Growing up in Newark

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

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Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

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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.”

Proposal for a pop-up park near the Flatiron Building

In front of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building is an unused, triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets: Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. Every day, thousands of pedestrians pass and cars through this central intersection. This underutilized space with traffic on all sides could become a vibrant, public square. This park should reflect and respond to the dynamic and energetic neighborhood.
Pop-up Park creates a mixed-use public space that responds to users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. The dimensions of each panel correspond to the perfect shape of the golden rectangle. This permits a functional yet aesthetic geometric composition to be incorporated into each panel. The park’s periphery is planted with trees to shade the communal area and to act as a visual buffer from the hectic city.

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urban park 1

urban park 2

South Bronx

View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.

Strolling in the Bronx, I am arrested by the inner-city grid that stretches mile after mile. Block after block, street after street, a never ending treadmill of bodegas, tenements, hair salons, C-TOWN supermarkets, strip malls, and laundries. In the treadmill of the city grid, I become an explorer lost wandering. I retrace my footsteps.
And then, there is the ceaseless cacophony of Spanish speakers, buses, and car. The chaotic maze of streets leads me to fantasize walking through one of M.C. Escher’s drawings of a geometric maze. The blaring signage for SHOES, SHIRTS, PIZZA, and ICE CREAM hints at shabby decadence. The never-too-distant fast-food joint hints at obesity in a relative food desert. The din of distant cars on the Cross Bronx or Major Deegan hint at the childhood asthma that I, too, had. I immerse myself in the urban grid.
After many hours, I spy an elevated subway stop in the distance. I take the next southbound train back to Manhattan. I must return to the Bronx soon. The outer boroughs beckon.

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When dinosaurs take over New York City at night

In the New York City of my imagination, dinosaurs emerge from the Museum of Natural History to prowl “the city that never sleeps.” They roam the streets engaging in dinosaur-like activities: scaring people, stealing from butcher shops, and terrorizing the skyline. For one night, the city belongs to them.

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New York City in Miniature

The impressive range New York’s architecture, from the humblest home to the slenderest tower, powers my inspiration to create. I aim to capture my perceptions of the bustling city through art.
With a base measuring 28 by 36 inches, I built this model in summer 2014 of wood, paper, and plastic. It contains several dozen of the city’s landmarks, skyscrapers, people, lampposts, subway stations, and a bevy of operating subway cars. Whenever I glance at my tiny creation, I rejoice in knowing that my love of New York is within the breadth of my arms.

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Animation of New York City in miniature

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Animation of one day in the New York City subway

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The chaotic city passes me when riding the NYC subway. It is a whirlwind of colorful peoples, buildings, and cultures. Each new turn of the creaking screeching train reveals new sights. At each new tunnel, there is the always the waiting for the burst of light at the end. And then, there is always the expectation of the next journey.

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NYC collage small

 

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Paper cutouts

Like origami, these flat sheets fold into the shapes of three-dimensional landmarks.

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