Public Speech: “Make Newark more bike friendly.”

Livable City

.

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

.

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 annual wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.
Two: Bikes fight poverty.
Over 29% of Newark’s population is below the poverty line. 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.

Port Newark

.

Port Newark is America’s largest port on the Atlantic coast. On weekdays, hundreds of cargo ships deliver thousands of Chinese-made products to waiting trucks and trains. On weekends, the port is empty of life, an unintentional and empty urban monument to America’s economic might.
Click here to see a film featuring more of my Newark-based artwork.

.

.

.

.

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

– signage adorning truck depot

.

Pulaski Skyway

When I left home to attend Columbia University, I knew the transition to college would leave me homesick for Newark. To remind me of home, I painted this watercolor panorama. Every night, in my dorm room, I gazed at this painting and traced the streets and buildings of my childhood memories.

Growing up in Newark

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

.

Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

.

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.”

Public Speech: parking vs. preservation

As featured by NJ.com in spring 2019
Update: Following a case filed by New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center on behalf of PLANewark, Edison Parking admitted that they demolished this building without seeking proper permission from city and state agencies. Edison was in negotations out of court with PLANewark about ways to mitigate the damage they caused.
.
On a warm Sunday in August 2014, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space. Although the first floor was sealed with cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago-style windows, intricate white terracotta carvings, and Greco-Roman ornament. The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews hours of pounding and smashing to weaken the structure. When the outside walls fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and thousands of steel re-bars for added durability.
Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Street, the two-story structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District. Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but… The property’s owner is Edison ParkFast, one of the largest landowners in Newark and a company with a business model linked to gentrification and lawlessness. Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line because he feared the public park would decrease his property values. Gottesman’s company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City cynically read – “Bloomberg is gone. Time to put the bikes away.” To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without investing anything to improve the community. While waiting, Edison ParkFast generates huge revenue from surface parking – often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot. Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

.

.

In fact, demolition is in Edison’s selfish self-interest. Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land. Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden. Meanwhile, developed properties – whose residents might have invested thousands in upkeep and preservation – are taxed disproportionately higher than Edison’s lots. Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption. In other words, the public subsidizes surface parking. Under the current land-use policy that financially incentivizes demolition, Edison’s greed and urban blight is rewarded.
Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art. In this case, the building Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law. All the same, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land. Then, Edison removed the historic property’s windows and poked holes in its roof to cause water damage. Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property. Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission. In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.
When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late. The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis. Sitting directly behind me was a heavy suburban lady, working for Edison. Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and promptly left the meeting.
Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

.

My name is Myles. I am a life long Newark resident.
Parking is a travesty. I have seen:
– Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.
– Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.
– Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.
This blight of so-called “development” must stop. Newark is a city with a strong history. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.
Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.
Newark is a lawless city. Its buildings are testament to that:
– Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures. They do so anyway.
– Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent. They do so anyway.
– Parking developers are not above the law. They think they are anyway.
Those who break the law must be held accountable.
Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.
Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”
A thief does not think he will be caught. A thief does not stop until he is punished.
I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals. But this commission has:
– The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.
– The power to prevent continued parking construction.
– The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.
I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far. I encourage you to do more. I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers. Even if victories may be Pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.

.

.

In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district. In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed. Each time I review these images, I remember demolished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison ParkFast is not alone. Other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to the loss of their own city’s identity. For instance, a few years ago, Rutgers University schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman. Rutgers owned a historic Art Deco building from the 1930s. Edison owned a parking lot. Rutgers exchanged their building for the parking lot, knowing full well this transaction would doom the old building to rubble. As a result of this short-sighted practice and the frequent demolition of Newark’s architectural fabric, Rutgers has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, with inadequate housing in the immediate area for students and faculty to live and walk to work.

.

New Jersey Meadowlands

The New Jersey Meadowlands, nestled between New York City and Newark, is a strange sort of in-between zone. It belongs neither to nature nor to man. The grasslands and birds of nature are abundant. So, too, are the derelict factories and warehouses. The unwanted detritus of civilization is cast off into the Meadowlands, ranging from garbage piles to noxious-smelling industries.
Millions of commuters to and from the suburbs to New York City pass through this region of indeterminate identity. Many look out the windows of passing trains, planes, and cars. Yet few care to observe the lapping tides and bizarre beauty of this unwanted strip of land. These views show various scenes from my daily train ride through the Meadowlands between Newark Broad Street and Hoboken Terminal.

.

My little neighborhood in Downtown Newark

Washington Park in Downtown Newark

.

Newark Model SmallLeft to right: Broad Street Station, Polhemus House, YWCA Building, Newark Museum, Ballantine House,
Second Presbyterian Church, American Insurance Company, Newark Public Library

.

When I examine old pictures of my neighborhood in Newark’s archives, I realize that so much of my city’s built environment has vanished. This trend will continue, as it does in most cities where old buildings outlive their use. If not in the form of my city’s physical destruction, this loss is in the form of my gradual loss of childhood memories. To reconcile this, I built the below model as my own souvenir. This keepsake will forever remind me of my Newark identity.
The landmarks depicted are selected from my neighborhood and include my childhood home. The buildings are drawn with ink and pastel on thick paper, which is then cutout to form a two-dimensional silhouette. The trolleys travel back and forth down the street and are magnetically operated by a crank and hidden string beneath the street. The tracks guide the trains up, down, and into the tunnel. These trolleys are modeled on those that used to exist in Newark, long before my time here.
Perhaps, this models presents a more romanticized and idealized Newark than the city that actually exists.

.

 

.

The Old Essex County Jail

.

The old Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights neighborhood, the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America and the oldest civic structure in the city. Abandoned for over fifty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.
The urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners once pruned and weeded is now overrun with nature. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry that defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.
Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd valuables, cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they wander city streets in search of donations, food, and work. The physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into the no less oppressive prison of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.

.

Related content

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

 

.

North Wing (left) and West Wing (right)

West Wing

Warden’s House

.

Ruins of Warden’s House Interior

.

Newark’s Hidden River

.

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

.