Creating the Divided Metropolis:
How Newark came to be a poor city in a wealthy region
A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture
“Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first” Mayor Kenneth Gibson declared in 1970, as the first black mayor of any major city in what is now the American Northeast and the Rust Belt. The history of Newark’s urban decline is specific to Newark and unique to the details of this city. And yet, Newark’s story is national in its implications, and mirrored in hundreds of other American cities large and small that also experienced decline.
From the 1950s through 1970s, Newark embarked on one of the most extensive programs of state-funded urban renewal in the nation, less costly only than those of New York City (20 times Newark’s population); Chicago (eight times larger); Philadelphia (five times larger), and Boston (twice as large). Newark’s program was certainly among the most ambitious: to clear out the areas called slums, to construct highways, to build public housing, to stimulate the urban economy, and – in the end – to stop urban decline. And yet for all the billions spent and an estimated 70,000 out of Newark’s 400,000 people displaced, the program failed to reverse urban economic and population decline. What mixture of actors and institutions – city planners, politicians, realtors, developers, and banks – caused Newark’s program to fail?
This project describes how two national programs impacted Newark: urban renewal (a program that invested in keeping the city stable) and redlining (a program that deprived investment to make the city unstable). The two programs – both initiated by local, regional, and federal governments and designed to profit real estate developers – coexisted and undermined each other in a decade of flaws and contradictions. Redlining usually refers to the practice when banks choose to not invest in a certain neighborhood or city because of the race of who lives there. Redlining is racial and economic discrimination. More importantly, although rarely framed in such terms, redlining describes the practice more broadly of choosing not to invest in a place because it is a city and considered a less profitable investment. Banks, developers, realtors, businesses, department stores, and the fabric of social institutions vital for urban life all migrated from the city to the suburbs. These other institutions all redlined Newark independently of the real estate lobby. More than anti-black, redlining is anti-urban.
This project frames Newark’s story in national terms. Each chapter examines one form of redlining in Newark, and then frames this form of localized redlining in the national picture of urban abandonment. There are five frames: transportation, finance, housing, welfare, and employment. This range of actors across areas – public and private, local and national – did not collaborate in a conspiracy to deprive Newark and the American city of wealth. But their actions overlapped and mutually reinforced each other to leave the American city behind and ensure that attempts to save the city through state-funded urban renewal would fail. Through anti-urban redlining practices in each of these five areas – transportation, finance, housing, welfare, and employment – urban decline was the inevitable result. The history of all places is told through one place, and the history of one place is told through all places.
Drafts of Chapters in Progress
What kinds of tax breaks are we giving to redevelop Downtown Newark?
Who is getting them?
An investigative report on public funds for private profit.
“Free enterprise is a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich.”
– Noam Chomsky
 Who owns the land around Mulberry Commons?
 If past predicts future, what kind of past tax breaks have we given?
 The problem is not tax breaks. The problem is: Who gets them?
 How can we ensure equitable economic development in Newark?
Five policy recommendations.
Artist’s rendering of Newark Penn Station expansion
Introduction: A Case Study in Edison Parking
The City of Newark borrowed $110 million to pay for a pedestrian bridge over Route 21. This new link between Mulberry Commons and Penn Station will allow travelers, event goers, and sports fans to walk directly from the trains to the games at the arena. Newark City Hall and the media are describing this as Newark’s equivalent and response to New York City’s High Line. This project follows on the already $10 million spent on building Mulberry Commons.
As part of misguided car-centered 20th-century urban planning, thousands of highways were built in our nation through low-income communities of color, to divide the less privileged in hundreds of places like Newark. Through the tools of public investment in public space, now is a moment to make wrong historical injustices like Route 21, Route 22, Interstate 78, and Interstate 280. Now is a historic opportunity for the urban form as tool of reparations.
However, what parts of the public – divided across lines of race, income, and home address – will benefit the most from this project? Will the benefits of this investment disproportionately go to a few people or institutions, such as Prudential Center patrons and Edison Parking tenants?
 Who owns the land around Mulberry Commons?
This map shows the location of the expanded Mulberry Commons in green. One company, Edison Parking, owns property on every side of this public space, except for the arena. The map notes Edison Parking’s land and the amount they pay in property taxes. Public records indicate the arena is on Newark Housing Authority land. The city assessed that property as worth $252 million and charges no property taxes.
In return for this $120 million investment, Edison Parking pays the city just $870,000 in property taxes, plus a variable amount each year in parking lot usage fees (source from public records). The interest payments on Mulberry Commons are at least four million per year. That is, it is likely the city spends more on services that benefit Edison Parking than Edison Parking pays the city in property taxes. It is time for the city to reassess the taxes of multinational corporations based in Newark, so that they pay their fair share.
Will Edison match this investment of public funds with improvements to their property? More importantly, who will pay Edison Parking to improve their property? What kinds of tax breaks or tax incentives for transit-oriented development will Edison receive to develop these valuable 11 acres of land?
For comparison, when public funds paid for the High Line in New York City, Edison Parking owned just two acres next to the High Line. They sold those two acres for $800 million in 2014 in one of the most expensive land deals in New York City history. In 2021, Edison beat its own record and sold off the assets it managed under the affiliate brand name Manhattan Mini Storage. The sale price was three billion dollars. How Edison distributed this three billion in sales is unclear because the company is not publicly traded on the stock market and therefore does not release regular annual reports. But this kind of money does give them a powerful war chest to spend in Newark: on campaign contributions, on lobbying politicians, and paying lawyers to reduce their tax liability.
If history is a lesson, that story of Edison Parking’s High Line in New York City will repeat itself with Mulberry Commons in Newark.
 If past predicts future, what kind of past tax breaks have we given?
The past is often the best prediction for the future. Here is how much several other new developments in Downtown Newark received in public funds and tax breaks:
|Prudential Sports Arena
|Prudential New Headquarters
|Panasonic New Headquarters
|Mars Wrigley in Edison Parking’s Building
|Shaquille O’Neal Tower on Rector Street
|Fabuwood Cabinetry Corporation
|Wakerfern Food Corporation
|The Portnow at Newark Broad Street
And billions of dollars more…
The interactive graphic below visualizes an estimated 1.8 billion in tax breaks that the New Jersey Economic Development Agency handed out since 2007. Hover over individual dots to display the amount given for each project, and the percentage of project costs paid for with public funds. These are rarely direct and one-time cash payments from the state to the developer. Instead, they are tax breaks that reduce the developer’s tax bill over a period on average ten to twenty years.
For instance, Prudential received at least $210 in public funds to move their headquarters from Newark’s Gateway Center to Military Park. The move brought few permanent new jobs to Newark. The project instead shuffled office workers from an older building that Prudential rented to the current building Prudential owns tax free and rent free. Similarly, Amazon was promised upwards of seven billion dollars in tax breaks and public incentives to encourage them to move their second global headquarters to Newark. Mulberry Commons was advertised to Amazon as the prime real estate for them to build in Newark, with Edison again first in line to benefit from new construction.
This infographic is an estimate, not a statement of precise fact. The data is obtained from the New Jersey Economic Development Agency through my Open Public Records Act request. The data is unclear if certain payments to developers are one-time or recurring. So some figures above may be double counted because of lack of clarity in the New Jersey Economic Development Agency reports that are made public.
Based on historical trends, and the $120 million investment in a public park surrounded by Edison Parking’s land on all sides, we can assume Edison will receive multi-million (billion?) dollar tax breaks and tax credits to develop this land. The financing structure that allowed the companies in the above graph to obtain more than a billion dollars in tax write offs have not changed fundamentally changed since the program began. So, in addition to the $120 million in public funds already spent on Mulberry Commons, Edison will be eligible for and will receive further tax breaks. The proximity to Penn Station makes Edison Parking eligible for the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Program that gave Panasonic about $80 million.
The main justification for tax breaks is that: “If we do not offer them, then development will not happen.” This is argument is sometimes true, sometimes false. Thirty years ago, this argument was justified: Developers and outsiders were scared of Newark and needed to be rewarded with tax breaks to build here. In 2023, this argument holds less weight: Newark is already so attractive to development and investors that it is likely these developments would have happened anyway without tax breaks that total billions of dollars over the decades.
 The problem is not tax breaks. The problem is: Who gets them?
Tax breaks are an essential tool. Small developers and small business owners need them: for projects between 10 and 100 units. They have less in savings, and limited access to banks for loans. Historic buildings with expensive adaptive reuse need tax credits, too. The Hahne’s Building probably would not have been developed without tax credits, and nor would many other historic buildings that enrich the quality of our city’s neighborhoods. But tax breaks for Edison Parking, Panasonic (26 billion net worth in 2023), Prudential (35 billion valuation), Amazon (1.3 trillion valuation)? These companies own land worth billions of dollars, prime real estate in the world’s most expensive corners. Amazon pays little in taxes. The world’s wealthiest man Jeff Bezos paid no income taxes in 2007 and 2011. Why are we offering these companies more incentives to build in Newark?
Large corporations receive benefits not offered to smaller entities. Homeowners who renovate their properties do not receive tax breaks. Small developers creating infill housing, for example a 10-unit apartment building for middle income rent, do not receive tax breaks. Business owners who make improvements to storefront properties do not receive tax breaks. Only large properties apply for and receive tax incentives for adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Small owners of historic property do not receive these tax breaks. Big developers receive credits for building dozens of units of affordable housing. Small investors building or owning just a few units receive no such benefit.
Tax breaks for the very wealthy increase the cost of business for everyone else. When big players in Newark use public funds to pay for – in effect – 50 percent or more construction costs, then small players have trouble to compete. This approach inherently fosters monopolistic tendencies and undermines the core principles of fair play. It essentially amounts to corporate welfare disguised as a public benefit, with keywords like diversity and inclusion used to disguise the underlying lack of genuine diversity and deep exclusion perpetuated by these tax breaks. Incentives primarily serve to solidify the positions of larger players, further exacerbating the inequality that has plagued our city for decades and preventing new, more diverse players to emerge. To mitigate this imbalance, we must consider either extending these incentives to a wider range of entities or eliminating them altogether.
Tax breaks must be used as tool to even the playing field, not make it more uneven.
 How can we ensure equitable economic development in Downtown Newark? Six recommendations.
This project is a stub, an expensive skywalk from Penn Station to Mulberry Commons, a project whose form recalls some of the most egregious strategies of urban planning whereby skywalks were built all over major cities to segregate white collar workers from city sidewalks. We have plenty of examples in close proximity to the proposed Mulberry Commons bridge, and their detrimental effect on the streetscape in downtown Newark is evident. The new bridge will not meaningfully connect with Ironbound. On the east side, a narrow staircase descends some 50 feet elevation from Penn Station to parking lots, again owned by Edison Parking.
1. Expand the quality of public space: A further investment should continue this “High Line” Park on a gentle slope down to street level in the Ironbound. Ironbound residents would then be able to walk from their neighborhood to Downtown Newark on a path without cars, crosswalks, or stairs of any kind. This will require the park to cut through Edison Parking’s lot in the Ironbound, and for Edison Parking to commit more of its land to public benefit. Otherwise, Edison Parking can erect a skyscraper at this location, blocking easy access between the Ironbound and this park.
2. Public accountability through public meetings: The park stops at Edison Parking’s property line. They could build towers here, cut off from the rest of the city as pockets of luxury in a city of poverty. Or they could build affordable housing here, accessible to all in an open neighborhood. They could build another Gateway Center here: isolated from the city and turned inward with skywalks that allow people to work there without ever setting foot in Newark. Or they could build a new neighborhood here that is linked from all sides into the street network of other neighborhoods. Everything depends on our power, as the public, to ensure public accountability in city planning.
3. Set aggressive benchmarks that corporate recipients of state aid must meet. And if they do not meet them, they should be required to repay. In Mulberry Commons, public funds to build the park should have been match with signed legal “memorandums of understanding” with Edison Parking, promising to develop within X number of years.
4. Make accurate tax assessments based on land value, instead of property value: We need an accurate re-assessment of Edison Parking’s land values. These valuable acres must be reassessed at fair property tax value now that this massive infrastructure investment gives them direct connection to mass transit. Edison Parking should also be required to sign legal agreements promising to develop these lands within a set number of years, or risk penalties. The city could also revise its tax system to charge higher rates on vacant land than on developed land. By increasing the carrying costs of owning vacant land, land bankers have more trouble holding their empty land and therefore more incentive to develop it.
5. Move from a carrot model of economic development (tax credits) to a stick model of economic development (tax fines): We must evaluate the necessity of tax incentives for undeveloped lots in Downtown Newark. The current model pays land owners to develop: a carrot. A future model could fine landowners when they do not develop: a stick. In times of economic crisis when financing is difficult, we should consider tax incentives to developers to stimulate construction. In times of economic growth when financing is easy, we should consider tax penalties for land owners who choose not to develop.
6. Move tax incentives to prioritize new development that is not in downtown. Since the landowner is receiving a valuable public amenity in Mulberry Commons and Penn Station, further tax incentives are no longer warranted. Incentives for developing these lots are already apparent, thanks to their proximity to multi-modal transit and a sizable public park right at their doorstep. With or without tax incentives, corporations have reasons to build in Downtown Newark.
Can we agree that these existing incentives are sufficient to encourage development? Can we agree that further incentives are unnecessary? Can we also agree that any future tax incentives should be redirected towards areas of the city in greater need of development, where investors genuinely require persuasion? Can we also agree that future infrastructure improvements, like public parks with greenways and skywalks, should likewise be redirected to the criminally underdeveloped areas of the city?
7. This list is not complete.
The public has invested millions in Edison Parking and dozens of other downtown players. Now is the time for Edison Parking and corporations like it to give back to the city.
Everything beneath the sun… Edison Parking’s land highlighted in red
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.
Jail entrance gate
Entrance gate to the Old Essex County Jail
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.
If not for these early experiences, I would not be studying architecture and urban planning. My current work and dissertation research examine the carceral state as metaphor and asks: What actions in urban history produced the polarized, divided, and unequal urban landscape? Much blame lies with architects and urban planners, who worked with banks, realtors, and powerful institutions to profit from inequality. The Federal Housing Administration’s 1930s maps of Newark and hundreds of other cities singled out urban areas to deny investment and suburban areas to invest. Institutions require enablers, the realtors to assess the racial composition of neighborhoods, city planners to collect data, and mapmakers to visualize all this information that justified segregation in history.
However, my interest in redlining is more than academic. The implications of this research feel real. The audience for this work includes people I meet and see every day: neighbors down the street who were denied home mortgages because of their race; my own parents who would have been denied a mortgage (if not for the personal intervention of the bank’s CEO); Newark public school children learning about the history of their city; first generation college students at the local Rutgers University; and people like me who grew up with asthma and elevated blood-lead levels due to environmental conditions. Work in the urban humanities and digital humanities must be accessible to people outside the ivory tower of Ann Arbor, people who will live every day with the consequences of decisions handed down from urban planners and architects.
One of my current projects examines Newark’s old Essex County Jail, and the possible transformation of this site from abandoned prison into memorial park. Built 1836, it is the oldest public building in the city, a national monument within walking distance of my home, and a historic site abandoned since 1971. The history of this site challenges us to think of carceral spaces as something that stretches back hundreds of years. Incarceration is an evolving institution from slavery to Jim Crow to the present that has taken different forms at different times, in a constant act of reproducing itself. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1850 in the opening lines of The Scarlet Letter: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” As authors also write in The 1619 Project, slavery and incarceration were fundamental to the American project and to the origins of a city like Newark. The city was founded 1666 by Puritan settlers looking to build a utopian “city on a hill.” Upon Newark’s incorporation as a city, the jail was their first act as new city. Advocating for the preservation of this jail widens the stories we can tell and voices we can include in history. All buildings tell stories, and the built environments we preserve or destroy reflect the communities we think are worthy of preservation or destruction. Demolishing a building and neighborhood erases the stories these places can tell about the people who lived and struggled there. In my mind, architecture can and must be an activist practice.
When I started this project in 2018, I was excited to make this history visible. The site is entirely overgrown with trees and largely invisible from the street. To visit it and understand its importance required trespassing on public land and bringing people inside. With the rigorous tools of architectural documentation, I photographed in secret every corner of the site and drew up detailed site plans that will assist in its preservation. All these resources are shared online at the website I designed: OldEssexCountyJail.org. Based on this work, the local architecture school has conducted several studios that examine this site, as well as the first ever concrete plan and cost estimate of how much preservation will cost. Based on this website, my historical documentation, and on-site interviews with me and former inmates of this jail, Discovery Channel will be syndicating this fall a fifteen-minute documentary about this site to national and international audiences with translation into twenty languages for several million viewers.
Beyond incarceration, my larger challenge is to make scholarship accessible to the public. The boundaries around scholarship are intellectual (writing too complex for general audiences to understand), financial (academic writing locked behind pay walls), and spatial (academic spaces that do not feel physically welcoming to outsiders). My other projects from films, to videos, building construction sequences, interactive models, urban history maps, and my several websites all attempt – through research methods identical to the Essex County Jail – to reach audiences historically excluded from elite spaces. For instance, my ongoing collaboration with Rutgers University in Newark will result in a recurring history of Newark course, open for free for anyone outside the university to join. Students will be expected to produce works of public scholarship and narrative histories that examine the legacies of redlining and incarceration. Teaching students from the immediate community at their local university, and including in the classroom the physical presence of community activists, breaks down traditional barriers around scholarship. The course will be taught the first time in summer 2024 and will be funded by the Mellon Foundation, Clement Price Institute, and Chancellor’s office. Up to $150,000 is possibly forthcoming from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant I wrote for Rutgers as co-PI. Collectively, my work – none of which is published in traditional academic journals – has had over seven million viewers in the past four years and about one hundred thousand monthly readers. Visit: MylesZhang.org.
Every year, a few dozen high school students from Newark go on to attend Ivy League universities; occasionally, one or two become Rhodes Scholars. But it is rare for any of them to return to Newark. The city is a space to escape from, in search of wealthier spaces where home ownership is easier and schools are better. Social mobility means leaving behind the city and its ghettos to enter the American mainstream. But for me, the American city – in all its inequality, injustice, and poverty – is the foundation to reexamine our history and to rebuild a more equitable society. The evidence of inequality and the justification for reparations is all around me, from the city archives I visit, to the city street I live on, and to the people I speak with every day. I am proud of where I came from because Newark provides me a foundation and framework to challenge institutions. After completing my PhD at the University of Michigan, Newark is the place I will return to and call home.
Interior of the abandoned old Essex County Jail
Photo by Madeline Berry
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
When citizens convened in 1836 to incorporate Newark as a city, one of their first orders of business was to discuss the construction of a new jail. Four years earlier, they had set aside land for the new cemetery. The previous year, the old county courthouse and jail had burned down in one of the fires that periodically swept through early American towns of wood-frame homes. All traces of this old courthouse are now gone, except for the building’s basement dungeon where convicts were kept awaiting trial. Remnants of this dungeon are still visible in the dark crawlspace beneath the sanctuary of Grace Church on Broad Street.
This quiet village was already approaching 170 years old. Newark’s population numbered only 10,542 free white Americans, 6,000 Irish, 1,000 English and Scotch, 300 Germans and 358 free colored people in 1835. Within the span of a few months, in 1836, the town’s first two railroads linked Newark to points west and south; oil streetlights illuminated the town center; the first school system for poor children opened; and another fire swept through downtown. In the next few decades, the population would grow almost ten percent every year. Newark was fast becoming a city.
However, Newark remained in many ways a farming hamlet with Puritan roots. Since 1666, the annual town meetings had been held in the courthouse, the “Court Room at Moses Roff’s Taven,” or inside one of the lecture rooms of Old First Presbyterian Church near the corner of Broad and Market Streets. The sexton of Old First was, in fact, paid three dollars per year by the Town Committee “for cleaning the Lecture room of said Church.” The names of attending officials read like a list of street names from a modern Newark address book: Treat, Baldwin, Bruen, Pennington, Doremus, Halsey, Harrison, Frelinghuysen, etc. The lands they farmed and passed down through generations span much of present-day Essex County.
In the expanding town, it was no longer possible “to Farm let” the city’s debtors and poor to the lowest bidder, who in the years before the American Revolution paid £159 for the privilege. Nor was it possible to use fines as punishment for the most common public nuisances, which included escaped hogs and cattle roaming Newark’s dirt streets due to poorly maintained fences. The town records had noted few serious crimes like rape or murder in more than a century. Nonetheless, with waves of “rowdy” German and Irish immigrants soon to come, Newark needed a jail.
The city leaders looked around and settled on English-born architect John Haviland. Since immigrating to Philadelphia in 1815, Haviland designed many of the civic institutions for that city: the Franklin Institute for science, Old City Hall, churches, townhouses, and even parts of Independence Hall, where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. His most famous building, however, was Eastern State Penitentiary completed in 1829. At a cost of about $450,000, Eastern State was the largest and more expensive public works project yet built in America. Over half of Eastern State’s budget was spent on the decorative fortress appearance and perimeter wall, even though visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted that this frightening appearance served no other purpose than to frighten passersby. Newarkers thought that Haviland – later known as the “jailor to the world” – was best equipped for their project.
Haviland’s Newark commission consisted of two parts. At the top of Market Street, where Gutzon Borglum’s Seated Lincoln statue now stands, he built a symmetrical courthouse out of local brownstone. Heavy columns modeled after Egyptian papyrus leaves buttressed either side of the entrance. Carved on the cornices were the stylized motifs of eagles with outstretched arms, a reference to Horus, the Egyptian god of pharaohs. The walls tapered inward as they went up, a subtle reference to the architecture of Egyptian tombs and temples. The irony of using architecture associated with polytheism and monarchy for a courthouse was probably lost on Newark’s Christian elected leaders.
The second part of Haviland’s commission was for the Essex County Jail at what is now 271-85 New Street. Located at the city edge, along the path of the newly built Morris Canal, the jail was soon wedged between farmland on one side and leather tanning industries on the other. Also built of locally quarried stone, the jail was surrounded by an eight-foot perimeter wall. The main façade facing the city displayed an image of comfortable gardens and domestic life. The two-story Warden’s House with a wood cupola above offered hilltop views of Newark and the distant meadowlands. Generations of jail wardens lived here with their wives and children. Passing through the garden, one entered the front parlor of the Warden’s House. The stairs up led to the family bedrooms. The back door led via a short hallway to the rows of brick cell blocks and dungeons.
Old Essex County Jail Warden’s House 1967 and 2018. Photos by National Parks Service (left) and Myles Zhang (right)
In an agrarian republic, cities and urban life were seen as somehow dirty, alienating, and morally corrupt. Andrew Jackson, U.S. President when the Essex County Jail was being built, emphasized the frontier yeoman farmer and his family as the bedrock of American values and democracy. Newark’s older generation of Puritan founders and farmers observed the Sabbath, closed down businesses on this holy day, and chastised those found working. But in a city with immigrant groups who drank on the Sabbath and businesses that needed to remain open, Newark emphasized the need for the new civic institutions of schools, libraries, courthouses, public works projects, and jails to maintain tradition and social order. Indeed, in the Essex County Jail’s earliest decades, drunkenness and wife beating were among the two most common reasons men were held there. The State Temperance Society reported in 1836 that, of 517 people sent to jail, a little over twenty percent were charged with “beating and abusing their wives and children.” As part of their re-education, the better behaved of these inmates were invited to tend the warden’s garden and assist with food preparation in his kitchen. As the Newark Call reported as late as 1930: “The Essex County Jail reportedly has ‘one of the prettiest flower gardens in Newark,’ a hobby for Mr. and Mrs. Steadman, the warden and matron. A few ‘trusties’ among prisoners are rewarded for good behavior to work in the garden as recreation. Large flower beds and an extensive lawn form a bright spot outside the Warden’s House.” Warden Charles A. Steadman had the following to say to Essex County Jail inmates in a passage that reveals as much about him as it does about older attitudes toward crime and punishment:
My Friends: You and I are living under the same roof for a while.
You did not intend to come here. I did not invite you.
All of us make mistakes and at times do wrong. Perhaps you have. I know I have.
While we are together let us play fair with each other.
During your stay, your treatment will depend on your behavior. This must be remembered.
Let us both while together to live each other’s life. I’ll try to understand your position. You try to understand mine.
If we do this, we won’t have any misunderstanding.
My hope is that I will be a better man for having known you and that you will be none the worse for knowing me.
Few written records survive in the city archives or Newark Public Library from the jail’s early days. However, from what we do know, attitudes toward crime were evolving over the course of the nineteenth century. Some of America’s earliest colonial settlers were convicts deported from Britain. And in the tight-knit religious communities that dotted New England, lifetime banishment was a punishment for more severe crimes. But as America’s western frontier gradually filled out, nineteenth-century political leaders realized that if the guilty could not be banished, society would need to find means to re-educate and prepare them for eventual return to society. Prisons were built; courts were opened; inmates were set to labor in prison factories; and laws were updated to increase the number of crimes punishable with prison time. The Essex County Jail was no warehouse for the urban poor or ethnic minorities. The average length of confinement was only between 11 and 22 days during the entire 135 years the jail was in operation. This is in contrast to the backlog of cases in modern courts that can cause jail sentences to last months, even years. It was not until 1867 that troubled children were sent to the Jamesburg reformatory instead of the Essex County Jail, and it was not until 1873 that inmates with longer-term sentences were shipped to the purpose-built Essex County Penitentiary in Caldwell. Nonetheless, inmates ages eight to fifteen were locked up in the Essex County Jail until 1910 at the latest. Dozens of hangings also took place in the backyard of the Warden’s House until 1902 when executions were moved to Trenton State Prison, also built by Haviland. The practices of confinement in the Essex County Jail were changing alongside the larger city.
Two big changes came to the American prison system. The first was Prohibition. The second was the War on Drugs. The Essex County Jail’s operations responded to both. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founder of the women’s rights movement, announced at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention: “The tide of vice is swelling, and threatens the destruction of everything, and the battlements of righteousness are weak against the raging elements of sin and death.” For much of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, suffragists demanded the right to vote and the prohibition of alcohol. The two demands were intertwined in a perception that “demon rum” corrupted men, destabilized their families, and threatened the safety of their wives. Thus, in almost the same stroke of the legal pen in 1919, the federal government gave women the right to vote while barring men the right to drink. In the Prohibition age, the Essex County Jail’s average daily population shot up above 200 for the first time in history. The US might have ended Prohibition in 1933 with political lobbying from Newark brewers like Ballantine and Krueger. But the legal and institutional apparatuses to enforce prohibition remained in place. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were both founded in 1930, and their mission expanded in years after. At the same time, African-Americans, subject to lynching and white supremacy in the south, migrated north to cities like Newark. While the Essex County Jail detained 432 “colored” people per year in 1920, ten years later the number of “colored” people confined here annually was 3,258. In the century after Prohibition, the numbers of African-Americans confined in Newark never returned to pre-1920 levels.
Originally built for a city of less than 20,000, the Essex County Jail once employed the latest technology. The jail benefitted from radiator heating, electricity, internal plumbing, and even its own hospital and substation powered by Newark-built steam engines – all in an era before most Newark homes were equipped with these conveniences. As the growing bureaucracy of government found new and more efficient ways to keep people in cages, the jail remained a source of civic pride. Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary, in fact, became an attraction for thousands of annual tourists. The Essex County Jail never achieved this level of notoriety, but was part of the same era when prisons were often a source of civic pride. However, by 1926, Newark’s population and inmate numbers were beginning to outstrip what the old jail could handle. Once countryside, the site was now hemmed in on all sides by factories and tenements. From a simple plan for a Warden’s House and a single cellblock, the jail had expanded to at least fifteen buildings of various size, material, function, and design.
When Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971, the old Essex County Jail – originally designed for fewer than 100 inmates – held 432 on an average day. In a prophetic twist, as if foreshadowing future events, the jail closed the same year that the War on Drugs began. In almost every year after Nixon, the U.S. prison population has expanded. In some ways, Prohibition did not start in 1919, and nor did it end in 1933. The War on Drugs very much springs from the same place of moral righteousness that drove the War on Alcohol and before that, the various wars on vice that nineteenth-century puritanical Americans waged against socialists, anarchists, and immigrants.
Like Newark’s Puritan founding fathers, we are still a country that prefers rural and suburban living to urban life, chooses to decentralize power to the state and local level, and therefore requires a robust system of “law and order” to maintain power over increasingly diverse and immigrant urban areas. We are also a country that frames political issues like abortion and welfare with the coded language of “family values.” For conservative America and Fox News, the problem with our cities comes from a decline in Christianity, an increase in divorce, and welfare dependence that erodes work ethic. While Newark founders responded to fears of urban disorder through the old Essex County Jail, political leaders today have responded with the Essex County Correctional Facility on Doremus Avenue. This new facility’s razor wire perimeter fences and searchlight towers project an image of fear on the surrounding environment of sewer treatments plants, recycling centers, and heavy industry. It is now uncommon for prison administrators to live in the same place as their inmates.
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying. It has briefly been used as a holding facility for drug offenders, as a stage set for a film about Malcolm X, and as the occasional home for people who prefer the jail’s secluded privacy to the invasive rules of local homeless shelters. Occasional fire and structural decay threaten the buildings that remain. Old inmate records scatter the floor. The decaying architecture is not picturesque or romantic in the way that Alcatraz surveys the bay of San Francisco. And the caved-in roof of the Warden’s House today offers more an image of horror than of comfortable domestic life and pretty gardens. The cells confined few famous people we know of; this was a place for untold stories of immigrants and the urban poor. Walking through these abandoned cellblocks raises questions about who lived here, and the stories these walls would tell if they could speak.
The ability to erect monuments reflects a larger ability to create a historical consensus about the meaning of the place, person, or event that is being remembered. Yet we as a country have not recognized the full human impact of generations of incarceration on minority and immigrant communities. There is no consensus on how best to make amends or reparations for past injustices. In the meantime, the decaying hulk of the old Essex County Jail has waited fifty years in a state of limbo for the day when Newark and this country are ready to confront the legacies of oppression. As a public health, governance, economic, and policing crisis whip this country into turmoil, and as the neighboring New Jersey Institute of Technology continues demolishing dozens of old buildings nearby, time for this old jail is running out.
Graffiti on the jail entrance gate, photo by Myles Zhang
Click to launch interactive mapping experience.
Newark Changing is a first-of-its-kind visual encyclopedia of 2,400 photo comparisons of almost every street corner, home, and building demolished by urban renewal and the social forces behind urban decay. Through an interactive and text-searchable historic map, any visitor can travel in time to explore their street and their building as it appeared in the period 1959-68 vs. today. Thousands of old street photos are brought to life with contemporary 360-degree panoramic photos of the same street scenes today, taken from identical camera angles to the old photos. This is the most extensive collection of photo comparisons past and present ever assembled for any American city.
Newark Changing reveals the scale and devastation of urban renewal, not from the aerial perspective of the city planner’s map but from the human perspective of the street corner and neighborhood. Tens of thousands of individual streets, homes, apartments, churches, and Jewish, Black, and Italian-owned businesses in Newark were “redlined” in the 1930s and deprived of investment. Most of these neighborhoods today have been bulldozed for interstate highways, universities, hospitals, and corporate investments in real estate. Billions in taxpayer money (adjusted for today’s value with inflation) was spent in the period 1945 to 1967 to demolish at least 10,000 buildings, displacing 50,000 people, 65-77% of whom were Black. At the same time, the migration of people and jobs away from urban centers deprived cities like Newark of the industrial employment base they once had. Decades after the 1967 rebellion, Newark still struggles to confront and overcome decades of harm inflicted on the city by de-industrialization and population loss to the suburbs.
Street scenes can be browsed by interactive map, by neighborhood, by subject, by street, or by the public institution responsible for demolition. Visitors can thus travel in time to explore today’s empty fields, parking lots, and desolate streetscapes for the vibrant neighborhoods they were before the automobile age.
Lorch Column at Taubman College
As a new Ph.D. student, the massive Lorch Column welcomed me to Taubman College. On spotting the tall column from a distance, I knew I had arrived at my new home. I later learned this column was architectural salvage from the demolished Mutual Benefit Life Insurance building in my childhood neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. To my surprise, an important lost landmark in my own city had become an important landmark to the University of Michigan. The column’s ancient stone base and ancient stone top, linked by a modern steel skeleton, is a fitting metaphor for the synthesis of past and present, the old and the new. In another way, its unusual history of transplantation and loss is a fitting metaphor for architecture’s own fraught relationship with capitalism.
Like many 19th-century insurance companies, Mutual Benefit saw its Newark headquarters as an advertisement to customers. Grand palaces to commerce modeled after the civic structures of ancient Rome would have symbolized to customers that this was a safe and permanent place to park their money. The logic followed that the taller and more imposing the monument, the more powerful and wealthy the company that built it. And a monument it was: eight stories of white Dover marble, copper-framed windows, and ornament copied from the temples of ancient Rome. The first floor was a banking hall lined with Vermont marble, while the floors above contained offices. Richly decorated cornice crowned the building. Behind this windowless cornice was an entire fireproof floor of life insurance records for the company’s thousands of policyholders. In other words, in its original form, the powerful and weighty Lorch Column supported the weight of nothing more substantial than the paperwork of bureaucracy.
Architect George B. Post modeled the four Corinthian columns and temple portico after the New York Stock Exchange he had completed a few years earlier. Comparing the details of the Lorch Column to the New York Stock Exchange, you will see they are almost identical in height, material, and ornament. The New York Stock Exchange was, in turn, modeled after the Roman Pantheon. A Roman temple to the gods had become an American temple to capitalism.
When erecting the structure that would eventually become the Lorch Column, Post faced stiff competition. His building was on Broad Street, Newark’s main commercial street, which was lined with dozens of other insurance companies and banks. After Hartford, Connecticut, Newark had the country’s second largest concentration of insurance companies. Across the street, there was the even larger home of the Prudential Insurance Company, built in stages by Post and Cass Gilbert. To the thousands of downtown commuters and life insurance policy shoppers, Mutual Benefit needed to one-up the competition. As The New York Architect wrote in 1909: “The problem was to design a building as different as possible from the Prudential Building and at the same time make it indicative of the strength and greatness of an important insurance company.” After some thought, Post concluded that since Prudential’s building was a granite castle in the Gothic style, his building for Mutual Benefit should be a marble palace in the Neoclassical style. In this way, the two structures and two companies would play off of each other: the industrial laborers and proletariat who purchased from Prudential’s Gothic castle vs. the upper-class and bourgeois clients who purchased from Mutual Benefit. For thousands of downtown shoppers and commuters, the two buildings stood on opposite sides of Broad Street, framing the entrance to downtown. The giant columns, Post reasoned, would be a fitting advertisement to the upper-class life insurance policy holders Mutual Benefit needed. So ironically, before what is now known as the Lorch Column met its own untimely death, it was an advertisement for others to insure against their own deaths.
The Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company building (left) and the Art Deco skyscraper that replaced it (right)
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’s first major headquarters was an imposing 19th century fortress with gothic turrets and thick walls that were much in vogue in the Victorian age. In a city where much of the residential and commercial artchitecture was not built to last, Prudential’s new headquarters gave an image of stability and permanence. Perhaps, a building as solid as this is only fitting for a company whose logo is the Rock of Gibraltar. Nonetheless, the solidity of this structure was no match for changing tastes and a growing company. This granite palace was demolished in 1956 to construct the smaller marble box visible today.
Prudential Headquarters (across the street from Mutual Benefit, also demolished)
Why was Mutual Benefit’s home demolished, despite its at-the-time cost of $1 million, its grand columns, and its important architect? The calculated logic of capitalism dispenses with history whenever the next and newest building can deliver its owner more profit in the name of progress. By 1925, Mutual Benefit moved shop to a larger building two miles away and sold its old home to the National Newark and Essex Bank. Looking to turn a profit in the overheated 1920s real estate market and to build a suitable monument to their own corporate power, the new owner demolished the six-floor Corinthian palace to erect a 35-floor tower of its own. Opened 1929, the National Newark Building was the tallest tower in New Jersey with its ornate temple roof modeled after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the lost seven wonders of the ancient world.
In another twist of fate, William Starrett, who attended the University of Michigan and whose company built the Empire State Building, gifted the column to U-M. While the National Newark Building was inspired by a wonder of the ancient world, the Empire State Building is listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Like the 102-floor Empire State Building, the 35-floor National Newark Building was finished just as the stock market crashed. Both entered the Great Depression as largely empty buildings that were urban monuments to corporate ego — hence, the Empire State’s early nickname the “Empty State Building.”
Ironically, the Lorch Column built, in the image of Roman columns that survived 2,000 years, barely survived 20 years. In the end, it was not time or nature or war that brought down the column; instead, the same calculated logic of profit and real estate that built this column demolished it shortly after.
As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.” One monument to commerce replaces another. If not for the foresight of Emil Lorch, the first dean of Michigan’s architecture school, to accept the gift of this column, it likely would have ended in the landfill. As demolition crews hacked away at the monumental old New York Penn Station and carted its carcass to the landfill, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemned its demolition. Her 1963 New York Times article about old New York Penn Station speaks to the fate of that train station as much as to the fate of the Lorch Column:
It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motive in this instance was great enough.
Like the column that once advertised corporate strength but fell when the financial winds changed, Mutual Benefit Life Insurance itself fell apart in 1991. One of several reasons: investments in Florida real estate that never paid off and left the company bankrupt. By the 1950s, Mutual Benefit had become entangled in financing real estate; their largest projects included Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. Mutual Benefit’s fall was, to date, the largest bankruptcy of a life insurance company in American history. The company’s assets were sold off, and the Newark buildings it still owned were sold to the Kushner family, who is now better known for their relationship with Donald Trump than for their real estate speculation.
In its afterlife as the Lorch Column at Taubman College, fate still follows the old column. It was capital and a desire to attract customers that motivated Mutual Benefit to build such a large column. It was capital and a desire to make more money that motivated the National Newark and Essex Bank to tear down this column. And it was success in real estate development that enabled Al Taubman to make a substantial donation to the architecture school that now bears his name. In a fitting metaphor for the power of capital to make or break architecture, the architecture school’s old home on the Central Campus, where the Lorch Column was first displayed, is now U-M’s Department of Economics. Where this column goes next in its journey across space and time is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain though, even something carved in stone can change meaning depending on time and place and fate. “So it goes.”