• This website includes dozens of videos, hundreds of essays, and thousands of drawings created over the past twenty years. Search to learn more about the history of buildings, places, prisons, Newark, New York City, and my PhD research on spatial inequality.

Civil Rights Rebellion in the Essex County Jail

Season 13, Episode 6 of the series Abandoned Engineering
Streamed June 2024 in Britain, July 2024 in America

A film crew visits and explores the decaying remains of old Essex County Jail in New Jersey, a facility that became a powder keg of injustice that was set to explode in the 1960s Newark rebellions. Learn more about this historic building in our digital exhibit and the oral history video project to remember the hundreds who suffered in this space.
In every episode since 2016, the channel features three abandoned buildings. Each building is selected for its international significance, for important events that took place there, for its aesthetics, for its cultural importance, or the way this site motivates us to rethink and remember otherwise invisible histories of tragedy and pain. For this year’s season, the old Essex County Jail was one of just 24 sites selected from around the world. Other featured sites in past seasons include: parts of the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl, forts built for the Allied landing at D-Day, as well as dozens of equally important but less visited historic buildings and ruins.
Content and inspiration for this documentary grew from my Columbia University undergraduate senior thesis project about this jail, as well as my Cambridge University’s Master’s thesis about the American architecture of solitary confinement. Based on seeing my senior thesis project and reading master’s thesis online, the film crew contacted me about adapting this research for television. I was happy to provide them an interview, all my primary sources from the Newark Public Library, as well as suggested interviews with community leaders Ras Baraka and Fredrica Bey about the carceral state.
For British audiences, view the full series here on SkyTV.
For U.S. audiences, view the full series here on AppleTV. The series is also being syndicated and translated into 20+ languages for international audiences.

 

Launch digital exhibit about the carceral state in Newark.

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The City as Carceral State

Context: The following personal essay accompanied my application for the Gupta Values Scholarship from the University of Michigan. I am sharing it here because it speaks more broadly to my background, education, activism, and research interests.

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Entrance gate to the Old Essex County Jail

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One out of every one hundred black men in my neighborhood of Newark, NJ is currently in prison. At least half have a permanent criminal record as formerly incarcerated people. Most charges are for drug use and possession, often marijuana records from when marijuana was illegal. My earliest memories of Newark are of the homeless walking down our street to the nearby food pantry and young men carrying boom boxes on their shoulders (this was before the iPod). I will always remember observing one woman as she passed our house each day. The first time I saw her, she had been recently evicted and dragged two suitcases behind her. With each passing week, the suitcases gradually grew lighter until – after several weeks – all she had left was a grocery bag of belongings, her dignity gradually stripped away. Up our street was the public housing project of Baxter Terrace – three-story red brick barracks where the urban poor lived under constant police surveillance. Most were unemployed and all were on public welfare.
I remember taking the train to school in the suburbs. In the span of only five miles, vacant lots and abandoned buildings in one of the nation’s poorest cities gave way to large homes on tree-lined streets in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs. The distance of five miles – or in some cases a single city street – was all that separated the poverty of my city from the wealth of its suburbs. At the city limits of Newark, a system of one-way roads, streets without sidewalks, and aggressive “neighborhood watch” signs separated the city from the suburb. On one block, apartment buildings, treeless streets, and bodegas that accepted food stamps. Just one block over, there were century-old trees and four-bedroom homes selling for up to a million dollars. Here in these suburbs, homeowners commuted to Downtown Newark each day and returned home each night, bringing home with them the wealth they made in the city. So little and yet so much separated these two worlds.
Martin Luther King described America in a 1968 speech he gave in Detroit: “There are literally two Americas.  Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. [….] But there is another America. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.” So much and yet so little has changed since 1968. The racial wealth gap is almost the same today as it was in 1970. In Newark, median black family income is less than $30,000. In Newark suburbs, median family incomes are over $100,000.

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Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

1. Preservation New Jersey: Ten Most Endangered Historic Places  May 18, 2021
2. After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’  May 18
3. Newark Historic District Designated as Endangered  May 18, 2021
4. James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School  May 6, 2021
5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not even at NJIT   February 1, 2021
6. SHPO Delays NJIT’s Plan to Raze 4 Historic Buildings    January 8, 2021
7. NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed   January 7, 2021
8. Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison – But Only If It Survives   July 4, 2020
9. NJIT’s Plans to Modernize Its Campus Could Cost Newark Some History   March 12, 2020

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James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

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Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.

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A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021,[1] and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.

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Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.

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Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)

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Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.

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Architecture of Redemption?

Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary

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

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

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Abstract

Prison floor plan in 1836

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

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Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

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Acknowledgments

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

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Related Projects

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Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

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Exhibition Design for the Old Essex County Jail

Developed in collaboration with Newark Landmarks
and the master’s program in historic preservation at Columbia University

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Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Expanded in stages since 1837, this jail is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building needs investment and a vision for transforming decay into a symbol of urban regeneration. As a youth in Newark, I explored and painted this jail, and therefore feel a personal investment in the history of this place. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s master’s in historic preservation program documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects recorded the jail’s condition, context, and history. Each student developed a reuse proposal for a museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing eleven alternatives, the project transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of regeneration.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, I and Zemin Zhang proposed to transform the results of this studio into a larger dialogue about the purpose of incarceration. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, I translated Columbia’s work into an exhibition. I am grateful to Anne Englot and Liz Del Tufo for their help securing space and funding. Over spring 2019, I collaborated with Ellen Quinn and a team at New Jersey City University to design the exhibit panels and to create the corresponding texts and graphics. The opening was held in May 2019, and is recorded here.

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My curator work required translating an academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of the site, but they did not examine social history. As the curator, I shifted the exhibit’s focus from architecture to the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of my work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. I worked with local journalist Guy Sterling to interview former jail guards and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka about his father’s experience incarcerated here during the 1967 civil unrest. The exhibit allowed viewers to hear first-hand accounts of prison life and to view what the Essex County Jail looked like in its heyday from the 1920s to 1960s. Rutgers-Newark organized seminars connected to the jail exhibit on the topic of incarceration in America, and what practical steps can be taken to change the effects of the growth of incarceration.
The finished exhibit was on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. The exhibit makes the case for preserving the buildings and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding area. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, historians can build support for the jail’s reuse. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.
My interest in prisons drew me to this project. This jail’s architect was John Haviland, who was a disciple of prison reformers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham. In my MPhil thesis research about Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, I developed my exhibit research by looking at the social and historical context of John Haviland and early prisons. As I describe, Eastern State began as a semi-utopian project in the 1830s but devolved by the 1960s into a tool of control social and a symbol of urban unrest.

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Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

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Related content

  1. Read my January 2021 article in The Newarker magazine.
  2. Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
    about my exhibit and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.
  3. Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
  4. Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.
  5. View this artwork as part of my short film from 2016 called Pictures of Newark.