A Drop of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newark water supply air valves, June 1892

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Related

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

Homesteads to Homelots

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

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

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

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

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

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Method

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

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1. Population loss vs. gain

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

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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

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2. Link between population densities and suburban growth

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

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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

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3. Resistance to municipal annexation

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

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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

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4. The municipal fabric before suburban growth

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

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

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5. Conclusion: New Jersey is still in the suburban age

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After 1980, thousands of Young Urban Professionals (“Yuppies”) returned from the suburbs to live in the cities. However, any post-1980 urban population gain was usually not enough to counter pre-1980 population loss. While a few smaller New Jersey cities regained earlier losses from 1980 to 2010, new population growth and new housing construction were concentrated in suburban areas on the whole. New Jersey cities have grown, but they are not growing as fast as the suburbs surrounding them.

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Mixed results of “back to the city”

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

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This table above shows that of the twenty-four largest New Jersey cities in 1950, sixteen had a net population loss from 1950 to 1980. In the period 1980 to 2010, only seven of these sixteen cities have seen population growth (Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Passaic, Hoboken, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). Even among these seven cities, only five of them have seen enough population growth to offset pre-1980 population losses (Paterson Elizabeth, Passaic, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). In addition, two of the twenty-four cities have even seen a higher rate of population loss from 1980 to 2010 than from 1950 to 1980 (East Orange and Irvington).
Viewed another way, of New Jersey’s twenty-four largest cities, only nineteen have seen an increase in the rate of population growth after 1980. But among these nineteen cities, population growth has always been from the replacement of whites with largely lower-income immigrants from Latin America. The only two cities yuppies and middle class whites were uniquely responsible for “turning around” through gentrification were Hoboken and Downtown Jersey City, both of which still had a net population loss from 1950 to 2010. Immigrants, more than wealthy young people, are the new drivers of urban growth in New Jersey.
The table below shows that New Jersey’s six leading cities of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton, and Camden were always majority white until 1950-1960 when thousands of whites fled for the suburbs. The demographic trend lines have not reversed. Only small numbers of younger and wealthier whites have returned to cities, which is not enough to offset the continued white flight to the suburbs. In other words, the urban population of New Jersey cities has stagnated since 1980. Population gains have been small and not enough to offset continuing population loss. Because many cities have not made up for their earlier losses of people and economic power, the story of “Back to the City” can only be applied to a limited number of cities in New Jersey.

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

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

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

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

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Sources

Data for all municipalities:

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

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

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Data for New Jersey’s six leading cities:

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

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

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Other sources:

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

 

Further reading:

Leah P. Boustan. Competition in the Promised Land: black migrants in northern cities and labor markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Lizabeth Cohen. A Consumer’s Republic: the politics of mass consumption in postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Robert Fishman. Bourgeois Utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Kenneth T. Jackson. Crabgrass Frontier: the suburbanization of the United States. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985.
John P. Snyder. The History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968. Trenton: Bureau of Geology and Topography, 1968. (link)

The Vanishing City of Newark

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about architecture and redevelopment in Newark.
I am witness to the poetic decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home. An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body. As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the transient. It is the realization that what was built to last forever will not last. It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city. The ruin forces the viewer to imagine and reconstruct what was there in ways the restored building does not.
Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure? The ruins of the Athenian Acropolis became a symbol for democracy. Could the same fate await our society’s equivalent forums, the strip mall, grocery store, and drive-thru? Will we be good ancestors?
My transient urban environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes from memory.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

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 riots. 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.

The Urban Development of Newark: 1660-2016

Audio from Freesound

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As Newark celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1666, I created this series of drawings based on historical images and maps. As Newark develops from a small town to a bustling and industrial metropolis, the sounds shift from quiet woodlands to the din of the vibrant city with rising skyscrapers. This two minute time-lapse aims to represent history as a living and fluid process.

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Newark Metamorphosis

A story of urban change told through picture postcards

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

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

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

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

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Postcard

Launch map and read essay about urban change.

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Related Projects

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

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Newark, a century after 1916

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Downtown Newark

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

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

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

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Prince Street

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

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

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

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Launch map and read essay about urban change.

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Murphy Varnish Lofts in Newark

Murphy Varnish, built in 1886, is one of Newark’s oldest factories still standing. Its brick walls, terracotta ornament, and intricate brickwork reflect a time when industrial structures were more than just functional. Murphy Varnish reflects a time when industry was central to Newark’s wealth and key to its future success. It is a monument to industry, built to last (and landmarked since 1979 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 the Studio for Urban Architecture & Design (SUAD), the architects hired to redevelop this derelict factory into about forty residential units. During my time at SUAD, I observed firsthand the workings of a small architecture 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 drawing of the finished renovation.Murphy Varnish B&W
During these three months, I learned that architecture is more than the creation of art and beauty for their own sake. It is a tool to build a stronger city through improving the built environment. For decades, Newark has seen architecture that does not value aesthetics or connect with the city’s rich history. Prefab, cookie-cutter homes are often built in Newark; they are out of place and context. These kinds of projects are set back from the street with little more than driveways and vinyl siding for the streetscape. Corporate monolith towers rise in the downtown; through catwalks and perimeter fences, 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 streets. For historic preservationists, much of the city’s old architecture was lost to parking lots, urban renewal, and urban blight.
In this context, Murphy Varnish is an exceptional outlier. In a city once home to thousands of small factories, Murphy Varnish is one of the few that remain. Old Newark maps show dozens of factories surrounding Murphy Varnish. In the past few decades, almost all of these industrial structures were demolished and replaced with empty lots and low-quality prefab homes. Now, Murphy Varnish stands alone in a residential neighborhood; it is a unique reminder of history that becomes all the more worth saving.
As I begin my second year of college, I return to campus with renewed 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.
This project was made possible by a summer grant from Columbia’s Center for Career Education.

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Murphy Varnish before work began

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A work in progress

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The finished conversion

 

Watercolor rendering of completed project

Pictures of Newark

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As a lifelong citizen of Newark, I spent much of the past few years painting and photographing my changing city. Pictures features a selection of my work, complemented by classical music. Five of Modest Mussorgsky’s pieces from his composition Pictures at an Exhibition are selected, each of which represents the feel of a certain part of Newark. The following five locations are featured:
1. THE PASSAIC RIVER – music: Mussorgsky’s Promenade
2. OLD ESSEX COUNTY JAIL – music: With the Dead in the Language of Death
3. MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY – music: Promenade
4. DOWNTOWN NEWARK – music: Mozart’s Death March (k 453a)
5. PORT NEWARK – music: Promenade
Growing up in Newark, I am inspired and saddened by the inner city. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of what is called progress.
Curious about the history of the old Essex County Jail? Explore this interactive exhibit.

 

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 Featured work from this film

Newark’s Hidden River

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It is ironic that Newark should ignore the very river it was founded on, the Passaic River. It was the pristine wooded river our city’s founding fathers first saw in 1666. It was our city’s artery to the sea and our industries’ source of wealth. It was the throbbing, flowing heart of our city.
After the automobile drove people to the suburbs and globalization exported jobs abroad, the Passaic was no longer a water highway. It is now this industrial town’s polluted heart. The corporate towers of Newark’s “Renaissance” meet industrial history at the riverbank. The murky waters contain secrets of illegal dumping and toxic pollution that will remain buried for eternity, leaking their oils and toxins down stream. The industrial past clings on, refusing to vanish in forgotten waters. The river of change, the Passaic River, is a place of shifting contrasts, where past meets present.
The river flows on.
View this artwork as part of a short film titled Pictures of Newark

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