The Vanishing City of Newark

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about architecture and redevelopment in Newark.
I am witness to the frighteningly beautiful decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge slowly 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, firmly anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past slowly 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

Link Newark Art Project

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

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Exhibition Design for the Old Essex County Jail

Developed in collaboration with Newark Landmarks
and the master’s program in historic preservation at Columbia University
Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
about the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.

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Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Built beginning in 1837, this is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building desperately needs investment and a vision for its transformation. 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 architecture school documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects documented and explored the jail’s condition, context, and history. They built upon this historical analysis to form preservation strategies. Each student developed a reuse proposal for museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing 11 alternatives for a site long abandoned, the project symbolically transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of freedom.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, Zemin Zhang, Myles Zhang, and Newark Landmarks proposed to transform the results of this studio into an exhibit in the Hahne’s Building. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, the curators and a dozen collaborators translated Columbia’s work into exhibition. We enriched this exhibit with primary sources and an oral history project, recording the experiences of former guards and people who witnessed this site’s trauma.

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Our curatorial work required translating a strictly 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 this site. While some of these drawings and all eleven reuse proposals are included in the exhibit, the focus shifted away from examining the jail as a work of architecture. Instead, we shifted focus toward 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 the 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. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail. As a youth in Newark, I frequently explored and painted this jail – I am therefore hoping for its reuse.
The finished exhibit will be on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. We are making the case for preserving the buildings on this site and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding – and largely blighted – neighborhood. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, we can build support for its preservation and raise awareness of the need to stabilize this site. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: 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.

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Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

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Railroad commuting patterns in New Jersey

Created with data from NJ Transit on weekday and weekend rail ridership.
Or download my data from Tableau Public.
NJ Transit carries over 90,000 commuters per day to and from New York Penn Station, the busiest rail station in the Western Hemisphere. The construction of this rail network in the 19th and early-20th centuries was focused around New York City. Like spokes on a wheel, these rail lines radiate from the urban center.
Hover over stations to view statistics. Dot color corresponds to train line. White dots are for stations where multiple lines intersect. Dot size corresponds to number of riders per day: Large dots for busy stations and small dots for less busy stations. For each station, the average number of daily riders is listed.

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The map above shows weekday ridership patterns. Movement is centered around the employment hubs of Newark and New York Penn Station. The next two busiest stations are Secaucus Junction and Hoboken, but these two stations are not destinations. Instead, they are transfer points for commuters en route to New York City. Commuters collected from stations on the Pascack Valley, Bergen County, and Main Line are almost all headed to New York City, but they must transfer at Secaucus (to another NJT train) or at Hoboken (to PATH / Hudson River ferries).

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This map shows Sunday ridership. On average, stations are 66% to 75% less busy on weekends. The thirteen stations along the Montclair-Boonton Line – between Bay Street and Denville – are also closed on weekends because ridership is so low. However, the only line that is almost as busy on weekends as it is on weekdays is the Atlantic City Line. This is likely because trains on this line serve weekend tourists to the New Jersey Shore and Atlantic City casinos.

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Notice the large difference between the first four stations and all others listed. Keep in mind that a lot of this data implicitly double-counts a single passenger. For instance, someone riding from their home to work will be counted once in the morning, and again in the evening.

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Writing Here Is New York in 1949, American writer E.B. White has this to say about suburban commuters:

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“The commuter is the queerest bird of all. The suburb he inhabits […] is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare cases, the man who lives in Mamaroneck or Little New or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing much about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch. […] About 400,000 men and women come charging onto the Island each week-day morning, out of the mouths of tubes and tunnels. […] The commuter dies with tremendous mileage to his credit, but he is no rover. […] The Long Island Rail Road alone carried forty million commuters last year, but many of them were the same fellow retracing his steps.” (p.18-21)

Interactive surface parking map of central Newark

Explore an interactive map of the 300+ acres of parking in Downtown Newark. This map is part of PLANewark’s ongoing fight against the expansion of surface parking in Newark. Click the rectangle icon on upper right hand corner of map to view full screen. Click on individual, color-coded lots to view information on the property owner and acreage.

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Interactive map of Newark’s blight of parking

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Destruction of the James Street Commons: 1975-2020

This map illustrates buildings demolished in one Newark neighborhood, the James Street Commons. When historians first considered this neighborhood for landmark status in 1975, there were 425 historic buildings.  Even after earning landmark status in 1978, demolitions and urban decay continued. Rutgers, Edison Parking, St. Michael’s Hospital, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology have demolished dozens of old buildings, mostly to construct surface parking lots as an “interim” land use. It is time that the local and state governments be more proactive in preserving the city’s housing stock.

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Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

Featured June 2017 in this NJ.com news article about my computer simulation

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In summer 2017, I opposed the rezoning of Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. The area was zoned for buildings no higher than eight floors, which respected the scale of existing streets and buildings. City officials, however, proposed rezoning large parts of the Ironbound for eighteen floor structures, which was four times taller than existing buildings in the area.
Motivated by profit, the J&L Parking Corporation lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowed height on their land. Though they had little intention to build anything, this zoning change would effectively increase the value of their property when they decided to sell it in the future. The zoning map was specifically drawn to exclusively benefit J&L’s properties and the decayed parking lots of the nearby Edison ParkFast corporation.
To oppose this idea, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed and developers built to the maximum density allowed by law. This simulation was shown to Newark City Council members, and to effected property owners. I spoke in opposition five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this zoning change.

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City Council Speech

September 19, 2017

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I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.
To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.
MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.
Why?
inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.
When an area is zoned for larger and taller structures developers can build more and larger structures WITHOUT requesting a variance to build larger. And when developers do not need to request a variance for height, it is less likely they will need to include affordable housing in their project.
In effect, MX-3 will remove the requirement to build affordable housing in the effected area. When zoning is overly generous to developers and zoning permits overly large scale, develops do not need variances. And when developers don’t need variances, they do not have to built affordable housing.
In addition, since MX-3 could be expanded to anywhere within a half mile radius of Penn Station, it is quite possible that MX-3 could be expanded in the future. In effect, this would eliminate the requirement for developers to build affordable housing in this area. Upzoning does not benefit affordability.
Secondly, what is sustainability?
Sustainability and transit-oriented development is not just about a short distance to Penn Station. It is not just about green roofs or any type of development.
Sustainability is about affordable housing that we the people can afford to live in. We don’t want luxury condos for the 1% in the MX-3 area. We want development that our residents and you can afford.
All of us can agree that WE ALL WANT DEVELOPMENT. But we want development that is 1. Affordable 2. Respectful of the Ironbound community. And 3. Respectful of our city’s diversity and history.
MX-3 is none of these things. It is about landbanking and benefiting the 1% wealthiest outside our city. I encourage you to strike down MX-3 and to encourage instead an open dialogue with the community about SUSTAINABLE and AFFORDABLE development in our city.
Developers should come to Newark and development should happen. However, we should not upzone entire sections of our city, in effect removing the requirement for affordable housing, undermining the inclusionary zoning we just created, and jeopardizing the recent master plan we created with public participation.

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 artistically represent history as a living and fluid process. As Newark looks to the future, it stands on 350 years of history.

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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 dutifully preserved its large monuments but has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, wood frame houses, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly 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 a century ago. 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 an impossibly 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 elegant brick walls, terracotta ornament, and detailed 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 and beauty, 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, but 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 here, but 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 decoration. Large corporate monoliths 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 soil. Even for historic preservation, 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 large 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 largely residential neighborhood; it is a unique reminder of history. Renovation is certainly more difficult, but it is far more respectful of the city’s history.
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 generous 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

Say no to Edison ParkFast!

Newark’s parking and land use crisis

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Edison ParkFast, among several Newark institutions such as Rutgers and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, engaged in the systematic destruction of our city’s heritage. In the James Street Commons Historic District, for instance, Edison ParkFast and Rutgers are the single largest contributors to demolition of historic properties from 1978 to the present. Both demolished dozens of historic Newark homes and factories. As Edison ParkFast continues to consolidate its properties into ever larger parcels, the question arises: How will this entity develop this land? Will future development respect old Newark and our history?
Too often, the name of progress is invoked to justify the destruction of old. New development, from Newark’s $200 million sports arena to Prudential’s $400 million new headquarters on Broad Street, reveal that our new architecture is often out of time, place, and scale. Not often enough do Newark leaders realize that progress is only attained by using the past as the literal building block for redevelopment efforts. One can walk through Brooklyn or preserved parts of Manhattan and compare those historic streetscapes to Newark. Newark once had the types and varieties of architecture that Brooklyn still does, but Newark happened to follow the short-sighted path of demolition.
Click here for interactive map of Newark past and present.
Below is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on 19 May 2016 in protest to Edison’s environmentally unfriendly business practices.

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Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.
My name is Myles. I am a proud, lifelong Newarker.
Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.
To the south lies our port and airport, comprising 1/3 of Newark’s land area. Our airport handles 40 million passengers a year. Our port handles over a million containers of cargo a year. Both pollute our air.
Our city is surrounded by highways: Route 78 to the South, The Parkway to the West, Route 280 to the North, and McCarter Highway to the East. Millions of car travel these congested highways every year.
Our urban core is buried in asphalt. Thousands of commuters per day. Millions of cars per year.
Edison Parking is beneficiary of this pollution. Their 60 thousand parking spots are valued in the billions. They make millions on the land of buildings they demolished often illegally. They pay no water bills; their water runs off their lots and into our sewer mains. For a company so wealthy; they contribute little to the health of our city.
One in four Newark children have asthma, far above the national average. Chances are that your children or the friends of your children also have asthma.
I, too, have asthma. Always had. Always will.
Enough is enough. It is time to develop our city sustainably. Public transportation. Public bike lanes. Public parks. Sustainable infrastructure.
Edison Parking is not a sustainable corporation. When our zoning board approves of the illegal demolition of our historic architecture, they are complacent in this violation of our law. When our zoning board sits silently as Edison Parking uses our lands for non-permissible zoning use, they are not upholding the laws they are subject to.
It is time to change. You, as our elected officials, are in a position to enact the change your public needs. You, as informed citizens of Newark, are responsible for holding corporations accountable to our laws.
This is not a question of complex ethics or morality. It is a matter of common sense. Edison Parking has and continues to demolish our heritage, pollute our air, and violate our laws. Edison parking is breaking its responsibility to the public. Will you hold them accountable?
Please consider the city you want for our children and our future.
Thank you.

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Comparative views of Downtown Newark, past and present

These views compare Downtown Newark in the 1960s and today. This hints at the kind of human scale, architectural fabric demolished for surface parking.

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