyone understand, enjoy, and use our collection. The Museum’s website features 79,870 artworks from 26,215 artists. This research dataset contains 135,804 records, representing all of the works that have been accessioned into MoMA’s collection and cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each work, including title, artist, date made, medium, dimensions, and date acquired by the Museum. Some of these records have incomplete information and are noted as ‘not Curator Approved.’

“The Artists dataset contains 15,757 records, representing all the artists who have work in MoMA’s collection and have been cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each artist, including name, nationality, gender, birth year, death year, Wiki QID, and Getty ULAN ID.” – from MoMA’s website.

I have downloaded this dataset as a spreadsheet, imported the data into a visualization software called Tableau Public, and then proceeded to dissect this data to answer the following question:

What can big data reveal about the history of curating and the growth of museum collections?

The results are presented below in three case studies with accompanying infographics. Hover over the graph or toggle the buttons to explore the data in depth.

If you liked this analysis, please see my animation about the collecting history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Case Study One:

Geographic and Gender Diversity

The map below visualizes the nationalities of ~15,757 artists whose work is displayed at MoMA. There are 121,823 data points below. The data can be browsed by year or by department. This illustrates the constantly evolving geographic breadth of collections. Beginning in the 1930s, over 80% of artworks were from the four key countries of the US, UK, France, and Germany. Beginning the 1960s, the museum acquired some of its first works from Latin America and Japan. And, post-1991, the museum acquired the bulk of its collections from Russia and China. Recent years have seen a slight growth in African art.

An important distinction: This map does not show where each artwork was made. Rather, it shows where each artist is from. Nationality and national identity are, depending on the artist, an important influence shaping the unique perspective artists bring to their work.

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The bar chart below shows the gender distribution of artworks by date. On the horizontal axis: the date acquired. On the vertical axis: the number of artworks acquired in this year. Each bar is divided into three colors: Blue for artwork by a male artist. Pink for art by a female artist. Grey for art where the gender of the artist is not known.

This data can be explored by year and by department. Across departments, male artists comprise the large majority of holdings. The departments with the greatest number of works by female artists: Photography and Drawings. The department with the least female representation: Prints & Illustrated Books. The department with greatest number of works where the artists’ gender is unknown: Architecture & Design. However, across departments, the representation of female artists has slightly increased over the past few decades from around 0% to somewhere closer to 20%.

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Case Study Two:

Do newer acquisitions tend to be smaller?

The two graphs below plot the relationship between year produced, year acquired by MoMA, and the dimensions of each artwork (width in cm). I’ve plotted 12,250 points. They are color coded with the same blue, pink, and grey system as the previous chart.

In the first graph, we see how new artworks are becoming progressively larger and larger. In 1929, the year of MoMA’s founding, the width of the average work being produced was less than 100cm. Today, the average width of newly produced works in the collection is around 400cm – and is steadily increasing.

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In the second graph, we see how MoMA’s new acquisitions are becoming progressively smaller, even though newly produced artworks are larger than before. In 1929, the average width of a new acquisition was over 300 cm. Today, the width is less than 150cm.

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Contemporary artists seem to be working in ever larger dimensions – at least the contemporary artists whose work MoMA acquires. But, newer acquisitions tend to be smaller. Does this reverse correlation indicate that the growing costs of buying and storing art have priced MoMA out of larger artworks? What is the relationship between size and the decision whether or not to acquire a work?

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Case Study Three:

Is the scope and definition of modernism expanding to include older artworks?

The challenge facing any museum dedicated to modern art is: keeping up-to-date. Modern art is constantly being produced. Like any leading museum, MoMA is:

  • growing its collection of newly-produced contemporary works

  • while also enhancing its collection of older works

  • and expanding the geographic and national representations of artists and artworks

The graph below compares the relationship between production year and acquisition year for 7,797 items. The red trend line is the average of the acquisition (horizontal) and production (vertical) axes. Dot color indicates gender. Dot size indicates the number of works by this artist acquired in this year.

In 1929, most new acquisitions were produced in the 1920s – modernism was a new movement and a new idea. Today, new acquisitions range in date from the late 1800s to the early 2000s – the definition of modernism has grown to encompass both newer and older works. But, the average date of new acquisitions is between 1950 and 1960. There is modern art recently produced, and then there is modern art that is not as new but can reveal the history and birth of “modernism.” This is, so to speak, the history of the present.

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Modernism is not a geographically limited phenomenon. With globalization and the march of capitalism, the area effected by modernity is growing. And as new regions of the world come into contact with modern technology, materials, and ideas, the qualities of their respective art and the practices of their artists will change. Cultural institutions, particularly museums dedicated to modern art, are positioned to curate these global trends through the kinds of works they acquire and display in their galleries. More broadly speaking, the kinds of stories museums and curators can tell about history may reflect the geographic, gender, and temporal strengths (or weaknesses) of their collections.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

  • MoMA’s dataset from GitHub is free to download here. It is published with the following license: Creative Commons Public Domain (CC0). The information presented above reflects this dataset as of 17 October 2018. New entries after this date are not included as these infographics are not updated in real-time.
  • The dataset, derived from MoMA’s, is also free to download here from Tableau Public.
  • These infographics are not affiliated with MoMA. MoMA does not endorse the conclusions of the authors, who themselves take sole responsibility. The conclusions presented below are limited by the scope of MoMA’s published metadata.
  • This author is aware that, according to some definitions, gender is not a binary. Yet, the colors pink and blue code for traditional gender norms. This color palette is for visual clarity; it does not represent an endorsement or rejection of this gender binary.
  • I have created similar data visualisations analysing:

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The “Spiky” Geography of Art History

…according to the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

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According to its founding mandate: “The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality.”
Over the past few years, the Metropolitan Museum has catalogued over 25% of its holdings online. This represents ~590,000 objects, covering over 5,000 years of human history from 17 curatorial departments. The diversity of objects in a museum’s collection (and the amount of contextual information known about these objects) may reflect the kinds of narratives a museum can curate about artistic and global history. This animation charts the provenance and year of production of every single object that is catalogued on the Metropolian Museum website, whenever this information is known.
The geography of art history is, in some ways, “spiky.” Certain regions, particularly cities, are home to diverse and famous artistic output. Thomas Friedman similarly describes globalization as being spiky and concentrated in big cities. Other regions are comparatively less productive and less often collected. Either this reflects museum curator’s historic bias against Africa, Latin America, etc. in favor of Europe. Or, this might reflect a more fundamental historical reality: If geography guides artistic production and privileges regions with good geography, like areas surrounding the Mediterranean, then landlocked and inaccessible regions with poor geography will have less “exciting” artistic output.
If you liked this, please see my analysis and animation of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection history, where I seek to answer the question Where in the world is modern art?

 

 

In this animation, each colored dot indicates one geographical location represented by art in the Met’s online collection. The dot’s location indicates where this object was created. The dot’s size corresponds to the number of objects from this location. The time each dot appears corresponds to the year this object was created. Collectively this animation reveals the potential geographical and temporal preferences of the Met’s online inventories for objects collected in the common era (the year 1 c.e. to present-day). The dots above are assumed to be a relatively accurate sample size.

However, there are many objects in the collections with known provenance but unknown production date. Figure 1 below illustrates objects with known provenance and known year. Figure 2 shows objects with known provenance, regardless of whether year is known. The data-set in figure 2 has approximately double the number of objects, but these are concentrated in the same regions as objects in figure 1. This is because objects with known year also tend to have known provenance. Hence, figures 1 and 2 exhibit similar tendencies.

 

Art objects from ancient cultures like China, Egypt, and Sumeria frequently have known provenance but unknown year of production. This year might be estimated to the level of century with the help of carbon dating and through comparison with similar objects whose date is known for certain. Were the dates of these ancient objects known for certain, they could have been included in the animation above, thereby increasing the size and density of dots in under-represented regions. In this case, the animation would have resembled figure 2.

There is one more interpretive problem: Does this visualization reveal more about the diversity of the collections, or the preferences for which objects are selected for inventory online? For instance, does the statistical absence of objects from East Asia, in comparison to France, mean that the Met collects objects from East Asia less actively and in fewer quantities? Or, does this absence merely mean that fewer objects from the East Asian collections are selected for display on the museum website?

Metadata for this animation was downloaded here from the Met Museum’s website, then edited as a spreadsheet in excel and visualized in Tableau Public. This data was published by the museum staff in the public domain under a Creative Commons license. I am also publishing this visualization as an interactive map; it is open source and free to download  at this link.

 

Computer Models of World Heritage

last updated 10 December 2018

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Beginning in 2016, I became involved in building interactive computer models of world architecture and heritage. Through computer modelling, there is the possibility to broaden the audience of a work of architecture beyond the small number that may actually visit the building in person. World heritage sites or buildings of cultural importance are of particular aesthetic and research value as computer models can reveal qualities of their construction and design that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. A few of these models I created are featured below:

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Amiens Cathedral in France and the Kaaba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) are two of the most cogent examples of the technical possibilities of computer models. By building a model that is accurate to the measured foot, one can then view the building from beneath, above, or from unique angles that are otherwise impossible for the public to view in person. The view of the Kaaba from directly above is one such view that is possible to simulate through computer models, but is impossible to view from in person. This is due to religious and legal sanctions against flying above the Kaaba. The view of Amiens Cathedral from directly below is another example. The computer model strips away the layers of earth beneath the foundation, thereby suspending the cathedral in mid-air and permitting an imaginary view which, while theoretically existing, is humanly impossible to view.

These same models also allow us to strip away unnecessary or obstructive additions to better appreciate specific aesthetic qualities of the building. Such details include people, street furniture, and neighboring buildings that block certain angles of view. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem (which are surrounded by trees and ancient Roman-era walls on all sides) or Amiens Cathedral (surrounded by the medieval and mostly modern urban fabric of the city) are two examples of this phenomenon. Similarly, models permit us to restore structure to their original appearance as originally intended to be viewed by patron and mason, such as this model of the restored Parthenon.

Overall, the possibilities and applications for modelling are growing, and the state of the field today is by no means static. Future developments in computing, internet speeds, virtual reality, and photogrammetry will certainly permit further advancements in this field of technical and academic research.

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A Few Theoretical Views of Architecture

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The Kaaba from Above

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Al-Aqsa Mosque from Beneath

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Amiens Cathedral from Below

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Hypothetical Cross-Section of Amiens Cathedral, based on a drawing by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

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Walking in Manhattan

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of Harlem. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Further still and I reach the bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations.

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading Here is New York by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past sixty odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

Click here to learn more about my New York walks. Or, browse the image collages below of photos and drawings. They are organized into ten urban “walks,” each day in a different Manhattan neighborhood.

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Day One: Chinatown and Lower Manhattan

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Lower Manhattan

City Hall Park and the Financial District

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Chinatown

View of Chinatown towards Lower Manhattan

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Day Two: SoHo

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Mercer Street

Mercer Street in SoHo

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Day Three: The East & West Villages

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Day Four: The High Line

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Day Five: Madison Square

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Day Six: Midtown

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Elderly man approaches and extracts a crumpled and blurry image of a dollar sign from his bag.

Hey, can you draw me some money bags.

Me: Sure.

You know, it’s for my product. I’ll pay you well. What’s your name?

Me: Myles Zhang

You Chinese? You parents from China?

Me: No, America.

No, China…!

He walks off.

 

An Latin American immigrant drives up  in Midtown in his pickup truck.

Him: How far is the statue of Liberty from here?

Me: Oh… About seven miles.

 

Jurgen from Germany

Jurgen from Germany

A homeless musician approaches and observes my painting of Grand Central.

Jurgen: You are an artist.

Me: No, that is a title I have yet to earn. Are you from Germany? You sound like the director Werner Herzog.

Jurgen: Herzog? Him? His films put me to sleep. [Jurgen shows me his noteboook.] If I lived in Nazi Germany, the Nazis would burn my work, maybe even me. My grandfather, he used to go to rallies to give the Nazi salute. I still don’t know why he did that. I don’t think he even knew.

 

Jihadist proclaims that "America will soon be destroyed by fire!"

Convert proclaims that “America will soon be destroyed by fire!”

Convert preaches the impending doom of America on Sixth Ave and 34th: “The US government, they invented this virus that will kill off all the black people.”

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Day Seven: Central Park

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Day Eight: Riverside Drive

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Waterfront

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Day Nine: Morningside Heights

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Cathedrals of Industry

Cathedrals of Industry: Saint John the Divine and the 125th Street Viaduct

For more about Saint John the Divine, click here.

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Day Ten: Harlem

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

The composition of the watercolor below is based on the spiraling arc of the Golden Rectangle.

The Viaduct

The 125th Street Viaduct

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New York City..

“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 elusive.”

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Here is New York by E.B. White

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

Murphy Varnish

Murphy Varnish, built in 1886, is one of Newark’s oldest factories still standing. Its elegant brick walls and detailed brickwork reflect a time when industrial structures served more than just utilitarian purpose. They reflect a time when industry was central to Newark’s wealth and key to its future success. Murphy Varnish is not just a factory; it is a monument to industry and beauty built to endure (historically landmarked by the National Park Service). Recent renovation efforts promise to turn this derelict structure into a community of apartments.

The summer after my first year at Columbia University, I had the privilege of working with Studio for Urban Architecture & Design (SUAD), the firm hired to redevelop this derelict factory into some 40 apartments. During my time at SUAD, I observed firsthand the workings of a small architectural firm and the inspiring conversion of an old factory into something viable and living. As my internship neared its end, I photographed the historic factory and created a detailed watercolor rendering of the finished conversion, both featured below.Murphy Varnish B&W

During these formative three months, I learned that architecture is more than the creation of art and beauty for their own sake, but a means to build a stronger city and more stable society through inspiring architecture. For decades, Newark has seen architecture that does not connect to the city’s rich history or value aesthetics. Prefab, cookie-cutter homes are often built here, but do not respect their historical or urban context. They are set back from the street with little more than driveways and vinyl siding for decoration. Large corporate monoliths rise in the downtown, but through catwalks and the absence of entrances on public streets, their occupants need not engage with the city. Every morning and every evening, they can ride to and from Newark without setting foot outdoors or on city soil. Even in terms of historic preservation, the city has seen so much of its old architecture lost to parking lots, urban renewal, and urban blight.

It is in this context that Murphy Varnish is a unique endeavor in Newark’s redevelopment. In a city once home to thousands of small factories, Murphy Varnish is one of the few that remain. Old maps of the Newark will reveal the presence of dozens of factories in the vicinity of Murphy Varnish and comparable to it in scale. In the past few decades, all of these industrial structures have been demolished and replaced by empty lots and distasteful prefab homes. Now, Murphy Varnish stands alone in a now largely residential neighborhood; it serves as a unique reminder of the past and hopeful beacon for how old industry can be converted into residential. The process of renovation might not be as easy as demolition, but it is in the longer run far more respectful to the neighborhood’s and city’s history.

As I begin my second year of college, I return to campus with a greater appreciation for historic preservation. I return with deeper admiration for the tireless efforts of Newark activists and architects to preserve the city’s rich architectural heritage for future generations. Thank you!

Permaskin is God.

This project was made possible by a generous grant from Columbia’s Center for Career Education.

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Scenes of Murphy Varnish before Work Began:

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Murphy Varnish

Murphy Varnish before restoration began.

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Neighborhood resident Angel and his dog Tigressa stand before Murphy Varnish.

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A Work in Progress:

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The Finished Conversion:

(As Proposed)

Murphy Varnish Color

Watercolor rendering completed for SUAD of the restoration project.

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Rome: The Eternal City

Roma, te amo

Roma, te amo, labeledFor a labeled map of Rome, click on the image above.

 

Rome, the Eternal City, the city of a thousand jeweled churches. Each church a treasure trove of glistening gold and baroque drapery cascading over its roof and walls. Each street a channel to and from some unexpected street side treasure: A Roman coffin turned public fountain, a marble column turned city wall, or a dark alley where the sound of water drips eternal.

Rome is the city of reinvention with each subsequent structure built on the physical and symbolic history of Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and then the Renaissance and modern era. Physicist Isaac Newton once proclaimed that: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Rome too can remind herself that: If I stand more powerful and majestic, it is not thanks to current accomplishment but to the bedrock of history that accumulates treasures through time and value through age. Rome too stands “on the shoulders of giants:” The Roman Empire gave Rome her aqueducts and temples, the Renaissance gave Rome her churches, and the hand of Mussolini gave Rome her fascist monuments and boulevards sliced through the urban core.

Despite being grounded in history, Rome is very much a city of the present. The human fabric of this city may have left the urban core with waves of gentrification and tourism, but the spirit of a living and breathing city endures. North African immigrants peddle their umbrellas and selfie-sticks in the shadows of the Coliseum. Mass with the Pope continues in Saint Peter’s beneath Michelangelo’s majestic dome. Tourists may come and go. Time may pass. But, the Eternal City will endure and evolve.

When I returned home, I painted a map of Rome from memory (seen above). The streets of the city radiate from its center. When I gaze at this map, framed in my room, I am reminded of the generations of architects who passed before me. And, I wonder in what way will I contribute to this architectural legacy, adding the language of my structures to that of generations before me. Rome still appears in my dreams, when I walk through the city streets on the cobblestone path that guides me forward. When I awake, I have an image in my mind of where I traveled. I dream and envision paths and cities, unbounded by the limits of reality.

 

 

 

Pantheon Facade

 


 Rome: The Eternal City


 

 

 

 

New York Walks

The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York

(Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty)

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of the Upper West Side. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Even further, and I reach the mindless bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading “Here is New York” by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past 60 odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

To read more about my walks in New York, click here.

Love and Longing in New York

 

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.

(Selected from college application essay)