What does “progress” mean to the American city?

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To view photos of progress in Newark, explore the interactive map above.
If you are having difficulty using this map, please watch the accompanying video tutorial here.

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In 1916 and with great fanfare, Newark celebrated the 250th anniversary of its founding in 1666. Massive classical columns sculpted of plaster were erected at the city’s main intersection of Broad and Market Streets. Soldiers soon off to WWI marched down Broad Street with Colt rifles in hand. A few months later, women followed in their footsteps carrying banners reading: “The girls behind the men behind the guns.” The United States, though not yet in the midst of Europe’s World War, would soon be at battle and suffer 116,000 deaths, mostly caused by disease and influenza. Women had not the right to vote until 1920 and blacks, then a minority in Newark, lacked some of the basic human rights many of them sadly still lack.

 

 

And yet the citizens of Newark, alongside much of America, had come to believe that the future held great things in store for them. In a mere fifty years, America had transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economy, developed the world’s most extensive rail system, introduced electricity in every major city, and could boast the world’s largest industries from Chicago’s packinghouses to New York’s Wall Street stock market to Newark’s 37 breweries, countless tanneries, machine shops, and insurance companies. America had also the world’s most extensive power grid and the world’s most affordable and durable car: Henry Ford’s Model T. The way of life was rapidly changing, often for the better. At this rate of progress, the future looked promising. And as World War One drew to a close in 1919, America told herself that this would be “the war to end all wars” and confidently looked toward the future in hope of unremitting progress.

 

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, 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.

 

Indeed, leaders of the time predicted what the future would bring to cities like Newark and New York. Artists completed whimsical predictions of the Newark of 1986, a city of dense skyscrapers, railroads spewing outwards in all directions, and all manner of blimps and airplanes flying in the sky above. Planners like Harland Bartholomew drafted a master plan of Newark with infrastructure fit for a city of three million (Newark’s population in 1909 was a mere 280,000). Newark corporations like Public Service planned for the future by building the nation’s largest trolley terminal in 1916, capable of accommodating over 300 trolleys an hour. In fact, even the use of the words “future” and “progress” in printed media slightly increased after World War I, peaking around 1920 and declining every following year until World War Two.

 

Now, as Newark celebrates its 350th  anniversary in 2016, the city has opportunity to reflect on the past, at the Newark of 1916, and ask: What is the nature of progress?

 

A century ago, progress meant change; progress meant ceaseless improvement and the forward march of society. Today, after witnessing a century with two world wars, an almost fifty-year cold war, decolonization, and the emergence of an interconnected world economy, the implications of progress seem more ambiguous and less naively optimistic. Progress implies an increasing standard of living, greater educational attainment, and a longer lifespan thanks to advances in public health. Progress has also led to the decentralization of cities and the loss of distinct urban neighborhoods – processes that continue to play out today. Progress now means many much more than it did a century ago. Unlike the planners and artists of 1916, who predicted that progress would mean the never-ending onward and upward climb of Newark and America, society now knows that progress has not delivered on all it has promised.

America's Unhealthiest City

America’s Unhealthiest City

 

In many regards, Newark is a better city than it was in 1916. Newark, alongside the New York metropolitan region, is now more interconnected to the world economy. The average age of death has risen from age 50 in 1920 to about age 80 today. Today, in contrast to the 1890s when the US Census Bureau deemed Newark as America’s “unhealthiest city,” Newark citizens now have better access to medicine at the city’s many hospitals. Admittedly, Newark is still a city of great poverty with 79,000 residents (or 28% of the population) below the poverty line. Still, being in poverty today is very different from being in poverty a century ago when private charities were the extent of the public’s social safety net and when government did little to aid those in poverty. Our present society is, in many regards, more democratic, more egalitarian, less socially stratified, and a lot wealthier than before.

 

1911 Demographic Map

Newark’s Predominant Ethnic Groups in 1911

 

At the same time, often in the same name of progress, Newark has sacrificed large amounts of its cultural and architectural urban fabric. In the 1920s, Newark was home to countless densely built immigrant enclaves. Springfield Avenue was home to Newark’s Jewish community and its many businesses. A few blocks to the North was Newark’s Seventh Avenue Italian Community. Behind City Hall was Newark’s Chinatown with its restaurants and alleged dens of vice. In the following decades, as the predominantly white population of second and third generation immigrants fled Newark for the suburbs, they left behind them the fabric of old and now empty neighborhoods. With time, many of these neighborhoods fell prey to demolition and urban renewal. For instance, the old Jewish and German communities of Springfield Avenue are now predominantly empty land, low-density public housing, and strip malls. A similar fate met Newark’s Italian community when it was forcefully evicted to construct the low-income Columbus Homes, ironically named in honor of the Italian explorer. Meanwhile, Newark’s Chinatown, Greektown, and other small communities are now largely devoid of large population or are dedicated to the ubiquitous parking lots of downtown Newark (click here for interactive map).

 

In the belief that the new is inherently better than the old, much of the city’s architectural fabric was outright demolished or replaced by structures inferior to what they replaced, as these images often testify to. The sterile housing project, strip mall, and block of low-income housing are not necessarily more beautiful than the dynamic neighborhoods of churches, businesses, and tenements they replace. Such is the direction progress can take.

 

Newark in 1873 and 2016

Downtown Newark in 1873 and 2016. Note the near complete loss of the neighborhood and its replacement by the city’s hockey arena at bottom and parking garage at top. In over a century, all but a handful of the structures pictured in 1873 were demolished.

 

A walk through Newark’s Central Ward will illustrate this direction of development. Let’s take a walk up Springfield Avenue, one of Newark’s major commercial thoroughfares linking the city’s center to its outlying suburbs. We stand in a desolate intersection at the corner of Prince Street and Springfield Avenue. In the distance rise the skyscrapers of Downtown. In front is a wide and street empty of pedestrians. Springfield Avenue slices diagonally through the urban grid, a band of asphalt with the faded markings of yellow and white lines indicating where to drive. On one side, is a vast empty lot now being developed into low-income housing. On the other side, is a low-slung housing project built to replace the decaying urban fabric. The scene is one of near desolation with few pedestrians and thousands of cars.

A century ago, this neighborhood was a vibrant immigrant community comparable to New York’s Lower East Side. Three and four story tenements edged up on either side of the street. Horse pulled trolleys and then electric streetcars plied up and down this street delivering immigrants to and from work. One block ahead was the Prince Street Synagogue, one of the city’s many vibrant churches and now an empty shell. A few block behind were three of Newark’s largest factories now closed, the Krueger Brewery, Pabst Brewery, and General Electric. Around us were crowded streets and the sound of horses on cobblestone pavement. This neighborhood, among many in Newark, was a dynamic one inhabited by subsequent waves of English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and finally Blacks during the Great Migration of the 1930s, each generation of immigrants leaving their mark on the built environment.

 

Prince Street

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

 

As the flow of immigrants slowed and as industry ebbed away, this neighborhood has gradually vanished without the people that cared for and resided in it. Industry too slipped away with the consolidation and closure of nearby factories to move abroad, the subsequent loss of employment, and later riots that rocked the city in summer 1967. Newark and its reputation are still recovering from this loss of industry and employment, as the appearance former neighborhoods like this one attest to.

 

Scenes of contrast much like this one play out across Newark to varying degrees. The manifestations of changes to the built environment may vary from street to street and from building to building but the social and economic factors motivating these changes remain consistent: white flight, the automobile, loss of industry, suburbanization, racial tension, urban renewal, among other factors too numerous to discuss in detail.

 

A city is more than its monuments. A city is more than its grand civic structures and skyscrapers. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully maintained its large monuments: cathedrals, skyscrapers, and civic structures. Newark has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, town-homes, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. However, collectively, they constitute the living and breathing heart of Newark.

 

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.

Circa 1916, the Prudential Headquarters at left and the City Post Office at right. Both later demolished.

 

My belief is that by examining individual instances of changes to the urban fabric, one can gain a more accurate understanding of the nature of progress in the American city. Though individual instances of say a church’s or factory’s demolition and the disappearance of a neighborhood might seem to be events independent of larger social and historical trends, these individual historic events can and do provide hints and are visual evidence of larger historic movements. By comparing scenes of Newark then and now, one can start to understand the bigger picture how cities developed historically, how suburbanization and de-industrialization affected the city, and most importantly one can start to question the nature of progress.

 

In many regards, one can examine these images and wish that society still built structures as tall, as proud, and as ornamented as those of a century ago. Nonetheless, one must also recognize that the built environment of a century ago was the unique product of its time and is in fact inseparable from its era. The same culture and society that laid forth the grand boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of Newark and New York, and the vast parklands that surround many American cities, was also a society that denied women the right to vote, blacks the right to participate in society, and colonial peoples the right to govern themselves.

 

In fact, one could posit that the beautiful architecture of early America and its vast public works at the turn of the century would not have been possible without the wealth derived from imperialism, the availability of cheap labor, and the masses of immigrants willing to work twelve hours a day in trying working conditions. To embrace the beauty of the past, one must also recognize the concomitant negatives that made this beauty possible to begin with.

 

We can examine these images of vanished urban fabric of tenements, churches, factories, and densely packed neighborhoods. Yet, we must recognize that neither past nor present is superior to the other. The built environment of each era is merely the product of its society, culture, and economy. The objective of examining this visual history is not to pass judgment on past or present but to objectively understand where Newark was, where Newark is, and where Newark will be in the near and distant future. A century after 1916, we look forward to the future.

 

Click here for an interactive map about Newark’s vanishing heritage.

 

A century after 1916

 

 

A Not So Perfect Past

 

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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and almost a century later in 2016. Note that the building at right, in construction in the first image, is now abandoned and awaiting restoration.

 

New York: City of Immigrants

The Viaduct

Golden Rectangles SuperimposedAs northbound Broadway dips down to the valley of 125th Street, the subway soars above. A jumble of steel slicing through the orthogonal city grid. A massive arch, 250 feet from end to end. Two hundred tons of mass channeled into four concrete pylons, resting on the solid bedrock of Mannahatta.[1] It is the intersection where the underground and aboveground worlds of New York converge.

The subway, the alphabet lines that snake their way beneath the city and above the boulevards. Take the  to Brighton Beach, the to Jamaica, the to Forest Hills. From the towers of Midtown, to the factories of Flatbush, to the shouts of Shea Stadium, the subway is a panoply of color, motion, and people. For the price of $2.75, the world is within reach. Chinatown, Little Poland, Russia, Greece, India, and Italy, all neighborhoods joined by the umbilical cord of the subway. New York is a world unto herself, knit together by the bands of black asphalt and steel subway track.

Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

Once wooded island of the Lenape Indians, now home to a peculiar race of people. Every day, New Yorkers step to the tune of the stoplight. Every day, they ride in sardine can subways. Like smoked ham on the butcher’s hook, they hang from subway straps. At their respective stops, they scramble on to work, home, and family. All New York is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances as subway doors slide open, and they time their exits to the familiar recording of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please.” [2]

 

New York, New York, home of the Lenape, town of the knickerbockers, and city of immigrants and refugees. The Irish fleeing famine in 1845, the Germans fleeing Revolution in ‘48, the Italians in ’71, and now waves of Dominicans and Mexicans, Chinese and Czechs. As the metropolis pulsates in motion, the spirit of the city evolves with each wave of newcomers who ride her subways, inhabit her humid tenements, and dream of home, family, and future.

In 1856, Walt Whitman published “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”[3] He writes of immigrants and bourgeois businessmen alike, all part of “the simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” The scheme of the city. The cogs of capitalism. The human machinery of the metropolis. To each immigrant her place, to each worker his seat, and to each vagabond a place in the breadline. Together they form the metropolis.

 

Whitman also writes:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Rome is nicknamed the “Eternal City” for its ancient architecture and generations of development. New York, too, is an “Eternal City” of sorts. Its skyscrapers may rise and fall with changing tastes and a growing economy. In the face of all change to the built environment, people remain the “eternal” constant that marks life in this city: a city with over three million foreign born from all corners of the world; a city whose functioning depends on the legions of immigrant window washers, janitors, and taxi drivers without whom this urban machine would screech to a halt. In 1856, Whitman wrote of a fluid and dynamic city of people not unlike the New York of today.

New York, you have not the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the pomp of London, the antiquity of Rome, the parks of Peking, or the beauty of Budapest. But in your diversity of people, cuisine, and culture, you are something far greater. You are home to a city of strangers, a city of neighborhoods, a city of sound. A city of subways, taxis, and buses flowing from the canyons of Midtown to the quiet bedrooms of Westchester and Park Slope, like rivulets of water. Flow on city, flow with the tide, and glide through the eras. Flow on Isle of Mannahatta for “a hundred years hence.” A ship anchored on bedrock between the two proud rivers of the Hudson and East.

 

 

But, New York, you too are home to the injustices and inequalities urban life nurtures. Hart Island, New York’s pauper’s cemetery, is the final resting place of over a million mostly unknown corpses, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of immigrant New York. Over a quarter million infants are buried here, each one in an unmarked coffin hewn of pine, the size of a shoebox. Mass graves three coffins deep and 25 long. Nearby Riker’s Island, America’s largest jail, imprisons 10,000 a night awaiting trial in the city’s many courthouses. The South Bronx, per capita income $12,500, is a mere mile away from the Upper East Side, per capita income $85,000+. The glassy condos of Manhattan are priced at a million plus per piece, but these homes are only made possible by the immigrant workers and janitors paid $10 an hour to sweep the hallways of dust and wipe the windows of grit. Every night, these laborers, too, return to their homes in the gritty outer boroughs. They, too, ride the subway that burrows underground, as generations have before them.

In the 1880s, social reformer Jacob Riis was working on How the Other Half Lives. [4] Through photography, he captured the squalor, darkness, and misery of New York’s impoverished immigrant community. He showed children at work in sweatshops, vagabonds at work collecting the refuse of those more fortunate. He exposed the darkness of another world a few steps from Wall Street and a few miles from the opulent mansions and department stores of Fifth Avenue and Ladies’ Mile. That very same year, on March 26th 1883, the Vanderbilt Family of railroad fortune hosted the largest and most expensive costume ball in New York history, costing six million in today’s currency. While the idle rich came dressed as the “Count of Monte Cristo” and “Otho the Barbarian,” the poor slept in squalor a carriage ride away in the Lower East Side. As the New York Sun reported three days later, “[This] festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of the many.” [5]

 

 

Though a century has passed since Riis, New York still is a city of social contrasts and economic disparity. Ironically, Jacob Riis’ Lower East Side is now a fashionable community for the upper middle class. All the same, the eternal New York City of immigrants endures in the outer boroughs of Flushing, Queens, Jackson Heights, South Bronx, and Bed Stuy. In many regards, their social condition is not too different from Riis’ era. His images of New York testify both to how much and to how little New York has changed. America’s Eternal City still is a place of great inequity and injustice.

New York aggregates and accents both the dynamism and the dangers of urban life. New York, a place of wealth and of anonymity. New York, a place for the powerful and for the disempowered. To appreciate the beauty of this environment, one must realize that this city, too, like Chicago, Paris, and London “has been [and still is] one of the dark places of the earth.” [6] New York, like any living individual, has both beauty and darkness. This product of human labor and ingenuity is only as perfect as its imperfect Creator.

George Tooker depicts the alienation of urban life in his 1950 painting "Subway."

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

As E.B. White wrote in 1949: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” [7] Over 400 years since New York’s founding in 1609 by the Dutch, these words remain true as each generation of Men and Women creates the City in their own image. [8]

 

 

A City of Immigrants: Then and Now

For more about walking in New York, click here.

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Footnotes:

[1] Before Manhattan was settled by Dutch explorers in 1609, it was known by the local Lenape Indians as Mannahatta.

[2] Adapted from “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare

[3]Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” from the 1849 book Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

[4] How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.

[5] The New York Sun, March 29th, 1883.

[6] Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1899.

[7] Here is New York by E.B. White, 1949.

[8] “So God created mankind in his own image.”

Mount Pleasant Cemetery

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Mount Pleasant was the resting place of Newark’s leading industrialists, politicians, and first families. Opened in 1844 and nationally landmarked in 1988, it fell into neglect as Newark’s wealth flowed away to foreign factories and its people to suburbia. It is now a tranquil spot in a hectic city. Cars may speed by on the nearby interstate and the surrounding neighborhood may shrink or grow, but the cemetery will endure in spirit.

The cemetery stones gradually weather with rain, its trees grow larger, and its grass taller. Names carved in stone are just as susceptible to the erasing power of time as anything else. The names of Newark’s proud families here memorialized may survive in fragment form, but the memory of the deceased slips away as slowly as murky waters flow past in the nearby Passaic River.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Urban Garden in Newark

By Myles and Maia Zhang

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In the past 60 years, my home city of Newark has lost 40% of its population and had nearly 50% of its buildings demolished. This urban decay represents both loss, of a more culturally vibrant past state that has decayed into the present, and hope, that something productive can emerge from this now empty land.

And yet, the timely and needed development of this land is prevented through a combination of failed government policy, economic downturns, conservative landowners, and inefficient enforcement of land use laws. As a result, hundreds of acres of land remain undeveloped and remain instead as vacant lots — there are more than 200 hectares of paved, surface parking lots in my neighborhood.

One of the largest of these lands was formerly an electric factory and has sat empty for nearly 40 years — 25 years as a decaying warehouse and 15 more years as wasteland filled with yellow crabgrass and decomposing trash. For five years, rusting demolition equipment and a towering pile of brick, steel, and construction debris moldered in the center of the lot — visible to the millions of commuters who pass this site yearly, watching day by day as the building gradually deteriorated into a wall of weeds.

Then our family decided to experiment with ways to bring a semblance of new life to this tired soil: a garden. But our proposal to cover this raw earth in spring flowers was denied by the site’s owner. Undeterred, on a quiet weekend with few commuters passing by, we walked behind the barbed wire fence to silently sow under the smiling sun. The wondrous flower mixture danced out of the plastic seeder, humming a soothing rhythm. Thanks to more nourishing rain, hope germinated from the infant seeds. Soon, sprouts began popping up hesitantly. At first, the green shoots looked no different from the weeds, but with time they grew taller and flowers bloomed — clover, sunflowers, daisies, and queen anne’s lace. Where once commuters walked pass, now they would stop and take photos of our work, with the city skyline rising in background.

Every June, the sanitation workers come with their oily machines and sweaty equipment to level the land of the flowers we secretly planted. With hatchets, they destroy the flowering fruits of our labor and re-expose the rubble strewn dirt. With chainsaws, they chop down the trees that sprout from the chain-link fence. And they leave the mauled flowers and trees strewn on the ground where they fall. Over the following weeks, the flowers and leaves dry in the hot sun and return to the dusty earth tones of the dirt from which they sprang. However, each new year, the flowers return more resilient than before, and with more numerous and larger blossoms. In earlier years, the seeds’ return required our help and gentle watering. These days, they return unaided, attracting the occasional bird. And so the cycle repeats… “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

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Learn more about this project on GoFundMe.

Read more about Newark’s urban decay.

This project was also featured in the Sine Theta magazineRead here.

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Westinghouse Demolition

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Now an Urban Garden

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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)

Growing up in Newark

Arrested Motion(selected from college application essay to Columbia College)

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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.”

Popup Park

Situated in front of New York City’s Flatiron Building is a triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd. The currently underutilized space could become a vibrant public square. Such a park should reflect the vitality and dynamism of its neighborhood. Thousands of pedestrians pass through this highly visible intersection daily.

Popup Park creates a mixed use public space that adapts to its many users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. Each panel is arranged according to the Fibonacci series or the golden rectangle. This permits a functional and aesthetically pleasing composition to be incorporated into each panel. The square’s periphery is arrayed with trees to shade the communal area and to offer a respite from the hectic concrete jungle.

 

urban park 1

urban park 2

Parking vs. Preservation

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On a warm Sunday in August 2014, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space. Although the first floor was sealed with unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago windows and intricate terracotta fretwork. In the neo-classical tradition, the structure sported a detailed cornice, white ornamentation, and copious bunting. The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure. When the outside walls finally fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and hundreds of re-bars for added durability.

Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District. Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but . . . The property’s owner is Edison Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City. Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line. His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City read — “Bloomberg is gone. Time to put the bikes away.” To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without doing anything. While waiting, Edison Parking generates huge revenue from surface parking. Often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot. Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

In fact, demolition is in Edison’s best interest. Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land. Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden. Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption. In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking. Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.

Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art. In this case, the property Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law. All the same, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land. Then, Edison secretly removed the historic property’s windows and poked holes in its roof to cause intentional water damage. Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property. Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission. In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.

When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late. The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis. Sitting directly behind me was a heavy, suburban lady, obviously working for Edison. Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and promptly left the meeting.

Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

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My name is Myles. I am a life long Newark resident.

Parking is a travesty. I have seen . . .

Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.

Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.

Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.

This blight of so-called “development” must stop.

Newark is a city with a strong history. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.

Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.

Newark is a lawless city. Its buildings are testament to that.

Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures. They do so anyway.

Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent. They do so anyway.

Parking developers are not above the law. They think they are anyway.

Those who break the law must be held accountable.

Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.

Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”

A thief does not think he will be caught. A thief does not stop until he is punished.

I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals. But this commission has . . .

The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.

The power to prevent continued parking construction.

The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.

I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far. I encourage you to do more. I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers. Even if victories may be pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.

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In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district. In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed. Each time I review these images, I painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison Parking is not alone. Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity. For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site. It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures. As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.

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The Legacy of Today

Rome left a legacy. What will we leave?

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Roman Ruins

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When one visits the ruins of vanished civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was. Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant. This architecture is powerful because of its ability to display dignity despite decay, not in spite of it. These ruins are by all means a legacy. Will we, too, be fortunate enough to leave as indelible a mark for future generations?

To answer this question, it is critical to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture. This divide is perhaps no better illustrated than by one book: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer (also infamous for his nepotism). For hundreds of years, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, European architects were governed by this book, their user manual and “Bible.” His principles of design guided the likes of Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and even da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man. Yet, despite centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards. The globalized world of today with its glimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology bears little resemblance to the Rome of centuries ago. Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in tradition and precedent that modern architecture largely abandons. The question emerges: What judgments about modern architecture can be drawn from examining Rome’s architecture?

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In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of architecture: firmitasquality, utilitasutility and venustasbeauty. For Vitruvius, to attain all three and to pass the test of time is the ultimate signifier of great architecture. To fail in this endeavor, through shoddy construction or succumbing to time and the elements, guarantees that a building will be flawed by Vitruvius’ high standards.

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Venustas—Beauty

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Unlike modern architecture, the architecture of Vitruvius’s time was governed by strict aesthetic principles. Above all, Vitruvius emphasizes that 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 must architecture. Consequently, the architect becomes less of a freelance designer and more of 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 considers 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.

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 perfect buildings replicate perfect humans, then humans are the perfect species, no further evolution required. Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world. To the modern world, the existence of the perfect species (or the perfect anything) is laughable given the basic biology mantra: There is no perfect genotype. (Nonetheless, we should forgive Vitruvius, assuming he never took high school Biology.) Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress.

Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics. Building materials have changed; sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic have supplanted stone, earth, and wood. Scale has also grown, the superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman road and proud obelisk of yesterday. Unlike Vitruvius, the modern architect probably would not lay claim to racial or aesthetic divinity. The constraints of economy, in tandem with the desire for architectural variety, dictate that modern structures need not model the human form. Unlike Roman structures, which were almost always perfectly symmetrical, modern structures employ symmetry and ornamentation as mere “icing on the cake,” not as critical components in the architectural scheme. In other words, the Roman human to building harmony seems no longer to be a guiding principle.

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On the one hand, the absence of 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. For instance, take Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi comparing the plan of Rome to that of Las Vegas. Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in general adherence to Vitruvius’ principles of perfection. Most Roman structures have a clearly 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 density and orientation. The scale is human; the city is a microcosm. On the contrary, Las Vegas, a modern city created virtually overnight, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty. Consequently, the highway and city street feel hectic and visually crowded. 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 fairy tale castle. Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are merely exaggerations of Main Street and roadside America, which employ the principles of Las Vegas more discretely. Ancient architecture imbued order; modern architecture imbues confusion. Yes, anything goes when buildings may adopt any form or any style from any culture, regardless of Vitruvian principles. This variety, however, comes at the cost of aesthetic disarray that would make Vitruvius aghast.

The question then arises: Might it be 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 21st 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 precisely describing engineering methods to be employed by architects. In our time, the architect is not always an engineer for the complexity of a modern building 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. In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society.

Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse. Architecture, even if it is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style. As historian Kenneth 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 emulate Rome because Rome was what it was, and we are what we are. The identity of the past should not restrict the development of the future.

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Met 4

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Firmitas—Quality and Utilitas—Utility

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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 beautiful 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, gradually refining architecture.

Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase ostensibly 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. 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?

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Modern architecture radically differs from Vitruvian principles, in terms of both aesthetics and construction. 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; 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 proudly displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind nor would they be valued by their creators 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 leave behind. They 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? History has a strange habit of reviving old skeletons and turning trash into treasure. 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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Works Cited:

Venturi, Robert et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972. Print.

Vitruvius, Marcus. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.