Public Speech: “Parking vs. Preservation”

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-style windows, intricate white terracotta carvings, and Greco-Roman style ornament. 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 thousands of steel re-bars for added durability.
Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Street, the two-story neoclassical 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!

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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 heavily subsidizes surface parking. Only under the current land-use policy that financially incentivizes demolition is Edison’s greed and urban blight 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 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 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, 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 demolished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison ParkFast is not alone. Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to 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 1940s. 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 comfortably live.

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Detroit: a photo-essay on urban decay

Detroit represents the shortcoming of American-style, car centric urban development. Wide highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods now serve a city devoid of people in many parts. In a city that lost 60% of its population since its 1950 height, extensive infrastructure designed to serve millions of people now serves only thousands. After Detroit’s July 1967 riots, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit in fewer than five years. Now over 50,000 homes lie vacant and decaying.
During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment that rolled out of its auto factories. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit, too, has been bombed. Except this time, it’s a city destroyed from within by the same consumer society that erected this metropolis.

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Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen status often fall short of success. Everywhere there are fields of surface parking lots, where there once businesses, people, and wealth. A near-empty monorail system circles an eerily quiet downtown. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full rotting Art Deco architectural gems and empty storefronts. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the aging and indebted city. The imposing appearance of the nearby Greektown Casino abuts the equally ominous city jail. Suburban residents travel to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field; they return afterwards by car to their safe and quiet and white communities.

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Detroit represents flaws in American culture across levels: government policies that encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities; corporations that developed America’s love of car culture; planners who designed cities and city life around the car. Most of all, Detroit represents the fault of American democracy to end racial segregation. Over fifty years after the end of legal racial segregation, Detroit is a racially and economically divided city. People of color are usually confined to the inner city, while those wealthier and with whiter skin benefit from the cleaner and safer streets of neighboring suburbs.
Detroit’s fitting Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”
We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

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My dream loft house

Loft House is a conceptual design for my dream studio apartment. Loft House incorporates elements of turn-of-the-century warehouse architecture with modern building practices. Traditional warehouse spaces are large and airy; they also feature thick retaining walls and intricate external ornament like buildings in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. With Loft House, the heavy cornices and detailed brickwork of traditional loft spaces are reduced to their most basic geometric form. The open floor plan and exposed structural beams hint at this structure’s historical precedents. It is the spirit and feel of history, more than the ornamental accoutrements, that inspire me.

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loft house 1

loft house 2

 

Model of a concrete mixing truck

This is a model of a motorized concrete mixer truck. The driver’s cabin is decorated with steering wheel, cushioned seat, headlights, license plate and ladder.  A recycled motor moves the truck forward and in reverse. This motor is linked to a shaft that that spins the concrete mixer. When the truck arrives at the construction site, the concrete contents can be poured out through an adjustable trough at the back. All details are made by hand, and the dimensions are measured against actual trucks.

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Operating scale model of a steam crane

Here is a scale model of a steam crane. Many of the small parts are made from found materials such as copper staples, old gears, recycled wood, beads, and metal tacks. A motor moves the machine forward. While one hand-operated crank raises or lowers the boom, the other crank unwinds the hook and cable. Dimensions: 4.5 inches wide, 8.5 inches long, and 20 inches tall.

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My little neighborhood in Downtown Newark

Washington Park in Downtown Newark

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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

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When I examine old pictures of my neighborhood in Newark’s archives, I realize how much of my city disappeared in the past forty years. This 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, 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.

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Handmade Dollhouse

Over the years, I slowly built this dollhouse. Using balsa wood, cardboard, and scraps salvaged from the garbage, I glued together all the pieces of furniture. Odds and ends – such as bottle caps, fabric scraps, and earrings – enrich the rooms with detail. None of the materials are purchased from a conventional model store. They are all hand assembled as a skill-building exercise in model-making.

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Dollhouse