Renaissance City

Growing up in Newark, I was inspired and saddened by my inner city environment. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. But I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of ostensible progress. “Renaissance City” depicts the Newark of my childhood with garish signage and decayed structures blanketing my city’s architecture in a medley of color and consumerism.

Urban decay in Newark to the tune of Mozart’s death march (k 453a)

Urban Garden in Newark

By Myles and Maia Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

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Learn more about this project on GoFundMe.

Read more about Newark’s urban decay.

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

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Westinghouse Demolition

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Now an Urban Garden

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Neon Night

Cities, wherever they are, realize the human desire for dynamism and movement through their cultures of change and consumerism. Neon Night is a triptych exploration of spontaneous movement and urban life. Each image, taken of city lights, is the accidental result of sudden camera movement during the long shutter speed required for night photography.

Neon Night

(From left to right, lights from Newark, Detroit, and Santander.)

A Tale of Two Places: City & Suburb

Growing up in inner-city Newark and attending school in suburbia, I have always wondered how these two environments were so distinctly different. How could so many cultural and socioeconomic differences exist in communities only a few miles apart? Furthermore, how did the suburban environment of my school effect the urban environment of my home?

Livable City

Livable City

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In July of 2015, to encourage more bicycle initiatives and to protest the spread of parking lots downtown, I joined several members of PLANewark to speak before the Newark City Council:

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Here are a few facts:

 

One: Bikes are affordable.

 

On the one hand, the average used car costs $16,000 (National Automobile Dealers Association). On the other hand, the average bike costs less than $500. Cars are 32 times more expensive than bikes, and that’s discounting gas, maintenance, and environmental costs. In a city whose average wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.

 

Two: Bikes fight poverty.

 

Over 29% of our population is in poverty. Over 31% of our male and 38% of our female population is obese. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). Poverty, obesity, and lack of exercise are closely correlated. Biking is a form of exercise. Exercise fights obesity and poverty. Newark needs bikes.

 

Three: Bikes fight childhood obesity.

 

Newark’s been ranked as one of the least walkable cities in America. We must do something about that. 30% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unfit for walking, running, or biking. 44% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unsafe due to automobile traffic. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Rutgers Center for State Policy). Maybe, there’s a correlation here. Improve the livability of our streets; help our children.

 

Four: Bikes are sustainable.

 

Newark is 27 square miles. The average commute within Newark is 11.5 minutes and under 4 miles (US Census). Yet, despite the small size of our city, the average commuter goes by bus and car. Why not by bike? Why not by bike?

 

Five: We need more bike lanes.

Our city has 320 miles of streets. But our city has few miles of exclusive bike lanes (NJDOT). Bikes are the way to the future. Cars aren’t. We don’t need more room for roads and parking lots. We need more room for bikes.

 

Now…

 

The culture of the car caused white flight from our city, gave asthma to our children, and destroyed much of our city’s culture and heritage. Newark needs fewer cars. Newark needs more bikes.

 

We can’t give every Newarker a car (no should we), but we can give every Newarker access to biking opportunities.

 

Every idea has a start. It is true that our bike lanes are not as busy as those in Amsterdam or New York. It is also true that our city government is not enforcing legislation intended to protect our bike lanes. Build our bike lanes well and protect them; people will use them with time.

 

Change takes time. We don’t have the firm roots of a bike culture. We have only the seeds we need. Plant and grow these seeds of green bikes, green bike lanes, a green waterfront and a green city; and these seeds will take root.

 

If not now, then when…? If not with bikes, then with what…? If not in our city, then where…?

 

As a Newarker, I see so much potential in our city. Our city, at the doorstep of New York, is currently the confluence of planes, trains, and buses. So, moving forward, we have the foundations for a more sustainable Newark. Starting today, with bikes, we can create a greater Newark for us all.

 

Thank You..

Vanishing City

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about redevelopment in Newark, my birthplace. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots. Through this series, I document the beauty behind decay, destruction, and rebirth.
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 to the sky.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the ephemeral.  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.  Lastly, it is the hope that someday the past will become cherished in its entirety because a culture without history is like a body without life.
The ephemeral nature of my environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes in the protean vortex of memory.  Years from now, my city will continue redefining its identity.  Years from now, I will assess my memories with fresh experience and nuanced perspective.  Although today’s present may become tomorrow’s past, the present will survive through our collective consciousness.
When one visits the ruins of past civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  These ruins are powerful because of their decay, not in spite of it.
The battered past should remind the proud present of its transience.  I look at the built world of today and ask: Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure?  What will the future remember us by?  Roman roads lasted millennia; will our potholed highways last as long?  Obelisks of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusty skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Greek forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society with its twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?  Maybe the question should be different: in a culture of blind “progress”, what past will there even be to preserve?  Time will tell.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here. Below, pictures of my neighborhood’s architectural losses, photographed first in 1978 and again in 2014 from the same camera angles.

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Port Newark

 

Port Newark is the largest port east of the Mississippi. On weekdays, hundreds of cargo ships and thousands of trucks deliver Chinese products to America. On weekends, the port is seemingly dead, an unintentional urban monument to withering industrial might.

 

Port Newark Triptych

 

 

 

 

PLEASE BE KIND. DO NOT LITTER. FAPS INC. CARES ABOUT YOU.

– signage adorning truck depot

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Pulaski Skyway

When I left home to attend college at Columbia University, I knew the tumultuous transition to college would leave me longing for my hometown of Newark. To remind me of my city and home, I painted this watercolor panorama of my city. Every night, before tumbling into bed, I gaze at this painting and visually trace the streets of my childhood and the buildings of my memories.

To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Growing up in Newark

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

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.

Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.

At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.

At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”

At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.

In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.

From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”

Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”