The Fiction of Total Vision in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Computer models visualize design limitations in prison architecture.
A case study of two famous prisons, the first imaginary and the second real.

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Section of Author’s Computer Model

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Question: How would the panopticon have appeared if built to Bentham’s exact specifications?

Abstract: By translating Bentham’s descriptions and measurements into a computer model, we visualize how the panopticon would have appeared if built. Typically, historians relied on drawings, which hide key aspects of Bentham’s design

I introduce and visually analyze two structures. First is the panopticon, a type of prison, designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, popular in the 19th century. Second is Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison to follow the panopticon plan, completed 1829 by architect John Haviland. By analyzing descriptions and measured plans of both buildings, I created computer models that can be explored in virtual reality. From this digital perspective, I contrast Bentham and Haviland’s claims of what their architecture accomplishes versus what this architecture actually accomplishes – intention vs. reality. Bentham claims his ideal prison is all-seeing; Michel Foucault accepted this dubious claim without question when writing Discipline and Punish in 1975. The computer model, more than drawings or measured plans, allows interrogation of the panopticon design. This process allows us to (1) examine Foucault’s assumptions about the panoption and (2) arrive at a more accurate analogy of how the panopticon symbolizes the surveillance state.

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The Panopticon

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Jeremy Bentham (b.1748 d.1832), an English Utilitarian philosopher, designed the panopticon c.1787. Panopticon comes from a Greek word: pan (all) + opticon (seeing) = all-seeing. He describes how this architecture monitors and reforms souls over 21 chapters contained in the Panopticon Letters (link to read e-book).

Bentham’s proposal is simple: a 100-foot diameter circular room with cells ringed around the perimeter and stacked in up to six floors. In the circle’s center, a tower rises from which guards (standing in corridors marked D below) survey all the surrounding cells (marked H). The tower’s one-way blinds allow the jailer to look out, but prohibit prisoners from looking in. Bentham claims a guard can survey all the incarcerated individuals with a single sweep of the eye. The panopticon articulates how a prison that facilitates total surveillance in the pre-CCTV era.

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To accompany his descriptions, Bentham commissioned architect Willey Reveley c.1791 to draw the panopticon’s plan and section. As the panopticon spread in popularity and inspired the design of around 300 other prisons, Reveley’s drawings recirculated in trade journals and academic writing. Although architects stopped building panopticons and radial prisons in the 1930s, the panopticon’s image still circulates. Today, this image is often evoked as the symbolic representation of the surveillance state. Spread across the internet and on thousands of web-pages the same few tired images of Bentham’s creation appear again and again. It is, perhaps, the most influential prison ever imagined but never built to Bentham’s exact specifications. Nor has anyone followed Bentham’s instructions to visualize the panopticon’s appearance if built. It remains a perverse dream building.

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Click ► to launch 3D experience.

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To digitize Bentham, I built the first, accurate-to-the-inch, and open-source panopticon computer model. The model is featured online and displayed above. It is free for anyone with CAD software to download and edit from 3D Warehouse. To navigate through this space:

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– Click the numbered annotations to fly through and learn about individual features
Click and hold to rotate the model
Shift click and drag to pan across surfaces
Zoom in and out with two fingers on trackpad

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To understand how Bentham’s building operated, I base this model on the exact dimensions Bentham gives in his letters and from Reveley’s drawings. For instance, Bentham writes:

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Taking the diameter 100 feet, this admits of 48 cells, 6 feet wide each at the outside, walls included; with a passage through the building, of 8 or 9 feet. I begin with supposing two stories of cells. In the under story, thickness of the walls 2 feet. From thence, clear depth of each cell from the window to the grating, 13 feet. From thence to the ends of the partition walls, 3 feet more…

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Bentham’s text is incomplete. He only provides dimensions for the panopticon’s major features. He does need to specify minor details like window size, staircase location, or railing height. By following Bentham’s measurements for the overall structure, I estimate measurements of features Bentham overlooks.

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The images above show the exterior and interior. The exterior is a 48-sided circle with one window per cell. The interior has rows of metal gangways that link the cells to spiral stairs that go from floor to floor. It is a self-contained circular world.

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Above are two views. The first is what the guard sees looking into cells. Windows back-light the prisoners, like shadow puppets. The second is what the prisoner sees looking to the guard tower: a blank wall of Venetian blinds. This one-way visibility ensures the guards watch the prisoners without the prisoners’ knowledge. Thus, the prisoner must guard his actions at all times because he does not know when he is watched. Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish how:

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Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He 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 division of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is the guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at escape. (page 200)

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The above claim becomes questionable when assessed in light of what the computer model tells us. Reveley’s drawing show cell bars flush with the partition end. Standing in the cell’s middle and staring forward to the guard tower, it is true prisoners cannot see into other cells. But, by merely standing near the cell’s front and shifting his angle of view sharply left or right, the prisoner can see his neighbors, due to the space’s  internal curvature. The photo below approximates his view; the Venetian the guard tower is at left and cells are at right.

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Prisoner’s View of Other Cells

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To prevent visual communication between cells, bars cannot be flush with partitions. The bars must be recessed behind the side walls as shown below at right. Bentham writes in 1787: “To cut off from each prisoner the view of every other, the partitions are carried on a few feet beyond the grating into the intermediate area: such projecting parts I call the protracted partitions” (Letter II). It is surprising that four years later, when Bentham commissioned Reveley, protracted partitions were neglected and bars were flush with partitions to produce as large a cell as possible.

However, adding protracted partitions makes each cell ~30% smaller, with much of the prisoners’ living space wasted. The figure below left shows where Reveley positions the bars. The figure at right shows where they need to be positioned to prevent visual communication. Regardless of how effective these side walls are, they fail to prevent sound from traveling. Circular interiors are known for echoing qualities that permit sound to travel farther. Unless prisoners are prohibited from speaking, sound will travel; they will communicate.

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Section revealing diminished living spaces in cells

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The section above shows several cells. People are included for scale. We see how each cell is, in fact, quite small. Bentham proposes to employ prisoners with machinery in each cell, such as looms or potter’s wheel. Bentham does not account for how it is possible to fit a workshop, running water, and a bed into space measuring only 4’4″ by 9′ (1.33 by 2.74 meters) or ~40 square feet. The present-day standards of the “European Committee for the Prevention of Torture suggest a minimum (not a norm) of 65 square feet for a prison cell occupied by one person,” well above Bentham’s proposal. If the bars were pushed forward to produce larger cells, the area would be 60 square feet, still small. Ironically, Bentham’s prison, planned as a utopian experiment, could not be built today for legal reasons.

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Guard’s View of Cells

Recessing the cells with protracted partitions prevents prisoners from seeing each other. But, this also prevents guards from seeing prisoners. Because the panopticon is six floors high, a guard standing at the ground floor cannot see six stories up. The photo at left shows the guard’s point of view standing at the ground floor. He sees into the ground floor cells. But above the second floor, the passages, stairways, and angle of view obscures all visibility.

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Panorama from Guard’s Viewpoint

Section showing guard’s cone of vision

 

Recognizing this problem, Bentham placed surveillance corridors at every other floor. For every two floors of cells, there was one viewing platform for guards. Instead of one central point, there were now three viewing points, each with its cone of vision over two floors of cells.

This solution still does not solve the visibility problem. The photo above is a 180° panorama from the guard’s viewpoint. From any angle, the guard can see into no more than eight cells. The rest are made invisible by odd angles and poor optics. To continually survey, the guard must walk circles round and round as shown in the plan below. Bentham describes three guards surveying 288 prisoners total. If each of the three guards only sees eight cells at a time and is continuously walking, then only 24 inmates (3×8) out of 288 are visible at a time, about 8% of inmates.

It might be unnecessary for guards to see everything at once. Bentham, Foucault, and Deleuze describe members of surveillance society as “self-disciplining.” That is, the knowledge they could be watched at any moment but do not know when they are watched causes them to act as if they were always watched. Bentham suggests the guard does not need to be staffed; architecture alone becomes the means of “obtaining power of mind over mind” (from Preface). However, I remain skeptical this architecture would succeed at self-disciplining people, in light of the small cell sizes, the inability to prevent auditory communication, and the reliance on guards to continually walk a “treadmill.” By analogy, everyone knows their internet search history could be watched and that it is unsafe to use a non-password protected public wifi network. And yet, upwards of 70% of people continue checking their emails and exposing their passwords on public networks. The knowledge you could be watched seems partial but not full deterrent.

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The plan below shows the guard’s cone of vision from a stationary position. The areas visible to him are in white, and his blind-spot is in red.

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Calculations that only 8% would be visible at a time are at odds with when Bentham writes the panopticon:

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[…] affords a perfect view, and the same view, of an indefinite number of apartments of the same dimensions: that affords a spot from which, without any change of situation, a man may survey, in the same perfection, the whole number. (Letter V)

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Or when Foucault writes:

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The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. […] Full lighting and the eye of the supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap. (page 200)

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As Ivan Manokha writes in Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age: “Bentham’s Panopticon had an important flaw, namely, the possibility that the watched might one day try to find out whether they are indeed being watched. An inmate could hazard, entirely at random, a minor pardonable transgression; if this transgression goes unnoticed, then he could commit another, this time more serious, transgression” (pages 231-32).

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Above and below are two views of the chapel situated in the prison’s center. All cells, walkways, and tunnels radiate from this sacred point. A glass oculus lights the space (evocative of heaven). A hole in the ground permits light to penetrate the kitchens and service areas beneath (evocative of hell). Bentham designed heating shafts through the structural, iron support columns and through the walls (like a Roman hypocaust) so that smoke and heat produced in the basement rose through and heated each cell.

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Visual analysis of this chapel reveals further design challenges. Reveley’s drawing indicates no dividing wall separating central chapel from perimeter cells. This is a problem. Prisoners could see other prisoners through from across the chapel, as indicated in the photo below left. Bentham goes so far to suggest the prisoners attend chapel without leaving their cells, as if they were theatergoers with a private box. During mass, the panopticon is inverted; the many watch the few. Bentham writes how:

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[…] the prisoners remaining in their cells, and the windows of the lodge, which is almost all window, being thrown open. The advantages derivable from it [the chapel] in point of light and ventilation depending upon its being kept vacant, it can never be wanted for any profane use. It may therefore, with the great propriety, be allotted to divine service, and receive a regular consecration.

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To solve this problem, a screen wall must be erected, as shown below right. This addresses visibility but makes the guard’s surveying job yet more difficult. This also allows prisoners to carry out transgressions without being seen by other prisoners.

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This model illustrates technical aspects of panopticon design. How would it be built? What would be the guard’s angle of view into a cell, or the prisoner’s view outside? How would the blinds be oriented to prohibit prisoners from seeing guards? How much would natural light penetrate the interior? (It is possible natural light alone would be insufficient to illuminate the interior by day.) How long would the protracted partitions be? (Bentham might have underestimated prisoner communication.) How would the architecture prevent escape? (Our model shows several blind-spots.)  If built, how would this architecture feel?

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Before commissioning Reveley, Bentham created the two sketches above. These are among the earliest known images of the panopticon. Over his career, Bentham refined his design through prison visits and interactions with prison reformers like John Howard. Although my model is based on Reveley’s later drawings, these earlier drawings show evolution in Bentham’s thinking. Compared to Reveley, the initial drawings shows still more blind-spots, but that is for another essay.

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Radial Prisons

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While no panopticon was built to Bentham’s exact measurements, numerous architects drew on Bentham’s design. Philadelphia’s Eastern State (1829) and London’s Pentonville (1842) Prisons were the first. Architects modified Bentham’s circle to form a radial prison with guardhouse in center and long, rectangular cell-blocks radiating out. See the plan below of Eastern State Penitentiary.

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ACCESS HALLWAYS     CELLS     INDIVIDUAL RECREATION YARDS

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If the panopticon is the most influential unbuilt prison, Eastern State was the most influential built one in the 19th century. Architects and authors like Alexis De Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited Eastern State. Most major 19th century prisons follow this radial model. From Transforming the Treatment: Architecture and Moral Management by Carla Yanni:

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Each inmate had his or her own exercise yard, available for one hour a day. A central tower made it possible for a guard to observe some of the exercise yards, but not all, and the guard could not actually see the prisoners in their cells: Bentham’s notion of surveillance and Foucault’s concept of internalized control were not quite activated here. Rather, it was the isolation of the person, the total distance from others, that would serve to control. The radial plan was copied more by European than by other American prison builders, and Eastern State became known as a tourist attraction; in 1839, four thousand visitors, including school-children, toured the prison. (page 49)

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I continued my study by building an accurate-to-the-foot model of Eastern State (embedded in the window below). I followed the same methodology as I did for Bentham. Measurements are deduced from original plans, the report for the National Parks Service, and measurements of satellite images. From this process, the differences emerge between the panopticon as proposed and as ultimately realized at Eastern State.

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Click ► to launch 3D experience.

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With some modifications, the panopticon’s generalized form survives. Eastern State addressed some of Bentham’s challenges. Prisoners were now separated; visual and auditory communication between cells was now impossible. Cell size increased from 40 square feet with Bentham’s plan to between 90 and 120 square feet with Haviland. Each of Haviland’s prisoners had an individual exercise yard for use one hour per day; it measured between 104 and 144 square feet. Room was also given for building expansion as needed including up to seven more cellblocks, a chapel, and hospital, etc. The panopticon, by contrast, was designed had fixed capacity and could not be expanded without either building a new structure nearby or by putting more people per cell (thereby defeating Bentham’s goal of solitary confinement).

This model shows Eastern State as it appeared from 1829-71 during this prison’s most culturally influential period. The current Eastern State is much modified from the original. Later population growth required abandoning solitary confinement and demolishing the triangular garden wedges between cellblocks. Almost all individual recreation yards were later demolished. Originally, the red cells were entered from the exterior and not via the green access hallways. Later, doors were cut into the walls to give direct access between cells and access corridors. Construction post-1871 obscured the visual and aesthetic clarity of Haviland’s initial plan. Today, given these additions and decay, it is harder to see the geometric order early visitors admired. My model thus “restores” Eastern State and visuals the prison as architects saw it before.

This model also illustrates how radial prisons are not truly all-seeing. The plans below show how from the central guard tower, fewer than half the yards and ground areas were visible. Invisible areas are shaded black. Only the tops of the cells and roofs but no prisoners in their cells and exercise yards – were visible. The guard tower was symbolically but not actually all-seeing.

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Years later, on account of blind-spots, this guard tower was rebuilt ~30 feet higher. The panorama below recreates the 360° view from the original 1829 tower. From this angle, no prison cells are visible. The top of some exercise yards are visible, but not the prisoners in them Only when prisoners attempted escape would they enter the tower’s cone of vision.

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“Panoramic” view from guard tower. Click image for full size.

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Section Showing Blind-spots

The section above shows a single cellblock. Areas visible to guards are colored. Areas invisible are grayed out. Down the center runs a double-height corridor. To either side, are two rows of stacked cells. The cell doors were made of solid wood with peepholes to permit guards to view. The peephole produced a limited cone of vision into each cell. The exterior areas in color fall within the central guard tower’s cone of vision.

Prisoner surveillance here, contrary to impressions the radial form may give, was not any more continuous than in Bentham’s panopticon. Originally, the guard had walk through the corridor, with padded shoes to muffle footsteps, and open the peephole into each cell, one by one. Yet, interrupted surveillance was less a problem here (than it would be with Bentham) considering prisoners could not see or speak to neighbors and could not get up to trouble because rooms were sparsely furnished with items difficult to use in escape. Total vision seem unnecessary for total control.

Similar to our first model, this restoration process encourages interrogating the architecture. Questions emerge: How much of the prison did guards actually see? How much space was obscured from the “all-seeing” center point. How did this architecture feel? Here too, the suggestion of total vision was partial fiction. There was no central point. But the architectural form with radiating wings radiating suggests illusions of total vision and control. Perhaps, the guard tower is as much practical surveillance tool as it is symbol of oppression. In later years, prison wardens mounted a clock on the tower, as if to remind prisoners of who gives or takes time from their lives.

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The Digital Panopticon

Why do these conclusions matter?

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The panopticon is a dream structure, a building that must be abstracted from architectural reality. The moment it is built, the panoptic ideal is victim to imperfections brought by faulty construction, decay brought by time, or prisoner revolt brought by negligent guards.

Contrary to Bentham and Haviland’s initial thinking, architecture alone cannot possibly reform souls. When Haviland and Philadelphia Quakers constructed Eastern State, they predicted architecture could inspire penitence. The prison’s somber, castle-like exterior with gargoyles and lancet windows silently evoked the punishments behind doors; the crime-deterrent exterior was a warning to potential criminals of punishments awaiting them. Yet, reformers soon realized inmates’ mental and physical health was little better at Eastern State than in earlier, non-reform prisons. The problem was the guards. They are the social dimension of prisons individuals who, through their success or failure to do their job, make the architecture powerful or powerless. As Bentham asks: “Who guards the guards?”

Bentham’s panopticon succeeds as metaphor for institutional power and surveillance because it remains unbuilt. Foucault can claim the panopticon “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power” (page 206) so long as there is no evidence to the contrary from any Bentham’s pantopticon no complaints from prison wardens, records from frustrated Parliament, or evidence of prisoner escape. Of the radial prisons inspired from Bentham, most were later demolished, abandoned, or upgraded. The scheme is not so simple as Bentham describes, as its success depends on correctly executing small details. If the protracted partitions were too short, blinds incorrectly angled, or windows too small to illuminate interiors, then prisoners could have exploited these flaws, eroding the illusion of an infallible and perfect architecture. If built to Bentham, perhaps the panopticon would descend in history not as an ideal structure but as an extravagant folly from the mind of an eccentric philosopher turned dilettante architect.

Is the goal of total control and total power impossible to realize? The architectural panopticon when applied to the design of prisons, institutions, and cities relies on optics. It depends on physical upkeep and uninterrupted sight lines. Today’s digital panopticon that relies on internet, social media, and phone surveillance seems more powerful. This digital system no longer relies on optics; its hardware is dispersed over innumerable servers in silent warehouses that collect and analyze limitless data. This system can, in theory, be remotely controlled and monitored from anywhere.

However, the digital panopticon might not be so centralized. Information collection is accomplished by different agencies working at cross-purposes, such as Facebook, Google, government, marketers, etc. Although information is collected, information is not centrally analyzed, at least not yet. Foucault identifies the panopticon as all-seeing and all-powerful. Foucault claims the panopticon metaphorically follows us through all stages of life, through various disciplinary institutions from the school, through university, military, workplace, and old age home. Bentham writes the panopticon “will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.” Foucault similarly speaks of panopticons as monolithic institutions. The irony of Foucault’s analogy is that the architectural form on which he bases his analogy is not, in fact, monolithic or all-powerful. Nor is digital surveillance monolithic, at least not yet. From Jan Kietzmann and Ian Angell’s Panopticon Revisited:

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The data that are available are stored in departmental silos, and are not always directly coupled or connected. By and large, activities within the justice system are recorded and treated independently of each other. Individual database systems manage various categories of offence, and in most cases allow for little data flow between systems. Even when feedback loops do connect systems to each other (such as one database to another, or human agents to technological systems), updating the respective entries rarely happens in real-time. (page 137)

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Based on self-reported data, Google thinks I am a 97 year old female with March birthday. When I search the internet, Google shows me ads for mobility scooters, hair products, and depression drugs. Despite all Google collects, there is little to tell Google my real age and birthday, although my medical records, telephone bill, and bank statement all indicate otherwise. Similarly, Bentham’s panopticon is a single structure that claims to be all-seeing but is, in fact, divided into as many “departmental silos” as there are surveillance corridors. The guards in these corridors act autonomously, cannot see each other, and cannot survey each other’s prisoners.

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Centro de Operações: Rio de Janeiro

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Here is Rio de Janeiro’s central operations center. Completed 2010 by city government in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, this center integrates data from ~50 city agencies into a single workspace. About 900 cameras in public transport and streets are linked to the screens. From this location, bureaucrats monitor traffic, weather, flooding, fires and then issue public warnings and dispatch emergency teams from the crisis room. When opened, this was compared to a NASA space launch or to a James Bond style science fiction film.

Does this digital system accomplish total control and surveillance? Nine years later, evidence is inconclusive. This command center does speed up some city operations and does symbolize government commitment to improving quality of urban life. But, in other aspects, it does not succeed. Data is retained for no more than 90 days, thereby hindering long-term planning and studies of urban change over time. Nor is data publicly available to view, download, and understand, which raises questions of accountability and transparency. The public knows they are watched, but not when and not how. Bentham’s questions re-emerges in digital form: “Who guards the guards?”

Only in the future, as more cities construct or attempt to construct – surveillance systems for total control will we answer this question: Is the digital panopticon subject to the same human flaws and blind-spots as the architectural panopticon? Our analysis of Bentham’s panopticon and Eastern State question an all-powerful and all-seeing architecture. Instead, we might speak of an imperfect architecture with multiple surveillance areas and agents who cannot communicate with each other.

Foucault assumes the panopticon is all-seeing. Based on this assumption, he presents the surveillance state as all-seeing. He cites disciplinary institutions that follow us through life, controlling everything. Foucault’s surveillance argument is totalizing and all-encompassing. However, re-assessing Bentham’s surveillance structure as multi-nodal and dispersed produces a stronger analogy of the digital surveillance state we actually live in. By analogy, the surveillance state is not centralized but dispersed. In the future, these disciplinary institutions may converge and share data. For instance, Facebook and Google might link data collection to the NSA, or all a country’s surveillance cameras might link to a central database. We do not yet live in that kind of society. But it is conceivable we one day will. Until we do, our digital panoticon remains as fragmented as Bentham’s architectural panopticon.

This question leaves us at the frontier. At the moment, unlike the prisoners in Eastern State who were confined there against their will, we modern netizens can still opt out of the digital panopticon simply by turning off our phones, or not using a phone. And on that note, it is time I end this essay and power off my own phone.

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Related Links:

Read Bentham’s Panopticon Letters
See the original architectural drawings in UCL

View panopticon in virtual reality
Download panopticon from 3D Warehouse (requires software to edit)

View Eastern State in virtual reality
Download Eastern State from 3D Warehouse (requires software to edit)

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.

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Music: Panning the Sands by Patrick O’Hearn
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Text from animation is copied below:

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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
(shapefile)
– 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.

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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.

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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:

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  • 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.

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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.

Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

 

 

 

Canal & Mott Streets

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the US, prohibited Chinese females from immigrating on grounds of prostitution, and revoked the citizenship of any US citizen who married a Chinese male. The consequences of this xenophobic legislation led Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around 50 thousand (2010 US Census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.

Doyers Street – Barbershop Row

Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the 1800s: Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. What makes the Chinese different, though, is the survival and resilience of the immigrant community they created. Other immigrant groups – namely the Germans and Irish – converged around large neighborhoods and surrounded themselves with familiar language and businesses. Of these 1800s enclaves, all have since disappeared as the children of these first-generation immigrants successfully assimilated into American society, earned higher incomes than their parents, and therefore chose to disperse to non-immigrant neighborhoods with better housing stock and schools. Yet, the Chinese remained.

The resilience of this community results from a confluence of factors: cultural, geographic, and (most of all) racial. Of innumerable immigrant groups to the US, the Chinese were among the only to have the most restrictive laws placed on their immigration. This stigma drove them toward three types of low-skilled manual labor – with which white Americans still deeply associate with the Chinese – laundries, restaurants, and garment manufacturing. Like the Chinese, other groups – particularly Irish-immigrant females – began working in these professions, but they soon climbed the social ladder.

Mosco & Mulberry All

As an architectural historian, I am fascinated about how this political and racial agenda of exclusion is imprinted in the built environment of Chinatown. To present this neighborhood’s geography: For most of its history, Chinatown was bordered to the north by Canal Street, to the east by Bowery, and to the South and West by the city’s federal courthouse and jail. The center of this community lies on the low wetland above a filled-in and polluted lake, called the Collect Pond. Historically, this area contained the city’s worst housing stock, was home to the city’s first tenement building (65 Mott Street), and was the epicenter for waterborne cholera during the epidemics of 1832 (~3,000 deaths) and again in 1866 (1,137 deaths). The city’s first slum clearance project was also in Chinatown, at the present-day Columbus Park.

Race-based policies of exclusion can take different forms in the built-environment. The quality of street cleaning and the frequency of street closures are a place to start. Some of the city’s dirtiest sidewalks and streets are consistently located within Chinatown – as well as some of the most crowded with street vendors (particularly Mulberry and Mott Street). Yet, as these streets continue northward above Canal Street, their character markedly changes. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are unkempt and always open to traffic and truck deliveries.

The street sections immediately north (in the enclave of Little Italy) are frequently cleaned and closed for traffic most of the year to create a car -free pedestrian mall bordered by Italian restaurants. These policies continue when examining the proximity of Chinatown to centers of political power and criminal justice. Since 1838, the city’s central prison (named the Tombs because of its foreboding appearance) is located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street.

Bayard & Mulberry Grocery

Yet, although this neighborhood was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a below-average crime rate, the incarceration rate of 449 per 100,000 people is higher than the city average. NYC Open Data also reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Or, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank – on allegations of mortgage fraud later found false in court by a 12-0 jury decision in favor of Abacus.

When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the hand, there is a proclaimed love of Chinese cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Chinese-themed restaurants for tourists in Chinatown, or as evidenced by the phenomenon in art history for western artists (and particularly French Impressionists) to incorporate decorative motifs from East Asian woodcuts and ceramics into their work. There is simultaneously exclusion of the people – from the society who created this food and art – from political power and social mobility. Still today, Americans seem to want competitively priced Chinese products without suffering the presence of the foreigners who produced these products.

Forsyth & Delancey Grocery

Let us clarify one thing: the division in Chinatown is by no means “apartheid.” It is perhaps a division more subtle and difficult to notice. It expresses the kind of unequal treatment – antiquated housing, crowded conditions, and municipal apathy – that face many immigrant groups in the US. What we see in Chinatown is something altogether more complicated – as this neighborhood is also active in the process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Chinese businesses. If and when Chinese immigrants become fully integrated into American society, to what extent should the architectural fabric of this Chinese enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is possibly a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?

This essay originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Click here to read this essay in its original format.

Geography of Incarceration

 

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Between 1 January 2013 and 31 December 2017, the New York Police Department (NYPD) made 102,992 arrests for the possession, sale, and/or use of marijuana. 1 While only 25.5% of New Yorkers are Black, 67.5% of marijuana arrests are of Blacks. Similarly, 18 out of 20 marijuana arrests are of male individuals, even though only 13 out of 20 marijuana users are male. 2 Males more than females and Blacks more than others are arrested for marijuana. While these two aspects of the “War on Drugs” are widely known, less discussed is the clustering of marijuana arrests in specific hotspots.

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Race

Percentage of New Yorkers who identify as this race 3

Percentage of marijuana arrests of individuals belonging to this race

White

44.0%

11.2%

Black

25.5%

67.5%

Asian/Pacific Islander

12.8%

4.2%

Other

17.7%

17.1%

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These arrests are disproportionately of Black males between the ages of 18-44 from low-income communities, even though this demographic represents less than 10% of the city’s population. Why should this matter? Arresting individuals for using a relatively harmless and non-addictive drug is expensive for the taxpayer. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the city spent $75 million on marijuana arrests and prosecution per year 4 – money that could have been put to more effective use on education, awareness, etc. This policy also unfairly targets the individuals to whom the consequences of arrest, incarceration, and bail are highest.
The common argument, and the grounds on which marijuana was initially made illegal, is that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Marijuana supposedly introduces and later encourages individuals to experiment with more dangerous and addictive substances. Whether or not this is true, the arrest and punishment of individuals for marijuana may incur the equal risk of serving as a “gateway crime” to the legal system.

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Click here to view this pie chart in more detail.

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Below are three maps of neighborhood “hotspots” for marijuana arrests. The income of every block is indicated on a red to green color scale from low to high. Population of Latinos and Blacks per square mile is also indicated; unsurprisingly, these groups cluster in low-income neighborhoods. On this base map is the geo-referenced address of every arrest for marijuana possession or sale from 2013 to 2017. Of particular note is the tendency for marijuana arrests to occur in low-income neighborhoods. For instance, Manhattan’s 96th Street represents an income divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and the comparatively poorer Harlem. Drawing a “thin blue line” down 96th, we also identify an unspoken policing boundary. Marijuana arrests are significantly less likely to happen in the majority white neighborhood south of 96th than in the majority black neighborhood north, even though both neighborhoods are of comparable population density. According to the UCLA: “Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.” 5 Similarly, the wealthy and majority white neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx has few arrests in comparison to the poorer and majority black West Bronx, even though these two neighborhoods are less than mile apart.

 

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Research Methodology and Sources

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Note that on the above map, there are numerous low-income neighborhoods without any drug arrests. This is largely because these areas have little to no population, such as Central Park or La Guardia Airport.

This project was assembled entirely publicly-available data. I began by downloading anonymized microdata on the race, crime, gender, and age of every individual arrested by NYPD, as well as the address where this individual was arrested. Of the approximately 1.7 million arrests in this spreadsheet, I filtered out the marijuana crimes. The colored basemap indicating per capita income and race by city block is extracted from Tableau Public, the mapping software I use. The infographics presented above can be explored or downloaded at this link. Arrest data is from NYC Open Data at this link.

  1. Marijuana arrests represent 5.98% of all arrests made during this time period.
  2. From “Statista,” accessed 15 January 2019, link to statistic.
  3. From the United States Census Bureau, 2010 statistics on NYC demographics, link to report, link to database.
  4. From the Drug Policy Alliance, accessed 15 January 2019, link to press release, link to report.
  5. From the American Civil Liberties Union, accessed 18 January 2019, link to article.

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?

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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 freesound.org

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Introduction

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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.

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Case Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs

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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.

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125,594 records above

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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?

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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

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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.

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128,212 records above

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Case Study Two:

Contextual preservation?

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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

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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:

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Borough . Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

NYC

Totals

Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560

17,325

 

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

1,512

 

17,504
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

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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

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Case Study Three: Keeping up to pace?

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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.

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5,451 records above

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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.

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93,691 records above

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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.

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Case Study Four:

How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?

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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.”

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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%

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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:

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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%

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Conclusion: The Future of Historic Preservation

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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

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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.

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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.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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Footnotes

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, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Individual-Landmarks/ch5p-r223 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/LPC-Individual-Landmark-and-Historic-District-Buil/7mgd-s57w (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) https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8HD7TVM (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. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/zoning/zoning-text/allarticles.pdf (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 https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/open-data/meta_mappluto.pdf?v=18v1 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, https://www.westminster.gov.uk/conservation-areas (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Historic-Districts/xbvj-gfnw (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, http://architecturaltrust.org/~architec/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1a-2009-0512-Robins-Report.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (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, https://www.mas.org/initiatives/public-assets/ (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  15. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, http://culpa.info/quotes?professor_id=97 (retrieved 5 November 2018).

New York Penn Station: Past and Present

Published by Viewing NYC on 15 May 2019.

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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

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

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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

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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.

A 2015 article from the New York Times asks the question: What does architecture sound like? Considering this question, I thought to record the sights and sounds of the current Penn Station. So, the audio accompanying each frame in the video above is accurate to what the place sounds like from the location shown. The audio for the old Penn Station is my imaginative reconstruction of how the original station might have sounded like. Surely, the high stone walls, glass interiors, and electric trains beneath would have evoked a different aura and sound of luxurious rail travel. This sound track is copied from recordings and moving images made of NYC in 1911 and preserved at MoMA.

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Exterior

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Shopping Arcade and Waiting Hall

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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, who shouted at me to get off what they claimed was “private property.”

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Train Concourse

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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).

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Computer Simulation

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Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19

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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.

Why?

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.

What does “progress” mean to the American city?

PostcardT.

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.

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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 slightly 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

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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.

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Newark’s Parking Crisis

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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.