California Waterscape

California Waterscape animates the development of this state’s water delivery infrastructure from 1913 to 2019, using geo-referenced aqueduct route data, land use maps, and statistics on reservoir capacity. The resulting film presents a series of “cartographic snapshots” of every year since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. This process visualizes the rapid growth of this state’s population, cities, agriculture, and water needs.


Music: Panning the Sands by Patrick O’Hearn

Text from animation is copied below:


Each blue dot is one dam, sized for the amount of water it captures. Each blue line is one canal or aqueduct. These infrastructure features become visible as they near completion.


The challenge: to capture and transport water to where water is needed hundreds of miles away. To grow food where there was once desert.


Notice the sudden growth spurt in construction during the 1930s Great Depression… And again during the 1950s through 1970s.


The longest aqueducts that run from mountainous areas to the cities mostly deliver drinking water. The shorter aqueducts in the Central Valley mostly bring water to farms.


Here we see dams in the Sierra Nevada Mountains gradually come on line. Many prevent flooding. Or they seize winter snow and rain for when this water is needed in summer.


Since the 1970s, construction slows down, but population continues growing.


In 2010, about six hundred fifty dams and four thousand five hundred miles of major aqueducts and canals store and move over 38 billion gallons per day. This is the most complex and expensive system ever built to conquer water.


But, how will man’s system cope with climate change?



2. Research Methodology and Sources

The most important data sources consulted and integrated into this animation are listed here with links:

– Fire Resource and Assessment Program → Land use and urban development maps
(a pdf file imported as transparent raster into QGIS)
– California Department of Water Resources → Routes of aqueducts and canals
– Bureau of Transportation Statistics → Dam and reservoir data
(csv with lat-long values)
– USGS Topo Viewer → Historic aqueduct route and land use maps
– U.S. Census Bureau → Estimated California population by year

Consult the research methodology and bibliography for complete details.


Spotted an error or area for improvement? Please email: [email protected]
Download and edit the open source dataset behind this animation.
Click this Google Drive link and “request access” to QGIS shapefile.

3. Source Data on Dams and Reservoirs

^ Created with open data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and visualized in Tableau Public. This map includes all dams in California that are “50 feet or more in height, or with a normal storage capacity of 5,000 acre-feet or more, or with a maximum storage capacity of 25,000 acre-feet or more.” Dams are geo-referenced and sized according to their storage capacity in acre-feet. One acre-foot is the amount required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot (equal to 325,851 gallons or 1.233 ● 10liters). This is the unit of measurement California uses to estimate water availability and use.



4. Source Data on Aqueducts and Canals

^ Created with open data from the California Department of Water Resources, with additional water features manually added in QGIS and visualized in Tableau Public. All data on routes, lengths, and years completed is an estimate. This map includes all the major water infrastructure features; it is not comprehensive of all features. This map excludes the following categories of aqueducts and canals:


  • Features built and managed by individual farmers and which extend for a length of only a few hundred feet. These features are too small and too numerous to map out for the entire state and to animate by their date completed. This level of information does not exist or is too difficult to locate.
  • Features built but later abandoned or demolished. This includes no longer extant aqueducts built by Spanish colonists, early American settlers, etc.
  • Features created by deepening, widening, or otherwise expanding the path of an existing and naturally flowing waterway. Many California rivers and streams were dredged and widened to become canals, and many more rivers turned “canals” remain unlined along their path. Determining the “date completed” or “date built” for these semi-natural features is therefore difficult. So, for the purposes of simplicity and to aid viewers in seeing only manmade water features in the animation, this category is generally excluded.




Those seeking to share this project to their website or organization are requested to contact the author before publication. We will gladly share all source files associated with this animation, provided recipients use this information for non-commercial purposes. Pre-production and data editing were conducted with QGIS and Tableau. Visualization and animation were conducted Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. For this project, we worked from a mid-2014 MacBook Air with 4GB RAM.

Manufacturing the Picturesque at Central Park

Figure 1. Map of Central Park in 1873


Central Park is not only the major recreational facility of Manhattan but also the record of its progress: a taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature. Like the [Manhattan] Grid, it is a colossal leap of faith; the contrast it describes – between the built and the unbuilt – hardly exists at the time of its creation.

– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York 1


Koolhaas lays out one of the challenges core to Central Park’s construction: the tension between natural and manmade, urban and rural. What sets this park apart from most other parks is its yearning to seemingly become something that it clearly is not: natural. Many other pocket parks in this city incorporate existing topography and trees into their design – yet they are smaller. And from the confines of their interior, the sights and sounds of the city are hard to escape. Central Park succeeds in permitting its visitor to make-believe, at least momentarily, that they have left the city and are immersed in the countryside. The original park contained, for instance, a sheep pasture and barn, a nature preserve called “The Ramble,” and a dairy for urban mothers to buy fresh milk.

The scale of Central Park and the engineering that went into its creation is not unprecedented – architects and engineers have completed far larger infrastructure projects. The New York City watershed, for instance, catches all the rainfall within a 2,000 square mile area, stores this water in 19 reservoirs, and then transports this water up to 200 miles in underground pipes that serve nine million people.2 Central Park, by comparison, was built by some of the same people but is a mere three-square-miles of “improved” wilderness. However, what is surprising is the degree to which Central Park’s landscape features seem natural, as if land speculators and developers had chanced upon the park and left it as untouched as they had found it, except framed on four sides by the city grid (figure 5). So successful is this intervention that there is often the popular misconception that it is natural. This Huffington Post article, for instance: “I know that it may come as a shock to some, but New York’s Central Park is not an act of God. It might seem that way, especially in the woodlands, which appear so authentically, well, natural.”3


Figure 2. Earthworks projects in 1858, most likely in the vicinity of 72nd Street


In the 1857 text entitled “The Plan for the Park,” the project’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (b.1822-d.1903), writes that it “seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky scenery as little as possible, and, on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects.”4 Olmsted’s claim is a good place to start because it expresses a paradox central to the design. Olmsted’s project “interferes” with the landscape “as little as possible” simultaneously with large-scale efforts to move soil, blast rock, and plant trees that employed – at the height of work – some 4,000 men.5 Rem Koolhaas interprets this quote from Olmsted as follows: “If Central Park can be read as an operation of preservation, it is, even more, a series of manipulations and transformations performed on the nature ‘saved’ by its designers.”6

How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies in Central Park – natural vs. manmade – when almost all manmade features are disguised as natural? I propose that we can better understand the park by dispensing with the pretense that it is in any way natural.

Central Park presents an unusually refined interpretation of nature. Of the approximately 20,000 trees of 175 species, solidly 60% are non-native to New York.7 Of the seven lakes contained within the park, none are natural to the terrain and are mostly the result of damning existing streams. Of the paths, trails, and roads winding through the park – with curves to match the contours of hills and valleys – none are original, nor do they correspond to pre-development dirt roads and Lenape Indian trails.8


Figure 3. Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1857 drawing of the park before and after the planned “improvements”


Before work began in 1857, the pre-development topography was insufficient for use as a public park. The Manhattan grid – comprising some 2,000 plus city blocks each measuring exactly 200 feet wide – implies a flat terrain and originally made no accommodations for interfering rivers, hills, or marshes. Looking at a street map of the island, one might be surprised to learn that the terrain rises and falls the length of the island from zero feet at sea level to ~250 feet at its highest peak (figures 4 and 16).9 The name “Manhattan” is a Lenape Indian word that means “Island of Many Hills.”10 Yet, despite the variety of sites planners could have chosen from, the park’s rectangular boundaries were not determined by the availability of topographic features appropriate for a park.


Figure 4. “British Headquarters’ Map” of Manhattan Island from ~1789. Only the shaded pink section at top of island is developed at city density. The rest consists of rolling hills, forest, and farmland that inspired Henry Hudson, the first European who “discovered” the island in 1609, to remark that: “The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon.”11


Instead of topography, three main factors determined the location: One, planners needed to choose a site close to the expanding city yet far enough away that the land could be acquired cheaply and without displacing large numbers of residents. Two, the city’s population had grown 160% in the twenty years from 1840 to 1860,12 and the city’s existing Croton reservoir (then located in the exact center of the proposed park) was insufficient. The city needed a new reservoir; the most convenient location on the island for this reservoir was next to the existing (on the land shown in figures 6 and 7).13 The otherwise purely practical infrastructure of water supply could thus become a landscape feature occupying about 20% of the park’s surface area.14 Three, the city planned to offset the approximately five-million-dollar price tag of land acquisition and construction through corresponding increases in the taxable property values of land adjacent the park. The architects also went so far as to suggest “a toll of three cents on visitors coming on foot, and six cents for all others” collected on visitors to fund park maintenance and offset construction costs. (This was never implemented.)15 Olmsted also writes:

Land immediately about the Park, the frontage on it being seven miles in length, instead of taking the course anticipated by those opposed to the policy of the Commission, has advanced in value at the rate of two hundred per cent per annum…. It is universally admitted, however, that the cost, including that of the original off-hand common sense blunders, has been long since much more than compensated by the additional capital drawn to the city through the influence of the Park.16

The park’s location might be strengthened by the simple fact that a linear or smaller park along the waterfront would have fewer miles of frontage of taxable properties adjacent to the park. For instance, locating just one side Central Park along the Hudson and East River (instead of the island’s center) would result in 2.5 miles less of abutting properties. Within the following decades, the properties in the Upper East and Upper West Side that overlook the park became (and remain) among the most expensive in the city. This method of development – sacrificing a fraction of the land for park use so as to increase the monetary value of the adjoining lands – was common in New York City (e.g., Gramercy Park) and particularly in London’s fashionable west end neighborhoods.17 What makes Central Park different, though, is the unprecedented scale of this investment to boost civic pride and to increase property taxes.


Figure 5. A c.1836 engraved map of mid-Manhattan with the outline of the future park drawn in orange ink c.1858. The incongruity between the park’s outline and the topography is also illustrated by the fact that the park’s northern boundary (originally at 106th street) would require blasting through a one hundred foot high solid-rock mountain to make way for the perimeter street.


Given these priorities – real estate and infrastructure interests over aesthetics – the choice of location was not ideal (figure 5). The rough terrain was mostly barren of trees and was a mosquito-laden wetland. (More readily converted terrain was originally proposed along the East River in the vicinity of Roosevelt University.) Before beginning the architect’s work of planting trees and building scenic garden features, the first major task was to prepare the land and make it suitable for public use. To that effect, Olmsted contracted the engineer (and later military coronel) George E. Waring to drain the swamp. Waring directed 400 men to construct some 105,000 linear feet (32 kilometers) of drainpipes over two years (figure 8).18 His military-style approach toward clearing the park followed him into later life when he became New York City’s sanitation commissioner. As commissioner, he required all his street cleaners to wear white pith helmets (identical to those worn by European colonists in Africa) and then declared the war on filth. Given his interest in sanitation and dislike of dirt, his answer to the park commissioners’ question is revealing:19


Commission’s Question: “To what degree shall the park be drained?”
Waring’s Answer: “Totally.”
Q: “By what form of drains?”
A: “Earthenware, of varying calibers.”
Q: “At what depth?”
A: “Three feet in open glades, four feet in forested areas.”
Q: “For best economy, by contract or days’ work?”
A: By days’ work because of the endlessly varied conditions requiring uncommon on-site super vision.”


Figure 6. Buried Pipes in Connection with the New Reservoir, c.1862


Figure 7. General View of N. Reservoir from 102nd St. October 23, 1862. All the land visible here is now buried beneath the reservoir.


Another requirement asked of the planners was to incorporate a new reservoir into the park (figures 6-7 show terrain beneath reservoir). The existing stone reservoir and Croton Aqueduct, completed 1842, were no longer sufficient despite Walt Whitman’s claim that: “Ages after ages these Croton works will last, for they are most substantial than the old Roman aqueducts.”20 To augment the Croton’s capacity, the new reservoirs combined covered approximately 20% of the park’s surface area over terrain that otherwise would have become parkland. Before Olmsted had even submitted his plan in 1857, the engineer Egbert L. Viele, who had been surveying the parkland since 1853,21 had decided on placing this reservoir on a natural depression in the land, to be augmented by an earthen embankment around the perimeter. Olmsted’s final proposal follows the contours of Viele’s proposed reservoir exactly.


Figure 8. Map of drainage system on lower part of the Central Park as far as completed up to 31 December 1858. 59th Street is at left, 5th Avenue is at bottom, and 8th Avenue (i.e. Central Park West) is at top. This map only illustrates the paths of future carriage roads within the park – the thick white lines that wind through the landscape. Red lines indicate the paths of buried clay pipes that drain water from the marshy soil – and continue to do so today. Shaded gray areas correspond to areas to be raised with dirt fill. The shaded blotches are for preserved boulders protruding above ground. The slightly off-kilter rectangle in center is for the area drained to create the Central Park Mall – the only geometrically symmetrical part of the park design.


Although the park was extensively surveyed and re-landscaped there was, nonetheless, an attempt to appear rustic and unkempt. The architect, Calvert Vaux, blanketed the park in little pavilions and bridges made from unpolished and rustic wood with bark still on the beams – perhaps a 19th century re-reading of the primitive hut.22 The passage from the southern to the northern reaches of the park was also a parable in the march of civilization and progress. By this time, the city was advancing northward up the island from its historic center in Lower Manhattan. Within forty years, the island would be completely built-up. With this recognition of urban sprawl, Olmsted possibly named the park’s 18 entrances to reflect the city’s movement. In order from south to north, the names are as follows: Artisan’s Gate, Merchant’s Gate, Scholar’s Gate, Woman’s Gate, Inventor’s Gate, Miner’s Gate, Mariner’s Gate, Engineer’s Gate, Gate of All Saints, Woodman’s Gate, Boy’s Gate, Girl’s Gate, Stranger’s Gate, Warrior’s Gate, Farmer’s Gate and Pioneer’s Gate. This list almost reads as a list of social classes in increasing order of proximity to raw nature.23 The design features also evolve over distance. The southern reaches (also the busiest section due to its proximity to the city center) was built first and included more pruned botanic features, rectangular parterres of trees, and the proposed flower garden. The northern reaches (also surrounded mostly by farmland at this time) were intentionally more heavily forested, had fewer of the signature covered bridges, retained the park’s largest rock escarpment, and for the first few decades of its life contained no statues, monuments, or plaques commemorating important people. By contrast, about two dozen monuments to Western Civilization’s great cultural and political leaders were all concentrated in the south: William Shakespeare (1872), Thomas Moore (1879), Alexander Hamilton (1880), Beethoven (1884), Columbus (1894), etc.24


Figure 9. The extent of northward marching urban development by 1857 with the outlines of the park traced above. Notice how large the park is relative to the city’s surface area, and how the city becomes rural traveling north. View this animation online.


At this stage, we might arrive at a better understanding by shifting the descriptive language used. Perhaps we should describe the park not in terms of nature or landscape – given that considerations of the natural were not foremost in the design. Perhaps we might do better to describe in terms of infrastructure, engineering, movement, and social class. Indeed, one of the strengths of Olmsted’s proposal – and one of the reasons he won out of the 33 designs submitted – was his decision to separate the park by four different classes and speeds of movement (figures 10 and 11), each of which corresponded to a width of road and minimum permitted turning radius (color-coded in figure 12).25 This detailed plan for road separation and drainage were finished before the architects had even begun working on planting diagrams or selecting which species of trees would make for the most varied landscape composition. One, because of the park’s length, size, and location, there would be many vehicles passing through the park, not for leisure, but simply to pass from one side of the park to the other as fast as possible. For these vehicles, the engineers planned four buried transverse roads with entirely separate right-of-way. These straight and wide roads at no point intersected other types of traffic. Two, the next highest speed of road was for slightly slower carriage traffic within the park. While the relatively straight transverse roads were for practical through-traffic, the carriage roads were for leisure. Three, the next highest speed consisted of a narrower and more curving path than the carriage roads, this one for horseback riders. Horseback riding was a popular leisure and sporting activity – these roads are now largely used for joggers who move faster than pedestrians but slower than vehicles. And four, the most ubiquitous road type of all consisted of mostly unpaved gravel paths for public use on foot only. With the help of bridges and tunnels (figure 11), at no point did these various systems of conveyance intersect, leading Olmsted to claim: “By this means it was made possible, even for the most timid and nervous, to go on foot to any district of the Park designed to be visited, without crossing a line of wheels on the same level, and consequently, without occasion for anxiety and hesitation.”26


Figure 10. Author’s diagram of road types


Figure 11. 1862 cross-section of transverse road. Notice how the trees above the road are purposely drawn so small, as if to exaggerate the tunnel’s monumentality.


WALK          RIDE          DRIVE          TRANSVERSE

Figure 12.


Incidentally, these different paths would have also corresponded to different social classes. The wealthiest individuals – those who could afford a carriage, horse, and driver – would implicitly have exclusive use of the carriage roads, while horseback riders had their separate right of way, and service vehicles were segregated below grade. Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rozenzweig write: “In the decade after the opening, more than half of those visiting the park arrived in carriages (which less than 5 percent of the city’s population could afford to ow, and each day there were elaborate carriage parades in the late afternoon.”27 Yet, disproportionate design consideration and park surface area seems to be given to this minority of users on carriage and horse.






















Figure 15. Map of middle section of park between 79th Street and 97th street transverse roads, the empty area at lower left hand corner is the future site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The blue road corresponds to the horseback trail, now jogging path. After passing through manmade forests, valleys, and tunnels starting at the 59th Street entrance, horseback riders’ park experience culminated as they circled this manmade reservoir.


These maps of the park – color coded by road type – can help us begin to unravel the to degree to which the current landscape is manmade. At first glance, the smooth passage of roads and their organic contours may seem effortless, as if they were laid out along existing roads with regards to existing topography. But, by separating the different grades of traffic by color (figure 14) and upon closer examination there is a complex and extensive hidden infrastructure beneath these natural appearances (figure 13).


Figure 16. 1811 Commissioners’ Plan


These maps also reveal a park that is not separate from or opposite to the city, but rather a continuation of the city. A glance at a map of Manhattan reveals two seemingly different philosophies of urbanism, as imprinted through the laying of road networks. Most of the island is covered in the orthogonal 1811 grid (figure 16). This grid gives no consideration to topography, nature, or aesthetics. And then, there is the three square mile area of Central Park with winding and seemingly organic roads. The absence of symmetry and straight lines might lead one to conclude that the park reflects an attempt to harmonize with nature. Existing popular literature commonly situates this park as a reaction to the grid’s perceived faults and excesses.28 Upon closer examination, this park’s near obsessive attention to detail, its concern with segregated movement, and its reliance on complex (but hidden) infrastructure reveals it to be a continuation of the 1811 grid’s interest in real estate, property values, and engineering, rather than a prosaic and romantic reaction to excess urban growth. This infrastructure is also wrapped up in a coded message about the progress of civilization. The passage from cultivated south to rugged north can read as a condensed representation of the passage from the center of civilization to its undeveloped edges. One should also keep in mind that simultaneous to the construction of Central Park, engineers and developers were at work on the other side of the country clearing the American West for development. Within the following decades, the extent of farmed land would creep westwards on former Indian soil, generally following the paths of railroads toward California. Does the design of Central Park mirror 1860s American society’s belief in the civilizing power of science and technology to tame the wilderness? Additionally, is Central Park’s design just a matter-of-fact effort to boost the city’s tax revenues, with no moral agenda intentionally encoded in the park design? Such questions might be impossible to answer, given the lack of conclusive evidence.

But, now is the time to return to the question we started with: How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies – natural vs. manmade? I posit that by describing Central Park in the language of infrastructure and real estate – instead of nature and aesthetics – we can arrive at a more accurate assessment of the park’s origins, objectives, and construction process. Seemingly, the only way to adapt this ill-suited site toward a park that fulfilled the 19th century definition of the picturesque was through public works that, upon their completion, effaced almost all traces of the people, trees, and landscape that existed before. While at work, Olmsted made this prediction on the future of Manhattan Island:29


The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied rock formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park.


The park is an architectural contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, its rock formations, hills, and valleys look to a pre-developed and rugged Manhattan in the public imagination, a landscape more fictive than real. Olmsted thought it appropriate to leave the northern reaches of the park as wooded as possible with a c.1812 fortress left standing atop a mountain as a sort of picturesque ruin in the style of English garden follies. On the other hand, the park’s very presence is a testament to the power of real estate interests, engineers, and the water supply board in shaping the city. This contradiction underlies the landscape features now almost universally praised for their vision, beauty, and harmony.




To read or circulate this paper in print copy, please download as a PDF at this link.
To view where each image in this essay was found, click on image and link to source will load.

  1. Rem Koolhaas, “Prehistory,” in Delirious New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994), p.21.
  2. Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al., “Water Supply,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p.1381-86.
  3. Charles A. Birnbaum, “The Big Task of Managing Nature at New York’s Central Park,” The Huffington Post, 12 September 2012, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  4. Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar (editors), “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p.279. This anthology of urban history assembles various primary sources from across NYC history into a single book.
  5. Ibid., “Central Park,” p.222-24.
  6. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, p.23.
  7. Robert Demcker, “Central Park Plant List and Map Index of 1873,” published by the Frederick Law Olmsted Association and The Central Park Community Fund, 1979.
  8. Concluded from comparing maps of the park pre and post construction.
  9. Hilary Ballon, “Introduction,” in The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p.13-15.
  10. Eric Sanderson et al., The Welikia Project, (retrieved 15 May 2019). – Sanderson authored the most detailed description of Manhattan’s pre-development topography.
  11. “Early Descriptions of New Netherland,” New Netherland Institute: Exploring America’s Dutch Heritage, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  12. “NYC Total and Foreign-born Population 1790 – 2000,” NYC Planning Department, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  13. “The Croton System,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, p.1382.
  14. The old rectangular shaped Croton Reservoir covered 8% of the park’s area. The new reservoir covered about 12%. Values calculated by author using Google MyMaps.
  15. Olmsted, Frederick Law and American Social Science Association, Public Parks And the Enlargement of Towns: Read Before the American Social Science Association At the Lowell Institute, Boston, Feb. 25, 1870, (Cambridge: Printed for the American Social Science Association, at the Riverside Press, 1870), p.35. (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  16. Ibid., p.35.
  17. Jon Campbell and Christopher Robbins, “The Origin Story Of Gramercy Park Is A Classic NYC Tale Of Real Estate Hucksterism, Cronyism, And Gate Crashing,” The Gothamist, 28 June 2018, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  18. Morrison H Heckscher, “Creating Central Park,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 65, no. 3 (2008): p.40, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ironically, a mere 94 years after opening, the old Croton reservoir, deemed inadequate, was drained and filled with debris from subway excavations.
  21. “Creating Central Park,” p.18.
  22. Patricia Heintzelman for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Central Park Nomination Form for NRHP, 1966, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  23. To my knowledge, the claim that Olmsted named the gates in 1862 to mirror the transition from civilization to nature has never been made before. However, Olmsted clearly describes his intentions in writing for the landscape to move from smooth to rough during the journey north; so it follows for the naming conventions to reflect this shift.
  24. Wikipedia assembles lists of monuments, parks, streets, etc. organized as metadata with lat-long coordinates. Plotting these coordinates on a map and eliminating recently added monuments reveals a clear spatial concentration of artwork and sculpture in the south. (retrieved 16 May 2019). Identical list also found from NYC Parks Department: (retrieved 16 May 2019).
  25. Landmarks Preservation Commission, Central Park Designation Report for the NYC Planning Department, 1974, (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  26. “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, p.281.
  27. “Central Park,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, p.223.
  28. See Central Park’s Wikipedia entry, for instance.
  29. “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, p.279.

24 Hours in the London Underground

This animation visualizes the number of riders in the London Underground over two weeks in 2010. Each dot corresponds to one station. Dot size corresponds to the number of riders passing through each station. Big dots for busy stations. Small dots for less busy stations. Dot color represents the lines serving each station. White dots are for stations where three or more lines intersect. Each dot pulsates twice in a day. Once during the morning commute. And again during the evening commute.



This animation does not pretend to be scientific. This is the representation of movement – a way to visualize the rhythmic pulsing of people through the London Underground as analogous to the breathing human body. The passage of red blood cells through the body’s veins is analogous to the movement of people through trains. The red blood cells bring oxygen and remove waste from the cells. Each semi-autonomous cell (with nucleus, membrane, etc.) is analogous to a workplace or home (with kitchen, walls, etc). Much like the cars and trains that move people and distribute their wealth from places of work to places of leisure, the red blood cells are the vehicles that link the heart and lungs (i.e. Central London) to the rest of the body (i.e. the London Metropolitan Region). This analogy of human form to city plan is a longstanding theme in urban studies.



No algorithm or dataset could capture the true complexity of London’s rhythmic breathing during the daily commute. Stations like King’s Cross St. Pancras, Waterloo, and Victoria rank among the busiest because they are multimodal transfer points between long distance trains, taxis, cars, and buses. So, although this animation visualizes these busiest stations with the largest dot size, this does not necessarily mean more people work or live in the vicinity of these stations. Admittedly, aspects of dot size are determined by immeasurable external factors – namely transfers from other transport modes to the London Underground.

This animation is based off of open-access data collected in November 2010. According to transport for London: “Passenger counts collect information about passenger numbers entering and exiting London Underground stations, largely based on the Underground ticketing system gate data.” Excluding London Overground, the Docklands Light Railways, National Rail, and other transport providers, there are 265 London Underground stations surveyed in this data set. For data collection purposes, stations where two or more lines intersect are counted as a single data entry. This is because at complex interchanges of multiple lines (e.g. Paddington), it is difficult to track which of the lines (e.g. Bakerloo, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City) a passenger is boarding. To complicate matters, passengers are often granted free transfers between lines at interchanges.

Every fifteen minutes, the numbers of passengers are counted from gate entry data, that is, four times per hour. This yields 96 time intervals over each 24 hour period. Multiplying the number of time intervals (96) by the number of stations (265), we get the number of data points represented in this animation: 25,440. Each of the stations was also assigned its corresponding latitude and longitude coordinate, so as to appear on the map in its appropriate spatial location. In the data analysis software (Tableau), we assigned each station:

  • A spatial location → derived from latitude and longitude coordinates coordinates
  • A color → according to the lines extant in 2010: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, Waterloo & City.
  • A size → scaled to reflect the passenger count in each 15 minute interval. The smallest dot corresponds to the rate of: zero passengers per 15-minute interval. The largest dot corresponds to the rate of about 7,500 passengers per 15-minute interval. This is the range applied to dot size: 0<X<7,500 where X represents “passengers/time.”
  • A time of day → each time interval represents one frame in the animation. We exported each frame from Tableau, conducted slight edits to background map opacity and texture, and then stitched the frames back together again – to create a flip book of sorts. With a rate of 12 frames per 1 second, or 96 frames per 8 seconds, a single day with 25,440 data points is compressed into 8 seconds of animation. This 8 second sequence is then looped.

By syncing the audio volume and background color with the data and time of day, the animation becomes more visually legible. The audio volume rises and falls to mirror the growth and contraction of each colored dot. The background color also shifts from black to gray to mirror the time of day. This was achieved by manually adjusting the background opacity in Adobe Illustrator from 100% to 50% for each of the 96 frames – as modeled with a cosine formula. The visualization was created in Tableau with post-production audiovisual editing in Final Cut Pro.


The eight second sequence played on a loop as a .gif file.


The Data:

View this infographic in Tableau Public.


Powered by TfL Open Data. Contains OS data© Crown copyright and database rights 2016.



Lat Long Coordinates for Stations: Bell, Chris. “London Stations.” (retrieved 21 April 2019).
Ridership Statistics: “Our Open Data.” Transport for London. (retrieved 21 April 2019). To access data, scroll down to the section entitled “Network Statistics,” then click where it reads “London Underground passenger counts data.”
“List of Busiest London Underground Stations.” Wikipedia. (retrieved 21 April 2019).
“London Connections Map.” Transport for London. (retrieved 21 April 2019).
Audio effects for animation: “Heartbeat.” Freesound. (retrieved 23 April 2019).

NJ Transit Ridership Patterns

The NJ Transit railroad carries nearly 90,000 passengers per day to and from New York Penn Station – the busiest rail station in North America. The majority of these passengers are commuters, who live in bedroom communities dotting northern New Jersey. The construction of these railroads – mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reveals patterns of urban growth centered around New York City. Like spokes on a wheel, these rail lines converge around Midtown Manhattan. As with many urban rail networks, this growth pattern makes it easier to travel from center to periphery than between towns on the periphery.

Hover over individual dots to reveal corresponding station statistics. Dot color corresponds to train line. White dots are for stations where multiple lines intersect. Dot size corresponds to number of riders per day. Large dots for busy stations, and small dots for less busy stations. For each station, the average number of riders is listed. This average should control for any aberrations in ridership, such as a particularly busy weekend, line closure, or major event in New York. These visualizations are derived from data NJ Transit provided me, here and here.



The map above shows weekday ridership patterns. Clearly, the movement patterns are New York City and Newark centric – where the jobs are. The next two busiest stations are Secaucus Junction and Hoboken – but these stations are not primary commuter destinations. Rather, they operate as transfer points. Weekday commuters collected from stations along the Pascack Valley, Bergen County, and Main Line are mostly headed to destinations in New York City. And because no trains on these lines arrive in New York City, they must transfer at Secaucus (to another NJT train) or at Hoboken (to PATH / the Hudson River ferries).



This map shows Sunday ridership. Unsurprisingly, the riders per station are correspondingly less because NJ Transit is mostly a commuter railroad. Stations are on average 66% to 75% less busy on weekends. The thirteen stations along the Montclair-Boonton Line – between Bay Street and Denville – are also entirely closed on weekends and serve no riders. The one line, however, that seems to be only slightly less busy on weekends is the Atlantic City Line – possibly because this line is popular on weekends for people traveling to the casinos and beaches there.



The infographic above lists weekday ridership by station. Notice the large gap between the first four stations and all the others listed. Keep in mind that a lot of this data implicitly involves double-counting a single passenger. For instance, someone riding from their home near Bay Street (Montclair) to Penn Station (New York) will be counted once in the morning when they clock-in at Bay Street, and then again once they return through New York Penn the same evening.



Writing Here Is New York in 1949, E.B. White has the following to say about the suburban commuter:


The commuter is the queerest bird of all. The suburb he inhabits … is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare cases, the man [or woman] who lives in Mamaroneck or Little New or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing much about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch…. About 400,000 men and women come charging onto the Island each week-day morning, out of the mouths of tubes and tunnels…. The commuter dies with tremendous mileage to his credit, but he is no rover…. The Long Island Rail Road alone carried forty million commuters last year, but many of them were the same fellow retracing his steps. (p.18-21)


View a similar data visualization project for the New York City subway and for the London Underground.
View this project or download the data from Tableau Public.
Also of interest might be this set of 60 photos comparing New York Penn Station past and present.


Northeast Corridor Drone Flight


The Northeast Corridor is the busiest railroad in North America by passenger traffic. This drone flight follows a high-speed Acela train making this 456 mile journey from Washington D.C. to Boston via Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York City, Stamford, New Haven, and Providence.

This animation was created using the Google Earth Pro desktop application. We began by tracing the full route of the Northeast Corridor onto three-dimensional satellite imagery of the world. We then programmed our computer to follow this route while running a screen-recording to capture the progress. Finishing edits were then made in Final Cut Pro, including the addition of the inset map at bottom, the speedometer and clock at upper left, and edits to the pacing and sound effects. The time and distance markers are calculated using Google Maps.

The above animation is annotated, click here to view the uncut 28 minute drone flight.

Audio effects are courtesy of
Piano accompaniment is Metamorphosis by Philip Glass
performed by YouTube user: “Coversart”

New York City Subway Ridership

Published by the Gothamist on 22 January 2019.

I have a love-hate relationship with the New York City subway, like many who claim to be citizens of Gotham. At rush hour, it is crowded, hot, and often slow. From years of riding its squeaky trains, it’s given me a permanent ringing tinnitus in my ear. But, it also represents the best of NYC and America. It’s this once public place where all social classes, all ethnicities, and all immigrants mix – where their normally separate lives are momentarily shared. Rich or poor, almost all of us ride the subway.

I’m an architectural history and urban studies undergraduate at Columbia University. Over the years and in classes, I encountered the theory that the mathematic theories of fluid dynamics can explain the causes of traffic jams. So, I began asking myself, how far can one extend the analogy that traffic is fluid? For instance, could the movement of people in the subway system be visualized as analogous to the rhythmic breathing of the human body?

Linguistically, we often describe cities in terms of our bodies. For instance, major roads are described as “arteries” in reference to the human blood stream. The sewers are the city’s “bowels.” Or, Central Park is “the lungs of the city.” At various times in history, key industries like manufacturing were described as the “backbone” of the city’s economy. Cities are overwhelmingly complex organisms. But, this wordplay makes the giant metropolis somehow more human and familiar.

I began this project after I realized that tourists are often overwhelmed by the large crowds and seeming messiness of public places like Times Square. In fact, this movement of people is highly ordered, structured, and rhythmic – as Manhattan’s population swells during the daily commute and then contracts by night. Give or take a few chokepoints, the system works. My hope is this animation renews people’s (and my own) appreciation for this engineering and the people behind it.

Maybe the visual language of data can address this deeper need to humanize and soften this concrete jungle.


sounds of breathingheartbeat, and subway are from

Interactive Map


Research Methodology



Railroads, roads, and subways are New York City’s circulatory system. Every weekday, the subway transports 5.6 million and brings 2.5 million commuters to and from work (from 2017 stats). This daily rhythm of population growth and decline breathes economic life into this city.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) publishes data on the weekly and weekend (Saturday + Sunday) ridership at each of its ~425 stations. These statistics, updated yearly, are publicly available and can be analyzed to track trends in movement and urban growth. The MTA data is not georeferenced, and the NYC Open Data does not include ridership statistics. I therefore merged the georeferecned data from NYC Open Data with the ridership statistics from the MTA to create this animation.

The MTA data was downloaded, analyzed, and then plotted onto the city map. Dots are color-coded according to the subway lines they serve. White dots are for junctions between two or more lines. Dot size corresponds to the number of riders who swipe into each station with their metro card during each 24-hour period. Larger dots are for busier stations; smaller dots are for less busy stations.

Commuting patterns are analogous to the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the human body while breathing. By contrasting weekday and weekend ridership patterns, we detect the city’s respiratory system. Each passenger symbolizes the movement of a single blood cell, operating as one cellular unit in a complex system.



Big Data and Historic Preservation in New York City

What can a data analysis of New York City’s landmarks reveal about trends in the historic preservation movement?



The video above is a visual history of landmarks preservation in New York City.

All records are downloaded from NYC Open Data. Soundtrack is from




There is an ongoing debate between in New York City between developers seeking to rebuild the city in the image of global capitalism and preservationists seeking to slow the rate of change and protect the appearance of the city’s many and distinct neighborhoods. This debate plays out every year in the hundreds of buildings  and structures that are added to (or rejected from) the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s running list of landmarks (LPC). Once added, landmarked buildings cannot be modified without first seeking approval from the city. And, to date, there is no process for de-listing a landmark once added – unless (sometimes intentional) decay by neglect requires demolition. This aspect of preservation is particularly contentious for developers because the legal barriers of preservation law are permanent, binding, and affect all current occupants and future owners.

Historic preservationists are the arbiters of taste. The sites they preserve will become the aesthetic lens through which future generations will appreciate the city’s past. The sites they do not preserve or neglect to protect from demolition will be lost to history – no longer a living testimony to vanished builders, architects, and immigrants. On the individual scale, preservation is about protecting structures of value. On the larger scale, preservation is part of a larger historical debate: Which aspects of the past are worth preserving? And what kinds of narratives can historians tell about cities, based on the material evidence that survives?

In this debate, there are many factors driving preservation: fear of losing heritage, fear of change, well-intentioned activists in the spirit of Jane Jacobs and NIMBYism, or concerned scholars and public servants who see something unique in the sites they add. The objective of this paper is to assess arguments made in favor of or against historic preservation through an analysis of publicly-available landmark records from the New York City Open Data website. We identified two datasets, both containing ~130,000 spreadsheet entries for every single LPC listing. The first dataset is entitled “Individual Landmarks” 1 and describes the date entered in the LPC database, the address, lot-size, the geographical coordinates of every single structure, etc. The second dataset is entitled “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” 2  and includes the construction date, original use, style, and address of all structures. We downloaded these two datasets as .csv files, imported them into mapping software called Tableau Public, merged them into a single file, and then conducted a data analysis – the results of which inform all the statistics presented here and drive the conclusions drawn in the following pages.

From this research methodology, we identify heretofore hidden trends in historic preservation. Firstly, we identify contextual preservation and historic districts as a means to protect the human scale of neighborhoods. Secondly, we identify a marked and potentially unjustifiable preference of preservationists for protecting pre-1945 structures. And thirdly, our data hints at the strength of market forces and developers in shaping the scope of preservation.



Case Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs


Above is a tree map of the distribution of the 128,594 landmarks across the five boroughs. This includes both buildings and non-buildings, like street lamps, parks, statues, etc. The size of each rectangle corresponds to the number landmarks within one historic district. Or, in the case of the largest rectangle for each borough, the box represents the number of individual landmarks outside historic districts for that borough. The size of the box reflects the number of buildings within each district – the larger the box, the more buildings within that category. Each historic district is color-coded by borough and grouped alongside all the other districts within that borough. Manhattan. Brooklyn. Queens. Bronx. Staten Island.


125,594 records above


At first glance, we notice several trends. The densities and locations of preserved districts do not correspond to the most densely populated areas. For instance, Manhattan, with population only 19.3% of the citywide total, 3 has 30.46% of the landmarks. By comparison, Staten Island, with only 5.55% of the population, has 16.24% of landmarks – the greatest per capita number for all five boroughs. Or, the Bronx with 17.06% of people has only 5.36% – the lowest per capita. Given that the land area of Bronx (42.47 mi²) is comparable to Staten Island (58.69 mi²), and given that their histories are equally rich, then does the Bronx objectively have fewer landmarks worth preserving? Or, do preservation trends follow patterns of economics and race – with economically advantaged neighborhoods having stronger legal and political leverage to maintain and restore the appearance of their architectural heritage?


Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island
% of NYC population in this borough 19.30% 30.72 27.36 17.06 5.55
% of NYC landmarks in this borough 30.46% 25.65 21.98 5.36 16.24


Historic preservation does not operate off of a tabula rasa with objective standards and processes for listing, despite appearances to the contrary. There is an undeniably spatial pattern to urban growth and income inequality with a city segregated into districts by age of construction, race, and income. Historic preservation may operate on this unequal economic fabric.


128,212 records above


Case Study Two:

Contextual preservation?


One of the most common criticisms of the preservation movement is that it limits economic development by preventing the demolition of older structures and their replacement with larger and more desirable new ones. Additionally, historic preservation is linked to a lengthy (and expensive) approvals process that developers must pass through. A committee of historians reviews each application and suggests revisions to ensure that new development is either a) “contextually” respectful of its neighbors if involving construction on vacant land or b) preserved the existing fabric if involving rehabilitation of an already landmarked building. 4

Developers often claim that historic preservation discourages development and reduces the potential of land to be profitably developed. To support this, developers will acknowledge that there doubtless are structures worth preserving, but that the same legal protections extended to genuinely historic structures are also extended to their less-significant neighbors. This criticism of preservation applies to vacant parcels within historic districts or more modern buildings that are surrounded by historic ones. Our data does not support this claim.

Within the city’s unequal fabric with pockets of concentrated, wealth, poverty, and history, we identify three general categories of protected buildings. First, there are individual landmarks, such as bridges, large railroad stations, statues, or street furniture. While aesthetically and historically important, these individual sites are rarely adjacent to other landmarks. Also, new development can occur adjacent with few restrictions on zoning. No approval from the LPC is necessary – only construction permits and variances as needed. The case for preserving these structures is strong, as application for each was individually made and individually approved on a case-by-case basis by city government and often with approval from the landowner at time of designation. Grand Central Station and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are two examples. These structures, on account of their height, size, or appearance are genuine landmarks and place-makers in defining neighborhood identity.

Second, there are historic districts, comprising continuous stretches of smaller buildings. This includes structures of various age, use, function, and size. Preservation here is justified on the grounds that 1) the individual structures are historically unique or “significant” and 2) the relationships between these structures and the human-level streetscape they form are worth preserving. Here zoning and use restrictions may be restrictive as the majority of historic districts fall within mostly residential neighborhoods. Height limits are also stricter with the frequent stipulation that new additions must be setback from the main façade line and under one story. From the text of the 2018 city-wide zoning ordinance, zoning aims: “to protect the character of certain designated areas of historic and architectural interest, where the scale of building development is important, by limitations on the height of buildings.” 5



Third, there are contributing and vacant parcels within these historic districts. The protections applied to category two buildings are extended to category three on the grounds that development on these less important sites will affect the quality and aesthetics of adjacent structures. The best example of this kind of contextual preservation comes in the form of a series of structures. Most may retain their original appearance, but a few interspersed between post-date the neighborhood’s age, are built in a different style, or suffered from demolition before the area was preserved. Above are two examples of these kinds of contributing structures.

If ever a case is made against historic preservation, the flaws seem greatest with this form of contextual preservation because these structures are preserved and their modification legally obstructed solely on grounds of their location. Additionally, there are numerous vacant lots within historic districts, where the argument could be made that the legalities of preservation disincentive the kind high-density development that is preferable to developers. However, an analysis of our dataset reveals that non-designated structures comprise less than 15% of all items within historic districts. The data is broken down on the table below, by borough and for the city as a whole:


Borough . Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island



Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560



5,344 109,285
Non-designated structures within historic districts 6,465 3,783 2,626 3,118



Number of vacant parcels within historic districts 40 457 74 444 29 1,044
Percentage of buildings in historic districts that are non-designated and/or vacant 16.731% 13.713% 9.5541% 17.054% 22.38% 14.74%
Borough totals 38,881 30,920 28,260 20,887 6,885


This yields 128,594 6 protected buildings (designated and non-designated). According to NYC’s public database, there are 857,271 structures total in the city. 7 Meaning that protected buildings comprise slightly less than 14% of all structures in the city. In addition, the non-designated and vacant parcels within historic districts comprise less than 2.16% of the city’s fabric. These values stand in contrast to comparable world cities like Paris and London, which are millennia older and have protected a greater percentage of their historic fabric. Below, for instance, are two comparative maps of the conservation areas (green) in the Westminster area of London 8 versus those in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (purple). 9



Case Study Three: Keeping up to pace?


When the first batch of 2,312 historic structures was landmarked in 1965, their average year of construction was 1882 – representing an 83-year gap during which these structures were not protected. In 2018, the average construction year of newly landmarked structures is 1908, representing a 110-year gap. Thus in the 53 year life of the landmarks movement from1965 to 2018, the average age of a building when landmarked has increased by 37 years.

The more recent inclusion of modernist skyscrapers, like the Lever House (1982) and Seagram Building (1989), may give the impression that the criteria for what qualifies as aesthetically important and worth preserving has expanded. Our data does not support this conclusion, because while recent years have seen newer landmarks granted legal status, the rate of designation has not kept up with the rate of construction and, in fact, has fallen behind.

The graph below illustrates the date a structure was registered on the horizontal axis measured against its construction date on the vertical axis. Every single protected structure is plotted on this graph by color. Individual dots represent individual sites. The black trend line indicates the only moderate increase in the numbers of modern structures receiving protection.


5,451 records above


Is historic preservation falling behind, even though the rate of construction and population has increased? Or, is the city no longer building the kinds of structures deemed worthy of preservation? This 16-year gap could be a fluke, or it could be indicative of larger trends.

To qualify for landmark status in NYC, a building must be older than 30 years or older than 50 if added to the National Register. From a publication by the The Trust for Architectural Easements: “LPC property must be at least 30 years old – no exceptions – whereas a National Register property must be at least 50 years old, unless it is found to be of exceptional significance, in which case there is no age limit at all.”  10 When the LPC was formed in 1965, none of the buildings from 1935 to 1965 would have qualified for designation. Today, as of 2018, any building from before 1988 could qualify. However, less than 5% of all listed structures date from the 43 years from 1945 to 1988 – a significant time in this metropolis’ history as it transitioned from an industrial economy to the world’s financial center and a major hub for tourism.

The graph below illustrates the age range of all landmarks and the distribution of landmarks by year. The horizontal axis corresponds to years, and the vertical axis represents the number of landmarks built in that year that are now included in LPC listings. Clearly, the vast majority falls within the 90-year span of 1850 to 1940, with few landmarks falling outside this range. The peak is in 1895 with 13,275 records from this year alone – a surprising anomaly. The rise and falls on this graph may also correspond to roughly 20-year periods of boom and bust recessions, along with corresponding halts to new construction. The shortage of pre-1850 sites is easily explained by the vagaries of time and the relatively smaller size of the city before 1850. But, the chronic shortage post-1940 may hint at a broader historical oversight or change in the way new buildings are designed and age.


93,691 records above


The LPC was created partially in response to the demolition of New York Penn Station in 1963. And, it was an attempt to prevent further destruction of aesthetically significant buildings, many of which had already been lost to progress and urban renewal. By the 1960s, urban renewal was winding down and New York was entering the prolonged recession of the 1970s and 80s, during which the rate of urban renewal and highway construction ground to a halt. In this light, the LPC originated as a post-facto response to demolition that had been going on for decades.

Despite the history of the LPC, must land marking occur after destruction has begun? There are doubtless hundreds of post-war buildings of significance – that have not yet been identified or deemed worthy. The question is not: Should we list these buildings? Rather, the question should be: Why are we not listing these buildings before they are threatened? And why should LPC status be limited to buildings older than 30 years? The demolition of the city’s American Folk Art Museum by MoMA in 2014 is one example. 11 The Temple of Dendur and its custom-built exhibit hall is another instance of an interior landmark completed pre-1988 and potentially eligible for LPC status.


Case Study Four:

How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?


As land values increase, and as it becomes increasingly unsustainable to develop land with single-family residential structures and townhomes, newer buildings are more likely to be commercial, mixed-use, and multi-family. However, the historic preservation movement exhibits a preference toward land-marking residential structures. The table below illustrates the types of buildings preserved, their quantity, and the percentage of the total number of preserved buildings this quantity represents. The buildings are listed below by their original functions. So, a building designed as a factory but more recently converted to residential is still listed as “industrial.”


Type of Building Quantity Percent of Total
Residential 35,575 27.66%
Civic 16,920 13.16%
Street Furniture 13,943 10.84%
Commercial 4,574 3.56%
Infrastructure 2,490 1.94%
Transportation 2,145 1.67%
Institutional 2,026 1.58%
Religious 1,509 1.17%
Mixed Use 1,324 1.03%
Vacant 1,178 0.92%
Military 759 0.59%
Industrial 436 0.34%
Outbuildings 12 32,391 25.19%
All other uses 14,970 11.64%
Totals 128,594 100%


The most salient figure in the above table is the disproportionate representation of residential and civic buildings that are preserved. For instance, as of 2018, Manhattan has 39,172 landmarked items. Of these landmarks, 35% (= 13,816) are residential use, 9% (= 3,443) are commercial, and 1.5% (= 650) are mixed-use. Mixed use, in this case, is defined by commercial on the lower level and offices or residential on upper floors. However, there are more commercial and mixed-use buildings in Manhattan than there are residential buildings. 13 So, the percentages of landmarked buildings are not representative of the percentage of residential versus commercial and mixed-use buildings that exist. In short, our data supports the conclusion that residential buildings seem more likely to receive landmarked status than commercial structures.

The numbers of landmarked civic structures strengthens the above conclusion. New York City owns 14,000 properties 14 across five boroughs. This MAS estimate does not include public monuments, statues, civic buildings built by the city and later sold, or civic buildings originally built for private use but acquired by the city. Yet, there are 16,920 landmarks designated as serving “civic” functions, including 11,726 landmarked items relating to hospitals and 571 related to armories. In fact, among all the 440 types of landmarks in this city, civic-related structures have the highest rates of landmark status and the rate of preservation closest to 100%.

What explains these inequalities? One explanation could be that civic sites, particularly those built in the early 20th century tend to be high quality, well built, and designed to articulate the civic values of democracy and government through the beauty of the neoclassical style. Therefore, these buildings are more likely to be deemed worthy of preservation. But, this interpretation is doubtful because there is little factual basis to assume that civic structures are “better than” commercial and mixed-use.

A more believable explanation could be that civic and residential structures are easier to landmark than commercial. The maintenance and upkeep of civic structures is managed by government and elected officials, who are responsible to voter complaints and community pressure. And, the public can threaten to vote out of office any leaders who neglect historic, city-owned properties. Additionally, there are few reasons for developers or residents to object to land-marking civic sites, as legally protecting these structures adds more red tape, not to city residents, but to the future bureaucrats who restore these sites. Again, this is speculation.

Still yet, there is a stronger factor influencing preservation. Civic structures are not subject to market pressures, and city-owned buildings do not have to help their occupants make a profit. For instance, the cost of rehabbing a historic public school building might more expensive than just demolishing and rebuilding it new, but the city is under less pressure to demolish the structure because, fortunately, city government is not run like a profit-driven corporation. And, so historically valuable but functionally outdated city buildings may be more likely to be landmarked and restored than demolished, as illustrated by the unequal distribution of building types in our data.

By contrast, commercial and residential structures are subject to strong market pressures favoring demolition. An old factory that has outlived its designed lifespan and is no long suitable for modern-day production line assembly will be abandoned or demolished if it cannot be converted. But, the process of conversion may require completely gutting the structure, environmental remediation, and a lengthy approvals process. If the cost of renovation is more expensive than the income the renovated structure can bring in, then there will be greater pressure to demolish than to preserve the fated structure. City-owned libraries and hospitals face less of this kind of pressure.

Our data also reveals a spatial concentration of residential buildings in historic districts. For instance, most of Manhattan’s residential landmarks are concentrated within historic districts in the Upper West, Upper East, and skyscraper valley between Midtown and Downtown. Residential sites are more likely to be collectively landmarked as part of districts. As illustrated in the table below, 94.93% of residential landmarks citywide fall within historic districts, and only 5.07% are outside these districts:


Residential All Other Types
Within historic districts 35,029 = 94.93% 61,124 = 66.66%
Individual landmarks outside historic districts 1,872 = 5.07% 30,569 = 33.34%
Total Number 36,901 = 100% 91,693 = 100%


What explains the disproportionate protection of residential structures? One possible motivating factor could be income-levels in historic neighborhoods and associated protectionism. The map on the following page overlays the locations of historic districts over 2018 block-level census data for income levels and length of residence. Our analysis reveals a spatial overlap between historic districts and areas with higher incomes and longer-term residents. For instance, the average length of residence for residents in the Brooklyn Heights historic district is between 17.1 and 48 years and incomes range between $51,500 and $289,000, while the rest of Brooklyn averages between 10.3 and 12.8 years and under $51,500 income. Similar patterns play out in the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. In short, residents in historic neighborhoods seem more likely to stay-put, and length of residency may be a proxy for measuring the degree to which residents are invested in maintaining the physical appearance and improving their community. From this data, we posit that the relationship between historic preservation and length of residency is too strong and too consistent across the five boroughs to be correlation. There may be causative factors at play between income, emotional investment in one’s community, and preservation, yet this remains to be conclusively confirmed by future data.


Click map to launch interactivity − opens in new tab.

Individual landmarks in red outside historic districts in brown tend to be commercial structures.
There is no immediately identifiable relationship between the siting of commercial landmarks,
and the income levels of their adjacent community.




The spatial relationship illustrated above is surprising for another reason: gentrification. Normally, gentrification in the past 20 years is associated with rising income levels and the displacement of existing residents. The physical appearance of historic neighborhoods should also make them more desirable for gentrification. However, the average length of residency is longer in historic than in non-historic districts, even though income (and presumably rent, too) are higher in historic districts. That is, neighborhoods with historic preservation more often have high and rising incomes with long length of residency. This seems contradictory because high-income areas should be more likely to push out longer-term tenants from the pre-gentrification era.

By contrast, neighborhoods without the benefit of historic preservation more often have high incomes and lower length of residency, meaning a high turnover rate. The Williamsburg neighborhood is one example with incomes over $51,500 (similar to Brooklyn Heights) but length of residency under 10.3 years. Additional research should examine if rent-stabilized apartments are more likely to be concentrated in historic districts. There is the possibility that the legal barriers of preservation make it more difficult for developers to push out existing residents, gut an old building, and then rebuild it to charge higher rent. Unfortunately, New York City Open Data has no information on the spread or geographical clustering of rent stabilized apartments.

These possible relationships between historic preservation and gentrification need to be confirmed by further analysis.


Conclusion: The Future of Historic Preservation


There are limits to our data – these statistics cannot reveal the intricacy of historic sites, the unique identity of each, or the reasons why each justify (or do not justify) protection. But, this data can reveal big picture trends in preservation, its biases, and some of its problems. While these trends are not visible from walking the street or looking at individual sites, they become visible through the lens of data. This data may also reveal causative relationships between income, length of residency, and the political strength of preservationists.

From this data-driven analysis, we can make deduct several conclusions:

  1. Historic preservationists prefer to landmark and protect pre-WWII buildings, even though numerous post-war examples may qualify. As a result, there are a disproportionately high number of pre-war buildings with landmark status, and comparably few post-war landmarks – less than 5%. Similarly, the rate at which landmarks are designated has not kept up with the pace of new construction.
  2. The market pressures to demolish civic structures are weaker than the market pressures to demolish commercial and residential. As a result, a disproportionately high percentage of city-owned or institutional buildings are preserved, and a disproportionately low percentage of commercial and industrial.
  3. Tangent to the previous point, a disproportionately high percentage of landmarks are for residential use and fall within residential districts. This may indicate that landmarks preservation is a strategy for neighborhood protectionism – that is, an effort by residents to ensure that the appearance of their community is not changed due to new development. Neighborhoods of lower-density old buildings, like the West Village, retain their popularity, charm, and high property values thanks to strong legal barriers against change that could lead property values to depreciate. While these barriers may discourage and prevent developers from reaping larger profits by building higher and larger, they also ensure that existing residents’ investment in their condos or homes will remain more stable.
  4. The, economic success of New York on a global scale and its continuing construction boom has led to the demolition of many non-residential commercial landmarks that might have otherwise qualified for landmark status had New York not been as successful. In the words of Professor Kenneth Jackson: 15


History is for losers. By that I mean, cities which have chosen to preserve all their historical monuments and locations usually do so because no one else wants the land to develop. Modern progress has passed them by. New York’s history doesn’t litter the streets visually, it can be hard to find sometimes, but that is because the city is an economic winner on a global scale.


New York is indeed a winner “on a global scale,” with Wall Street as a symbol of America’s economic power, the United Nations as a symbol of political power, and the city’s over three million foreign born as representative of power of immigration and globalization to shape a city. But, this progress comes at a historic and aesthetic cost – the consequences of which are reflected in the dark and sterile skyscraper canyons of Midtown, the worsening congestion in cars and subways, and (more pressingly) this city’s fragility when faced with ecological pressures, such as flooding, hurricanes, and climate change. At the level of historic preservation, this progress comes at the cost of losing New York’s distinctive architectural heritage to the force of globalized change. The Gilded Age mansions on Fifth Avenue and the built-to-last-forever Penn Station are gone, as are the picturesque skylines and distinctive ethnic neighborhoods of Berenice Abbott’s 1930s photographs. The New York of today is different – whether it is architecturally poorer for progress can only be judged in retrospect. Historians prefer not to speak of what-ifs when writing about history, but would it have been possible to accept the benefits of progress without sacrificing history? This, however, is a question beyond the limits of data to contemplate.



Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:



This author is not affiliated in any way with NYC Open Data, LPC, or the New York City government.

  1. “Individual Landmarks,” New York City: Open Data, (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” New York City: Open Data, (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  3. New York City’s 2017 population estimate is 8.623 million.
  4. More on this topic: Rachel Mollie Levy, “Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City,” (Master’s diss., Columbia University: Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation, 2015) (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  5. “General Purposes of Residence Districts,” in The Zoning Resolution: Web Version, (published by New York City Zoning Department, 2018), pp.252-53. (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  6. The total for all five boroughs is 127,833. Including landmarks not registered in any borough, like Ellis Island, the total is 128,954.
  7. New York City Planning Department, “Spatial Data Properties and Metadata,” from MapPLUTO, (published to the web, 2018), pp.5 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  10. Anthony W. Robins, “Differences between Landmarks Commission Designations and National Register Listing,” in Similarities and Differences between Landmarks Preservation Commission Regulation and Donation of a Preservation Easements, (Prepared for The Trust for Architectural Easements, 2009), pp.10, (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  12. “Outbuildings” mostly include garages, stables, street furniture, and accessory structures, generally small. This category skews our results. Since many accessory structures were turned into residential structures, the actual percentage of residential dwellings should be slightly higher than 27.66%.
  13. Manhattan has more residential than commercial landmarks even though more people work here than live here. On weekdays, 3.1 million people work in Manhattan, while only 1.6 million live here.
  14. “New York City owns or leases 14,000 properties around the five boroughs—a public asset roughly the size of Brooklyn.” From: “Public Assets: Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York,” The Municipal Art Society of New York, (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  15. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, (retrieved 5 November 2018).

New York Penn Station: Past and Present

Published by Viewing NYC on 15 May 2019.


Through Penn Station one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.

– Vincent Scully


Bird’s Eye View from Northeast to Southwest in 1910-20


Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.

– Kenneth Jackson




The old Penn Station, completed 1910, had 21 tracks on 11 platforms. The new Penn Station has 21 tracks on 11 platforms. In the demolition process, not one track or platform moved. This similarity enables us to situate parts of the old structure in relation to the new. The photos below compare this structure past and present. The old photos are drawn from the digital archive of the New York Public Library, Historic American Buildings Survey, and Library of Congress. The current photos were all taken by Myles Zhang in March 2019. Current photos are as close as possible to the original camera angles. However, some changes in the station layout and access rights to the areas above make complete accuracy prohibitively difficult.

Curious how New York Penn Station influenced landmarks preservation? See this video from Khan Academy.




We begin our approach to old Penn Station at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street. When the station opened in 1910, and before the subway lines were extended south along Seventh and Eighth Avenue, this was the main axis of approach. A temple front with six solid stone columns and a rectangular pediment above greeted visitors. Three eagles adorned either side of the clock, six total. After demolition, two of these eagles survive and are now placed on concrete pedestals in the adjacent plaza. Originally, one entered Penn Station at street level. Now, one descends about 20 feet to an underground corridor.


This is the same entrance, viewed head-on from 32nd Street. Beneath this street, the Pennsylvania Railroad constructed its double-track tunnels stretching from here to Sunnyside Yard in Queens, and onward to destinations in New England and Long Island. These two tunnels survive, but everything above ground does not.


This is the view from the 31st Street side between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. The mass of the main waiting hall rises in the center, as indicated by the arched thermal window. The colonnade at center left corresponds to the taxi and car drop-off and pick-up area. After demolition, developers erected the round mass of Madison Square Garden on the foundations of the former waiting hall and train concourse.


This is the view from the corner of 31st Street and Seventh Avenue. Contrary to appearances, the old structure was entirely steel frame with limestone and granite facing. Only the columns on the main façades were solid stone.


By the 1960s, the structure was sooty with car exhaust, as seen in the above photo from 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. The rest, however, was in excellent condition.


Shopping Arcade and Waiting Hall


After entering Penn Station from the Seventh Avenue side, a long vaulted shopping arcade greeted visitors. The shops here were the only source of outside income for the railroad at this location. In later years, the shops did not even provide enough rent to cover the $2.5 million spent yearly on upkeep (1961 value from Ballon on p.99). Considering the size of this double-block and its prime location in Midtown, the old Penn Station generated precious little income for its owner. Currently, the lobby of Penn Plaza occupies this location — an office building with 700,000 square feet of space. Formerly public space is now rendered private. Also, note the statue of Alexander Cassatt at center right (President of the Pennsylvania Railroad).


Proceeding down the arcade, one entered into the main waiting hall — a vaulted space about 150 feet high by ~300 feet wide. One descended a wide pair of stairs — note the statue of Cassatt in the niche. This was one of the largest internal public spaces in the city.


This is the door into the restaurant. The arcade is on the left hand side. The stairs descending to the waiting hall are on the right hand side. Hilary Ballon writes that this “vestibule was a transitional space; it was dimly lit and nearly square to counter the directional force of the rooms on either side. It provided a moment to pause and prepare for the grand descent into the waiting hall” (p.62). This part of the building now roughly corresponds to a sub-basement buried below the walkway linking Penn Plaza to Madison Square Garden.


This is the view down into the waiting hall. The coffered ceiling and thermal windows are modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. In the rectangular panel beneath these windows are maps of the United States and the rail networks of the Pennsylvania and Long Island Railroad. Contrary to appearances, this space contains little stone. The entire frame and support structure is of steel beams with plaster above (for the vaults) or thin limestone panels (for the walls). Ballon writes: “For those approaching from the arcade, the directional contrast in the waiting hall also created a sense of space exploding horizontally. The freestanding fluted Corinthian columns and robust curls of the acanthus leaves, the strongly projecting entablature blocks, and layered ceiling offers these sculptural features made the weightless volume of the waiting hall seem weighty. Like the plenitude of a sheltering night sky, the enormous space was both humbling and uplifting” (p.64).


Here’s the view back up the grand stairs, this time from the waiting hall toward the arcade. The original Penn Station had no escalators from tracks to concourse or waiting areas to street level. Passengers would have had to carry their luggage up and down steep stairs; the architects of Grand Central observed this problem at Penn Station. Grand Central has ramps instead of stairs to ease movement between levels. The escalator shown in this 1960s photo is a later addition.


This is the waiting hall in the 1962, months before demolition began. The roof and walls are visibly sooty. Where this space once stood is now a parking lot for trucks and buses using the loading dock beneath Madison Square Garden. The wall of windows at left is Penn Plaza. The sliver of building at right is the Garden.


This older photo was taken in the morning, as the sun rose over New York, penetrating the east-facing windows, and illuminating the waiting hall. Most of the old station’s public areas and track level were touched by natural light. By comparison, no natural light enters any part of the new Penn Station. Currently, this area is a difficult-to-access parking lot — patrolled by armed guards with bomb-sniffing dogs.


Train Concourse


After passing through the waiting hall, visitors entered the train concourse. This was also a massive room, bathed in natural light, about ~300 feet long, ~200 feet wide, and 90 feet tall. From here, large chalkboard signage (erased and written manually) directed passengers to their right track. The above photo shows the two levels — the lower for arrivals and the upper for departures. Ballon describes the end of this journey from arcade, to waiting hall, to concourse: “The spatial compression directed attention down to the tracks, where were illuminated by natural light and visible through the cut-away floor. The vista of the sky above and tracks below created a sense of transparency in the concourse, as if the visitor was seeing with x-ray vision” (p.68).


This 1930s photo by Berenice Abbott shows the intricate web of ironwork supporting the skylights.


The upper level of the concourse had four exits: three minor exits north toward 33st, south to 31st, and west to 8th Avenue. The main and most ornate exit from the concourse was toward the waiting hall and 7th Avenue. Shown above is the 33rd Street exit. The wide dark exit to the right leads to the pick-up point for “Carriages and Taxicabs.”


This is the view northwards from the 31st Street entrance to the train concourse. This photo now corresponds to the VIP entrance for spectators at Madison Square Garden.


Here is the concourse again. In the old photo, the left exit leads to 33rd Street while the larger and arched right exit leads to the waiting hall and a baggage concourse. No trace of the old structure remains in the new photo. This is still a train concourse — except now with oppressive drop ceiling and exits to Amtrak trains.




Many of New York’s greatest landmarks feature Guastavino Tile vaults. Penn Station too. The main area of the train concourse was covered with glass. But, the lateral row of vaults with an oculus in the center of each was made of Guastavino. No trace of these self-supporting terracotta tiles survive at Penn Station, except for a single vault at the southern exit for the local southbound One Train.




This is the view from Track Six up past the lower concourse for arriving passengers, the upper concourse for departures, and toward the glass vaults. When this structure was demolished, Madison Square Garden was erected on the exact same bedrock foundations. The locations or number of tracks did not change, nor have the locations, width, or size of almost all stairwells. As seen in these photos, a few new supports were added to support the now much heavier structure above.


The failure to rebuild the now grossly inadequate Penn Station is not about lack of money. Built for 200,000 commuters in 1910, today, 650,000 people go through Penn Station each day, more than the daily passengers for all three major New York City-area airports combined. The failure to rebuild is not about lack of demand either; these numbers are expected to continue growing.

This is, more than anything, a failure of political will and a lack of interest in sustaining and improving the nation’s critical rail infrastructure. The current station makes a profit for its management — from the stadium and offices above. Any new station that restores natural light to track-level and revalues the passenger experience over profit is unlikely to be as lucrative. Few tangible profits are to be made from beauty.

Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark



In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. The area was zoned for buildings no higher than eight stories, which was respectful of the small and community scale of the existing structures. City officials, however, proposed rezoning a large section of the Ironbound for 18-story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.

Motivated by profit, a large parking corporation and other landowners lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowable height – thereby increasing the value of their land and threatening the existing community with gentrification. The small streets and infrastructure of the Ironbound would not have been resilient or large enough to support such a large increase in density.

To oppose this ill-devised proposal, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed. This computer simulation and the proposed legislation were also the subject of a Star Ledger article by human-interest reporter Barry Carter. I am providing the link to this article here. This computer simulation was also watched by members of the City Council and the property owners effected by this legislation. I also spoke five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this project and argue for development in Newark that is genuinely sustainable and genuinely respectful of the existing community and the city’s people.


Computer Simulation



Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19



The text of this speech is transcribed below.

I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.

To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.

MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.


inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.

But, when an area is zoned for larger and taller structures developers can build more and larger structures WITHOUT requesting a variance to build larger. And when developers do not need to request a variance for height, it is less likely they will need to include affordable housing in their project.

In effect, MX-3 will remove the requirement to build affordable housing in the effected area. When zoning is overly generous to developers and zoning permits overly large scale, develops do not need variances. And when developers don’t need variances, they do not have to built affordable housing.

In addition, since MX-3 could be expanded to anywhere within a half mile radius of Penn Station, it is quite possible that MX-3 could be expanded in the future. In effect, this would eliminate the requirement for developers to build affordable housing in this area. Upzoning does not benefit affordability.

Secondly, what is sustainability?

Sustainability and transit-oriented development is not just about a short distance to Penn Station. It is not just about green roofs or any type of development.

Sustainability is about affordable housing that we the people can afford to live in. We don’t want luxury condos for the 1% in the MX-3 area. We want development that our residents and you can afford.

All of us can agree that WE ALL WANT DEVELOPMENT. But, we want development that is 1. Affordable 2. Respectful of the Ironbound community. And 3. Respectful of our city’s diversity and history.

MX-3 is none of these things. It is about landbanking and benefiting the 1% wealthiest outside our city. I encourage you to strike down MX-3 and to encourage instead an open dialogue with the community about SUSTAINABLE and AFFORDABLE development in our city.

Developers should come to Newark and development should happen. But, we should not upzone entire sections of our city, in effect removing the requirement for affordable housing, undermining the inclusionary zoning we just created, and jeopardizing the recent master plan we created with public participation.

Newark Celebrates 350


As Newark celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1666, I created this series of drawings based on historical images and maps of Newark’s downtown. The above video briefly summarizes 350 years of Newark’s history in two minutes.

The sound track accompanying this video was assembled via free audio clips from Freesound. As Newark develops from a small town to a bustling industrial metropolis, the sound track shifts from recordings of quiet woodlands to the din of the vibrant city. And as time passes, the skyscrapers we now see in Newark’s downtown gradually rise.

History is learned textually through reading books, newspapers, and original documents. But, history is experienced visually and acoustically in a way that engages all the senses. History is dynamic, vibrant and three-dimensional, but it is recorded via two dimensional means. This brief history of Newark aims to visually and acoustically represent history as a living and fluid process of transition and change. My aim is not to comprehensively represent Newark’s history but to offer insight into the scope of feel of this storied city’s history.

As Newark looks forward to the future, it stands on 350 years of history that shape the social, economic, and political forces that drive this city forward.


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What does “progress” mean to the American city?


To view photos of progress in Newark, explore the interactive map above. If you are having difficulty using this map, please watch the accompanying video tutorial here.


In 1916 and with great fanfare, Newark celebrated the 250<sup>th</sup> anniversary of its founding in 1666. Massive classical columns sculpted of plaster were erected at the city’s main intersection of Broad and Market Streets. Soldiers soon off to WWI marched down Broad Street with Colt rifles in hand. A few months later, women followed in their footsteps carrying banners reading: “The girls behind the men behind the guns.” The United States, though not yet in the midst of Europe’s World War, would soon be at battle and suffer 116,000 deaths, mostly caused by disease and influenza. Women had not the right to vote until 1920 and blacks, then a minority in Newark, lacked some of the basic human rights many of them sadly still lack.



And yet the citizens of Newark, alongside much of America, had come to believe that the future held great things in store for them. In a mere fifty years, America had transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economy, developed the world’s most extensive rail system, introduced electricity in every major city, and could boast the world’s largest industries from Chicago’s packinghouses to New York’s Wall Street stock market to Newark’s 37 breweries, countless tanneries, machine shops, and insurance companies. America had also the world’s most extensive power grid and the world’s most affordable and durable car: Henry Ford’s Model T. The way of life was rapidly changing, often for the better. At this rate of progress, the future looked promising. And as World War One drew to a close in 1919, America told herself that this would be “the war to end all wars” and confidently looked toward the future in hope of unremitting progress.


Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article "Newark 58 Years from Today"- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.

Drawing by Winsor McCary, which first appeared in a 1928 article “Newark 58 Years from Today”- when Newark would be 150 years from the year of its 1836 incorporation as a city.


Indeed, leaders of the time predicted what the future would bring to cities like Newark and New York. Artists completed whimsical predictions of the Newark of 1986, a city of dense skyscrapers, railroads spewing outwards in all directions, and all manner of blimps and airplanes flying in the sky above. Planners like Harland Bartholomew drafted a master plan of Newark with infrastructure fit for a city of three million (Newark’s population in 1909 was a mere 280,000). Newark corporations like Public Service planned for the future by building the nation’s largest trolley terminal in 1916, capable of accommodating over 300 trolleys an hour. In fact, even the use of the words “future” and “progress” in printed media sharply increased after World War I, peaking around 1920 and declining every following year until World War Two.


Now, as Newark celebrates its 350th  anniversary in 2016, the city has opportunity to reflect on the past, at the Newark of 1916, and ask: What is the nature of progress?


A century ago, progress meant change; progress meant ceaseless improvement and the forward march of society. Today, after witnessing a century with two world wars, an almost fifty-year cold war, decolonization, and the emergence of an interconnected world economy, the implications of progress seem more ambiguous and less naively optimistic. Progress <em>does</em> mean an increasing standard of living, greater educational attainment, and a longer lifespan thanks to advances in public health. But, progress has also led to the decentralization of cities and the loss of distinct urban neighborhoods, processes that continue to play out today. Progress now means many much more than it did a century ago. Unlike the planners and artists of 1916, who predicted that progress would mean the never-ending onward and upward climb of Newark and America, society now knows that progress has not delivered on all it has promised.

America's Unhealthiest City

America’s Unhealthiest City


In many regards, Newark is a better city than it was in 1916. Newark, alongside the New York metropolitan region, is now more interconnected to the world economy. The average age of death has risen from age 50 in 1920 to about age 80 today. And, unlike the 1890s when the US Census Bureau deemed Newark as America’s “unhealthiest city,” Newark citizens now have better access to medicine at the city’s many hospitals. Admittedly, Newark is still a city of great poverty with 79,000 residents (or 28% of the population) below the poverty line. But, being in poverty today is very different from being in poverty a century ago when private charities were the extent of the public’s social safety net and when government did little to aid those in poverty. Our present society is, in many regards, more democratic, more egalitarian, less socially stratified, and a lot wealthier than before.


1911 Demographic Map

Newark’s Predominant Ethnic Groups in 1911


At the same time, often in the same name of progress, Newark has sacrificed large amounts of its cultural and architectural urban fabric. In the 1920s, Newark was home to countless densely built immigrant enclaves. Springfield Avenue was home to Newark’s Jewish community and its many businesses. A few blocks to the North was Newark’s Seventh Avenue Italian Community. And, behind City Hall was Newark’s Chinatown with its restaurants and alleged dens of vice. In the following decades, as the predominantly white population of second and third generation immigrants fled Newark for the suburbs, they left behind them the fabric of old and now empty neighborhoods. With time, many of these neighborhoods fell prey to demolition and urban renewal. For instance, the old Jewish and German communities of Springfield Avenue are now predominantly empty land, low-density public housing, and strip malls. A similar fate met Newark’s Italian community when it was forcefully evicted to construct the low-income Columbus Homes, ironically named in honor of the Italian explorer. Meanwhile, Newark’s Chinatown, Greektown, and other small communities are now largely devoid of large population or are dedicated to the ubiquitous parking lots of downtown Newark (click here for interactive map).


In the belief that the new is inherently better than the old, much of the city’s architectural fabric was outright demolished or replaced by structures inferior to what they replaced, as these images often testify to. The sterile housing project, strip mall, and block of low-income housing are not necessarily more beautiful than the dynamic neighborhoods of churches, businesses, and tenements they replace. Such is the direction progress can take.


Newark in 1873 and 2016

Downtown Newark in 1873 and 2016. Note the near complete loss of the neighborhood and its replacement by the city’s hockey arena at bottom and parking garage at top. In over a century, all but a handful of the structures pictured in 1873 were demolished.


A walk through Newark’s Central Ward will illustrate this direction of development. Let’s take a walk up Springfield Avenue, one of Newark’s major commercial thoroughfares linking the city’s center to its outlying suburbs. We stand in a desolate intersection at the corner of Prince Street and Springfield Avenue. In the distance rise the skyscrapers of Downtown. In front is a wide and street empty of pedestrians. Springfield Avenue slices diagonally through the urban grid, a band of asphalt with the faded markings of yellow and white lines indicating where to drive. On one side, is a vast empty lot now being developed into low-income housing. On the other side, is a low-slung housing project built to replace the decaying urban fabric. The scene is one of near desolation with few pedestrians and thousands of cars.


But, a century ago, this neighborhood was a vibrant immigrant community comparable to New York’s Lower East Side. Three and four story tenements edged up on either side of the street. Horse pulled trolleys and then electric streetcars plied up and down this street delivering immigrants to and from work. One block ahead was the Prince Street Synagogue, one of the city’s many vibrant churches and now an empty shell. A few block behind were three of Newark’s largest factories now closed, the Krueger Brewery, Pabst Brewery, and General Electric. Around us were crowded streets and the sound of horses on cobblestone pavement. This neighborhood, among many in Newark, was a dynamic one inhabited by subsequent waves of English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and finally Blacks during the Great Migration of the 1930s, each generation of immigrants leaving their mark on the built environment.


Prince Street

Prince Street in 1916 and 2016 respectively. The complete and total loss of a neighborhood.


As the flow of immigrants slowed and as industry ebbed away, this neighborhood has gradually vanished without the people that cared for and resided in it. Industry too slipped away with the consolidation and closure of nearby factories to move abroad, the subsequent loss of employment, and later riots that rocked the city in summer 1967. Newark and its reputation are still recovering from this loss of industry and employment, as the appearance former neighborhoods like this one attest to.


Scenes of contrast much like this one play out across Newark to varying degrees. The manifestations of changes to the built environment may vary from street to street and from building to building but the social and economic factors motivating these changes remain consistent: white flight, the automobile, loss of industry, suburbanization, racial tension, urban renewal, among other factors too numerous to discuss in detail.


A city is more than its monuments. A city is more than its grand civic structures and skyscrapers. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully maintained its large monuments: cathedrals, skyscrapers, and civic structures. But, Newark has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, town-homes, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. But, collectively, they constitute the living and breathing heart of Newark.


In the turn of the century view of downtown Newark, one sees the architectural styles popular at the time: stone and granite victorian and gothic structures. At left, is Prudential’s old headquarters demolished in 1956. At left, is Newark’s central post office. Unlike today, the postal service was central to the functioning of society and was often the most important structure in a town. This post office happens to be in the Romanesque Style popular in the 1880s. After the post office outgrew this structure and moved elsewhere in 1934, the structure was soon demolished in the 1940s to 1950s to construct an unimpressive dollar store. All buildings in this image are currently demolished.

Circa 1916, the Prudential Headquarters at left and the City Post Office at right. Both later demolished.


My belief is that by examining individual instances of changes to the urban fabric, one can gain a more accurate understanding of the nature of progress in the American city. Though individual instances of say a church’s or factory’s demolition and the disappearance of a neighborhood might seem to be events independent of larger social and historical trends, these individual historic events can and do provide hints and are visual evidence of larger historic movements. By comparing scenes of Newark then and now, one can start to understand the bigger picture how cities developed historically, how suburbanization and de-industrialization affected the city, and most importantly one can start to question the nature of progress.


In many regards, one can examine these images and wish that society still built structures as tall, as proud, and as ornamented as those of a century ago. But, one must also recognize that the built environment of a century ago was the unique product of its time and is in fact inseparable from its era. The same culture and society that laid forth the grand boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of Newark and New York, and the vast parklands that surround many American cities, was also a society that denied women the right to vote, blacks the right to participate in society, and colonial peoples the right to govern themselves.


In fact, one could posit that the beautiful architecture of early America and its vast public works at the turn of the century would not have been possible without the wealth derived from imperialism, the availability of cheap labor, and the masses of immigrants willing to work twelve hours a day in trying working conditions. To embrace the beauty of the past, one must also recognize the concomitant negatives that made this beauty possible to begin with.


We can examine these images of vanished urban fabric of tenements, churches, factories, and densely packed neighborhoods. But, we must recognize that neither past nor present is superior to the other. The built environment of each era is merely the product of its society, culture, and economy. The objective of examining this visual history is not to pass judgment on past or present but to objectively understand where Newark was, where Newark is, and where Newark will be in the near and distant future. A century after 1916, we look forward to the future.


Click here for an interactive map about Newark’s vanishing heritage.


A century after 1916



A Not So Perfect Past


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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and almost a century later in 2016. Note that the building at right, in construction in the first image, is now abandoned and awaiting restoration.


Say no to Edison Parking!

Interactive Map of Newark’s Blighted Parking Lots



Comparative Views of Downtown Newark, Then and Now

The views below provide a brief comparison of Newark in the 1960s and now. This gives a loose idea of the kind of human scale architectural fabric demolished to create parking.



Newark’s Parking Crisis


Edison Parking, among many other local institutions such as Rutgers and UMDNJ, has engaged in the systematic destruction of our city’s heritage. In the James Street Commons Historic District, for instance, Edison Parking and Rutgers are the single largest contributors to demolition between 1978 and today, both demolishing dozens of nationally landmarked properties. As Edison Parking continues to consolidate its properties into larger and larger parcels, the question arises: How will this entity develop this land? Will future development respect old Newark and our threatened architectural heritage? These questions remain to be answered. But new development, from Newark’s 200 million dollar arena to Prudential Insurance’s 400 million new headquarters on Broad Street, reveal that our new architecture is often out of time, place, and scale.

Too often the name of progress is invoked to justify the destruction of old. But, not often enough do Newark leaders realize that progress is only attained by using the past as the literal building block toward the future. One can walk through Brooklyn or preserved parts of Manhattan and then ask oneself: Where would Newark be had it preserved its architectural heritage? I do not know, but for certain our city would be in a very different position to rebuild its heritage.

The degree of what was lost only reinforces the need to preserve what remains. Click here for interactive map of Newark past and present.

Below is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on May 19th.



Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.


My name is Myles. I am a proud, lifelong Newarker.


Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.


To the south lies our port and airport, comprising 1/3 of Newark’s land area. Our airport handles 40 million passengers a year. Our port handles over a million containers of cargo a year. Both pollute our air.


Our city is surrounded by highways: Route 78 to the South, The Parkway to the West, Route 280 to the North, and McCarter Highway to the East. Millions of car travel these congested highways every year.


Our urban core is buried in asphalt. Thousands of commuters per day. Millions of cars per year.


Edison Parking is beneficiary of this pollution. Their 60 thousand parking spots are valued in the billions. They make millions on the land of buildings they demolished often illegally. They pay no water bills; their water runs off their lots and into our sewer mains. For a company so wealthy; they contribute little to the health of our city.


One in four Newark children have asthma, far above the national average. Chances are that your children or the friends of your children also have asthma.


I too have asthma. Always had. Always will.


Enough is enough. It is time to develop our city sustainably. Public transportation. Public bike lanes. Public parks. Sustainable infrastructure.


Edison Parking is not a sustainable corporation. When our zoning board approves of the illegal demolition of our historic architecture, they are complacent in this violation of our law. When our zoning board sits silently as Edison Parking uses our lands for non-permissible zoning use, they are not upholding the laws they are subject to.


It is time to change. You, as our elected officials, are in a position to enact the change your public needs. You, as informed citizens of Newark, are responsible for holding corporations accountable to our laws.


This is not a question of complex ethics or morality. It is a matter of common sense. Edison Parking has and continues to demolish our heritage, pollute our air, and violate our laws. Edison parking is breaking its responsibility to the public. Will you hold them accountable?


Please consider the city you want for our children and our future.


Thank you.

New York Walks

The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York

(Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty)

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of the Upper West Side. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Even further, and I reach the mindless bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading “Here is New York” by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past 60 odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

To read more about my walks in New York, click here.

A Tale of Two Places: City & Suburb

Growing up in inner-city Newark and attending school in suburbia, I have always wondered how these two environments were so distinctly different. How could so many cultural and socioeconomic differences exist in communities only a few miles apart? Furthermore, how did the suburban environment of my school effect the urban environment of my home?

Between the Streets: A Story of the New York Grid

I have spent much of my life walking around New York City. And, the layout of this metropolis’ streets has always interested me. I relish in discovering new ways to walk between two places and in finding new streets I have never seen before. Inevitably, I ended up asking myself the following question: How does the layout of New York City streets reflect its history and heritage?


Full Version:

(36 minutes)

Abridged Version:

(18 minutes)

Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, are oppressive. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or… It can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]

Despite the seeming differences between them, most dystopias share one common trait: they resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal police state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestionable control.



The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see diagram below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

2013 Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. But, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are firmly divided. Whereas in the panopticon, this is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, bars, and brute force, in dystopian society, this is a metaphysical or political arrangement where the government values control and observation over communication between citizens.

The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopic police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.



Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,

To arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)

The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the intendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s bureaucrats. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” in which the inmate is its “bearer.” Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.

The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”

The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, one must guard one’s body, one’s language, and one’s thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation”, like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]

Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. And, this constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct”. Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body.



Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.

Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. And, punishments for human communication and self-expression are draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.

As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail.



The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. As already discussed, the citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. But, the state also starts to function independently of its operators. This consequently insures control and order, two of the primary tenets of autocracy.

The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.



Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “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.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often adopts the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose every manifestation is totalitarian and dystopic. The word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.

As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.



Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,

Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)

Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.

Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle of creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, they are almost interchangeable.

The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But, the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:

There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)

According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.

Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. But, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?


Panopticons Throughout History




[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).


Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipédia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Livable City

Livable City


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



Here are a few facts:


One: Bikes are affordable.


On the one hand, the average used car costs $16,000 (National Automobile Dealers Association). On the other hand, the average bike costs less than $500. Cars are 32 times more expensive than bikes, and that’s discounting gas, maintenance, and environmental costs. In a city whose average wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.


Two: Bikes fight poverty.


Over 29% of our population is in poverty. Over 31% of our male and 38% of our female population is obese. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). Poverty, obesity, and lack of exercise are closely correlated. Biking is a form of exercise. Exercise fights obesity and poverty. Newark needs bikes.


Three: Bikes fight childhood obesity.


Newark’s been ranked as one of the least walkable cities in America. We must do something about that. 30% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unfit for walking, running, or biking. 44% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unsafe due to automobile traffic. And, only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Rutgers Center for State Policy). Maybe, there’s a correlation here. Improve the livability of our streets; help our children.


Four: Bikes are sustainable.


Newark is 27 square miles. The average commute within Newark is 11.5 minutes and under 4 miles (US Census). Yet, despite the small size of our city, the average commuter goes by bus and car. Why not by bike? Why not by bike?


Five: We need more bike lanes.

Our city has 320 miles of streets. But our city has few miles of exclusive bike lanes (NJDOT). Bikes are the way to the future. Cars aren’t. We don’t need more room for roads and parking lots. We need more room for bikes.




The culture of the car caused white flight from our city, gave asthma to our children, and destroyed much of our city’s culture and heritage. Newark needs fewer cars. Newark needs more bikes.


We can’t give every Newarker a car, nor should we! But, we can give every Newarker access to biking opportunities.


Every idea has a start. It is true that our bike lanes are not as busy as those in Amsterdam or New York. It is also true that our city government is not enforcing legislation intended to protect our bike lanes. Build our bike lanes well and protect them; people will use them with time.


Change takes time. We don’t have the firm roots of a bike culture. We have only the seeds we need. Plant and grow these seeds of green bikes, green bike lanes, a green waterfront and a green city; and these seeds will take root.


If not now, then when…? If not with bikes, then with what…? If not in our city, then where…?


As a Newarker, I see so much potential in our city. Our city, at the doorstep of New York, is currently the confluence of planes, trains, and buses. So, moving forward, we have the foundations for a more sustainable Newark. Starting today, with bikes, we can create a greater Newark for us all.


Thank You..

Space House

Space House is an exploration of 1950’s futurism and sustainable building practices. The house is round and domed to better maintain heat. Circles are the most cost effective forms because they contain the greatest volume with the least amount of surface area. The house features large, porthole windows to better profit from the view and passive solar heating. In the heat of summer, blinds roll down over the windows to protect from the sun’s glare. The domed cupola and high elevation permit air to better circulate, reducing the need for energy-consumptive air conditioning. The open floor plan permits occupants to design a home to suit their specific needs. Overall, Space House attempts to reconcile the modernism of Buckminster Fuller with current sustainability and environmental challenges.



space house 3

space house 2

fuller 6


Popup Park

Situated in front of New York City’s Flatiron Building is a triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd. The currently underutilized space could become a vibrant public square. Such a park should reflect the vitality and dynamism of its neighborhood. Thousands of pedestrians pass through this highly visible intersection daily.

Popup Park creates a mixed use public space that adapts to its many users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. Each panel is arranged according to the Fibonacci series or the golden rectangle. This permits for a both functional and aesthetically pleasing panel. The geometry of the rectangle partially determines its functional look. The square’s periphery is arrayed with trees to shade the communal area and to offer a respite from the hectic concrete jungle.


urban park 1

urban park 2

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

Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District.  Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but . . . The property’s owner is Edison Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City.  Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line.  His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City read — “Bloomberg is gone.  Time to put the bikes away.”  To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without doing anything.  While waiting, Edison Parking generates huge revenue from surface parking. Often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot.  Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

In fact, demolition is in Edison’s best interest.  Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land.  Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden.  Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption.  In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking.  Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.

Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art.  In this case, the property Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law.  But, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land.  Then, it secretly removed the property’s windows and poked holes in its roof.  Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property.   Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission.  In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.

When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late.  The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.  Sitting directly behind me was a heavy, suburban lady, obviously working for Edison.  Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and  promptly left the meeting.

Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:


My name is Myles.  I am a life long Newark resident.

Parking is a travesty. I have seen . . .

Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.

Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.

Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.

This blight of so-called “development” must stop.

Newark is a city with a strong history.  Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.

Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.

Newark is a lawless city.  Its buildings are testament to that.

Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers are not above the law.  They think they are anyway.

Those who break the law must be held accountable.

Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.

Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”

A thief does not think he will be caught.  A thief does not stop until he is punished.

I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals.  But this commission has . . .

The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.

The power to prevent continued parking construction.

The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.

I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far.  I encourage you to do more.  I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers.  Even if victories may be pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.


In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district.  In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed.  Each time I review these images, I painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage.  Edison Parking is not alone.  Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity.  For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site.  It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures.  As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.


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Loft House

Loft House is a design concept for a modern 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 ornamentation. With Loft House, the heavy cornices and detailed brickwork of traditional loft spaces are reduced to their most basic and pure forms. The open floor plan and exposed structural beams hint at this structure’s historical precedents.

loft house 1

loft house 2


The Legacy of Today

   Rome left a legacy. What will we leave?

Roman Ruins


When one visits the ruins of vanished civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  This architecture is powerful because of its ability to display dignity despite decay, not in spite of it.  These ruins are by all means a legacy.  But, will we too be fortunate enough to leave as indelible a mark for future generations?

To answer this question, it is critical to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture.  This divide is perhaps no better illustrated than by one book:  De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer (also infamous for his nepotism).  For hundreds of years, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, European architects were governed by this book, their user manual and Bible.  His principles of design guided the likes of Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and even da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man.  Yet, despite centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards.  The globalized world of today with its glimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology bears little resemblance to the Rome of centuries ago.  Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in tradition and precedent that modern architecture largely abandons, either rightfully or wrongfully so.  But, so complete a break with the past is questionable without examining the past’s strengths and weaknesses.  Thus, the question arises: What lessons about modern architecture can be drawn from examining Rome’s architecture?

In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of architecture:  firmitasquality, utilitasutility and venustasbeauty.  For Vitruvius, to attain all three and to pass the test of time is the ultimate signifier of great architecture.  But, to fail in this endeavor, through shoddy construction or succumbing to time and the elements, guarantees that a building will be relegated to the dustbin of oblivion.




Unlike modern architecture, the architecture of Vitruvius’s time was governed by strict aesthetic principles.  Above all, Vitruvius emphasizes that architecture must relate to the human body,  “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14).  Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures.  As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so must architecture.  Consequently, the architect becomes less of a freelance designer and more of an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings.  As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top.  As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right.  As the human body considers each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature.

Yet, behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice.  “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173).  There seems to be the following implication:  If perfect buildings replicate perfect humans, then humans are the perfect species, no further evolution required.  Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world.  To the modern world, the existence of the perfect species (or the perfect anything) is laughable given the basic biology mantra:  There is no perfect genotype.  (Nonetheless, it may be possible to forgive Vitruvius, assuming that he never took high school Biology.)  Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress.

Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics.  Building materials have changed; sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic have supplanted stone, earth, and wood.  Scale has also grown, the superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman road and proud obelisk of yesterday. Unlike Vitruvius, the modern architect probably would not lay claim to racial or aesthetic divinity.  The constraints of economy, in tandem with the desire for architectural variety, dictate that modern structures need not model the human form.  Unlike Roman structures, which were almost always perfectly symmetrical, modern structures employ symmetry and ornamentation as mere “icing on the cake,” not as critical components in the architectural scheme.  In other words, the Roman human to building harmony is no longer a guiding principle.

On the one hand, the absence of aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy.  On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder.  For instance, take Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi comparing the plan of Rome to that of Las Vegas.  Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in general adherence to Vitruvius’ principles of perfection.  Most Roman structures have a clearly defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale.  Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their density and orientation.  The scale is human; the city is a microcosm.  On the contrary, Las Vegas, a modern city created virtually overnight, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty.  Consequently, the highway and city street feel hectic and visually crowded.  The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper.  The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle.  Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are merely exaggerations of Main Street and roadside America, which employ the principles of Las Vegas more discretely.  Ancient architecture imbued order; modern architecture imbues confusion.  Yes, anything goes when buildings may adopt any form or any style from any culture, regardless of Vitruvian principles.  But, this variety comes at the cost of aesthetic disarray that would make Vitruvius aghast.

The question then arises:  Might it be possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society?  Probably not.  To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different.  Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests.  Monolithic architecture does not play a comparable role in our society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts.  The profession of architect is also different.  In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to precisely describing engineering methods to be employed by architects.  In our time, the architect is not always an engineer for the complexity of a modern building is far beyond the design abilities of any single person.  Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest.  In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society.

Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse.  Architecture, even if it is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style.  As historian Kenneth Jackson writes:  “History is for losers. [Preservation] is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.”  We cannot and should not emulate Rome because Rome was what it was, and we are what we are.  The identity of the one should not restrict the development of the other.

Met 4.

Firmitas—Quality and Utilitas—Utility


Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not.  Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.

Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures.  He writes:  “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53).  Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last.  In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time.  Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as beautiful in ten years as it will be in a hundred.  This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow.  A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple.  A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.

Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition.  In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes:  “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6).  An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius.  The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers.  The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial.  Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations, gradually refining architecture.

Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase ostensibly coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan).  Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated.  He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment.  This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture.  The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory.  For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function.  Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture.  As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes:  “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for Concern?


Modern architecture radically differs from Vitruvian principles, in terms of both aesthetics and construction.  Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long?  Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Roman forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society?  Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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But, in the end, who am I to judge?  The broken statues, pottery, and amphora proudly displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind nor would they be valued by their creators in the shattered state the public now sees them in.  The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction.  If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments of intent.  Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one.  Perhaps we too may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent.  The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives.  Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask:  How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end?  History has a strange habit of reviving old skeletons and turning trash into treasure.  Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world?  Only time will tell.


St. John the Divine 1


Works Cited:

Venturi, Robert et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972. Print.

Vitruvius, Marcus. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.

Panasonic Petition

I am often aghast when I walk through downtown Newark. The corporate towers of the “Renaissance” Center ignore the very city that gave them millions of dollars in tax breaks. They erect austere metal fences and protect their towers with zealously obedient “security” guards. They are scared of Newark. Ironically, they shun the very hand that fed them.

When Panasonic decided to move their national headquarters to Newark, I hoped they would buck the trend of icy disrespect. But, I saw that their new building turned its back to the city like all the other lifeless behemoths downtown. I wrote the following petition, signed by Newark children during the opening of Riverfront Park.  On June 11, 2012, when the Central Planning Board asked Panasonic to open their grounds for public access, I read my petition.

Panasonic Poster


Dear Mr. Taylor,

We are children of Newark, the new home of Panasonic North America.  We would like to start with Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant”:

There was once a “selfish giant” who had a most beautiful but closely guarded garden, where, to his dismay, all the little children were found playing. Scaring the children away angrily, he built around the garden a high wall, with a sign: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”  Children could no longer go in to play, but dreamed about all the fun behind the wall.  With the children’s absence, the trees never blossomed again, the animals disappeared, and the garden was always barren.  The selfish giant no longer heard the birds or smelled the spring air.  Then, one day, to the giant’s amazement, the garden was in blossom again.  From the window of his fortress, he saw the children had crept through a hole in the wall to play in the garden again.  Finally, the spring had melted his icy heart.  The giant “took an axe to knock down the wall,” and played with the children in the beautiful garden.

When you moved to Newark, we were hoping to have a socially responsible new neighbor.  We expected your home to be different from the corporate winter gardens we have often seen here.

As your glassy home steadily rose, we were mistaken.  Surrounding the building, a tall metal fence with spearheaded points rejects the surrounding world and separates the lonely giant from the city.  Strategically located at the gateway to our city’s newly energized waterfront, the Panasonic winter garden, however, tells a story of the giant in the fortress, his feebleness, his fear, and, most of all, his old urban biases.   We, the children, who were born and grow up in the surrounding neighborhoods, ask you, the giant, to “take an axe and knock down the wall,” and to open your garden to Newark and its people.  As a neighbor, this is the least you can and should do.


The Children of Newark

Panasonic Petition

This petition and the poster above were featured in a June 2017 exhibition about about planning and urban policy. The exhibit was organized by Damon Rich, former planner for the City of Newark, and exhibited at the Yuerba Buena Center for the Arts.




End the Privatization Scheme


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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