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A home is half the promise. (draft of dissertation chapter)

Published to my website privately, under consideration for publication in Journal of American History

How market forces undermined the promise of public housing in Newark

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Building 7 at Newark’s Scudder Homes demolished in summer 1997

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To bring about integration, the first to do is to do it. [….] The change-over to a policy of nonsegregation is not so difficult and troublesome as one anticipates. [….] If a housing authority shows complete sincerity in the change and never retreat from their announced position with respect to non-segregation, the change will be successful. This, in any case, is what we have found to be true in Newark.

– Newark Housing Authority Executive Director Louis Danzig, 1952

 

In 1962, the future of racial integration in Newark looked promising. Newark’s newly elected Mayor Hugh Addonizio praised the movement toward racial integration before a meeting of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Newark City Hall. He described the apparent success of urban renewal to build high-quality public housing projects in black neighborhoods. Thousands of families once lived in wood frame tenements without central heating, interior plumbing, and private bathrooms. They now lived in public housing where, for the first time in their lives, they had their own bedrooms, bathrooms, and year-round steam heating.
Newark’s program of urban renewal cost taxpayers at least 128 million in federal funds (1.4 billion in 2020 dollars) and 53 million in local funds (550 million in 2020 dollars). This program costing by 19677 two billion (adjusted for inflation) gave Newark the fifth most expensive urban renewal program in the nation after New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. An estimated 55,000 more were displaced from their homes in the process, 45,000 for urban renewal and 10,000 for highway construction. By the end of this program, some 37 thousand people, representing about one in every ten Newark residents, lived in public housing.
Just eight years before in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal and that racial segregation laws were not legally enforceable. In the few years before Brown, Newark had already moved to desegregate public housing and to assign residents to whichever of the city’s approximately fourteen public housing projects they preferred. Newark public schools also seemed to offer the promise of racial integration. The city’s population was 66 percent white in 1960 and 34 percent black. This would mean that every public school, if fully integrated city wide, would have two white children for every black child. The mixed incomes and races across Newark seemed to offer the possibility of a future egalitarian metropolis: schools and neighborhoods of both diverse races and diverse incomes.
For all its promises, this program of urban renewal failed spectacularly. By the 1980s, opponents and activists described urban renewal and public housing as “The Second Ghetto,” as high-rise slum housing as dangerous as the ghettoes they were supposed to replace. By 2010, most of Newark’s public housing from the urban renewal age had been demolished. Other lands cleared of homes to build urban renewal projects never found the financing to build and remain vacant lots. Among dozens of high-rise towers of public housing containing thousands of apartments, all but seven towers were demolished. The urban poor were expelled from public housing towers that had become concentrations of crime, drugs, poverty, and decay.
The program had fallen far from its hopeful origins when President Harry Truman signed urban renewal into law with the 1949 Housing Act. Truman announced at the program’s launch: “The private housing industry cannot in the foreseeable future provide decent housing for these families. Their incomes are far too low to cover the cost of new housing of any adequate standard. [….] We have a national responsibility to assure that decent housing is available to all our people.” By 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin famously characterized urban renewal as something “most northern cities now are engaged; it is something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. Getting it means Negro removal; that is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.” In the span of these fourteen years, a program Truman described as the fight to create “decent housing” had evolved into what Baldwin characterized as “Negro removal.”
The reasons behind the failure of public housing are more complex than simple reasons like “Negro removal,” poorly designed architecture, or state hatred for black people. Urbanist thinker Jane Jacobs blamed the failure of public housing on architecture. High-rise towers of public housing, she claimed, were too tall and too modern an architecture for families used to living in old tenements, Victorian townhouses, and rural farms. But the failure of social housing in Newark was not caused by poor design choices, low-quality architecture, or the supposed prejudice of the people who built and directed the program of urban renewal. Nor was the failure of social housing caused by the poor families, and especially rural black families who lived in these houses and were – the legend claims – unprepared for urban life. Instead, the failure has more do with employment discrimination, urban abandonment, and market policies that chose to under-invest in Newark and its people. These private forces collectively ensured the public failure of the Newark Housing Authority’s two billion dollar program of urban renewal.
Fundamentally, public housing in Newark was a two-part promise. Good homes at affordable prices for poor families were one half the promise: a promise met and provided by the public section. Economic mobility and non-discrimination in employment for those living in public housing was the missing half of the promise. It was a promise that the private sector failed to meet in an age of de-industrialization and suburbanization.

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Based on archival records, planning documents from the Newark Housing Authority, and old newspaper articles, read the full report on how public housing in Newark was designed to fail.  →

9,300 words, 23 pages

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Acknowledgements
I thank the archivists of the Newark Public Library and City of Newark Archives for granting me access to the primary sources that make my work possible. I also thank Newark-native Brendan O’Flaherty. His textbook on urban economics framed my understanding of Newark. His unpublished text chapter “How did Newark get to be a city where people aren’t rich?” also provided me a framework to understand the contemporary landscape of poverty in Newark. I am grateful to Zemin Zhang for his research on Louis Danzig and the history of the Newark Housing Authority. Last of all, I am grateful to the residents of Newark public housing, for their struggle and their perseverance to live in a system rigged against them.

Built on a Billion-Dollar Bed of Corporate Tax Breaks

What kinds of tax breaks are we giving to redevelop Downtown Newark?
Who is getting them?

An investigative report on public funds for private profit.

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“Free enterprise is a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich.”
– Noam Chomsky

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Contents

[1] Who owns the land around Mulberry Commons?

[2] If past predicts future, what kind of past tax breaks have we given?

[3] The problem is not tax breaks. The problem is: Who gets them?

[4] How can we ensure equitable economic development in Newark?
Five policy recommendations.

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Artist’s rendering of Newark Penn Station expansion

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Introduction: A Case Study in Edison Parking

The City of Newark borrowed $110 million to pay for a pedestrian bridge over Route 21. This new link between Mulberry Commons and Penn Station will allow travelers, event goers, and sports fans to walk directly from the trains to the games at the arena. Newark City Hall and the media are describing this as Newark’s equivalent and response to New York City’s High Line. This project follows on the already $10 million spent on building Mulberry Commons.
As part of misguided car-centered 20th-century urban planning, thousands of highways were built in our nation through low-income communities of color, to divide the less privileged in hundreds of places like Newark. Through the tools of public investment in public space, now is a moment to make wrong historical injustices like Route 21, Route 22, Interstate 78, and Interstate 280. Now is a historic opportunity for the urban form as tool of reparations.
However, what parts of the public – divided across lines of race, income, and home address – will benefit the most from this project? Will the benefits of this investment disproportionately go to a few people or institutions, such as Prudential Center patrons and Edison Parking tenants?

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The City as Carceral State

Context: The following personal essay accompanied my application for the Gupta Values Scholarship from the University of Michigan. I am sharing it here because it speaks more broadly to my background, education, activism, and research interests.

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Entrance gate to the Old Essex County Jail

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One out of every one hundred black men in my neighborhood of Newark, NJ is currently in prison. At least half have a permanent criminal record as formerly incarcerated people. Most charges are for drug use and possession, often marijuana records from when marijuana was illegal. My earliest memories of Newark are of the homeless walking down our street to the nearby food pantry and young men carrying boom boxes on their shoulders (this was before the iPod). I will always remember observing one woman as she passed our house each day. The first time I saw her, she had been recently evicted and dragged two suitcases behind her. With each passing week, the suitcases gradually grew lighter until – after several weeks – all she had left was a grocery bag of belongings, her dignity gradually stripped away. Up our street was the public housing project of Baxter Terrace – three-story red brick barracks where the urban poor lived under constant police surveillance. Most were unemployed and all were on public welfare.
I remember taking the train to school in the suburbs. In the span of only five miles, vacant lots and abandoned buildings in one of the nation’s poorest cities gave way to large homes on tree-lined streets in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs. The distance of five miles – or in some cases a single city street – was all that separated the poverty of my city from the wealth of its suburbs. At the city limits of Newark, a system of one-way roads, streets without sidewalks, and aggressive “neighborhood watch” signs separated the city from the suburb. On one block, apartment buildings, treeless streets, and bodegas that accepted food stamps. Just one block over, there were century-old trees and four-bedroom homes selling for up to a million dollars. Here in these suburbs, homeowners commuted to Downtown Newark each day and returned home each night, bringing home with them the wealth they made in the city. So little and yet so much separated these two worlds.
Martin Luther King described America in a 1968 speech he gave in Detroit: “There are literally two Americas.  Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. [….] But there is another America. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.” So much and yet so little has changed since 1968. The racial wealth gap is almost the same today as it was in 1970. In Newark, median black family income is less than $30,000. In Newark suburbs, median family incomes are over $100,000.

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Goodbye Baxter Terrace

Written by my father Zemin Zhang on December 2, 2007

 

“I love you darling’
“Baby, you know I do
“But I’ve got to see this Book of Love
“Find out why it’s true”
Every day in 1955, Charles Patrick, 17, and a group of teenagers came together to sing in the Baxter Terrace’s recreation hall.  By 1958, they had sung their heart out and their song, “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” hit the country and even spread as far as Europe and Australia.  “Oh, I wonder, wonder ohm ba doo who….. who wrote the book of love?”  Charles never found the answer and two members of the Monotones, the Ryanes Brothers, died in their 30’s.  Now that Baxter Terrance has been scheduled for demolition, I wonder if people could find some old and broken pages of the Book of Love from the rubble of this 66 year-old project.

 

Immediately after the establishment of the Newark Housing Authority (NHA) in 1938, word spread out that one of  four “low-cost “ projects, a complex of 21 apartment buildings, would be in an area surrounded by Orange, Nesbitt, James, and Boyden Streets.  Among 1,363 buildings in the vicinity, 45 percent residents were black, living in substandard condition, many even without bath tubs and toilets.  (Only 10 percent of the city population was black.)  To construct the largest public housing in the state, the Orange-Nesbitt project needed to clear a few hundred buildings, while the other three (Pennington Court, Seth Boyden Court, and Stephen Crane Village)  would be built on mostly vacant land.  All land negotiations with lucrative commissions were assigned to three white agents, despite of the protest of Harold Lett, the only black NHA member.

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Time-lapse History of the United States

This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.

Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?

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Sources:

1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0

2. Social Explorer. https://www.socialexplorer.com/

3. U.S. population over time

4. Top ten largest U.S. cities over time

Does the American city need a new “public entrepreneur” like Robert Moses?

Performing winter 2022 at The Shed in Hudson Yards is Straight Line Crazy, a two-act play about Robert Moses. He was New York City’s leading planner from the 1930s through 1960s, responsible for 35 highways, 12 bridges, 658 playgrounds and over 2 million acres of parks. Since the publication of Robert Moses’s 1974 biography The Power Broker by Robert Caro, Moses has been variously remembered for the thousands of projects he completed, admired for those public parks that brought communities together, hated for his proposal to carve an expressway through Lower Manhattan, and despised for those infrastructure projects that divided non-White communities.
Act one builds up Robert Moses as the Oxford-Columbia educated planner but with slight populist tendencies in his construction of Jones Beach and hundreds of playgrounds. This script for public consumption is of course incomplete without the mandatory repetition – originating from The Power Broker – that bridges over the access roads to public beaches were too short for buses of Black people to pass under.
Act two takes down Moses by trotting through the usual history with mentions of the 1960s Cross Bronx Expressway. Out of 250,000 people displaced citywide for “slum clearance” and “urban renewal” projects, that highway alone displaced some 40,000 people – mostly tenements of working-class immigrants. In the final scene, a young Black architect employed in Moses’s office repeats James Baldwin’s 1963 claim that “urban renewal means … Negro removal” and confronts Moses saying that her family and everyone she knows was displaced for the Cross Bronx.
That a city planner should be the subject of an off-Broadway play speaks to the enduring power of Robert Moses in the public imagination. Robert Moses succeeded in a profession now weighed down by paperwork and bureaucracy. In his complete vision of a city and ability to execute projects in face of the odds, Robert Moses represents the total power many planners and architects today secretly – or not so secretly – wished they had. Like him or hate him, we cannot seem to forget him.

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Newark Changing: Mapping neighborhood demolition, 1950s to today


Click to launch interactive mapping experience.

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Newark Changing is a first-of-its-kind visual encyclopedia of 2,400 photo comparisons of almost every street corner​​​, home, and building ​​demolished by urban renewal and the social forces behind urban decay.​ Through an interactive and text-searchable historic map, any visitor can travel in time to explore their street and their building as it appeared in the period 1959-68 vs. today. Thousands of old street photos are brought to life with contemporary 360-degree panoramic photos of the same street scenes today, taken from identical camera angles to the old photos. This is the most extensive collection of photo comparisons past and present ever assembled for any American city.
Newark Changing reveals the scale and devastation of urban renewal, not from the aerial perspective of the city planner’s map but from the human perspective of the street corner and neighborhood. Tens of thousands of individual streets, homes, apartments, churches, and Jewish, Black, and Italian-owned businesses in Newark were “redlined” in the 1930s and deprived of investment. Most of these neighborhoods today have been bulldozed for interstate highways, universities, hospitals, and corporate investments in real estate. Billions in taxpayer money (adjusted for today’s value with inflation) was spent in the period 1945 to 1967 to demolish at least 10,000 buildings, displacing 50,000 people, 65-77% of whom were Black. At the same time, the migration of people and jobs away from urban centers deprived cities like Newark of the industrial employment base they once had. Decades after the 1967 rebellion, Newark still struggles to confront and overcome decades of harm inflicted on the city by de-industrialization and population loss to the suburbs.
Street scenes can be browsed by interactive map, by neighborhood, by subject, by street, or by the public institution responsible for demolition. Visitors can thus travel in time to explore today’s empty fields, parking lots, and desolate streetscapes for the vibrant neighborhoods they were before the automobile age.

Launch interactive mapping experience >

A park without trees creates a city without history.

Harriet Tubman Square has the largest and most impressive collection of old-growth trees in Downtown Newark. The oldest trees are over 100 feet high, four-feet diameter at the trunk, and up to 150 years old. The City of Newark’s current proposal is to cut every single tree in our park. The only historical precedent for this is the 1960s project that killed every tree in Military Park to build the parking garage now buried beneath. Based on details and architectural plans revealed through an Open Public Records Act request, this animation shows what is planned for our park:

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Read the plans for the park.

Read our analysis of these plans.

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We cheer for the historic Harriet Tubman Park for a new, prosperous, and most of all just Newark.
However, nobody should even imagine cutting down these 66 century-old trees, oaks, elms, sycamores, all of which represent our history and particularly African-American experience. In America, trees symbolize both freedom and brutal oppression, should any sensible person forget. Unlike any historic treasures – architectural remnants, shriveled old maps, aged documents, or battled artifacts – these trees are among our most valuable historic icons, standing tall for our children.
Tubman embodied the notion of reclaiming the symbolism of trees and woods as tools of freedom in the black tradition. In the antebellum America, abolitionists always voiced lyrics about glorious trees that bore the fruit of freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plan my apple tree.” Tubman was famous for knowing the terrain of trees, woods, and swamps along her journey to freedom. In Tubman’s biography by Sarah Bradford, the black Moses said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold though the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
On the other hand, Billie Holiday sang about fruits produced by these trees: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swing in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ …Here is a strange and bitter crop.” The blood of black men, women, and children who refused to remain silent, and who deserve justice, life, liberty, and love, over the hate that surround them.
Last year, Rutgers Newark restored the history and voices of Frederick Douglass in the Historic James Street Commons. Let us not forget, Douglas also said, “If Americans wished to partake of the tree of knowledge, they would find its fruit bitter as well as sweet.” It is unimaginable that Tubman will allow these venerable trees of knowledge to be annihilated.

Racializing Space

Why does the American city remain so spatially and racially divided?

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Why does the American city remain so spatially and racially divided decades after the 1960s civil rights movement? Practices like redlining, restrictive covenants based on race, segregated public transit, and literacy tests for voting have all been “abolished,” at least on paper and in theory. However, events since spring 2020 have returned to the public consciousness a reality that had always been obvious to millions of Americans living in poverty and in urban areas: that this country remains divided and that the racism of Jim Crow, rather than disappearing, has taken new forms.
Drawing from the perspectives of architecture, planning, sociology, and history, this conversation considers the evidence for how the American city and suburb – specifically Detroit – remain spatially divided and what steps must be taken to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian metropolis. Panelists include:
Karyn Lacy, professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Michigan
LaDale Winling, professor of American history at Virginia Tech
Robert Fishman, professor of history at the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning

A Different Kind of Radiant City: Bucharest

Comparing Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris with Ceaușescu’s plans for Bucharest

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Abstract: Comparing Le Corbusier’s unrealized plans for Paris and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s completed plans for the Romanian capital Bucharest reveals similarities in their urban forms. Analysis of three features in both cities – their nineteenth-century urban forms, the integration of twentieth-century plans into the existing urban forms, and the political symbolism of each plan – reveals the two places as reflections of each other. The comparison matters because it establishes an unconscious aesthetic link between the progressive (almost utopian) urban designs of an architect like Le Corbusier and the repressive (almost dystopian) urban designs of a dictator like Ceaușescu.

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Utopia and totalitarianism are both engaged in a mirroring game, tirelessly sending the same image back and forth as if utopia were nothing more than the premonition of totalitarianism and totalitarianism the tragic execution of the utopian dream. Only the distance that separates a dream from its realization seems to stand between the two.

– Frédéric Rouvillois
Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World [1]

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