BROWSE ALL BY DATE
Displays all 150+ publications on a single page in reverse chronological order
Draft of project in progress, abstract, and two chapters:
On public housing
On highway construction
HERE GROWS NEW YORK
The first data visualization to show NYC's urban growth from 1609 to 2020 View on Wikipedia
MANHATTAN IN TEN DAYS
Walking and painting in vibrant New York City
VISIONS OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE
Three time-lapse construction sequences show the centuries-long building process at:
1. Amiens Cathedral
2. Notre-Dame of Paris
3. Beauvais Cathedral
Documenting changes to Newark's built environment through photography
Lost Newark Street View
OLD ESSEX COUNTY JAIL
An exhibit and case study about the social history of a nineteenth-century jail
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
Master's thesis about history of solitary confinement
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Setting up sex offenders to re-offend
and end up back in prison after release
Written for “The American Carceral State”
PhD research seminar with Prof. Heather Ann Thompson
1. Did the crime, did the time… but still doing time?
2. How much do residency requirements restrict housing options in New York City?
3. How much are sex offenders on the registry an actual risk to public safety?
4. Where do we go from here? At least four public policy solutions:
. Reduce the residency requirement from 1,000 feet to 100 feet from a school.
. Eliminate site-specific parole requirements.
. Distinguish between virtual space and physical space. They are not the same.
. In an internet age, fight crimes where they actually happen, not where we think they happen.
Defendants classified by the State as “level three sex offenders,” however, must first assure the State that they will not reside within 1,000 feet of any school. In New York City, this is no easy task, and the difficulties of finding a compliant residence can result in defendants serving additional time in prison past the expiration of their sentences.
Courts, law enforcement agencies, and scholars all have acknowledged that residency restrictions do not reduce recidivism and may actually increase the risk of reoffending.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor objects to sex offender registration requirements
In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Angel Ortiz v. Queensboro Correctional Facility, February 22, 2022, (source for ruling)
In August 2020, as the pandemic ripped across prisons and homeless shelters, New York State struggled to find temporary accommodation for inmates being released from prison. Keeping them in prison beyond the length of their sentences is illegal. Putting them in homeless shelters would expose them to disease in dormitories, locked-down spaces at night, and fast food cafeterias. Many times, these shelters resembled on the outside the very prisons they had just left on the inside.
In response, the state started renting temporary accommodation in the range of hotels across the city, many left vacant by the pandemic-related temporary decline in tourism. A few inmates – some of them sex offenders – were placed at a hotel in the Upper West Side near Central Park, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In response, The New York Post blasted their photos across the internet, along with images of one offender urinating. One neighborhood mom warned reporters at the P.S. 87 playground:
“Look, we’re a progressive-minded community, and we tend to be sympathetic to the homeless. [….] But with sex offenders, draw the line.” (source)
Our nation’s laws for sex offenders, although designed to protect the public, often have the opposite effect: increasing the chance sex offenders will be re-arrested and re-convicted for new crimes. The core of the problem is not that public safety rules, like Megan’s Law, are too weak. The problem is that these laws are written too strongly and too powerfully that they have the reverse effect: increasing the chances that sex offenders will commit new crimes.
There are many problems with sex offender laws: too weak in areas they should be stronger; too strong in areas where they should be more flexible. But today I will examine just one aspect of the sex offender registry (the home address requirement) and how it affects one place (New York City).
This analysis of New York City points to concrete and better ways to protect public safety than the current system: ways that reforming Megan’s Law will increase public safety.
1. Did the crime, did the time… but still doing time?
Jory Smith was supposed to be free. It was August 2020. He had finished his five-year sentence as a sex offender at the Marcy Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Upstate New York. But there was one condition for release: He had to find a place to live.
Three years later – three years beyond the date his prison sentence ended – he is still in prison. In New York State, approximately eight percent of sex offenders are still kept locked in prison after the end of their prison sentences. However, the U.S. Constitution explicitly states that there cannot be “cruel or unusual punishments” and the length of the prison sentence must match the severity of the crime. (source) If judge, jury, and prosecution ruled that a crime merits, say, a five-year punishment, then the punishment cannot extend a day over five years. He is not alone. Angel Ortiz was similarly kept locked up for two years longer than the planned data of his release, prompting a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Sotomayor. The case claimed that imprisonment without conviction, or beyond the date of planned release, violates the constitutional right to habeas corpus. (source)
Why are hundreds of people in New York State and thousands of people nationally kept in prison for longer than their prison sentences, in effect locked up for longer than judge, jury, and prosecution ruled was necessary?
The “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” of 1994 (more commonly known as Megan’s Law) required each state to create a public database of sex offenders. Their names, birth dates, age, photos, convictions, home address, and all matter of other personal information were made public information. The goal was to inform the public – particularly teachers and concerned parents – of any sex offenders in their neighborhood, to help them identify these people and keep their children away from them. You can search the database for New York State here or view all sex offenders within New York City on this interactive map.
The Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) of 1995 built on Megan’s Law and added further restrictions. It requires that sex offenders – for the length of time they are on parole – cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school or place children frequent. For most released inmates, the period of parole lasts one to four years, rarely more than five years. During this time, they must register their address with law enforcement and must check in regularly with a parole officer. However, for sex offenders, the length of time they spend under supervision longer. For level 1 and 2 sex offenders, the registration period – during which they must share name and home address – is 10 years. For level 3 of the most serious offenders, this parole period is 30 years to life with permanent residency restrictions. (source)
Since then, some New York legislators further strengthened Megan’s Law and reporting requirements with over one hundred separate amendments. One amendment proposed doubling parole from ten to twenty years; another proposed registration for life. A law introduced March 2023 from Republican State Senator Mario Mattera representing the wealthy south shore of Long Island proposed restricting all sex offenders from entering a public bus or coming within one thousand feet of a school bus stop. (source) Most public bus stops also double as school bus stops, and most sex offenders recently released are low-income individuals without cars who must rely on public transit to commute to work. In effect, this law also bars sex offenders from living anywhere near public transit. For instance, in New York City – the most transit dependent and transit rich city in the nation – about 99% of the city’s surface area is within one thousand feet of a school bus stop. In effect, this proposed law would bar sex offenders from living anywhere in New York City for the length of time on parole: ten years for some and a lifetime for others.
However, New York’s laws are less strict than other states. In Florida, sex offenders cannot go to playgrounds, public parks, shopping malls, and – in effect – any place where there might be any number of children. Florida’s registry laws are the strictest in the nation. These problems are not unique to New York. They are pervasive, and they are nationwide. The largest of these facilities is the so-called Coalinga State Hospital where, as of 2017, 941 sex offenders were imprisoned after serving their sentences. (source)
2. How much do residency requirements restrict housing options in New York City?
Drawing from NYC Open Data, I downloaded the point locations of all 1,700 public schools in the city, and the footprints of all 1,049,000 buildings in the city. The data on building footprints also lists the land use and number of residential units for each building. This gives an accurate picture of the available housing supply.
Drawing a 1,000-foot radius around each school – the area from which sex offenders are excluded – I identified the housing stock sex offenders on parole are barred from living. The map below shows the radius around each school. This leaves the areas between red circles as the only places sex offenders on parole are allowed to live.
Out of the approximately 3,644,000 housing units in 2021, the 1,000-foot limit excludes offenders from all but 100,000 units. That is, 97 percent of the entire city’s housing stock is off limits to sex offenders on parole. Further drill down the data, and the available housing supply is even less:
1) Of these 100,000 units, only 3,000 are available to rent at any one time, given the three percent vacancy rate.
2) Of these remaining 3,000 units, less than half charge monthly rents affordable to former inmates.
3) Add to this the fact that about 90 percent of landlords conduct criminal record background checks on tenants. According to New York State law, a landlord can refuse to rent to an apartment applicant because the tenant is on the sex offender registry.
About 97 percent of the entire city’s housing stock is off limits to sex offenders on parole.
The interactive map below draws a 1,000-foot radius around every public school building. Zoom in on individual locations to view the extent of areas where offenders cannot move. Click on dots to display school names and school districts. Not included are the city’s dozens of private schools and hundreds more private nurseries and daycares.
Median income in New York City is $35,000 in 2023. Median income of former sex offenders is well below that since an estimated 60 percent of sex offenders remain unemployed even three to five years after leaving prison. Compare the 60 percent unemployment rate among sex offenders vs. the five percent for general population. (source) By almost every definition of financial need, most are eligible for housing assistance. But further laws make offenders ineligible for public housing. As the New York City Housing Authority describes on its rental application: “A life-time registration results in a lifetime ban from public housing.” (source)
3. How much are sex offenders on the registry an actual risk to public safety?
Recidivism rates among non sex offenders:
Based on 1990s data and a sample size of 300,000 people from 15 states convicted for all crimes, about 67.5 percent are re-arrested within three years of release. Of this sample size, 51.8 percent return to prison within three years. However, there are many reasons they return to prison. About half (25.4%) return to prison for committing a new crime. The other half (26.4%) return to prison for an entirely nonviolent and purely technical violation of their parole. This includes failing a drug test, missing an appointment with a parole officer, failing to register a change of address, or driving without a license. (source)
Keep in mind that driving is advertised “as not a right, but a privilege” of living in America. That right can be revoked for reasons other than unsafe driving. Of those with suspended licenses, only 20 percent lost their license for drunk driving, reckless road behavior, serial car crashes, parking violations, or running a red light multiple times. The remaining 80 percent lost their license for reasons entirely unrelated, such as sex offender status, overdue court fines, or failure to make child support payments. Compound three factors here: 1) Sex offenders cannot live near schools, which are also incidentally the areas with best access to public transit. 2) Sex offenders need a job and have difficulty finding jobs. 3) If they, in effect, cannot live near public transit and must have a job, then they will have to drive to work. This traps sex offenders in a legal jeopardy: Remain unemployed but within the law. Or find a job that requires driving to work, but risk if caught a technical violation of parole and end up right back in prison as a repeat offender. Law abiding but unemployed vs. employed but breaking the law, simply for choosing to live near work and commute to work by car in a nation without public transit. Thousands of sex offenders are caught every day in this legal limbo of biased laws governing space and place. This situation could become worse if sex offenders are banned from living within 1,000 feet of any school bus stop, in effect banned from using public mass transit.
The data also reveals that released prisoners with the lowest re-arrest rates were those in prison for homicide (40.7%), rape (46.0%), “other sexual assaults” like pedophilia (41.4%), and driving under the influence (51.5%). As a category, even with recidivism rates as high as they are, sex offenders still have the lowest re-arrest rates. (source)
Recidivism rates among sex offenders:
A 1994 study of some 10,000 sex offenders reveals that 3.5 percent were re-convicted for a sex crime within three years, or about 1 in 25 people. Of this sample size, 24 percent were re-convicted for an offense of any kind during the follow-up period, or about one in four people. This supports the conclusion that sex offenders are not statistically more dangerous than other criminal classes. (source)
So, by nature, sex offenders as a category are less likely to commit violent offenses in the future than other groups convicted for different crimes. Keeping offenders on the registry because they might commit different crimes of a non-sexual nature is not legally or logically justified. By the same logic of possible recidivism, all other criminal groups with higher rates of recidivism than sex offenders should also be required to have their names, identity, and addresses posted to a public registry like Megan’s Law. Released prisoners with the highest re-arrest rates are those originally convicted of robbery (70.2% re-arrest rate), burglary (74.0%), larceny (74.6%), motor vehicle theft, (78.8%), having or selling stolen property (77.4%), and having, selling, or using illegal weapons (70.2%). If these higher risk groups are not made to live out the rest of their lives on a public registry, then neither should sex offenders with their re-arrest rate for sex crimes at four percent.
Also keep in mind that New York’s registry includes people punished for statutory rape (for instance, an 18 year old having consensual sex with a 15 year old) and peripherally related crimes (for instance, public urination at a playground or having sex outdoors at a public beach near children). These crimes represent between five and ten percent of people on the sex offender registry. Surely, any law – no matter how precisely written to get the “bad apples” – will wrongfully convict a few people for youthful indiscretions and “stupid mistakes.”
How many innocent people is it worth convicting to get the truly evil people on the sex offender registry? This is a truly and uniquely difficult legal balance and legal test because child abuse is a uniquely dirty issue in our society, as it should be.
4. Where do we go from here?
At least four public policy solutions:
1) Reduce the residency requirement from 1,000 feet to 100 feet from a school. This has at least four benefits:
Increases the range of available apartments for sex offenders on parole by several hundred percent, from 100,000 apartments to over one million apartments in New York City.
Reduces the number of inmates who remain incarcerated for months, sometimes years, after the end of their sentence because they cannot find housing in the city. Restores to thousands of Americans the Constitutional right of habeas corpus.
Reduces the economic costs of paying for homeless shelters and prisons, two of the only places sex offenders are allowed to live if they cannot meet residency requirements. The $10,000 per person per year cost of a shelter and the $40,000 per inmate per year of a prison are public funds that should alternatively be spent on victim compensation. Therefore revising residency requirements reduces public funds spent on offenders and increases the funds available to help victims and fund recovery programs.
Allows inmates on parole to live with their parents, relatives, friends, and legal guardians. Under the current arrangement, if the parents and relatives live less than 1,000 feet from a school, then the offender cannot live with them, even if these relatives have a spare bedroom and will legally vouch that the offender will not be a public safety threat. Inmates released to their families have lower rates of re-arrest, higher rates of employment, and lower rates of homelessness.
2) Eliminate site-specific parole requirements.
In the current arrangement, inmates are released back to the community where they were arrested. And they are expected to keep in touch with a specific parole officer at a specific place in that neighborhood. The problem is that half of New York State’s population lives in New York City, which is also the part of the state that is 1) the most densely populated, 2) home to the greatest concentration of schools, and 3) most expensive to live. These parole requirements, although they attempt to help and counsel former inmates, also spatially lock them in place, in what is effectively a prison without bars.
Eliminating site-specific parole requirements would allow a former inmate to search for job and housing anywhere in the state, or ideally the nation, in the thousands of places that are less densely populated and have cheaper housing. Reinstating their driver’s license – provided their original conviction was not for reckless driving while committing a sex crime – would also allow them to own a car, move more freely, live in a more remote location, and commute longer distances to work at the highest paid job available to them within driving distance.
3) Distinguish between virtual space and physical space. They are not the same.
Forty years ago, there was only physical space and only the physical world to communicate. A law on living away from schools might have made some sense. Today, there is a virtual world that is not bounded by space, and irrelevant to any 1,000-foot distance from schools. The opportunity for offenders to contact victims extends beyond 1,000 feet to the virtual world. This points to the need for continued restrictions on how sex offenders use the internet, but looser requirements on the physical space they inhabit. Megan’s Law was written for a world without the internet. We need new laws and reformed laws updated for the pace of technological change.
4) In an internet age, fight crimes where they actually happen, not where we think they happen.
We live in a society rich in urban legends and common misconceptions: stranger danger, clowns in paneled vans, razor blades in Halloween apples, the hooded rapist in a dark alley at night, the urban black youth with a hoodie and backpack (Kalief Browder). These images and dozens of others – many of them racialized images black men – pervade the general public’s image of who is dangerous and who commits the most crimes.
The reality is often different.
About 93 percent of sex crimes and rapes are committed by people the victim knows personally, usually a close friend or family member. The risk that a sex offender will assault a family member and someone in their household is greater than the risk they will assault someone they do not know at the school 1,000-feet away.
By comparison, there are fewer than two to three recorded cases of razor blades being hidden in Halloween apples, usually planted by family members for children in their family group. The social consequence of this stranger danger “bad apple” fear is low-level social distrust and the erosion of trust in neighbors. This is a small analogy, but multiply the effects of criminal profiling across society. Stigma – that is, our perceptions of what we think is dangerous – effect our views of anyone who is different from us: in social class, politics, and race as more likely to be violent than people we actually know. The result is societal-level distrust.
About 93 percent of sex crimes and rapes are committed by people the victim knows personally. The 1,000-foot residency requirement is not racial profiling, but it is spatial profiling.
The law assumes that someone is risky because of where they live, instead of who they are, and therefore pushes those judged risky to the spatial margins of society.
In a system where inmates are released to the society but made to live in certain neighborhoods, the result is the spatial concentration of risk in certain neighborhoods, specifically low-income and more likely to be majority-black neighborhoods. In the current system, majority-black neighborhoods already farther from public transit and public schools are more likely to become areas where sex offenders concentrate. We need to understand spatial racism as the effect of intersecting inequalities, where the same risks are concentrated and re-concentrated in the same neighborhoods least able to offer resistance. The fact that The New York Post complains about sex offenders living on the wealthy Upper West Side and quotes upper-class mothers to support their complaint says a lot. Low-income residents or residents in majority immigrant neighborhoods might have their own complaints about living near sex offenders, but rarely are their opinions given the time and visual real estate on the pages of The New York Post.
These urban legends and Megan’s Law in itself come from a noble place of good intentions. Seven-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered by an offender living next door, whose criminal history neighbors did not know. Moral outrages and moral panics at avoidable crimes often motivate overdue legal reforms.
But if we construct our legal system on whom we profile as sex offenders (stranger danger) instead of who is statistically more dangerous (friends and family) we risk writing laws with adverse unintended consequences for thousands of people. In the case of Megan’s Law and residency requirements, we have created a prison state that extends beyond the prison walls, extending the length of spatial incarceration in urban space well beyond the length of court mandated prison incarceration. This results in clear as day constitutional violations.
I would further argue that stranger danger fears – and laws that justify their existence on stranger danger fears – make victims less safe, not more. They make us more likely to suspect the black neighbor down the street than the creepy uncle who gets a blind trust pass at Thanksgiving.
Creating the Divided Metropolis:
How Newark came to be a poor city in a wealthy region
A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture
“Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first” Mayor Kenneth Gibson declared in 1970, as the first black mayor of any major city in what is now the American Northeast and the Rust Belt. The history of Newark’s urban decline is specific to Newark and unique to the details of this city. And yet, Newark’s story is national in its implications, and mirrored in hundreds of other American cities large and small that also experienced decline.
From the 1950s through 1970s, Newark embarked on one of the most extensive programs of state-funded urban renewal in the nation, less costly only than those of New York City (20 times Newark’s population); Chicago (eight times larger); Philadelphia (five times larger), and Boston (twice as large). Newark’s program was certainly among the most ambitious: to clear out the areas called slums, to construct highways, to build public housing, to stimulate the urban economy, and – in the end – to stop urban decline. And yet for all the billions spent and an estimated 70,000 out of Newark’s 400,000 people displaced, the program failed to reverse urban economic and population decline. What mixture of actors and institutions – city planners, politicians, realtors, developers, and banks – caused Newark’s program to fail?
This project describes how two national programs impacted Newark: urban renewal (a program that invested in keeping the city stable) and redlining (a program that deprived investment to make the city unstable). The two programs – both initiated by local, regional, and federal governments and designed to profit real estate developers – coexisted and undermined each other in a decade of flaws and contradictions. Redlining usually refers to the practice when banks choose to not invest in a certain neighborhood or city because of the race of who lives there. Redlining is racial and economic discrimination. More importantly, although rarely framed in such terms, redlining describes the practice more broadly of choosing not to invest in a place because it is a city and considered a less profitable investment. Banks, developers, realtors, businesses, department stores, and the fabric of social institutions vital for urban life all migrated from the city to the suburbs. These other institutions all redlined Newark independently of the real estate lobby. More than anti-black, redlining is anti-urban.
This project frames Newark’s story in national terms. Each chapter examines one form of redlining in Newark, and then frames this form of localized redlining in the national picture of urban abandonment. There are five frames: transportation, finance, housing, welfare, and employment. This range of actors across areas – public and private, local and national – did not collaborate in a conspiracy to deprive Newark and the American city of wealth. But their actions overlapped and mutually reinforced each other to leave the American city behind and ensure that attempts to save the city through state-funded urban renewal would fail. Through anti-urban redlining practices in each of these five areas – transportation, finance, housing, welfare, and employment – urban decline was the inevitable result. The history of all places is told through one place, and the history of one place is told through all places.
Drafts of Chapters in Progress
Robert Fishman, planning history
Ana Morcillo Pallarés, built environment
Matthew Lassiter, urban/suburban history
Published to my website privately, under consideration for publication in Journal of Urban History
How an infrastructure project contributed to today’s urban-suburban racial wealth gap
City planners designed Interstate 78 to destroy a stable and racially integrated neighborhood of 7,500 middle-class homeowners
In 1958, the New Jersey State Transportation Department had a choice: Build Interstate 78 on a route that displaced some 43 families in the suburb of Hillside or build it on a path that displaced some 7,800 Jewish and black families in one of Newark’s only racially integrated neighborhoods. Engineers and planners chose the urban highway path through the Jewish and black neighborhood over the less destructive suburban route. It is a story local to Newark, but mirrored hundreds of times across the landscape of other American cities. The story of Interstate 78 is a microcosm that reveals much about the politics and inequalities of city planning in a suburban and auto age.
Highways slice through Newark on all sides. They cut the city into parts and divide neighborhoods from each other. The millions of cars and trucks that pass through Newark annually emit soot particles that give Newark air the highest concentration in the state of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. To the east of Downtown is the six-lane Route 22 built in the 1930s that divides the city from the Passaic River and restricts public access to the waterfront. To the north of Downtown is the six-lane Interstate 280 built in the 1940s. To the west of Downtown is the eight-lane Garden State Parkway built in the 1950s that divides Newark from commuter suburbs to the west. To the south of Newark is the ten-lane Interstate 78 built in the 1960s that divides Newark from historically and once majority-white suburbs like Hillside.
Collectively, these four roads box in Newark from four sides. New Jersey’s largest concentration of poverty, where the median family income is a mere $38,000, is separated from the rest of the state by a highway moat up to 400 feet wide in parts of Interstate 78. By contrast, the median family income in the Essex County suburbs that surround Newark is over $100,000. Pre-pandemic some 200,000 residents of these commuter suburbs drove into Newark on these highways, parked in Newark, made salaries on average above $50,000, and drove home at the end of each workday, leaving behind some 300 acres of surface parking lots.
It did not have to be this way.
Based on archival records, planning documents from the Newark Public Library, and racial redlining records from the federal government, read the full report on how the Weequahic community fought and failed to block construction of Interstate 78. →
Two proposals for the path of Interstate 78
A destructive proposal from state planners vs. an alternative vision from Newark residents
|Proposal from State and City Planners||Proposal from Weequahic Residents|
|Length in miles||4.52||About 4.7|
|People displaced||7,818||Fewer than 500|
|Demographics||10% black||Fewer than 1% black|
|Homes demolished||2,247 homes||40 homes|
1. Further viewing and interactive mapping
Photo comparisons of Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood before vs. after highway construction, in 1962 vs. today
Related publication from my website Newark Changing
2. Further Reading
For a near parallel story, see Robert Caro’s chapter on how Robert Moses drove the Cross Bronx Expressway through the Jewish neighborhood of East Tremont. In a story both local and national, Moses could have routed the highway through an adjacent park on path that would have displaced only a few hundred people. He chose the path through East Tremont, resulting in what Caro claims was the destruction of 2,000 families from a stable working class tenement neighborhood. Read more at:
Robert Caro, “Chapter 37: One Mile,” in The Power Broker (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
I am grateful to my parents for their unwavering support of my studies, as well as my dissertation adviser Robert Fishman. Newark still struggles with the legacies of redlining and ongoing air pollution from its highways, port, and airport. In this fight against environmental racism, the activists at the South Ward Environmental Alliance and Ironbound Community Corporation are key actors. This history essay is written for them.
Published to my website privately, under consideration for publication in Journal of American History
To bring about integration, the first to do is to do it. [….] The change-over to a policy of nonsegregation is not so difficult and troublesome as one anticipates. [….] If a housing authority shows complete sincerity in the change and never retreat from their announced position with respect to non-segregation, the change will be successful. This, in any case, is what we have found to be true in Newark.
– Newark Housing Authority Executive Director Louis Danzig, 1952
In 1962, the future of racial integration in Newark looked promising. Newark’s newly elected Mayor Hugh Addonizio praised the movement toward racial integration before a meeting of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Newark City Hall. He described the apparent success of urban renewal to build high-quality public housing projects in black neighborhoods. Thousands of families once lived in wood frame tenements without central heating, interior plumbing, and private bathrooms. They now lived in public housing where, for the first time in their lives, they had their own bedrooms, bathrooms, and year-round steam heating.
Newark’s program of urban renewal cost taxpayers at least 128 million in federal funds (1.4 billion in 2020 dollars) and 53 million in local funds (550 million in 2020 dollars). This program costing by 19677 two billion (adjusted for inflation) gave Newark the fifth most expensive urban renewal program in the nation after New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. An estimated 55,000 more were displaced from their homes in the process, 45,000 for urban renewal and 10,000 for highway construction. By the end of this program, some 37 thousand people, representing about one in every ten Newark residents, lived in public housing.
Just eight years before in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal and that racial segregation laws were not legally enforceable. In the few years before Brown, Newark had already moved to desegregate public housing and to assign residents to whichever of the city’s approximately fourteen public housing projects they preferred. Newark public schools also seemed to offer the promise of racial integration. The city’s population was 66 percent white in 1960 and 34 percent black. This would mean that every public school, if fully integrated city wide, would have two white children for every black child. The mixed incomes and races across Newark seemed to offer the possibility of a future egalitarian metropolis: schools and neighborhoods of both diverse races and diverse incomes.
For all its promises, this program of urban renewal failed spectacularly. By the 1980s, opponents and activists described urban renewal and public housing as “The Second Ghetto,” as high-rise slum housing as dangerous as the ghettoes they were supposed to replace. By 2010, most of Newark’s public housing from the urban renewal age had been demolished. Other lands cleared of homes to build urban renewal projects never found the financing to build and remain vacant lots. Among dozens of high-rise towers of public housing containing thousands of apartments, all but seven towers were demolished. The urban poor were expelled from public housing towers that had become concentrations of crime, drugs, poverty, and decay.
The program had fallen far from its hopeful origins when President Harry Truman signed urban renewal into law with the 1949 Housing Act. Truman announced at the program’s launch: “The private housing industry cannot in the foreseeable future provide decent housing for these families. Their incomes are far too low to cover the cost of new housing of any adequate standard. [….] We have a national responsibility to assure that decent housing is available to all our people.” By 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin famously characterized urban renewal as something “most northern cities now are engaged; it is something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. Getting it means Negro removal; that is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.” In the span of these fourteen years, a program Truman described as the fight to create “decent housing” had evolved into what Baldwin characterized as “Negro removal.”
The reasons behind the failure of public housing are more complex than simple reasons like “Negro removal,” poorly designed architecture, or state hatred for black people. Urbanist thinker Jane Jacobs blamed the failure of public housing on architecture. High-rise towers of public housing, she claimed, were too tall and too modern an architecture for families used to living in old tenements, Victorian townhouses, and rural farms. But the failure of social housing in Newark was not caused by poor design choices, low-quality architecture, or the supposed prejudice of the people who built and directed the program of urban renewal. Nor was the failure of social housing caused by the poor families, and especially rural black families who lived in these houses and were – the legend claims – unprepared for urban life. Instead, the failure has more do with employment discrimination, urban abandonment, and market policies that chose to under-invest in Newark and its people. These private forces collectively ensured the public failure of the Newark Housing Authority’s two billion dollar program of urban renewal.
Fundamentally, public housing in Newark was a two-part promise. Good homes at affordable prices for poor families were one half the promise: a promise met and provided by the public section. Economic mobility and non-discrimination in employment for those living in public housing was the missing half of the promise. It was a promise that the private sector failed to meet in an age of de-industrialization and suburbanization.
Based on archival records, planning documents from the Newark Housing Authority, and old newspaper articles, read the full report on how public housing in Newark was designed to fail. →
I thank the archivists of the Newark Public Library and City of Newark Archives for granting me access to the primary sources that make my work possible. I also thank Newark-native Brendan O’Flaherty. His textbook on urban economics framed my understanding of Newark. His unpublished text chapter “How did Newark get to be a city where people aren’t rich?” also provided me a framework to understand the contemporary landscape of poverty in Newark. I am grateful to Zemin Zhang for his research on Louis Danzig and the history of the Newark Housing Authority. Last of all, I am grateful to the residents of Newark public housing, for their struggle and their perseverance to live in a system rigged against them.
What kinds of tax breaks are we giving to redevelop Downtown Newark?
Who is getting them?
An investigative report on public funds for private profit.
“Free enterprise is a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich.”
– Noam Chomsky
 Who owns the land around Mulberry Commons?
 If past predicts future, what kind of past tax breaks have we given?
 The problem is not tax breaks. The problem is: Who gets them?
 How can we ensure equitable economic development in Newark?
Five policy recommendations.
Artist’s rendering of Newark Penn Station expansion
Introduction: A Case Study in Edison Parking
The City of Newark borrowed $110 million to pay for a pedestrian bridge over Route 21. This new link between Mulberry Commons and Penn Station will allow travelers, event goers, and sports fans to walk directly from the trains to the games at the arena. Newark City Hall and the media are describing this as Newark’s equivalent and response to New York City’s High Line. This project follows on the already $10 million spent on building Mulberry Commons.
As part of misguided car-centered 20th-century urban planning, thousands of highways were built in our nation through low-income communities of color, to divide the less privileged in hundreds of places like Newark. Through the tools of public investment in public space, now is a moment to make wrong historical injustices like Route 21, Route 22, Interstate 78, and Interstate 280. Now is a historic opportunity for the urban form as tool of reparations.
However, what parts of the public – divided across lines of race, income, and home address – will benefit the most from this project? Will the benefits of this investment disproportionately go to a few people or institutions, such as Prudential Center patrons and Edison Parking tenants?
 Who owns the land around Mulberry Commons?
This map shows the location of the expanded Mulberry Commons in green. One company, Edison Parking, owns property on every side of this public space, except for the arena. The map notes Edison Parking’s land and the amount they pay in property taxes. Public records indicate the arena is on Newark Housing Authority land. The city assessed that property as worth $252 million and charges no property taxes.
In return for this $120 million investment, Edison Parking pays the city just $870,000 in property taxes, plus a variable amount each year in parking lot usage fees (source from public records). The interest payments on Mulberry Commons are at least four million per year. That is, it is likely the city spends more on services that benefit Edison Parking than Edison Parking pays the city in property taxes. It is time for the city to reassess the taxes of multinational corporations based in Newark, so that they pay their fair share.
Will Edison match this investment of public funds with improvements to their property? More importantly, who will pay Edison Parking to improve their property? What kinds of tax breaks or tax incentives for transit-oriented development will Edison receive to develop these valuable 11 acres of land?
For comparison, when public funds paid for the High Line in New York City, Edison Parking owned just two acres next to the High Line. They sold those two acres for $800 million in 2014 in one of the most expensive land deals in New York City history. In 2021, Edison beat its own record and sold off the assets it managed under the affiliate brand name Manhattan Mini Storage. The sale price was three billion dollars. How Edison distributed this three billion in sales is unclear because the company is not publicly traded on the stock market and therefore does not release regular annual reports. But this kind of money does give them a powerful war chest to spend in Newark: on campaign contributions, on lobbying politicians, and paying lawyers to reduce their tax liability.
If history is a lesson, that story of Edison Parking’s High Line in New York City will repeat itself with Mulberry Commons in Newark.
 If past predicts future, what kind of past tax breaks have we given?
The past is often the best prediction for the future. Here is how much several other new developments in Downtown Newark received in public funds and tax breaks:
|Prudential Sports Arena||$200 million||2004 (source)|
|Prudential New Headquarters||$210 million||2012 (source)|
|Panasonic New Headquarters||$102 million||2013 (source)|
|Hahne’s Building||$129 million||2016 (source)|
|Mars Wrigley in Edison Parking’s Building||$31.5 million||2018 (source)|
|Shaquille O’Neal Tower on Rector Street||$29 million||2019 (source)|
|Hello Fresh||$37 million||2020 (source)|
|Fabuwood Cabinetry Corporation||$39 million||2020 (source)|
|Audible||$39 million||2020 (source)|
|Wakerfern Food Corporation||$27 million||2020 (source)|
|The Portnow at Newark Broad Street||$90 million||2023 (source)|
And billions of dollars more…
The interactive graphic below visualizes an estimated 1.8 billion in tax breaks that the New Jersey Economic Development Agency handed out since 2007. Hover over individual dots to display the amount given for each project, and the percentage of project costs paid for with public funds. These are rarely direct and one-time cash payments from the state to the developer. Instead, they are tax breaks that reduce the developer’s tax bill over a period on average ten to twenty years.
For instance, Prudential received at least $210 in public funds to move their headquarters from Newark’s Gateway Center to Military Park. The move brought few permanent new jobs to Newark. The project instead shuffled office workers from an older building that Prudential rented to the current building Prudential owns tax free and rent free. Similarly, Amazon was promised upwards of seven billion dollars in tax breaks and public incentives to encourage them to move their second global headquarters to Newark. Mulberry Commons was advertised to Amazon as the prime real estate for them to build in Newark, with Edison again first in line to benefit from new construction.
This infographic is an estimate, not a statement of precise fact. The data is obtained from the New Jersey Economic Development Agency through my Open Public Records Act request. The data is unclear if certain payments to developers are one-time or recurring. So some figures above may be double counted because of lack of clarity in the New Jersey Economic Development Agency reports that are made public.
Based on historical trends, and the $120 million investment in a public park surrounded by Edison Parking’s land on all sides, we can assume Edison will receive multi-million (billion?) dollar tax breaks and tax credits to develop this land. The financing structure that allowed the companies in the above graph to obtain more than a billion dollars in tax write offs have not changed fundamentally changed since the program began. So, in addition to the $120 million in public funds already spent on Mulberry Commons, Edison will be eligible for and will receive further tax breaks. The proximity to Penn Station makes Edison Parking eligible for the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Program that gave Panasonic about $80 million.
The main justification for tax breaks is that: “If we do not offer them, then development will not happen.” This is argument is sometimes true, sometimes false. Thirty years ago, this argument was justified: Developers and outsiders were scared of Newark and needed to be rewarded with tax breaks to build here. In 2023, this argument holds less weight: Newark is already so attractive to development and investors that it is likely these developments would have happened anyway without tax breaks that total billions of dollars over the decades.
 The problem is not tax breaks. The problem is: Who gets them?
Tax breaks are an essential tool. Small developers and small business owners need them: for projects between 10 and 100 units. They have less in savings, and limited access to banks for loans. Historic buildings with expensive adaptive reuse need tax credits, too. The Hahne’s Building probably would not have been developed without tax credits, and nor would many other historic buildings that enrich the quality of our city’s neighborhoods. But tax breaks for Edison Parking, Panasonic (26 billion net worth in 2023), Prudential (35 billion valuation), Amazon (1.3 trillion valuation)? These companies own land worth billions of dollars, prime real estate in the world’s most expensive corners. Amazon pays little in taxes. The world’s wealthiest man Jeff Bezos paid no income taxes in 2007 and 2011. Why are we offering these companies more incentives to build in Newark?
Large corporations receive benefits not offered to smaller entities. Homeowners who renovate their properties do not receive tax breaks. Small developers creating infill housing, for example a 10-unit apartment building for middle income rent, do not receive tax breaks. Business owners who make improvements to storefront properties do not receive tax breaks. Only large properties apply for and receive tax incentives for adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Small owners of historic property do not receive these tax breaks. Big developers receive credits for building dozens of units of affordable housing. Small investors building or owning just a few units receive no such benefit.
Tax breaks for the very wealthy increase the cost of business for everyone else. When big players in Newark use public funds to pay for – in effect – 50 percent or more construction costs, then small players have trouble to compete. This approach inherently fosters monopolistic tendencies and undermines the core principles of fair play. It essentially amounts to corporate welfare disguised as a public benefit, with keywords like diversity and inclusion used to disguise the underlying lack of genuine diversity and deep exclusion perpetuated by these tax breaks. Incentives primarily serve to solidify the positions of larger players, further exacerbating the inequality that has plagued our city for decades and preventing new, more diverse players to emerge. To mitigate this imbalance, we must consider either extending these incentives to a wider range of entities or eliminating them altogether.
Tax breaks must be used as tool to even the playing field, not make it more uneven.
 How can we ensure equitable economic development in Downtown Newark? Six recommendations.
This project is a stub, an expensive skywalk from Penn Station to Mulberry Commons, a project whose form recalls some of the most egregious strategies of urban planning whereby skywalks were built all over major cities to segregate white collar workers from city sidewalks. We have plenty of examples in close proximity to the proposed Mulberry Commons bridge, and their detrimental effect on the streetscape in downtown Newark is evident. The new bridge will not meaningfully connect with Ironbound. On the east side, a narrow staircase descends some 50 feet elevation from Penn Station to parking lots, again owned by Edison Parking.
1. Expand the quality of public space: A further investment should continue this “High Line” Park on a gentle slope down to street level in the Ironbound. Ironbound residents would then be able to walk from their neighborhood to Downtown Newark on a path without cars, crosswalks, or stairs of any kind. This will require the park to cut through Edison Parking’s lot in the Ironbound, and for Edison Parking to commit more of its land to public benefit. Otherwise, Edison Parking can erect a skyscraper at this location, blocking easy access between the Ironbound and this park.
2. Public accountability through public meetings: The park stops at Edison Parking’s property line. They could build towers here, cut off from the rest of the city as pockets of luxury in a city of poverty. Or they could build affordable housing here, accessible to all in an open neighborhood. They could build another Gateway Center here: isolated from the city and turned inward with skywalks that allow people to work there without ever setting foot in Newark. Or they could build a new neighborhood here that is linked from all sides into the street network of other neighborhoods. Everything depends on our power, as the public, to ensure public accountability in city planning.
3. Set aggressive benchmarks that corporate recipients of state aid must meet. And if they do not meet them, they should be required to repay. In Mulberry Commons, public funds to build the park should have been match with signed legal “memorandums of understanding” with Edison Parking, promising to develop within X number of years.
4. Make accurate tax assessments based on land value, instead of property value: We need an accurate re-assessment of Edison Parking’s land values. These valuable acres must be reassessed at fair property tax value now that this massive infrastructure investment gives them direct connection to mass transit. Edison Parking should also be required to sign legal agreements promising to develop these lands within a set number of years, or risk penalties. The city could also revise its tax system to charge higher rates on vacant land than on developed land. By increasing the carrying costs of owning vacant land, land bankers have more trouble holding their empty land and therefore more incentive to develop it.
5. Move from a carrot model of economic development (tax credits) to a stick model of economic development (tax fines): We must evaluate the necessity of tax incentives for undeveloped lots in Downtown Newark. The current model pays land owners to develop: a carrot. A future model could fine landowners when they do not develop: a stick. In times of economic crisis when financing is difficult, we should consider tax incentives to developers to stimulate construction. In times of economic growth when financing is easy, we should consider tax penalties for land owners who choose not to develop.
6. Move tax incentives to prioritize new development that is not in downtown. Since the landowner is receiving a valuable public amenity in Mulberry Commons and Penn Station, further tax incentives are no longer warranted. Incentives for developing these lots are already apparent, thanks to their proximity to multi-modal transit and a sizable public park right at their doorstep. With or without tax incentives, corporations have reasons to build in Downtown Newark.
Can we agree that these existing incentives are sufficient to encourage development? Can we agree that further incentives are unnecessary? Can we also agree that any future tax incentives should be redirected towards areas of the city in greater need of development, where investors genuinely require persuasion? Can we also agree that future infrastructure improvements, like public parks with greenways and skywalks, should likewise be redirected to the criminally underdeveloped areas of the city?
7. This list is not complete.
The public has invested millions in Edison Parking and dozens of other downtown players. Now is the time for Edison Parking and corporations like it to give back to the city.
Everything beneath the sun… Edison Parking’s land highlighted in red
Context: The following personal essay accompanied my application for the Gupta Values Scholarship from the University of Michigan. I am sharing it here because it speaks more broadly to my background, education, activism, and research interests.
Entrance gate to the Old Essex County Jail
One out of every one hundred black men in my neighborhood of Newark, NJ is currently in prison. At least half have a permanent criminal record as formerly incarcerated people. Most charges are for drug use and possession, often marijuana records from when marijuana was illegal. My earliest memories of Newark are of the homeless walking down our street to the nearby food pantry and young men carrying boom boxes on their shoulders (this was before the iPod). I will always remember observing one woman as she passed our house each day. The first time I saw her, she had been recently evicted and dragged two suitcases behind her. With each passing week, the suitcases gradually grew lighter until – after several weeks – all she had left was a grocery bag of belongings, her dignity gradually stripped away. Up our street was the public housing project of Baxter Terrace – three-story red brick barracks where the urban poor lived under constant police surveillance. Most were unemployed and all were on public welfare.
I remember taking the train to school in the suburbs. In the span of only five miles, vacant lots and abandoned buildings in one of the nation’s poorest cities gave way to large homes on tree-lined streets in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs. The distance of five miles – or in some cases a single city street – was all that separated the poverty of my city from the wealth of its suburbs. At the city limits of Newark, a system of one-way roads, streets without sidewalks, and aggressive “neighborhood watch” signs separated the city from the suburb. On one block, apartment buildings, treeless streets, and bodegas that accepted food stamps. Just one block over, there were century-old trees and four-bedroom homes selling for up to a million dollars. Here in these suburbs, homeowners commuted to Downtown Newark each day and returned home each night, bringing home with them the wealth they made in the city. So little and yet so much separated these two worlds.
Martin Luther King described America in a 1968 speech he gave in Detroit: “There are literally two Americas. Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. [….] But there is another America. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.” So much and yet so little has changed since 1968. The racial wealth gap is almost the same today as it was in 1970. In Newark, median black family income is less than $30,000. In Newark suburbs, median family incomes are over $100,000.
If not for these early experiences, I would not be studying architecture and urban planning. My current work and dissertation research examine the carceral state as metaphor and asks: What actions in urban history produced the polarized, divided, and unequal urban landscape? Much blame lies with architects and urban planners, who worked with banks, realtors, and powerful institutions to profit from inequality. The Federal Housing Administration’s 1930s maps of Newark and hundreds of other cities singled out urban areas to deny investment and suburban areas to invest. Institutions require enablers, the realtors to assess the racial composition of neighborhoods, city planners to collect data, and mapmakers to visualize all this information that justified segregation in history.
However, my interest in redlining is more than academic. The implications of this research feel real. The audience for this work includes people I meet and see every day: neighbors down the street who were denied home mortgages because of their race; my own parents who would have been denied a mortgage (if not for the personal intervention of the bank’s CEO); Newark public school children learning about the history of their city; first generation college students at the local Rutgers University; and people like me who grew up with asthma and elevated blood-lead levels due to environmental conditions. Work in the urban humanities and digital humanities must be accessible to people outside the ivory tower of Ann Arbor, people who will live every day with the consequences of decisions handed down from urban planners and architects.
One of my current projects examines Newark’s old Essex County Jail, and the possible transformation of this site from abandoned prison into memorial park. Built 1836, it is the oldest public building in the city, a national monument within walking distance of my home, and a historic site abandoned since 1971. The history of this site challenges us to think of carceral spaces as something that stretches back hundreds of years. Incarceration is an evolving institution from slavery to Jim Crow to the present that has taken different forms at different times, in a constant act of reproducing itself. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1850 in the opening lines of The Scarlet Letter: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” As authors also write in The 1619 Project, slavery and incarceration were fundamental to the American project and to the origins of a city like Newark. The city was founded 1666 by Puritan settlers looking to build a utopian “city on a hill.” Upon Newark’s incorporation as a city, the jail was their first act as new city. Advocating for the preservation of this jail widens the stories we can tell and voices we can include in history. All buildings tell stories, and the built environments we preserve or destroy reflect the communities we think are worthy of preservation or destruction. Demolishing a building and neighborhood erases the stories these places can tell about the people who lived and struggled there. In my mind, architecture can and must be an activist practice.
When I started this project in 2018, I was excited to make this history visible. The site is entirely overgrown with trees and largely invisible from the street. To visit it and understand its importance required trespassing on public land and bringing people inside. With the rigorous tools of architectural documentation, I photographed in secret every corner of the site and drew up detailed site plans that will assist in its preservation. All these resources are shared online at the website I designed: OldEssexCountyJail.org. Based on this work, the local architecture school has conducted several studios that examine this site, as well as the first ever concrete plan and cost estimate of how much preservation will cost. Based on this website, my historical documentation, and on-site interviews with me and former inmates of this jail, Discovery Channel will be syndicating this fall a fifteen-minute documentary about this site to national and international audiences with translation into twenty languages for several million viewers.
Beyond incarceration, my larger challenge is to make scholarship accessible to the public. The boundaries around scholarship are intellectual (writing too complex for general audiences to understand), financial (academic writing locked behind pay walls), and spatial (academic spaces that do not feel physically welcoming to outsiders). My other projects from films, to videos, building construction sequences, interactive models, urban history maps, and my several websites all attempt – through research methods identical to the Essex County Jail – to reach audiences historically excluded from elite spaces. For instance, my ongoing collaboration with Rutgers University in Newark will result in a recurring history of Newark course, open for free for anyone outside the university to join. Students will be expected to produce works of public scholarship and narrative histories that examine the legacies of redlining and incarceration. Teaching students from the immediate community at their local university, and including in the classroom the physical presence of community activists, breaks down traditional barriers around scholarship. The course will be taught the first time in summer 2024 and will be funded by the Mellon Foundation, Clement Price Institute, and Chancellor’s office. Up to $150,000 is possibly forthcoming from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant I wrote for Rutgers as co-PI. Collectively, my work – none of which is published in traditional academic journals – has had over seven million viewers in the past four years and about one hundred thousand monthly readers. Visit: MylesZhang.org.
Every year, a few dozen high school students from Newark go on to attend Ivy League universities; occasionally, one or two become Rhodes Scholars. But it is rare for any of them to return to Newark. The city is a space to escape from, in search of wealthier spaces where home ownership is easier and schools are better. Social mobility means leaving behind the city and its ghettos to enter the American mainstream. But for me, the American city – in all its inequality, injustice, and poverty – is the foundation to reexamine our history and to rebuild a more equitable society. The evidence of inequality and the justification for reparations is all around me, from the city archives I visit, to the city street I live on, and to the people I speak with every day. I am proud of where I came from because Newark provides me a foundation and framework to challenge institutions. After completing my PhD at the University of Michigan, Newark is the place I will return to and call home.
Interior of the abandoned old Essex County Jail
Written by my father Zemin Zhang on December 2, 2007
“I love you darling’
“Baby, you know I do
“But I’ve got to see this Book of Love
“Find out why it’s true”
Every day in 1955, Charles Patrick, 17, and a group of teenagers came together to sing in the Baxter Terrace’s recreation hall. By 1958, they had sung their heart out and their song, “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” hit the country and even spread as far as Europe and Australia. “Oh, I wonder, wonder ohm ba doo who….. who wrote the book of love?” Charles never found the answer and two members of the Monotones, the Ryanes Brothers, died in their 30’s. Now that Baxter Terrance has been scheduled for demolition, I wonder if people could find some old and broken pages of the Book of Love from the rubble of this 66 year-old project.
Immediately after the establishment of the Newark Housing Authority (NHA) in 1938, word spread out that one of four “low-cost “ projects, a complex of 21 apartment buildings, would be in an area surrounded by Orange, Nesbitt, James, and Boyden Streets. Among 1,363 buildings in the vicinity, 45 percent residents were black, living in substandard condition, many even without bath tubs and toilets. (Only 10 percent of the city population was black.) To construct the largest public housing in the state, the Orange-Nesbitt project needed to clear a few hundred buildings, while the other three (Pennington Court, Seth Boyden Court, and Stephen Crane Village) would be built on mostly vacant land. All land negotiations with lucrative commissions were assigned to three white agents, despite of the protest of Harold Lett, the only black NHA member.
By June 1939, 21 white land owners still held out their properties. After condemnation procedures, a lone grocer-butcher Mr. Romano took the case of his four properties to the state court. He put up placards against the NHA, “This Is a Free Country….” One afternoon, his plump wife, in a gingham dress, apron and cap, waved her meat clever to chase out the government agent who had come to serve the condemnation notice. “This is no dictatorship, Hitlerism or Soviet government where they chain you and send you to Siberia,” cried Mrs. Romano. However, the couple were subsequently sent to jail and fined. Next March, the court rejected the couple’s constitutionality challenge and settled the case with an offer of $25,000, far from the $75,000 they asked for. Meanwhile, all surrounding streets were widened, in consideration of the traffic during the project’s estimated life of 60 years. After $2,269,088 were awarded to contractors, the construction moved quickly towards completion in 18 months.
On June 7, 1941, the project was officially opened, named after James Baxter, who died in 1909 after serving 45 years in the city’s school. Ironically, although the old Baxter fought all his life for a desegregated school system, his name was chosen only to settle the housing dispute to make the project for black residents only. At the time, among 44,000 black residents, 18,900 were on “relief load,” 41 percent of the total poor in the city. Those blacks, who were removed from the area but failed to get back in, had to settle in far worse housing because of the limited rental availability for blacks. Among the 621 lucky black families, the income limit (i.e., $17 weekly for two and $22 for six) was intentionally set very low with constant strong pressure from the Newark Real Estate Board, among other “real estate lobbies.” The nationwide racial as well as the economic segregation were designed to doom the future of public housing from its very beginning. By 1951 when Louis Danzig, the talented and dedicated NHA director for 21 years, pushed for housing desegregation, the city’s white population had been in its rapid decline. As a result, political support for public housing further eroded.
The Baxter Terrace area was always in one of the most notorious locations. In September 1939 before the project’s construction, the city had to pump 30,000,000 cubic feet of odorless and colorless cyanide gas into the whole block, leading to 500,000 rodent casualties. The problem, however, never ended. For instance, in a February 1970 Newark Evening News report, residents complained that rats were running wildly. “They are so big that kids are not aware of what they are, but play with them in the court yard,” observed one resident. The hallways of the buildings were filled with “foul” odors because of dead rats.
From the beginning, various crimes were reported. For instance, in July 1945, Rochai Sanders, a girl of five and half who had just enrolled in the Burnet Street School, was raped and killed. Her charred body was found in a waste paper incinerator in the basement. The case was never solved. Two years later, the battered body of Mrs. Evelyn Eltoohey (24) was found under walls splattered with blood, while her two year old daughter was sleeping in the room during the day. In February 1954, four armed bandits locked three housing employees in a closet and ran away with $1,500 rent money. In April 1957, a 13-year-old girl was raped by six boys from ages 14 to 16 in the basement. In the 1960’s, robberies became more often and purse snatchings happened repeatedly near Summit Street. By the 1990’s, after the Federal government declared its “War against Drugs,” the area along Orange Street and Interstate 280 became one of the nation’s busiest drug traffic centers. The 1940’s and 1950’s were by then the “good old days.” The police helicopter’s search light and gun shots disturbing the quiet night were a regular feature for Baxter Terrace residents. Even the news media lost interest in the daily violence. During the last a few years under Sharpe James, the area was constantly sealed by police cars and mobile stations to create a concentration camp for those whose only crime was to be born poor.
The innocent residents of generations were hostages to the moralist drug “war” and casualties of various policy failures. While millions of African-American men were pushed in and out of jails, women and children often suffered as well. Two years ago, Cynthia McFadden of ABC News reported a case of 8-year-old Armani Stevenson. When she was only 10 months old, Armani was left on the doorstep of her 85-year-old great-great-grandmother’s home at the Baxter Terrace. The old lady, Okella Foster, was raising five boys and girls at the time. Over the past five decades, she raised a dozen of her family’s abandoned children. When Armani first arrived, raw and open sores were all over her lower body. By eight, she had willed herself to silence, hardly speaking a word outside her home. Psychologists name the condition selective mutism, as an extreme form of control for a traumatized child who cannot control any other things in her life.
My first encounter with the project was in the early 1990’s after finding my home on James Street. Together with some neighbors, I attended a City Council meeting to protest a plan to open an auto junk yard on Orange Street within the James Street Historic District. Happily, I found a large group of mostly women, three times more than my “progressive” neighbors, had already been in the room to protest the same ill-planned business. Some more experienced neighbors, however, were disturbed, “Don’t approach them,” they told me. “Why?” I was puzzled. “They are from the Baxter Terrace.” “What is the Baxter Terrace? Don’t we share the same goal of defeating the junkyard?” I asked. For years, I hardly stepped foot in the dangerous area while getting to know a few decent people there.
Last year, my children’s two bicycles were stolen in front of Intrinsic Café on Sussex Street. My homeless friend Joe volunteered to take me to the Baxter Terrace to look for the loss. In the middle of the courtyard, a child was happily riding my daughter’s bike while a group of men were watching from the doorsteps. “Hey, Joe, f**k you. What are you up to, with that man?” “Hey, f**k YOU,” Joe replied. I left without my bicycles, but with a burdened conscience for my arrogance and indifference. However, my “recklessness” of breaking the taboo for entering the war zone had deeply bothered some neighbors on my own street. Even in this largest city of the most segregated state in the nation, life has been further segregated, creating visible and invisible prisons for everybody.
In my 17 years in the city, I have witnessed a number of ”triumphant” implosions of public housing buildings, including Columbus Homes, Scudder Homes, and Hayes Homes. After next summer, the city will again schedule another demolition, this time for the Baxter Terrace. Kaderia Boykin, a 26-year-old Baxter Terrace mother reportedly said, “Tear it down today. Move me now.” This time, the enduring people of Newark have to go through the experience very differently and mindfully. This is our city, our city planning, our lives, and our souls. Flying all flags at half-mast, ringing the bells of Saint Patrick and Sacred Heart Cathedrals, and playing taps along Orange Street, we will mourn the loss of 67years and generations of lives. Good-bye, Baxter Terrace, birthplace of the Book of Love, but having seen little of it itself.
This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.
Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?
1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0
2. Social Explorer. https://www.socialexplorer.com/
Performing winter 2022 at The Shed in Hudson Yards is Straight Line Crazy, a two-act play about Robert Moses. He was New York City’s leading planner from the 1930s through 1960s, responsible for 35 highways, 12 bridges, 658 playgrounds and over 2 million acres of parks. Since the publication of Robert Moses’s 1974 biography The Power Broker by Robert Caro, Moses has been variously remembered for the thousands of projects he completed, admired for those public parks that brought communities together, hated for his proposal to carve an expressway through Lower Manhattan, and despised for those infrastructure projects that divided non-White communities.
Act one builds up Robert Moses as the Oxford-Columbia educated planner but with slight populist tendencies in his construction of Jones Beach and hundreds of playgrounds. This script for public consumption is of course incomplete without the mandatory repetition – originating from The Power Broker – that bridges over the access roads to public beaches were too short for buses of Black people to pass under.
Act two takes down Moses by trotting through the usual history with mentions of the 1960s Cross Bronx Expressway. Out of 250,000 people displaced citywide for “slum clearance” and “urban renewal” projects, that highway alone displaced some 40,000 people – mostly tenements of working-class immigrants. In the final scene, a young Black architect employed in Moses’s office repeats James Baldwin’s 1963 claim that “urban renewal means … Negro removal” and confronts Moses saying that her family and everyone she knows was displaced for the Cross Bronx.
Animation of the path of the Cross Bronx Expressway before and after
That a city planner should be the subject of an off-Broadway play speaks to the enduring power of Robert Moses in the public imagination. Robert Moses succeeded in a profession now weighed down by paperwork and bureaucracy. In his complete vision of a city and ability to execute projects in face of the odds, Robert Moses represents the total power many planners and architects today secretly – or not so secretly – wished they had. Like him or hate him, we cannot seem to forget him.
Since the 1960s civil rights movement, the public judgement on Robert Moses has become clear. The public is now deeply and rightly skeptical of designing cities around cars, highways, and public housing towers. For me to say I am theoretically from “The Projects” immediately brings to the public’s mind images of poor Black and non-White neighbors confined to decaying brick towers set in barren landscapes of poverty and incarceration. Under Robert Moses, New York City completed upwards of 100,000 units of public housing set in near identical towers.
In the play’s closing minutes, activist urbanist Jane Jacobs turns to the audience and announces: “Robert Moses’s plans to demolish Greenwich Village were stopped. But visit that neighborhood today and you will see gentrification has exiled from the community the very artists and small businesses that had fought to save their homes. We activists succeeded, but not in the way we had hoped.”
Stepping out from The Shed after the play, the towers and shopping malls of Hudson Yards surrounded me, acres of glass and luxury shops for handbags, watches, and clothes with not a bodega or homeless person in sight. Hudson Yards is, after all, publicly accessible but privately owned public space. Who can and cannot use it depends on the whims of Vornado, the company that owns the complex. A project like Hudson Yards – and the thousands of soulless skyscrapers like it that now appear in Manhattan and every major world city – is a direct product of the 1960s resistance to Robert Moses that began on the human-scale streets of the Greenwich Village.
If government is the problem and Robert Moses the racial symbol of what happens when government goes too far, then government cannot be counted on and cannot be trusted to provide the solutions for our time. Affordable housing, healthcare, internet, water, parks, even prisons, all these services and more are now provided by private markets. Affordable housing policies, too, require that new developers of luxury units set aside a fraction as affordable housing. In the trickle-down philosophy that “a rising tides lifts all boats,” the construction of affordable housing hinges on the success of luxury housing. To propose that only the state should be empowered to provide these services is – to follow the logic of Fox, CNN, and similar mainstream commentators – Socialism.
In his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan summed up the new political philosophy he planned for the nation: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. [….] The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.”
Yet, for Reagan to condemn the likes of Robert Moses as “an elite group,” society has come to rely on a new set of masters in private markets and private equity – un-elected forces more powerful than Robert Moses. Global charities shuddered when Bill and Melinda Gates divorced, for fear that their divorce would spell the end of their non-profit that donates billions to charity. The mainstream media shuddered again when Elon Musk bought Twitter, for fear that new ownership would empower conservatives, Donald Trump, and liberals alike to spread misinformation. The retreat of government from public life mirrors growing income inequality, a worsening climate crisis, rising cost of living, and critical infrastructure projects that can never quite seem to get off the ground.
Planners, politicians, and activists now comfort themselves in the belief that we have “learned from history.” In an attempt to reconnect communities, efforts in Detroit, Seattle, Rochester, Boston, and across the country are demolishing the very highway projects from the likes of Robert Moses that once divided communities. Progress has been slow and funding hard to unlock in an age of austerity. In abandoning the philosophy of Robert Moses, we have also abandoned the very tools of government through which to keep people like Robert Moses in check. This is the key problem with modern liberalism, particularly the variety endemic to liberal college campuses and the State of California: It condemns public housing projects and state-driven urban renewal projects; it also condemns gentrification and private control of public space, public water, and public goods. And yet, the solution to corporate gentrification is an aggressive set of government polices that defends and builds more public housing. We need modern day policies to stitch communities back together that are as powerful and as aggressive as those policies that divided them.
The lesson to learn from Robert Moses is not that he was a bad planner, a “racist,” or a car enthusiast. The lesson to learn is that there will be inevitable power asymmetries in society, but that we have the power to choose our masters. In the end, Robert Moses was pushed out of power in 1968 by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; the political winds had changed and with it the power brokers. In the end, Robert Moses died in 1981 with only $50,000 in assets to his name; Reagan had just been elected president, and Trump Tower was under construction. Six years later, Donald Trump would write in The Art of the Deal where, among many topics and real estate advice, he described his power to serve the public good through private enterprise. As Robert Moses rebuilt Central Park’s dozens of playgrounds and public spaces in the 1930s, Trump would rebuild the park’s Wollman Rink in the 1980s as publicly subsidized but privately owned “public” space. Trump assessed his work and the “public” spaces he created with taxpayer subsidies: “It was a simple, accessible drama about the contrast between governmental incompetence and the power of effective private enterprise. [….] During most of the construction, the city stayed out of our way – in large part because I instructed my men to keep park officials off the site. When they did try to interfere, it inevitably turned into disaster.” (link) The reach of today’s corporate power brokers in un-elected office is more powerful than Robert Moses ever was, and the public’s mechanisms to control them remains unclear. Nothing less than the future of democracy is in the balance.