Parking vs. Preservation

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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 unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago windows and intricate terracotta fretwork. In the neo-classical tradition, the structure sported a detailed cornice, white ornamentation, and copious bunting. The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure. When the outside walls finally fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and hundreds of re-bars for added durability.

Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical 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 Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City. Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line. His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City 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 doing anything. While waiting, Edison Parking 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 best 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. Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption. In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking. Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.

Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art. In this case, the property 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 secretly removed the historic property’s windows and poked holes in its roof to cause intentional 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 Historic Preservation and Landmark 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, obviously 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:

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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.

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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 painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison Parking is not alone. Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity. For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site. It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures. As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.

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My Little Neighborhood

Washington Park in Downtown Newark

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Newark Model Small(Above L to R) Broad Street Station, Polhemus House, YWCA Building, Newark Museum, Ballantine House,
Second Presbyterian Church, American Insurance Company, Newark Public Library

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When I examine old pictures of my neighborhood in the city archives, I realize how much of my city disappeared in the past forty-some years. This sad trend will inevitably 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 trend, I built the below model as my own souvenir. This keepsake will forever remind me of my identity in Newark.

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 may actually exist.

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Essex County Jail

 

 

The former 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. Abandoned for over thirty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.

Gradually, the urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the veritable old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners formerly pruned and weeded is now overrun with weeds. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.

Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A constant 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 aimlessly wander city streets. Ironically, the physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into a metaphorical bastion 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.

Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Newark’s Hidden River

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It is ironic that Newark should ignore the very river it was founded on – The Passaic River. It was the pristine wooded river our city’s founding fathers first saw in 1666. It was our city’s artery to the sea and industry’s source of income. It was the throbbing, flowing heart of our city.

After the automobile, the Passaic was no longer the watery highway of old. It is now this industrial town’s polluted heart. The bland corporate towers of Newark’s “Renaissance” meet our city’s industrial past at the riverbank. The murky waters contain secrets that will remain forever unknown. 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.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

End the Privatization Scheme

Waterworks.

When Mayor Cory Booker tried to privatize Newark’s water system, thousands of citizens protested by signing an initiative called the Save Our Water Ordinance. Privatization would inevitably jeopardize the city’s 35,000 acre watershed, permitting its forests to be developed by private companies. After much public outcry, the city was forced to reconsider privatization.

But it still remained to close the corrupt, semi-private agency managing the watershed, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). The presiding judge formed a committee to manage the closure. Yet, many months later, the procrastinating committee was still not finished and was even trying to sue the impoverished city for over a million dollars. Even worse, the same law firm that started the privatization hassle was managing the closure, a clear conflict of interest. At a recent NWCDC board meeting in Newark, I read the following statement:

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My name is Myles Zhang. I am a seventeen-year-old resident of Newark.

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I do not have the speaking capabilities of high-priced lawyers. I am unable to twist and mutilate reason and logic, making a mockery of our nation’s justice system. I am unable to magically conjure obscure legal justifications. But, I see needy Newark every day.

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On the way to school every day, I pass by the veritable old institution of the Newark Public Library. Its doors are often shuttered to the public. Its budget is too slim to serve Newark’s needy citizens. On the way to school every day, I pass the empty lots of this needy city. They are overgrown and waiting for development. On the way to school every day, I see a city that is in dire need of help.

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Today, I ask you the question: How are Newark’s limited resources to be spent? Are they to be spent paying a corrupt and greedy law firm millions of dollars? NO! Are they to be spent on spoon-feeding lawyers and former employees of the NWCDC? NO! Are Newark’s limited resources to be spent fighting for the people? YES!

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The corrupt farce of the NWCDC has dragged on far too long. Needy Newark has been deprived of a clean water department for years. You were appointed, with the full faith and credit of Newark’s people, to kill this monster once and for all. More than six months later, I see mountainous legal bills, a court case, and little discernible progress. Nobody should drag Newark’s already tarnished name through the mud again.

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The next time I walk by the Newark Library, I would like to see it open to all people at all hours. The next time I walk by City Hall, I would like to be rest assured that this city has a clean water department delivering clean water to a clean city. You have a responsibility, no a duty, to help this city. Act now.

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For a 2014 New York Times exposé about water privatization, click here.