Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

1. Preservation New Jersey: Ten Most Endangered Historic Places  May 18, 2021
2. After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’  May 18
3. Newark Historic District Designated as Endangered  May 18, 2021
4. James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School  May 6, 2021
5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Not even at NJIT   February 1, 2021
6. SHPO Delays NJIT’s Plan to Raze 4 Historic Buildings    January 8, 2021
7. NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed   January 7, 2021
8. Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison – But Only If It Survives   July 4, 2020
9. NJIT’s Plans to Modernize Its Campus Could Cost Newark Some History   March 12, 2020

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James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

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Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.

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A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021,[1] and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.

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Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.

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Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)

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Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.

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1. Architecture of Fear at NJIT

NJIT’s newest architecture does not actively promote urban street life. For instance, Fenster Hall opened in 2004 at a cost of 83.5 million dollars. The architect Charles Gwathmey told the audience at the building’s dedication: “University buildings…have an obligation to give the campus a sense of place, and happily, that is what we are achieving here.” The main entrance to Fenster Hall faces inward to the campus community. Meanwhile, the side that faces toward the neighborhood and city is the parking garage and eight stories of bare concrete that rise straight up with no windows at ground level.

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The photo above is the side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the neighborhood. The emergency police call box and video surveillance signs might make out-of-town car commuters feel safe. But defensive architecture perversely has the opposite effect of making local residents, who must live with this architecture, feel excluded and surveilled.
Activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote that attractive and safe neighborhoods to live in will always have “eyes on the street.” In her ideal neighborhood, shop windows, apartments, and urban life always face to the street. In active and mixed-use neighborhoods where people both live and work, there is always 24-hour street life and therefore people looking from their windows onto the street at all times.
The blank walls and surveillance cameras surrounding NJIT’s campus can be justified on grounds of public safety. However, hostile architecture that turns away from the city eliminates eyes on the street and, ironically, encourages the kind of crime it was built to defend against. In successful campus architecture, there will be reduced need for surveillance cameras.

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The side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the city discourages street life and looks like a fortress. There once was a brick mansion here like the Ballantine House or Krueger-Scott Mansion.

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Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn
Google Earth street view image

NJIT Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

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Sidewalk view of NJIT Microelectronics Center

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Warren Street School: NJIT says the building is too fire damaged to save.
The photo above shows the building after the fire.

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Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

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Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

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Another project is the demolition of the Warren Street School for NJIT student dorms. NJIT announced demolition plans in fall 2020 on its website. The Warren Street School from the nineteenth-century is by Jeremiah O’Rourke, a resident of Newark and the same architect as Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the most important civic structures in the US. The Warren Street School passed preliminary review to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also be included in Preservation NJ’s 2021 list of the ten most endangered historic sites in the state.
As a final image, here is a photo past and present of NJIT’s architecture school. At left is the Victorian structure named Weston Hall, built c.1886 as NJIT’s first home. At right is the architecture school that now occupies this site. Originally, Weston Hall faced toward the street and city. Now, the current building at this site faces away from the city and presents its rear toward the public street.

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One of NJIT’s first homes at Weston Hall[2]

was demolished and now looks like this.

When NJIT’s architecture school hosted a Regional Plan Association conference in 2004, the organizers were afraid that Mayor Cory Booker and attendees could confuse the permanently locked street doors for the building entrance, shown above at right. A note was left on the door: “Mr. Mayor, please enter through the door inside the campus.”

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2. The campus of NJIT before and after urban renewal

When the Historic Sites Council was reviewing recent demolition applications for old buildings in the James Street Commons Historic District, one of the commissioners asked: “If NJIT is taking something away from the community, what is it giving back?” This is a more fundamental question that goes beyond historic preservation. All buildings have a lifespan, and preservation is not always possible. But if a building is demolished, the building that replaces it needs to be higher quality and more actively contribute to the quality of street life than what was there before.
NJIT is a commuter school, and most educators who work at NJIT live outside Newark. This is unfortunate because Newark would benefit from having NJIT more involved in the local community. In some ways, NJIT community members who choose to live outside of Newark cannot be faulted because many Newark neighborhoods are not aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, it is in the school’s own interest to make the surrounding neighborhood a more pleasant place to live, walk, and work.
Unfortunately, the photo comparisons below illustrate that the walkability and aesthetics of my neighborhood have deteriorated since the 1960s. Universities are drivers of upward social mobility, economic growth, and knowledge production. NJIT deserves credit for this. However, the university’s built environment falls short of expressing progressive values. Architecture that presents a blank wall to the street does not benefit the city aesthetically. More crucially, this does not benefit the students’ educational experience either. Architecture that turns away from the city communicates to students that the urban environment is not safe and not worth engaging in.
In 1962, after over ten years’ preparation, the Urban Renewal Project NJ R-45 (Newark College Expansion), with federal capital grants of $7,674,309 and millions more of state and local bonds, displaced more than 1,300 families. Through eminent domain, the state demolished 87.5 acres of brownstones and historic structures next to the now James Street Commons Historic District. Five years later, the government expanded the urban renewal projects and displaced thousands more people for the campus of UMDNJ. The resulting civil unrest of July 1967 injured 727 people and killed 26. Newark’s reputation still suffers from the legacy of urban renewal.
These photos were all taken in 1960 immediately before the neighborhood’s demolition for NJIT. The wholesale demolition of old buildings, while unfortunate, was an opportunity to build back better. This opportunity was squandered with defensive architecture. Moving forward, NJIT must take every opportunity to shift toward a more inclusive and street-facing campus.

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Mueller’s Florist in 1960[3]

Building demolition in 2021

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Intersection of Warren and Summit Street in 1960[4]

The site is now a parking lot and building with no street-facing windows at eye level

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Warren looking west to High Street in 1960[5]

The same scene today. The university bookstore here has no windows to the street.

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Summit Street above Raymond Boulevard in 1960, home of a paper box company[6]

Now a multi-story parking garage for commuter students and faculty

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251 to 245 MLK in 1964[7]

Now a parking lot for St. Michael’s and NJIT

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Summit Street and New Street in 1960[8]

The winch used to lift up bales of hay is visible in the upper left of carriage house.

Fenster Hall now stands here.

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Intersection of Bleeker and Hoyt Street in 1960[9]

Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

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3. A sensitive development model by Rutgers Newark

Rutgers made urban renewal mistakes in the past. But with a new university administration, the school is learning from past mistakes and becoming a better citizen of Newark.

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Rutgers Living-Learning Community (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

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Completed just last year is Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community on the full block just next door to the Hahne’s Building. At this site within the same James Street Commons Historic District as NJIT’s continuing demolitions, Rutgers inserted new student housing as infill within the urban environment. Existing structures at three of the four corners of the site help to mask the scale and mass of the new construction. The building is not too tall, includes ground floor stores, and employs brick materials and floor heights that mirror the neighboring brownstones and businesses from the nineteenth century. The result is a project of high quality that not only responds to its environment but actually feels safer and more pleasant to walk past.

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Teachers Village (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

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Similarly, the Newark Teachers Village by Newark-born Richard Meier looks toward the street and stimulates street life with ground floor activities. The project is a first in Newark because it is targeted at encouraging educators to live in the community where they work. The developer was selective about preserving some old buildings to create a more visually rich and organic streetscape of old and new. The average building is no higher than four to five stories and includes frequent setbacks and varieties of materials. Although construction of the NJIT campus displaced an entire neighborhood, there is the opportunity for new construction to resemble the quality of urban life that was lost.

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Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT’s Cullimore Hall on Bleeker StreetMost of the façade has no windows and detracts from the quality of street life.Those boxes at sidewalk level are mechanical equipment.
Urban renewal done right: Rutgers’ Bleeker St. brownstones just one block from Cullimore Hall.These are a few of the brownstones that Rutgers fixed up and turned into university offices. The building entrances all face toward the city. Rutgers put a flowerpot at sidewalk level.

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Urban renewal done wrong:
Warren Street SchoolThis school was built in the 1890s by Jeremiah O’Rourke. NJIT demolished this landmark.
Urban renewal done right:
Old St. Michael’s HospitalThis hospital was built in the 1880s by the same Jeremiah O’Rourke. The Hanini Group is renovating this building.

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Old St. Michael’s Hospital and Warren Street School are two vacant and landmarked buildings by the same architect, built with the same method of brick construction, in the same neighborhood, and at the same period of time. However, one of these buildings is being demolished by NJIT while the other is being saved. The Hanini Group is transforming St. Michael’s Hospital into apartments and an arts center. Adaptive reuse of the hospital might be more expensive than demolition, but the success of a project must not be assessed on profit alone. As a non-profit and educational institution, NJIT needs to think longer term about higher quality projects that might have lower profit margins.

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Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT Fenster HallParking garage at Fenster Hall: The rock landscaping in the foreground and the bare concrete wall are unpleasant to walk past.
Urban renewal done right:
Rutgers Living-Learning CommunityRutgers’ new parking garage: There are street trees, brick walls, and shop windows at ground level.
What sets NJIT’s Fenster Hall and Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community apart is the attitude of the institution to the Newark community. Fenster Hall turns its back to Newark and expresses fears of urban life. Rutgers’ newest projects are part of the city and neighborhood at a later time when Rutgers reassessed its responsibility as an urban citizen. Infill housing and historic preservation put “creative restraints” on developers and institutions. When developers like Rutgers incorporate history into their projects, the process, approvals, and financial cost might be more difficult, but the project is universally of higher quality.
The priorities and values of an institution are reflected in the architecture it creates for itself. NJIT should be an asset to Newark’s economy with so many faculty and staff who genuinely care about Newark. The school deserves better architecture that reflects its commitment to Newark. NJIT and developers alike need to think about historic preservation and the pedestrian scale in all future projects.
“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things—a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact. For us, it is an act of violence.”
– Anne Lacaton recipient of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize

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Endnotes and Image Credits

[1] https://www.njit.edu/pandemicrecovery/njit-fiscal-update

[2] https://newarkchangingsite.wordpress.com/ Images scanned from the collections of the Newark Public Library

[3] All historic images are from the Newark Public Library’s collection of photos by Samuel Berg: https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3A96b40a0d-640a-46c0-bf48-8a232b155ccb

[4] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ab1889dcf-5009-4e8b-bbec-588c63fe3e9a

[5] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ae3100c3e-2ac2-4fb2-b42a-987ffbc0f781

[6] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Ad65f7167-96a8-4e45-bb72-594ec57bf295

[7] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Af94bf759-2be2-45dd-8e88-e3dd43ca8296

[8] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3Af58b08d8-f527-49d3-b841-2176bbba54d1

[9] https://digital.npl.org/islandora/object/berg%3A0286e6d3-b8ac-46b7-8968-5e8a39f863e2

The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

Map created by author in QGIS with planimetric data from NYC Open Data

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More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.

About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1

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New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.

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Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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The street as public space

Pedestrians in American cities are confined to sidewalks. Most of the street is for cars. For instance, Manhattan avenues are ~100 feet wide with the middle 70 feet for cars and ~15 feet on either side for pedestrians. Pedestrians walking in the street risk possible death. After a century of the automobile, pedestrians are hard-wired that they must use only the sidewalk.
However, city streets before cars had a more democratic role in urban life. Old films of Lower Manhattan streets in 1911 show pedestrians walking wherever with little concern for the hard edge between sidewalk and street. Before the car, there were no one way streets in Manhattan, no traffic lights, no speeds limits, no road markings, and no crosswalks. There was no need for these features either. Nor was there a need for traffic engineers to optimize the timing of lights and direction of streets. Instead, the street without traffic laws was for everyone: horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, omnibuses, and pedestrians. With residents in dense tenement areas unable to access public parks and playgrounds, the street doubled as recreational space and as an extension of the sidewalk. With lower traffic speeds (horses move ~10 miles per hour), there was little risk of traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries. Fewer vehicles to begin with further allowed streets to serve multiple purposes with large avenues cluttered with pedestrians and traffic, while less busy side streets were alternative sidewalks.

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Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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1. Public space lost to cars (1900 to 1945)

Introducing mass-produced cars had consequences for street life. Firstly, traffic accidents increased year on year and pushed pedestrians to the sidewalk. New York City traffic deaths went from 332 in 1910 to 1,360 in 1929 (source, p.73). Crossing the street against moving traffic became dangerous, and using the street was governed by specific rules about speed limits and parking zones. Expanding the police state was needed to enforce these rules – that is, traffic cops. Not only were drivers punished with traffic laws, pedestrians could no longer use the street with the same freedom they had before the car.
Secondly, specific and class-based rules developed for using public space. The car was a measure of social class: The car owner would, by necessity, need to have enough income to buy a car and enough space to park it. This, in turn, restricted most urban residents from owning cars and using the public space given to car owners.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses was adding hundreds of new parks, pools, and public spaces to the city. But this expansion of public space in some areas must be measured against the contraction of public space in other areas. At the same time, Moses was clearing dozens of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and highways. “Cities are created by and for traffic; a city without traffic is a ghost town,” he said. The value of public space must also be assessed by the rules that govern it. The city was taking away the free-form public space of city streets and was adding public space subject to new rules: Park closed from sunset to sunrise. Do not walk on the grass. No dogs allowed. No skateboarding. Children must be supervised.
Before the auto age, Lower East Side immigrant children played on streets within sight and sound of parents in tenements. Think of the 1969 advertisement for Prince Spaghetti that illustrates an immigrant culture of active and car-free street life. Today, play means a trip to the park with parents for supervised play in a gated enclosure. The car (among other causes) was the technology in urban life that transformed play from an independent activity in the public street to a regulated activity in designated playgrounds.

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The “Anthony! Anthony!” commercial for Prince Spaghetti shows a boy running home from play in the streets. The ad invokes nostalgia to encourage consumer spending on processed food. Ironically, it was this consumer spending at suburban supermarkets that was eroding the urban street life and small businesses represented in the ad. By abandoning the street and theater culture of cities for suburban living rooms with entertainment on TV, the American public was turning away from the very traditions represented in this ad.

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In 2008, 66% of New Yorkers (~5.5 million) commuted by walking or public transit. By contrast, 27% of residents in peer cities like Boston and San Francisco used walking or public transit for work. (source, p.72)
Of Manhattan’s 20 square miles, 36% is for public streets (source). An average Manhattan street gives two thirds of its surface area for cars and one third for pedestrians. So, of the 36% of Manhattan that is public streets, about one third of that is for pedestrians: 12% of available land.
Why are two thirds of all streets in Manhattan for cars when only 22% of Manhattan residents own cars? (source) Should the division of public space in streets be proportionate to the percentage of residents who own cars? Why are the majority of residents confined to the sidewalks that represent the minority of available space?
Taxes on New York City residents pay for paving the ~6,000 miles of roads and salaries for thousands of traffic police. Yet, most residents do not own cars. And most cars are either commercial vehicles on business or the private vehicles of non-New Yorkers commuting to work. In effect, urban residents are taxed for public space they do not use. At the same time, the non-New York commuters who use these streets do not pay for their upkeep. In other words, giving most public space to cars and taxing urban residents for its upkeep is a subsidy for suburban and business interests. Manhattan is the world’s most valuable real estate; there is no reason that the fraction of public spaces that remain should be given to private interests, too.
The city needs a redistribution so that the percentage of public space that is given to cars is similar to the percentage of New Yorkers who own cars. As designer and architectural critic Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a 2009 book about his experiences walking:
There is not exactly a biblical injunction that specifies the proportional division of the cross section of the block, nothing that requires that cars be given three times the space of pedestrians. Of the four lanes reserved for vehicular traffic, two are parking lanes. On our block – as with most blocks in New York – there are no meters, and parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The city, in effect, provides half the area of the public space on my block for the storage of private cars, and approximately forty will fit when all the spaces are occupied. The diversion of public space – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – to the private interests of the least efficient and most dangerous and dirty means of movement in the city is a fundamental affront to the real needs and habits of New York’s citizens, the majority of whom do not own automobiles.

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Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

The site of the World Trade Center complex forms a large hole because the space is owned by a government agency but is managed by corporations. Details of privatized spaces are pulled from map of Privately Owned Public Space and official zoning and land use map.

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2. Public space lost to the private sector (1945 to present)

In addition to reducing the amount of public space, cars empowered the migration of people, industry, and wealth from urban centers to the suburban and rural edge. In the decades after WWII, New York City lost a population of three million white people. Prominent industries relocated, such as Bell Labs that moved from Greenwich Village to new corporate campuses in suburban New Jersey. At the same time, as lower- and middle-class whites drove out of the city on bands of asphalt, minorities and immigrants with lower incomes and less consumer spending moved in. The net population loss increased poverty and made urban neighborhoods less desirable, causing consumer spending and property values to fall.
By the 1970s, the city was challenged with decaying public parks, public schools, city services, and infrastructure. But it did not enough revenue to make improvements. The city took out loans and cut back on public services like graffiti removal, causing a downward spiral with further decay of public spaces, further losses in the values of neighboring properties, and therefore less income from property taxes to pay for public services. With billions in debt and no revenue to pay off this debt, New York City wobbled within hours of bankruptcy in 1975. President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 captured the spirit of economic crisis:
Great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children‘s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. [….] In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
Reagan condemned what he saw as the over-expansion of government into all aspects of American life: welfare, taxes, regulations, and civic spaces. During his eight years as president, he supervised the largest rollback of public services in American history. With the belief in “small government,” Reagan cut back on welfare to minorities, government regulation of airlines, and government funding for infrastructure and public space. With the desire to create a “free market” for corporations to compete, Reagan announced in his inaugural address that “it is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.”
More broadly, Ronald Reagan’s policies in America and Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain gave birth to the political philosophy of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism believes that government is too large and that private industry can do a better job than government caring for the public good. Therefore, public services like water, electricity, parks, railroads, highways, and healthcare should all be entrusted to corporations. Following presidents like Bill Clinton followed Reagan’s lead by slashing taxes and de-funding public services, while shifting management of many public services to the private sector. As Noam Chomsky describes: “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
Neo-liberalism has consequences for public space. Since the 1970s, city government has been surrendering public space to non-government agencies. Since 1980, Central Park has not been maintained by the city’s parks department. Instead, the non-elected and wealthy members of the Central Park Conservancy rely on donations and private funding. The twenty acres of towers, parks, public streets, and memorials of the rebuilt World Trade Center are run by Brookfield, Silverstein Properties, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on behalf of the Port Authority. Green areas like Bryant Park are managed by the non-profit Bryant Park Corporation, while transit infrastructure like Penn Station is owned by National Railroad Passenger Corporation founded 1971. Similarly, streets in dozens of neighborhoods across the city and in Lower Manhattan are now part of Business Improvement Districts. Sensing that the government was not maintaining public space to adequate standards, business owners petitioned the city to form 76 Business Improvement Districts across the city that spend 167 million annually and can enforce their own preferences for the use of public space. (source)
What neoliberalism means for New York City is not so much a reduction in the actual amount of public space but rather restrictions on its use. Central Park is still open to the public, anyone can still mourn at the World Trade Center, or walk through a Business Improvement District. Many areas of Manhattan still appear to be and function as public spaces, but they are now managed by organizations that can restrict their use without being held accountable the way that city agencies report to elected officials.
More problematic is that neoliberalism has injected a corporate and business ethic for the management of public space. There was something civic and sacred about Central Park when it was built in the mid nineteenth century. Business interests like restaurants and trinket sellers were restricted from using the park, and the park was not expected to make an income for those managing it. Instead, park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. saw the park as an investment by itself in the aesthetic and cultural life of New York City residents.
Public spaces today are expected to pay for themselves through incentives and tradeoffs. A common tradeoff is the public allows a developer to build higher in exchange for the developer setting aside a fraction of his building for public space, in effect sacrificing one public need (light) in exchange for another public need (open space). Old New York Penn Station gave the bulk of its spaces to the public. In the interest of profit and making public space pay for itself, the current Penn Station suffocates the public in dark and narrow caverns beneath the sports arena and office spaces above. Bryant Park hosts dozens of restaurants and dining areas that transform it into more theme park and shopping mall than open space. The new World Trade Center PATH Station opened 2016 devotes almost as much floor space to the movement of people and trains as to the selling of luxury goods at businesses surrounding the main atrium. To reach trains, passengers (or should I call them customers?) must pass through the largest shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. Stores at the PATH shopping mall, like Sephora, Apple, and Victoria’s Secret, pay rent to the real estate corporation Brookfield that values the assets under its control at 600 billion. The shopping mall might allow the magnificent and blinding white atrium that cost four billion dollars to pay for its own upkeep, but at what aesthetic and ethical cost? Why must the sacred land where almost three thousand civilians, police, and firefighters died in a terrorist attack become a site of commercialism and a source of profit?

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How much of our cities belong to We The People?

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3. Public space lost to the police state (2001 to present)

Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George Bush reassured a frightened nation:
These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.
The foundation of democracy depends on events of public participation like voting, public meetings, courts of law, peaceful protests, and the inauguration of new leaders. These ceremonies, in turn, require public spaces that are often ceremonial in nature like the National Mall in Washington D.C., courthouses, state capitals, and even the in-glamorous public street. A place like the World Trade Center Memorial is itself a part of democracy: a place to see and be seen, to assemble, and to remember those fallen.
To follow the logic of Bush’s statement that September 11 was “intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat,” then the response to anti-democratic acts of terror should be to build more public space, more ceremonial spaces for public participation, not less. Instead, September 11 has frightened the nation into a retreat from civil liberties and public spaces that are now perceived as dangerous. The public has: their internet activity monitored by the likes of Google; their movements in public recorded on camera; their spending recorded by banks and credit card companies; and their use of public space controlled by armed police officers.
The previous two assaults on public space by cars and corporations could be combated through reason and policy. Cars threaten pedestrians and control too much of the street? Add a speed limit and traffic calming measures. Corporations control too much public space? Pass laws restricting them from, say, harassing protestors and closing public spaces by night. The alliance of corporations and state have too much surveillance? This is a more difficult threat to fight. Corporations and the state resist public demands through the language of “free choice.” This street has cameras on it, but you can choose to walk somewhere else. This airport searches all passengers and steals their “contraband” possessions like shampoo, wine, and food, but you can choose other means of transport. This social media platform monitors your activity to give you advertisements that will make you insecure, angry, or depressed – whichever emotional response will bring the advertiser profit. But you chose to use social media. The rhetoric of “free choice” suppresses criticism of surveillance in public space. Besides, surveillance is for “our your own safety,” so we are told. And if we are not doing anything bad in public spaces, then we should have nothing to fear, so we are told.
However, in Manhattan specifically, constant surveillance erodes the most important feature of urban life: privacy. As E.B. White described in Here is New York, his 1949 reflection on walking in Manhattan: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population.” Anonymity is one of the greatest joys of walking, the joy of blending into the urban crowd while remaining anonymous to everyone, to see without being seen. By forcing knowability and tracking the exact location and actions of every individual, the surveillance state erodes the anonymity that has drawn generations of artists, activists, and social outcasts to world cities like New York. From Occupy Wall Street protestors, to undocumented immigrants, to generations of Blacks and Hispanics that are targeted by law enforcement, surveillance denies them the anonymity that their work and use of public space require. In the past year, the murder of Blacks by law enforcement while shopping, driving, walking, and even sleeping has highlighted the dangers minorities face when using public space. While the car and corporation eroded the physical amount of public space, surveillance erodes the quality of public spaces that remain.

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Public spaces in theory vs. in practice

Of the public space that occupies ~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area:
~25% is for cars; ~10% is semi-restricted or privately-owned; ~10 is for green space in parks; ~15% is for paths in parks and sidewalks along streets *2

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Can democracy survive with eroded public space?

The past thirty years have seen the return of large numbers of middle class young people to New York City, as well as the gentrification they brought. For a few years, there seemed to be a resurgence and reinvestment in public space with new bike lanes, parks, and traffic calming measures in Lower Manhattan. But just over a century since the car arrived in Lower Manhattan streets, the future of public space is again in doubt.
Coronavirus represents both an opportunity and a challenge for public space. Since the virus prohibited indoor dining, thousands of restaurants have expanded onto sidewalks. Entire lanes of parking have been transformed into dining areas, a change that will likely be permanent. While using a parking space requires several thousand dollars to participate in the club of car owners, using a restaurant built on a public space costs only as much as lunch or dinner.
At the same time, the political uses of public space have migrated online. The activities of courtrooms, classrooms, cultural events, and ways people express their dissatisfaction with government have all migrated to online forums and social media. The internet might substitute for some public spaces, but it is not owned by the public. The US Bill of Rights promises that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” during a “public trial.” For generations, a public trial has meant a real space where witnesses voice their accusations in the physical presence of the accused. But can a digital space owned by private company still be considered public? Can the proprietary technology of social media and the video camera substitute for actual public space? Is the World Trade Center Path Station still public space if most Americans are priced out of shopping in nearby stores? Is the High Line still public space if the only people who can afford apartment views of it are the super rich?
E.B. White would cite that diversity and democracy cannot exist without public space. In his stroll across dozens of Manhattan neighborhoods, he observed that urban life forces people of diverse identities into the same crowded public spaces and therefore requires them to coexist and be tolerant of each other:
The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite. In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Time and again, researchers and writers observe that social media and the digital world allow people to self select the communities they are part of and the political views they are exposed to. The rise in both political parties of polarized identity politics and intolerance of anyone who disagrees with one’s views on gender and race are largely the products of a social media world that isolates and radicalizes people.
Public spaces like the city street and subway car mix people of all identities and incomes in a single space and are a lesson in tolerance. It is easy to hate foreigners and people of color when one’s views of these groups are filtered through the polarizing lens of social media, Fox News, and the mainstream media. But prejudice is a good deal harder to feel when one views these groups every day in public spaces going about the same routine as everyone else. While social media highlights the identity politics that make us different, public space highlights the qualities we share in common.
The loss of Lower Manhattan’s public spaces is not just a threat to urban culture. The loss of public space is an existential threat to democracy. More than ever before, this fractured country needs public space.

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City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan

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“With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.” – Kenneth T. Jackson

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Further reading

Michael Sorkin. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. New York: North Point Press, 2009.
E.B. White. Here is New York. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949.

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236,250 = total   |   92,934 = water   |   143,316 = land
Non-public before: 55,558 = 38.8% (rounded to 40%)
Non-public after: 90,826 = 63.4% (rounded to 65%)

  1. * Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space.
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The Detroit Evolution Animation

Created in gratitude to the University of Michigan’s PhD program in architecture
Related: The New York City Evolution Animation

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Soundtrack: “Pruitt Igoe” from Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio and composed by Philip Glass.

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This film traces Detroit’s evolution from its origins as a French trading post in the 1700s, to its explosion as a metropolis, followed by its precipitous decline as a symbol of America’s post-industrial urban landscape. The film weaves in details about the city’s politics, population, and technology – all of which influenced the city’s geography and built environment. At each phase in urban history, the built environment grew and was modified in direct response to political events like racial segregation, population changes like the Great Migration, technology developments like the mass-produced car, and government interventions like urban renewal.
The animation tells the story of Detroit specifically and the story of American cities more broadly. To varying degrees, the path of Detroit’s development mirrors hundreds of other smaller cities and towns scattered across the American Northeast and Midwest. No other American city witnessed as large a population loss, as dramatic 1960s racial unrest, or as radical a transformation from symbol of progress into symbol of decay. To a lesser degree, other places in America followed Detroit in lockstep. Urban renewal projects, highway construction, racial tensions, suburban growth, and infrastructure under-investment happened across America, and in parallel to Detroit.
However, the most dramatic transformation of Detroit is left unwritten in this film. Beneath the surface-level events of political conflict and urban change, the largest event in Detroit is not unique to Detroit. As filmmaker Godfrey Reggio describes, the most important theme in the history of civilization is “the transiting from all nature, or the natural environment as our hosts of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu into mass technology as the environment of life.” European cities developed slowly and gradually over centuries, in the process removing all memory of the natural landscape before civilization. American cities are unique in their youth and speed of growth. They are new enough that an active memory survives through place names and written records of the landscape and indigenous peoples who lived there before colonization. As the oldest colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, and as the city that perfected the mass-produced automobile, Detroit becomes the prime symbol of man’s transformation of his home from a natural world into a technological society removed from nature.

View map bibliography and project methodology

Includes links to download all source files on which the film is based

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The accompanying music is by composer Philip Glass and was written for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi. The shifting layers and repetitive phrases of Glass’ music accompany Reggio’s montages of natural landscapes, factory assembly lines, and chaotic city streets. Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance” in the language of an indigenous American tribe called the Hopi. In the original documentary, Glass’ music was paired with scenes of desolate streets in the South Bronx, the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, and ruined skyscrapers falling in slow motion. In my reinterpretation of Glass’ music, the imagery is now of Detroit in maps. The pace and events in the animation are tied to the structure of the music. As the volume and speed of the music increase and decrease, so too does the growth and decline of Detroit.

View music in original context

Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi; composed by Philip Glass with images by Godfrey Reggio

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Population Changes to Detroit Over Time

Hover over infographic for details of each census year.

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The influx of Black people during the Great Migration and the outflow of cars from Detroit’s factories reshaped the city’s built environment and the American public’s perception of Detroit. Detroit is now thought of as a majority-Black city surrounded by majority-White suburbs. Today, 83% of Detroit’s population is Black, and only 11% is White. But the graph above shows that Detroit was majority-White until the 1980 census. For most of its history, Detroit was 95 to 99% White. Today, the majority of the metro region’s population lives in the suburbs that surround Detroit. But until the 1960 census, the majority of the population lived within the city limits. Today, Detroit is so reliant on the car that it has no commuter rail network, no subways, and limited public transportation options. But until the 1950s demolition of Detroit’s light rail network, a majority of residents lived within walking distance of a light rail station for commuting. Detroit’s demographics, suburban sprawl, and transportation options have all flipped in the past century. From a high-density, transportation rich, and majority-White city in 1920, Detroit has become a low-density, transportation poor, and majority-Black city in 2020.
A lot of people say Detroit has terrible public transit design. But from the perspective of car companies, the real estate lobby, and fearful Whites, the system does exactly what it was intended to do: to segregate and divide our country by covert means long after Jim Crow officially “ended.” Failure by design. The failure of Detroit is, in large part, planned and a consequence of government policy decisions that: prioritize suburban growth over urban development; benefit suburban Whites over urban Blacks; and encourage private cars at the expense of public transit.
As the Detroit Evolution Animation plays, the map key on the lower right hand corner indicates Detroit’s demographics at each decade in history. Try to link changes to demographics with changes to the urban form. Ask yourself the questions: How were technology, transportation, and demographic changes imprinted on the built environment? How does the built environment, in turn, shape urban and suburban life?

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Decaying home near Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant

A Drop of Water

Walking along Newark’s Pequannock Aqueduct from source, to tap, to sewer

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The general public views rural, suburban, urban, and industrial areas as being separate with different land uses, populations, and landscapes. The rural reaches and forests of northwestern New Jersey exist outside the imagination of Newark residents, as if these green mountain lakes with WASPy names have nothing to do with their lived urban experiences in the concrete and asphalt jungle. For the suburban and rural residents of West Milford, Ringwood, Wanaque, Bloomingdale, Kinnelon, Rockaway, Jefferson, Hardyston, and Vernon where Newark’s water supply originates, the experiences and troubles of Newark seem similarly distant, as if the quality of their forest oasis has nothing to do with the health outcomes of Newark residents. However, Newark’s century-old system supplies a half million people with some of the cleanest water in the country and invisibly knits together the fates of diverse communities along its buried path.

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Handmade drawing of Newark’s Pequannock water supply system, dated December 1892
The red line traces the path of the aqueduct from start at the Macopin Intake to end at South Orange Avenue. Green is the area of the watershed. The red graph beneath charts the relative height of the aqueduct above sea level at each point in the route. The aqueduct does not flow in a continuous downhill slope. Rather it hugs the ground just below the surface.

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Map of Newark water supply system in 1946, showing the Pequannock system opened 1892 (lower left) and Wanaque system opened 1930 (upper left). View full size map from Newark Public Library website.

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Over winter 2021, I documented the route of the Newark aqueduct from its origins in West Milford Township to its terminus in Newark Bay. I trace the path of Newark’s 26-mile-long aqueduct and 63-square-mile Pequannock Watershed and 94-square-mile Wanaque Watershed on the interactive map below.

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Click on water features to display details of name, dimensions, or volume.

■   Watersheds
■   Reservoirs (7 total)
~~ Aqueducts (~55 miles total)

■   Towns supplied with Newark water (~10)
■   Towns relying on Newark sewers (48)
~~ Main sewer interceptor (~ 28 miles total)
      Along path of Passaic River from Paterson to New York Harbor via Newark

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When American cities started gathering millions of woodland acres and building hundreds of miles of aqueducts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, water supply was an expensive undertaking and a point of civic pride. The opening of New York’s first water supply of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 was the largest and most expensive project by a single city in American history. Ten years earlier, New York City suffered its deadliest cholera epidemic due to poor sanitation and foul water, which left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) With recent memories of death and trauma on New Yorkers’ minds, the opening of the city’s water supply was a public holiday with parades the length of lower Broadway and a giant fountain erected in front of City Hall. Along the new aqueduct’s path, brick and granite gatehouses, stone markers, and aqueducts modeled after those of Rome and antiquity advertised the otherwise invisible presence of the investments made below. Many of the sites along the route became tourist attractions in their own right with the weekend carriage crowd riding uptown to the future sites of Central Park and the New York Public Library. There they soaked in nature and appreciated the austere beauty of towering dams and powerful gates that released water downstream.
With similar fears of industrial contamination and water-borne disease, Newark’s water supply opened decades later in 1892. Like New York City, Newark was suffering from bouts of cholera for decades. Manufacturers in the “silk city” of Paterson upstream polluted Newark’s water supply downstream on the Passaic River. Unwilling and unable to invest in cleaner supplies from distant locations as New York City had done decades earlier, Newark suffered 107 typhoid deaths per 100,000 people in 1890. Fearing future death and predicting massive population growth, Newark leaders and industrialists (among them the city’s dozens of beer brewers who needed clean water) demanded change. At the cost of six million dollars, building a clean water supply at the Pequannock Watershed was the largest and most expensive project in Newark history, more than two times the size of the city’s 2.5 million dollar annual budget. Like the Croton system designed for one million customers when Manhattan had only had 330,000, Newark’s Pequannock water supply was designed for over 500,000 customers in a city of only 250,000. The Wanaque System was added by 1930 at a cost of 25 million, more than doubling the water available to Newark. Along the path, brick gatehouses and buildings dressed as neoclassical villas guided the flow of water. The image of Newark’s water supply is, therefore, as much a reflection of where the city was as a prediction of what the city would become. The external ornament and attention to quality materials invested in Newark’s water in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal the novelty of the technology, and the fact that for centuries Americans could not take clean water for granted.
After the September 11 attacks, and even for decades earlier, the presence of sensitive water supply infrastructure is no longer advertised aboveground. The razor wire perimeter fencing and warning signs that now surround Newark’s water supply hint at society’s evolving relationship with the land. The architecture once designed to welcome visitors is now closed off and patrolled by guards and security cameras for fear that people would poison their own water. Swimming and powered motorboats are both prohibited in Newark’s watershed for fear of pathogens and oil slick seeping into drinking water. The aboveground features of the underground aqueducts are no longer proudly labeled with carved stone, as they would have been when the system first opened. The public assets that once belonged to society at large still belong to the public, but their existence is now opaque and hidden away for its own safety. The six billion dollars and fifty years New York City spent building “Water Tunnel No. 3” has no visible fingerprints aboveground even though it is the largest water infrastructure project in American urban history. The public passes by unaware of how their tax dollars are spent behind the unmarked bombproof and airtight doors that guard the water tunnels carved 500 feet below. Newark is little different.

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April 1892 plans of the Macopin Gatehouse. The original water supply to Newark was so clean that the water was unfiltered. As water quality standards increased and as runoff from new suburban development encroached on the watershed, this gatehouse was demolished for the water treatment facility now here.

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Humanizing the 2,000 square mile watershed and aqueduct system that provides nine million New Yorkers with the cleanest water in America, architectural photographer Stanley Greenberg writes in Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System:
Soon I came to think of the system as an underground organism, like the giant fungus now regarded as the largest living thing on earth. [….] Eventually I became able to ‘sense’ the water system. Sometimes it was because of the way the road was paved, or the type of fencing along the roadway. I knew which buildings were part of the water system, whether or not they were marked.
Along the path of Newark’s aqueduct, features are still visible aboveground. From little bends in the road to the occasional barbed wire fence, one can “sense” the downward flow of water to Newark. In the lakes and streams of Newark’s watershed, the water supply is left uncovered. The water flows its natural course downstream in the prehistoric riverbed as it has since the Ice Age. At the Macopin Intake in West Milford, the towering mass of a windowless brick building intercepts the pristine river and sucks the water in to be treated, chlorinated, and injected with a cocktail of chemicals. Now sanitized, the water is piped the rest of the way underground. Any new contamination after this point would endanger thousands of lives. Contamination and pollution are existential threats facing any water supply. A few miles further down, the aqueduct skirts under the abandoned location of Nike Missile Site NY-88, an abandoned Cold-War era military installation to intercept nuclear missiles from Communist countries “hostile to American values.” The pair of four-foot diameter brick, iron, and steel conduits snake their way 280 vertical feet downhill at the average rate of about ten vertical feet for each horizontal mile travelled. The water passes beneath roads, golf courses, and green lawns of unsuspecting suburban residents. In some parts, the aqueduct is encapsulated in a raised dirt embankment. Walking along the raised dirt road offers views over fences into the fresh mowed lawns, garages, and children’s swing sets of suburban families unaware that the lifeblood of a half million urban people passes beneath their feet. At the occasional interval, a metal pipe painted green with a mushroom shaped cap points out of the ground. The little green pipes relieve pressure and aerate the water to keep it fresh. Putting one’s ear to the pipe as if it were a stethoscope, the throbbing pulse of flowing water is audible. At other points, a mysteriously vacant but well-maintained lot on a street full of expensive homes hints that something is below. The presence of signs warning of the steep $500 fine for illegal dumping and the absence of realtor signs selling this land reveals that something unnamed and important must flow underground. Nearby, occasional road markers are spray-painted blue on the asphalt so that new roadwork does not accidentally puncture the aqueduct when digging. There are at least five streets in different towns all named in honor of what is buried beneath: Pipeline Path in Pompton Lakes, Aqueduct Avenue in Pequannock, Reservoir Drive in Woodland Park, Reservoir Drive in Cedar Grove, and Reservoir Place in Belleville. The aqueduct continues borrowing under Wayne, Totowa, Nutley, Belleville, and a handful of monotone suburbs known to most people only as the names of numbered exits on the highway.
As the water nears its destination, the suburban landscape changes to the empty lots and corner bodegas of inner city Newark. At this point, the main aqueduct gradually narrows as smaller pipes splinter off at each intersection to serve the city’s approximately 30,000 addresses. Finally, at the intersection of South 8th Street and South Orange Avenue, the old aqueduct ends at the “Reservoir Site Townhouse Development.” The name of this privately-owned public housing project is the only remaining hint of the former use of this site, where a sloping brownstone embankment once stored nine million gallons of water. Across the street, a three-floor brick water quality testing lab with limestone details has a neoclassical entrance with the words carved above: “Bureau of Water: Meter Laboratory.” The water-testing lab was abandoned and is now a non-governmental community health center. The loss of these public assets, and the neighborhood’s gradual population loss, hints at the larger retreat of government responsibility for protecting the public. While water was once a public asset advertised with civic architecture, the responsibility for water supply – and, with this responsibility, the health of thousands of water customers – is now tasked to semi-private and for-profit agencies that charge higher rates. The name of these water multinationals slip off the tongue and sound like the kind of slick words a team of consultants from the Wharton Business School would dream up: Veolia, Suez, Aqua America, and Aquarion Water. New Jersey, Idaho, and Connecticut, in fact, rank highest in the country for the percentage of their public water supply that is privatized, over 35%.
Running a few feet beneath each water line is the wider pipe of the city sewers. The two systems run in concert with each other, one whisking in fresh water and the other flushing wastewater away sight unseen. Rainwater from city streets mixes with the polluted water of houses and businesses and continues flowing over 230 vertical feet downstream to Newark’s sewage treatment plant in the meadowlands. Over thirty miles from where it entered the system, the water exits the system as it entered it—through the vast and chemical-intensive technologies of water purification. The brown slurry is pumped into basins the shape and depth of a swimming pool, where solid matter settles to the bottom. The remaining water is pumped off into treatment tanks resembling the steel drums used to store vast quantities of propane and natural gas. It is strange that Newark’s facility for water decontamination should be so close to and look so similar to the gas storage tanks of Shell Oil across the street, a company responsible for untold water contamination and environmental destruction. Down the street is the county jail where immigrants and inmates are incarcerated as a source of income for the Essex County government. In a fitting irony, much of the $42.7 million revenue generated from the county jails in 2019 was pumped back upstream to maintain and preserve the county’s hundreds of acres of parks, forests, and mountain lakes. One jail visitor writes: “There’s more drugs in there than on the street. It is located right across the street from a garbage dump. The smell in the air, especially in the summer, is absolutely rancid.” In a fitting twist of fate, the source of Newark’s water supply on a quiet country road with McMansions in West Milford and the destination of this water in an industrial wasteland are both named Doremus Road and Doremus Avenue, respectively, in honor of the Newark mayor responsible for building the system.
Water trickles down from the wealthy bedroom communities of northern New Jersey through progressively less wealthy towns, through the low-income community of Newark, and finally past the jail where society’s weakest members and immigrants are held captive. More than a few of these immigrants, no doubt, lived nearby and commuted out to the affluent suburbs to work on the green lawns and sewer systems whose effluent returns to Newark and which they must now smell in jail. At least 200,000 of these white-collar workers commuted in to Newark pre-pandemic, and extract their wealth from this city. From many of their backyards laced with fertilizers and insecticides, water returns to Newark. As the warning on many a suburban manhole reads: “No Dumping Drains to Waterway.” We live in a society divided on fault lines of income, race, and location. The journey of Newark’s water through diverse communities is a reminder that, however divided and segregated our society, the need and the right to water cuts across lines of class, race, and geography. This ends our journey from rural to urban through the suburban landscape of New Jersey.

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Newark water supply air valves, June 1892

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Related

A history of the Wanaque water supply from the Wanaque Public Library
A history of the Newark water supply from the Newark Public Library

Homesteads to Homelots

The history of New Jersey suburbs as told through five data visualizations

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View of the city from the suburbs, author’s panoramic drawing of suburbs with urban skyline in the distance

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“The state of New Jersey offers an ideal setting in which to analyze the distinctive residential landscape of mass suburbia. [….] In time, 70 percent of the state’s total land area would qualify as suburban, so that by the turn of the twenty-first century New Jersey and Connecticut shared the distinction of being the nation’s most suburbanized states.”

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– Lizabeth Cohen, “Residence: Inequality in Mass Suburbia” in A Consumer’s Republic, p. 197.

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Northern New Jersey has long been central to the history of America’s suburban growth. From America’s oldest suburban developments to its most homogeneous to its most diverse, New Jersey’s 565 municipalities span the full portfolio of suburban living arrangements. New Jersey is unique in the sheer number of municipalities, each with its own elected leaders, school district, police, fire, and land use policies. As a result of inefficient and often duplicate public services in competing suburbs, New Jersey has some of the highest property taxes and cost of living in the country. This problem is not unique to New Jersey; it affects the country at large in dozens of other places. So the story of New Jersey makes for a powerful and revealing case study of larger trends in American suburban history.
This analysis examines New Jersey census data from 1940 to 2010. It is not the end point or a full analysis. Instead, each of these data visualizations plots a direction for future research. Telling history through maps and data reveals the history of a larger region and country, in ways that granular analysis of individual places cannot.

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Method

With data from the US Census Bureau, I extracted details on the population of every New Jersey municipality from 1940 to 2010, the period of greatest suburban growth. With spatial data on municipal boundaries from the NJ Office of GIS, I plotted the census data onto the map of municipal boundaries. This allowed me to see spatial patterns and to produce heat maps of population change over time. The spatial data also revealed the surface area of each municipality, which allowed me to calculate the historical population density of each municipality as a function of municipal population divided by municipal surface area. You can browse all the data visualizations or download the open source data here from Tableau. These data visualizations represent analysis of about 13,560 data points for 565 municipalities over eight censuses.

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1. Population loss vs. gain

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The map below reveals that every urban area in New Jersey lost population from 1950 to 2000. Meanwhile, the majority of rural areas gained population to become commuter suburbs. Wedged between the metropolises of New York City with 8.4 million residents and Philadelphia with 1.6 million, New Jersey has no cities with over 300,000 people. Thousands of white-collar workers live in the state’s suburbs and commute out of state for work, at least a quarter million people per weekday pre-pandemic. New Jersey is therefore more of a bedroom community than any other American state. The map below shows the scale of suburban population growth with areas that gained population colored in green. The darker the shade of green the greater the population gain from 1950 to 2000. At the same time, almost every major New Jersey city was losing people. The darker the shade of red the greater the population loss. This map produces two parallel stories of urban decline vs. suburban growth.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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Unsurprisingly, the rural parts of the state with the farthest commuting distance from New York City and Philadelphia experienced the least population growth. Instead of becoming suburbs, the farmlands in the northwestern corner of the state that once provisioned New York City markets with food reverted to forest during the twentieth century. Transportation improvements like Eisenhower’s interstate highways made it cheaper to grow foods in the distant but fertile lands of the Midwest and South and to ship those goods to New Jersey than to grow those foods locally near consumers. At the same time, Central Jersey’s richest and most fertile farmland – along the line of the Northeast Corridor between New York City and Philadelphia – became suburbs. The farms here were pushed farther away, such that, by the end of the twentieth century, New York City food is supplied from thousands of miles away. New Jersey’s nickname of the “Garden State” once referred to the state’s rich agriculture and farms. Today, this name has an unintentional double meaning, as the only gardens left are the green suburban lawns in the ever-expanding crabgrass frontier.

Conclusion one: Despite its proximity to and reliance on major cities, New Jersey’s geography and population densities are almost entirely suburban.

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2. Link between population densities and suburban growth

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From 1950 to 2000, a total of 52 New Jersey cities lost about one million White residents and gained about 400,000 African Americans and Hispanics. As Whites moved out, other ethnic groups moved in. The flight of urban Whites to the suburbs happened across twentieth-century America.
In contrast to the population decline of New Jersey cities, a total of 513 towns and boroughs gained around four million people from 1950 to 2000. New Jersey’s suburban population growth was through a combination of Whites arriving from cities, Whites arriving from other states, and natural birth rates during the “baby boomer” generation. The average population density per square mile of places that lost people in this period was 6,400, while places that gained people contained on average 2,100 people per square mile. Population loss systematically occurred in urban places with high population densities in 1950. Population gain systematically occurred in rural places with low population densities in 1950. In other words, sprawl. Almost all of New Jersey’s population and economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century was concentrated in lower-density suburban areas, often at the expense of the cities where wealth was traditionally concentrated.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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Horizontal axis ranks places by population loss or gain (logarithmic scale). Vertical axis ranks places by population density in 1950 (linear scale). Dots are sized according to population in 1950. Red dots are, on average, larger cities that lost population. Green dots are, on average, smaller suburbs that gained population. All the largest cities with the higher population densities, that is, all the largest dots (with the exception of Union City) lost population to neighboring suburbs. The higher the population density, the greater the magnitude of twentieth-century population loss due to decentralization. Notice how high-density cities with large populations form one red cluster, while low-density suburbs with small populations form a separate green cluster.

Conclusion two: The state has migrated from a centralized economy centered on cities and urban life to a decentralized and suburban economy. This movement has consequently drained cities of people and economic energy.

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3. Municipal annexation and political fragmentation

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dozens of American municipalities were consolidated into larger urban areas. For instance, the 1898 consolidation of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and dozens of small farming hamlets in present-day Staten Island and Queens produced the contemporary city limits of New York City. This 300 square mile area allowed for New York City’s urban expansion, the elimination of otherwise duplicate municipal services, and the central organization of rapid transit, zoning, and land use policies. The metropolitan-scale vision and infrastructure projects of Robert Moses would have been impossible otherwise.
Municipal consolidation never went as far in New Jersey, with a few exceptions. The state’s second largest city of Jersey City with a population of 266,000 (2018) was formed in 1870 by merging the small towns of Hudson City, Bergen City, and Greenville. The state’s largest city of Newark with a population of 282,000 (2018) was reformed in 1905 by annexing neighboring Vailsburg. Yet, as a whole, the state’s geography remained divided with its largest cities unable to increase in population or expand their political power through municipal annexation. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and even before the era of rapid suburban growth, the trend in New Jersey was already toward decentralization with the subdivision of larger towns into ever-smaller units and school districts. For instance, if Newark covered the same surface area in 2019 as it did in 1790, it would be the eighteenth largest city in the US in 2019 with an estimated population of 800,000, ahead of Denver and behind Seattle. Instead, Newark is the country’s third oldest city behind Boston and New York, but it is only the 73rd largest in population.
Suburban towns that are economically reliant on Newark but are politically separate from Newark straddle the city on all sides, isolating a majority-Black community in the inner city from the prosperity of surrounding suburbs. As a result, most of the economic energy generated from urban centers like Newark and political centers like Trenton is drained off through tax revenues in neighboring towns, where white-collar workers employed in these cities actually live. Had municipal annexation succeeded in New Jersey, tax revenue from peripheral towns could be directed to urban centers where that money is needed most and where it came from, after all. In contrast to cities in most other developed countries, most American cities are therefore concentrations of poverty ringed by wealthier areas. As a related consequence, New Jersey cities face chronic and decades-long challenges balancing their municipal budgets and must rely on charity from the state legislature in the form of grants.
Cities like Newark rank higher in their regional and economic influence than their small populations and limited surface area would lead one to believe. Newark is the state’s economic, shipping, rail, airport, and higher education hub, with more of these key industries concentrated in Newark than in any other New Jersey city. But suburban policies resistant to centralized government and municipal annexation have thwarted Newark’s deserved political influence. Kenneth Jackson describes consolidation in Crabgrass Frontier: “Without exception, the adjustment of local boundaries has been the dominant method of population growth in every American city of consequence. [….] Viewed another way, if annexation had not been successful in the nineteenth century, many large cities would have been surrounded by suburbs even before the Civil War.”
Unfortunately, while the rest of the country was moving toward annexation in the nineteenth century, New Jersey experienced municipal fragmentation. For instance, the more urban and higher density borough of Metuchen is entirely surrounded by the less urban and lower density town of Edison. At one time, these two places were part of a single and larger township called Woodbridge. As railroads began linking city and country in the mid nineteenth century, urban residents started moving to Woodbridge and formed an early commuter suburb. The existing residents of Woodbridge were largely Democrat farmers, while the new commuters were largely Republican businessmen. The farmers were content with few municipal services, while the new commuters demanded paved roads, water supply, sewers, and street lighting. In the resulting conflict between rural and suburban, the small suburb of Metuchen clustered around its commuter train station broke off from the larger municipality. At 2.85 square miles, Metuchen is the size of postage stamp on the map of New Jersey, while more suburban Edison is like a doughnut that surrounds Metuchen on all sides.
There are at least thirty towns like Metuchen across the state, known as “doughnut towns” because one municipality encircles another. The average size of these towns is less than three square miles. This unique quirk of New Jersey geography hints at the longstanding conflict between rural and suburban. As the state evolved from a land of homesteads into a sea of platted suburban home lots, existing farmers resented their state’s changing geography and urbanizing economy. The table below outlines these municipal enclaves.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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The county maps from John P. Snyder’s History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries are revealing. They illustrate the division of New Jersey into ever-smaller municipal units. The map below shows, for instance, the original vs. contemporary municipal boundaries in Hudson and Bergen County along the Hudson River. Colored in green are original boundaries vs. the present-day ones in black.

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In many other states, rural farmers went along with the newly arrived residents of commuter suburbs and accepted greater investment in municipal services. In New Jersey, rural residents did not; they insisted on autonomy, independence, and decentralized government. Hence, New Jersey splintered into so many hundreds of places with their own strong, separate, and long-established civic identities. As a result, cities like Chicago and New York cover enough surface area that an African American or Hispanic family can move to a better neighborhood nearby without being in a new suburb. Yet, New Jersey municipalities are so fragmented that a change of address almost inevitably means a change of town with new laws, new taxes, a new civic identity, and a new school district. Recent debates in New York City have centered on desegregating public schools by sending poor and minority students to public schools in better and majority White neighborhoods. In New York City, this is possible because eight million people share a unified school district. The same, unfortunately, is impossible in New Jersey. In this way, municipal fragmentation emphasizes local control but hinders political unity and coordinated planning decisions.

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Conclusion three: Despite having an economy centralized around urban areas, and despite being part of a megalopolis of cities on the Northeast Corridor, New Jersey is politically fragmented and still sees its political identity as rural and anti-urban.

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4. The municipal fabric before suburban growth

New Jersey’s municipal framework for suburban growth was laid out early, even centuries before its suburbs grew. The earliest settlers and colonists in America believed in local control of government. In the New England farming hamlet of colonial days, all eligible White male taxpaying citizens participated in direct democracy. These voters were tasked with passing new laws, improving roads, and maintaining common lands. Over 200 years of early American growth, most of the land within the eight states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were divided into “incorporated communities.” This produced hundreds of New England towns with relative autonomy from higher authorities.
By contrast, the rest of America followed a different development path from the original thirteen British colonies and contained more “unincorporated communities” – that is land and people not part of a local and direct democracy. People in unincorporated communities are still full citizens with voting rights, but the management of their municipal services, like roads and water, is often tasked to a larger and more distant power, like the county government. Several unincorporated villages might also be grouped as part of a larger municipality.
New Jersey’s belief in local control and direct democracy resulted in the early incorporation of municipalities, and a likely stronger sense of local identity than in other regions. The chart below shows that most of New Jersey’s municipalities were laid out in two sweeps. In 1798, 104 rural and farming towns were incorporated as part of the “Township Act of 1798.” Decades later, new residents in the state’s growing commuter suburbs like Metuchen demanded more municipal services like water, fire, and sewer. When residents of the existing farming areas objected, dozens of boroughs broke away to form bedroom communities in the second sweep of new municipal incorporations. The peak year was 1894 when 36 new towns and boroughs were created along the Bergen County commuter rail lines linking northern New Jersey to New York City. However, during the high period of suburban growth from the 1930s to the present-day when New Jersey gained 4.8 million people, a mere twelve new places were incorporated. In other words, the political geography of New Jersey suburbs was laid out before the mass exodus of Americans from cities to suburbs in the twentieth century.

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Conclusion four: New Jersey’s anti-urban outlook and politics are no recent or twentieth-century phenomenon. Nor did these fears of central administration come about during the suburban age. In fact, the groundwork for New Jersey’s rapid twentieth-century suburban growth was laid in the state’s earliest days.

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5. Back to the City?

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After 1980, thousands of Young Urban Professionals (“Yuppies”) returned from the suburbs to live in the cities. In the traditional narrative of urban history courses, the post-1980s period is represented as a rebirth of urban culture and population growth, as seen through the repeated descriptions of Newark and Detroit as Renaissance cities with their respective Renaissance Centers
However, any post-1980 urban population gain was usually not enough to counter pre-1980 population loss. While a few smaller New Jersey cities regained earlier losses from 1980 to 2010, new population growth and new housing construction were concentrated in suburban areas on the whole. New Jersey cities have grown, but they are not growing as fast as the suburbs surrounding them.

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Mixed results of “back to the city”

Color key
Urban growth since 1980 does not offset earlier losses
Urban population growth since 1980 offsets earlier losses
No net population loss 1950 to 1980

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This table above shows that of the twenty-four largest New Jersey cities in 1950, sixteen had a net population loss from 1950 to 1980. In the following period 1980 to 2010, only seven of these sixteen cities have seen population growth (Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Passaic, Hoboken, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). Even among these seven cities, only five of them have seen enough population growth to offset pre-1980 population losses (Paterson, Elizabeth, Passaic, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). In direct opposition to the “back to the city” trend, two of the twenty-four cities have even seen a higher rate of population loss from 1980 to 2010 than from 1950 to 1980 (East Orange and Irvington).
Viewed another way, of New Jersey’s twenty-four largest cities, only nineteen have seen an increase in the rate of population growth after 1980. But among these nineteen cities, population growth has always been from the replacement of Whites with largely lower-income immigrants from Latin America. The only two cities yuppies and middle class Whites were uniquely responsible for “turning around” through gentrification were Hoboken and Downtown Jersey City, both of which still had a net population loss from 1950 to 2010. Cities and city planners need to stop appealing to middle class Whites as the solution to their economic decline. Building more housing for yuppies will not turn these cities around because their numbers are small but lead to gentrification that will push out the people who are actually responsible for urban growth. Immigrants, more than wealthy young people with college degrees, are and always have been the drivers of urban growth in American cities.
The table below shows that New Jersey’s six leading cities of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton, and Camden were always majority White until 1950-1960 when thousands of Whites fled for the suburbs while thousands of Blacks arrived with the Great Migration. The demographic trend lines have not reversed in fifty years. Only small numbers of younger and wealthier Whites have returned to cities, which is not enough to offset the continued White flight to the suburbs. In other words, the urban population of New Jersey cities has stagnated since 1980. Population gains have been small and not enough to offset continuing population loss. Because many cities have not made up for their earlier losses of people and economic power, the story of “Back to the City” can only be applied to a limited number of cities in New Jersey.

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Hover over data points to reveal details. Hispanics not counted in graph because they were not measured on US census until 1970.
White population loss from 1930 to 2000: 330,047 in Newark; 222,306 in Jersey City; 93,838 in Camden; 89,514 in Paterson; 87,446 in Trenton; and 42,486 in Elizabeth

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Hover over data points to reveal details. Hispanics not counted in graph because they were not measured on US census until 1970.

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Taking these charts into account, Newark lost 330,000 Whites from 1930 to 2000. Since then, population loss has slowed; the city gained a mere 400 Whites from 2000 to 2010, a drop in the bucket. In the same period of 1930 to 2000, Jersey City lost 222,000 Whites, Paterson lost 90,000, Trenton lost 87,000, Camden lost 94,000, and Elizabeth lost 42,000. This brings the estimated White population loss of the state’s six leading cities to about 866,000. If including smaller places that also lost their White population, such as Union City, Clifton, Atlantic City, and Plainfield, the urban population loss comes to well over one million people. At the same time, the population replacements of African Americans and Hispanics have not been as large as the population losses of Whites. Cities across New Jersey are smaller and less central to the state’s economy than they were before the auto era.
Despite construction of new light rail systems and improvements to existing rail infrastructure, over 80% of New Jersey residents still commuted to work by car. Even in Hudson County, with excellent transit connections in Hoboken and Secaucus, 66% of commutes were still by car in 2000. New Jersey might be rich in transportation options and railroads, but most of its built environment of sprawling suburbs was not built with these “urban” transit modes in mind.
In other words, the image “Back to the City” with young people riding on bikes and public transit is more of a New York City story than it is a Trenton, Newark, Camden, or Atlantic City story. “The Garden State” was and remains suburban despite surface appearances of a renewed interest in cities. As economic historian Leah Boustan writes in Competition in the Promised Land: “Even though black in-migration to northern cities has tapered off, relative black wages have not rebounded in the North and White flight has not reversed course (despite media reports of a ‘return to the city’)” (p.9). Much of the public thinks that young people prefer to live in cities, and that the age of suburban sprawl is over in the age of the climate crisis. Yet two centuries of urban growth have failed to turn New Jersey into a state whose residents think of themselves as urban, even though it is densely populated and an integral part of greater New York City. The path of decentralization that New Jersey has followed for two centuries will guide it for decades more.
Is “Back to the City” part of a larger cultural shift, or is it a short-term illusion that the pandemic reversed when thousands of high-income young people moved back to the suburbs? If the history of New Jersey is any guide, the suburbs are alive and well and here to stay. As Robert Fishman writes in Bourgeois Utopias, a 1987 study of the origins and future of America’s suburbs:
“The ‘gentrification’ phenomenon has been highly visible yet statistically insignificant. It has done as much to displace low income city dwellers as to benefit them. The late twentieth century American environment thus shows all the signs of the two nations syndrome: one caught in an environment of poverty, cut off from the majority culture, speaking its own languages and dialects; the other an increasingly homogenized culture of affluence, more and more remote from an urban environment it finds dangerous.”

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Levittown, America’s most famous mass-produced suburb, was replicated in Pennsylvania, Long Island, and New Jersey

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Conclusion

Geography is central to the construction of New Jersey’s suburban and anti-urban identity. The basis for this state’s suburban culture was laid out from the state’s earliest days, as reflected in practices of municipal consolidation and political fragmentation. This fragmentation pulls population, political power, and economic energy from the state’s cities that would, in a more centralized political system, command more influence. Moreover, this decentralization, as born out through analysis of census data, contributes to racial segregation and income inequalities between the micro-climates of one town to the other. Most of all, through this analysis, the burden of history becomes visible: Despite a surface appearance of renewed interest in cities, the powerful historical forces of politics and precedent ensure that New Jersey will remain a sea of suburbs. As the world is confronted with the combined crises of climate change and a younger generation locked out of the housing ladder, New Jersey’s suburban culture seems more than ever out of date and warped in time.
If the growth patterns of New Jersey mirror the larger experience of America, the future of urban culture looks bleak indeed. Cities like St. Louis and Detroit might regain some of their former energy and vitality, but it is unlikely that they will become as powerful again as they once were. A 2020 study analyzed satellite imagery and correlated the percentage of paved surface area to the likelihood that people living there would vote Democrat or Republican. Unsurprisingly, the greater the amount of area paved with roads and buildings, the greater the likelihood of people living there opposing Donald Trump. If, as Kenneth Jackson writes, “The space around us―the physical organization of neighborhoods, roads, yards, houses, and apartments―sets up living patterns that condition our behavior,” then efforts to rebuild our cities are very much part of the larger political project to rebuild our democracy.

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Related commentary

Turning Affluent Suburbs Blue Isn’t Worth the Cost,” New York Times op-ed by historian Matthew Lassiter. To win elections, Lassiter argues, democrats needs to stop courting the votes of educated middle class Whites from the suburbs. Suburban voters already benefit from municipal fragmentation, local autonomy, and land use polices that, in effect, bar poor people and Black people from living nearby. “Democrats cannot cater to White swing voters in affluent suburbs and also promote policies that fundamentally challenge income inequality, exclusionary zoning, housing segregation, school inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration. [….] It’s no coincidence that the bluer that suburban counties turn, the more unequal and economically stratified they become as well.” Urban areas are epicenters where the problems of inequality, racism, and gentrification are most visible. Therefore only in appealing to the interests of minorities and the working class who have traditionally lived in more urban areas can Trumpism be defeated. After all, Plato’s Republic and the Greek Democracy originated from the city state, not the suburb.

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Sources

Data for all municipalities:

Population of all municipalities from 1940 to 2000, from NJ State Data Center report (table 6, p. 26-51)
Shapefile of municipal boundaries with 2010 population of each municipality, from NJ open data
List of municipalities by year incorporated, from Wikipedia

Three data sources above are merged into these visualizations, posted to Tableau for free download.

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Data for New Jersey’s six leading cities:

Populations and races of NJ’s six largest cities from 1810 to 1990, from US Census Bureau working paper (table 31, p.78-79) and this documentation page
Populations and races of NJ’s six largest cities for 2000 and 2010, from Census Viewer website because above table was only up to 1990

Two data sources above are merged into this visualization, posted to Tableau for free download.

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Other sources:

NJ population density map, from Census Viewer website
Analysis of transportation patterns, from NJ Department of Transportation report
Satellite imagery of the entire state in 1930 offers a comparative view of the rural “Garden State” before suburban sprawl, from NJ Office of GIS

 

Further reading:

Boustan, Leah P.. Competition in the Promised Land: Black migrants in northern cities and labor markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: the politics of mass consumption in postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: the suburbanization of the United States. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Kruse, Kevin M., Thomas J. Sugrue (editors), and Gerald Frug. “The Legal Technology of Exclusion.” The New Suburban History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 205-19.
Snyder, John P. The History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968. Trenton: Bureau of Geology and Topography, 1968. (link)

 

Book Review of “Saving America’s Cities”

Lizabeth Cohen. Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 547 pp.

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The memory of mid-century urban renewal will always evoke images of the bleak brick towers and windswept plazas of crime-ridden public housing. Urban renewal projects airdropped into the city fabric caused demolition and dislocation. This colossal failure has been epitomized by Robert Moses’ automobile-oriented vision of New York City. The Power Broker by Robert Caro described Moses stubbornly going alone to remove 1,500 families and pave the Cross Bronx Expressway through their vibrant neighborhood.[1] By contrast, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs vividly described a sentimental city life with lively streets of safe neighborhoods. Pedestrians stroll along short city blocks while residents watch from brownstone stoops in her quaint Greenwich Village alleys.[2] The two polarized visions of activist Jacobs vs. authoritarian Moses have set the terms of the debate on city design and, by extension, about the government’s role in structuring urban life. Lizabeth Cohen, a Harvard historian of twentieth-century America, critiques the current dichotomy: “The lack of subtlety that I have lamented in current historical understanding of postwar American urbanism stems partly from its frequent framing as a monumental battle between the clashing visions of the villainous Robert Moses and the saintly Jane Jacobs.”[3] Between these two schools of thought, Cohen introduced the largely forgotten “Master Builder” Ed Logue to dispel misconceptions about urban renewal.
Logue serves a curious alternative to the polarity between Jacobs and Moses. Despite her biographical focus, Cohen does not lionize Logue’s dedication, but recounts his lifetime of successes, false starts, and imperfections. Logue came from a Philadelphia working-class family with an Irish Catholic background. Serving as a bombardier during WWII, he first experienced a top-down city vision from the air above Berlin and Dresden. Trained at Yale with a full scholarship, Logue was committed to the New Deal idealism of government serving the public good. His life, however, demonstrated how even the best of planners could not get the ill-conceived legal framework behind urban renewal to work most of the time. One reviewer of Cohen’s book asks in Architect Magazine: “How could such a clear-eyed, honest, and progressive guy, talented at getting lots of money from the federal government, oversee so many disastrous projects?”[4]
Through New Haven, Boston, and New York City, Cohen traces Logue’s city planning career of working against far larger anti-urban political and social forces. During his time in New Haven (1954-60), Logue planned to rescue the falling city by bringing suburban shoppers downtown. He built the Oak Street Connector for shoppers’ automobiles. This highway stub severed the urban fabric with an asphalt band of parking lots and uprooted a largely low-income Black community. However, Logue’s Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven, with indoor shopping and garage parking, never brought in enough enthusiastic suburbanites to survive against competing forces of anti-urban decentralization. What Logue called a “pluralist democracy” in New Haven planning actually relied more on experts’ work than on input from affected citizens.
Touting his approach of “planning with people,” Logue worked in Boston (1961-67) to break the city’s thirty-year economic stagnation. Unlike in New Haven, Logue created a “negotiated cityscape” of old and new in Boston and preserved some of the oldest architecture, such as Quincy Market. However, his ambitious Brutalist inverted ziggurat of the Government Center, next to a desolate brick-paved plaza, evoked an oppressive aura. His successful housing projects, particularly in the African-American Roxbury neighborhood, defied James Baldwin’s characterization that “Urban Renewal means negro removal.”[5]
Logue’s next career move (1968-75) landed him in New York City to lead the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) for 33,000 residential units, including thousands of affordable housing. After the “long, hot summer of 1967” with riots in 159 cities, President Nixon formulated his “suburban strategy,”[6] by appealing to suburban Whites’ fears of the inner city and Black insurrection. In a hostile climate, Logue encountered his political match from suburban residents. The wealthy Westchester towns vehemently opposed Logue’s attempt to place middle income and affordable housing in their backyard. The downward spiral of urban America became unstoppable. Neither urban renewal, nor affordable housing, nor highway construction could restrain the core middle urban tax base from driving away to the alluring American dream of “little boxes on the hillside,”[7] with “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”[8]
Ousted from UDC, Logue settled for the final stage of his career (1978-85) at the South Bronx Development Organization. To revive the South Bronx with affordable housing, Logue no longer turned to demolition, as the urban fabric had already been devastated by arson, blight, and White flight. Logue recognized that the government had ceased investing in shopping malls, city halls, or intensely designed architecture. Instead, as if admitting the defeat of high-density urban development, Logue worked with residents to rebuild formerly urban Charlotte Street along suburban models of prefab homes with white picket fences. In a thriving nation of suburbs, the suburb had now come to the city.
Logue’s career capstone in the South Bronx was not polished architecture that he preferred, but the development that people desired. Community participations brought all stakeholders to the table, as Logue increasingly practiced. Over time, he realized that the top-down approach taken by urban redevelopment experts had serious limitations. People in the affected neighborhoods deserved to realize their vision of urban communities diversified with respect to income, race, and age. Their voices were the best insurance for equitable services for schools, transportation, retail stores, and affordable housing.
As Cohen asserts, Logue and urban renewal defy fast judgments. Across each decade, and in each of those three cities, Logue’s urban renewal had shifting goalposts, developed at various scales, and involved different levels of community participation. To attribute the flaws of urban renewal to arrogant individuals or to austere designs for “towers in the park” is to ignore the larger picture. As Logue’s battle for affordable housing in suburban Westchester revealed, the problem rests less with urban renewal itself and more with the nation’s social, economic, and political agenda against cities.
Throughout his career, Logue’s honorable goals proved impossible. With the Cold War fever in the ‘50s, the erosion of social tenets in the ‘60s, and post-Watergate suspicions against authority in the ‘70s, American public ceased to believe government had a mandate to bring about a just and equitable society. In his 1981 inauguration address, President Reagan expressed the core of the conservative belief: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”[9] During his final years, Logue watched helplessly as America increasingly turned to private investments for deteriorating infrastructure, eroding affordable housing, and shrinking essential services. Contemporary cities are defined by accumulated wealth, racial disparity, and privileged consumption. Even with Section 8 vouchers and “inclusionary” zoning, affordable housing is largely unavailable to diverse communities.[10]
The intriguing story of Logue’s life suggests that the fate of cities cannot be left solely to top-down developers or government bureaucrats or market forces. A process of negotiation is needed in order to bring all interests to the table. A spirit of experimentation defies an authoritarian way to remake cities. Paradoxically, to respond to a national emergency, Logue, a lifelong New Dealer, believed that the federal government’s pivotal role is essential for successful negotiations and experimentations. This would be the legacy of urban renewal, as Cohen concludes, that “the master builder” would want us to honor.

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Endnotes

[1] Robert Caro, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: 1974).

[2] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: 1961).

[3] Lizabeth Cohen, “Saving America’s Cities: Re-evaluating the complex history of urban renewal,” Public Seminar, October 1, 2019. https://publicseminar.org/essays/public-seminar-excerpt-and-interview-lizabeth-cohen/

[4] Elizabeth Greenspan, “Ed Logue and the Unexpected Lessons of Urban Renewal: A biography of the forgotten ‘master rebuilder’ challenges established truths about city planning,” Architect Magazine, January 29, 2020. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/ed-logue-and-the-unexpected-lessons-of-urban-renewal_o

[5] James Baldwin interview with Kenneth Clark, 1963. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Abhj17kYU

[6] Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: 2006).

[7] From the song “Little Boxes” written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, sung by Pete Seeger in 1963

[8] From Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign slogan

[9] “Ronald Reagan Quotes and Speeches,” Ronald Reagan Institute. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/inaugural-address-2/

[10] Kenneth Jackson and Lizabeth Cohen, “Urban Renewal in the Suburban Age: The Struggle to Redefine the American City,” Brooklyn Public Library: Center for Brooklyn History, October 23, 2019. https://www.brooklynhistory.org/events/urban-renewal-in-the-suburban-age-the-struggle-to-redefine-the-american-city/

Demolishing Public Space at New York Penn Station

What does old Penn Station’s loss reflect about the evolution of public space in New York City?

With assistance from Evander Price, recent PhD student in American Studies and chronocriticism at Harvard University. Thanks also to Adam Brondheim for his insights about historic preservation in NYC.

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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The old waiting room, [1] once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot. [2]

Demolition crews began hacking away at the limestone walls, stone eagles, and thirty-foot tall Doric columns of old New York Penn Station in October 1963. In a construction industry where architects typically quote projects as lasting eighteen months, the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station lasted five years. At its 1910 opening, old Penn Station was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever built in New York City. The station’s associated service tunnels stretched 5.5 miles under the Hudson and East River. At 350 feet long and 150 feet high, old Penn Station’s waiting room was the city’s largest internal space. Construction cost $100 million, or $2.7 billion in 2020 adjusted for inflation. By 1963, this was the largest and most expensive structure ever demolished in New York City.[3]
In a 1963 conversation with The New York Times, the developer justified demolition as “putting passengers first” and then clarified: “The outside is the only thing of artistic value as far as I’m concerned. The handling of 200,000 passengers is much more important to me. […] In some areas the land is just too valuable to save anything that doesn’t fully utilize it.”[4] The developer’s aspirations for Penn Station’s replacement, however misguided, were no less monumental in their imagination: to construct a profitable office skyscraper and Manhattan’s largest arena for sporting events and conventions. Office workers and event spectators could move directly from trains to their seats without stepping outside, or engaging with the public space of the city streets.

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1968 advertisement for the new station [5]

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“The fact is that the redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Station into a $90 million building complex will transform the area from a static uneconomic burden on the railroad into a viable commercial and recreational center of benefit to the entire West Thirty-fourth Street neighborhood and the public at large.” – Allen J. Greenough, Pennsylvania Railroad President.[6]

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Architects have long positioned the demolition of monumental old Penn Station as a key moment in the discourse on historical preservation. This was, to quote leading New York City historian Kenneth Jackson, the moment when: “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.”[7] The public realized that even a monument as expensive and permanent as Penn Station could vanish with no mechanism for the public to object. Activists pressured the city government to pass New York’s first ever landmarks preservation law in 1965.[8] Some historians, like Anthony Wood, have posited that the movement toward landmarks preservation began years before Penn Station’s demolition, and that this demolition was not critical in motivating landmarks preservation.[9] Nonetheless, in the following decades, the city protected over 120,000 historic buildings (comprising about 14% of New York City’s built environment).[10]
Less cited and discussed is how Penn Station’s loss parallels a larger late-twentieth-century trend to erode and privatize the commons. The demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station is a lens to examine the competing tensions of economics vs. aesthetics and private vs. public interests. The demolition and reconstruction of old Penn Station mirrors the larger abandonment of government and corporate responsibility for maintaining and upholding public space.

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Although Midtown’s largest building in this c.1911 photo, skyscrapers soon surrounded Penn Station.[11]

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Old Penn Station as public space in a city of private interests

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In a city symbolic of rational capitalism and industry, old Penn Station spoke of an alternative and idealistic vision for future New York: a city of low-rise buildings and ample public space. The station’s architects McKim, Meade, and White disdained New York’s emerging skyscrapers. They toured Europe in preparation for designing Penn Station. European models of wide and long boulevards framing monumental buildings inspired them, such as the Gare de l’Est in Paris. At the time, the average building in Midtown Manhattan was no higher than six stories, and Penn Station – at over 150 feet tall – would have been among the neighborhood’s highest and largest buildings. For inspiration, the architects copied the main waiting room from Rome’s Baths of Diocletian.[12] This reference is more than aesthetic: Rome’s massive baths were as much functional infrastructure in a city without widespread indoor plumbing as they were civic and social spaces for all people to gather and socialize. By analogy, the Pennsylvania Railroad envisioned its waiting room – which was far larger and cathedral-like than the functional operations of boarding a train demands – as a civic and social space, an urban stage-set for the drama of commuting. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist turned philanthropist who launched his business career as an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, wrote in his 1889 article The Gospel of Wealth: “Surplus wealth should be considered as a sacred trust, to be administered during the lives of its owners, by them as trustees, for the best good of the community in which and from which it had been acquired.”[13]
Old Penn Station operated as public space that belonged to the city at large. Ingrained in a visit to the museum (with an admission fee), the public library (with set hours and borrowing rules), or the church (with a dress code and participation rituals) is the management’s expectations of how one is supposed to behave. The rules of these rarified spaces narrow the social class and types of people who visit museums, libraries, and churches.[14] In contrast, the big city train station has fewer expectations of users. It is open at all times and to all audiences and social classes with few restrictions. Like the restriction-free spaces of Times Square and the public park, the monumental rooms of old Penn Station seemed to belong to everyone. It was one of those unique spaces created through private initiative, but where anyone could assemble in the shared experience of urban life.[15]
However, there was a crucial difference between normal public space and the “public space” of old Penn Station. The station was privately owned and subject to the whims of its owner who, unlike a government official responsible to the public, was duty bound only to company shareholders and employees. The public could use this station and construct it in the collective imagination as belonging to the city and the people, but the public’s use was at the property owner’s discretion. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was losing rail passengers to the increasing popularity of the automobiles, highways, and airlines. The company was bleeding money on old Penn Station’s upkeep to the sum of $3.3 million a year. Although the station’s appearance and location were a public service and an enhancement to civic life for the thousands of commuters, there was no profit to be made from this form of public service.[16] In other words, with no “business model” for the space to pay for its own upkeep, old Penn Station slipped into decay as the walls grew black from decades of soot and deferred maintenance.

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Erosion of the commons

By the 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reasons for maintaining old Penn Station started shifting when they argued that they could only support the commons so long as they did lose anything financially. The now aging and indebted railroad no longer had the “surplus wealth” to think of the public interest and the “good of the community” to borrow Carnegie’s words. In demolition proposals, the developer clarified that new Penn Station would be financially self-sufficient. Revenue generated from the new offices and arena aboveground would support the upkeep of the station below ground, all the while generating surplus income to pay off the railroad’s debt. This is a frequent and often repeated claim among New York City developers: The creation and maintenance of public space must generate some profit. Or if no profit is to be made, the public should compensate the corporation for its gift. Hence, the lead redeveloper is quoted as saying about old Penn Station: “If anybody seriously considered it art, they would have put up some money to save it.”[17]
Old Penn Station had tall ceilings and, with no buildings above, ample natural light illuminated the interior. When the public saw this kind of space, they read it as open and public. When the owners of Penn Station saw this space in the 1960s, they read all this “empty” space as unused air rights. (Air rights refer to the space above a parcel of land that belongs to the property owner.) City law might limit building height to, say, fifteen stories. If the developer only builds a ten story building on a site, he will have five stories of undeveloped air rights. The discourse on air rights presents undeveloped (or underdeveloped) sites as not extracting the full height allowed, and therefore reducing the income that could be generated from the most profitable land use.[18] Thus in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s opinion, a vast and open station, although elegant, represented undeveloped air rights and a financial loss. In 1910, the powerful railroad was wealthy enough to sacrifice million of dollars on a monument and its annual upkeep. The railroad’s objective in 1910 was more about making a statement about their wealth and importance in shaping New York’s urban landscape. However, when 1960s developers measured the value of Penn Station heritage by its precise cash value instead of its intangible cultural value, preserving heritage started to look unrealistically expensive – not just an annual loss of $3.3 million but a loss of several hundred million dollars over several decades in unrealized profits that could have been pulled “out of thin air” so to speak.[19]
Beyond Penn Station, the larger discourse on the commons was also evolving. In previous decades, buildings like Rockefeller Center devoted almost half of the ground-level areas and many rooftops for public use, even though developers in 1930s New York received no tax benefits or compensation from the city for doing so. Other examples include the numerous early Manhattan skyscrapers whose ornamental appearance and decorative silhouettes enliven the urban landscape, even though more ornament outside does not boost the builder’s bottom line of more rentable office space inside the tower. However, with ever-rising land values, corporations were no longer willing by the 1950s to cede increasingly-valuable private land for public use (or even lower-density development) unless compelled to or compensated for doing so. In response, starting in 1961, New York City developed an increasingly complicated system of tax and building incentives for developers to be “civic” and invest in the commons. Examples include corporate green spaces and plazas. In exchange for setting aside a fraction of their land for public use, the developer is allowed to build higher or larger than the laws would otherwise permit. These resulting spaces are in some ways like the interior of old Penn Station, private space that has the appearance of public. These private-public spaces have opening hours, and often prohibit certain behavior like skateboarding, panhandling, and street music performances. Incidentally, city government approved the greatest number of these privately owned public spaces during the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, when declining budgets motivated city government to surrender power to the private sector.[20] Politicians today speak of contracting the management of public services to for-profit corporations. Privatized services in many states now include water supply, electricity, highways, immigration services, the military, space exploration (through public-private partnerships), and prisons with companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded “Core Civic” in an Orwellian twist). Capitalism and the profit-driven management of the commons is still seen as somehow purifying, making government more efficient, innovative, and flexible.[21] Penn Station’s demolition is an architectural symbol of the limits of historic preservation law, in particular, and the corporate erosion of the commons, in general.
The state and property owners’ expectations of monumental buildings seem fundamentally different from their expectations of traditional monuments like statues and parks. For instance, it is acceptable for the owner of Grand Central Terminal to think of rentable floor space, or for the redevelopers of the World Trade Center memorial to judge proposals based on how much or little land is set-aside for profitable office towers. By contrast, the land Central Park sits on is many times more expensive in unrealized air rights than the resale value of the timber that occupies the land, but that is beside the point because society does not measure the success or failure of the commons by the income it generates. There was a time a century ago when private investment in shaping civic spaces looked something like old Penn Station, Andrew Carnegie’s donated libraries, or even the New York City subway system’s ornamental mosaics. Even ornate nineteenth-century bank lobbies with imposing neoclassical facades have something “civic” about them and share much in common aesthetically with libraries and museums from the time. If only this kind of benevolent attitude toward the commons could be applied today to all manner of other civic institutions: streets, public markets, subways, or the rebuilt future Penn Station.

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Future Penn Station?

The demolition and replacement of Penn Station sits at an inflection point in the evolving definition of “public space.” Despite public outcry about the demolition of old Penn Station at the hands of powerful private interests, the current station is not publicly owned or managed. The semi-government entity that acquired all of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s assets after the railroad’s 1970 bankruptcy is Amtrak. At least on paper, and although it has never once turned a profit in its over fifty year existence, Amtrak is listed as a corporation with a CEO, stock, and earnings reports. Disgruntled citizens and preservationists cannot speak to or hold them accountable in the same way they can vote out elected officials. As the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Amtrak are both quasi-private “public-benefit corporations,” their executives are all unelected and political appointees. This creates several degrees of separation between those who manage public space and those who use it. What this means for the public is that the spaces the public might see as being public and shared by all – in this case our national rail network and places like the current Penn Station – are effectively private.[22]

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Proposal for rebuilding Penn Station across the street as the Moynihan Train Hall [23]

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There seems to be an innate discomfort among city leaders with the idea of investing in the commons without the intention to make some kind of measurable return on investment. New Penn Station’s current owners collect rent from this station’s commercial tenants, the arena at Madison Square Garden, and companies in the above office tower. However unattractive new Penn Station may be, it is at least profitable, which is as the builders who demolished old Penn Station intended.[24] Following this trend, the half-dozen (and counting) proposals over the years to rebuild Penn Station always included a major element of retail shopping and offices. The rebuilt Moynihan Station next door to Penn Station devotes more room to the operations of shopping concourse than rail travel.[25]
However, what made the old Penn Station so aesthetically pleasing was that the design did not consider retail profit. In the interest of aesthetic effect and having impressively large interior spaces, old Penn Station’s retail was segregated to a half-dozen shallow storefronts in the shopping arcade. The architecture was front and center. Rebuilding new Penn Station would require more than money. More importantly, rebuilding would require rethinking the long-held American assumption that extracting profit is compatible with the commons.

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Train concourse before and after, from the same camera angle

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Main entrance to waiting room before and after

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 Perhaps beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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References

[1] Photo credit: Cervin Robinson and Edward Popko (for the Historic American Buildings Survey). Pennsylvania Station, New York County, NY. Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, www.loc.gov/item/ny0411/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[2] Photo credit: Myles Zhang. “Excavating Old New York Penn Station.” Myles Zhang, July 9, 2020, https://www.myleszhang.org/2020/07/09/penn-station/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[3] Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al. “Penn Station.” In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. 987-88.

[4] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[5] Tom Fletcher. “Penn Station.” New York Architecture, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON004.htm. Accessed 26 July 2020.

[6] Allen J. Greenough. “Redeveloping Penn Station.” The New York Times (letter). August 23, 1962.

[7] Hilary Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. New York. W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.

[8] George Siedel. “Landmarks Preservation after Penn Central.” Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal. Vol. 17, no. 2. 1982. Pp. 340-356.

[9] Anthony Wood. “Chapter One: The Myth of Penn Station.” In Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

[10] Myles Zhang. “A History of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Myles Zhang, November 4, 2018, https://www.myleszhang.org/2018/11/04/historic-preservation-and-new-york-city/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[11] Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Company. “Bird’s-eye view, Penn Station, New York City.” Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016812231/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[12] Ballon. “The Interior Procession.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 60-73.

[13] Andrew Carnegie. “The Gospel of Wealth.” New York. Carnegie Corporation of New York. 2017. (Originally published in the North American Review in 1889.)

[14] Nikolaus Pevsner. “Railway stations.” In A History of Buildings Types. Princeton University Press. 1976. Pp. 225-34.

[15] Carroll Meeks. The Railroad Station. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1964.

[16] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 93-101.

[17] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[18] Philip Weinberg. “Critical Areas: Landmarks, Wetlands, Coastline, Flood Plains, and Takings.” In Environmental Law: Cases and Materials Revised 3rd Edition. Lanham, Maryland. University Press of America. 2006. Pp. 98-108.

Personally, I believe the assumption that “air” is a commercial asset to be bought and sold fundamentally undermines the idea in the commons that air, water, and light are owned collectively by society.

[19] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 95-96.

[20] “New York City’s Privately Owned Public Spaces.” NYC: Department of City Planning, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/pops/pops.page. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[21] Brett Heinz. “The Politics of Privatization: How Neoliberalism Took Over US Politics.” United for Fair Economy, September 8, 2017, http://www.faireconomy.org/the_politics_of_privatization. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[22] Fawn Johnson, Rachel Roubein, and National Journal. “Amtrak Has a Trust Problem in Congress: Democrats want to give the rail service more money, and Republicans are demanding more accountability.” The Atlantic, May 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/amtrak-has-a-trust-problem-in-congress/456042/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[23] Photo credit: Dana Schulz. “Cuomo releases new renderings of Moynihan Station as major construction gets underway.” 6sqft, August 17, 2017, https://www.6sqft.com/cuomo-releases-new-renderings-of-moynihan-station-as-major-construction-gets-underway/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[24] Ballon. “The New Pennsylvania Station.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 153-175.

[25] Justin Davidson. “Every Plan to Fix Penn Station Ranked.” New York Magazine: Intelligencer, January 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/every-plan-to-fix-penn-station-ranked.html. Accessed July 26, 2020.

Excavating Old New York Penn Station

Also published by Viewing NYC in 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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View of Penn Station from roof of Macy’s department store c.1910

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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 accompanying audio is accurate to what the place sounds like from the locations shown. The audio for old Penn Station is my imaginative reconstruction of how the original station might have sounded like, based on recordings from MoMA. My project was also inspired by this 2015 New York Times article about the subtle influence of sound on how we experience urban space: “Penn Station’s low ceilings suppress sound, which becomes hard to make out, an audible metaphor for its rat’s maze of architecture.”

 

“You feel that your life is being lost in a room where sound dies. We need reverberation.”
– architect Renzo Piano on the design of the current Penn Station

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When New York Penn Station opened in 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad boasted in advertisements that their vast new station was built of travertine marble from the same ancient Italian quarries as the Coliseum and Pantheon. Old Penn Station was rich in the architectural language of Greece and Rome. The façade comprised a colonnade of massive, Doric columns that stretched almost 450-feet end-to-end; it was inspired from temples on the Greek Acropolis. The main waiting room, at 314-feet-long, 109-feet-wide, and 150-feet-high, was modeled on Rome’s Baths of Diocletian. The project was as much an aesthetic gesture to the emerging City Beautiful Movement as it was a political statement: The Pennsylvania Railroad was here to stay, as permanent as the Penn Station it built.
The finished station, however, was an architectural contradiction. The Neoclassical exterior concealed what was, belowground, an extensive and, at-the-time, hyper-modern system of tunnels, electric trains, and communication systems that conveyed millions of people, baggage, and mail from street-level to each of 21 platforms. Aside from the solid stone columns of the main façade, most of the interior was of thin limestone, marble, and plaster sheets mounted on a metal structural frame. The seeming permanence of the stone walls was a cover for the steel frame and modern technology within on which this Neoclassical stage-set rested.

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Just over fifty years later, on October 28, 1963, demolition began. The Pennsylvania Railroad, burdened with debt and aging infrastructure, was selling off its most profitable real estate assets – its land, buildings, and equipment – to stay afloat until it declared bankruptcy by 1970. Through the same two Hudson River tunnels that building materials for the original Penn Station were delivered, some of the same rubble now passed. Much of this rubble was carted off and dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands adjacent the tracks where commuter trains still pass. The Pennsylvania Railroad used, quite literally, the station’s technology to cannibalize itself, and as the foundations for the new, and current, Penn Station.
Searching for remnants of old Penn Station, I found historic photos from the New York Public Library, Historic American Buildings Survey, and Library of Congress. I returned to the same locations in fall 2019 to re-photograph these images from the identical camera angles. The resulting and visible ghost of the lost Penn Station presents a strong-clear vision of what Penn Station used to be, and by extension, what it could return to, given financial commitment and political will.

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Train concourse: past and present from the same location

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The current subterranean warrens represent a clean break from what was here before. As long as Madison Square Garden chokes Penn Station for air and light from above, the current lightless and oppressive Penn Station is here to stay. The current station’s cheap ceilings of corrugated metal, garish electric signage, and exposed concrete floors ironically proved more durable than the Roman marble and limestone of old. The current station is not so fleeting and has, in fact, existed longer on this site than the station before it.
Surprising still is how, for many New Yorkers, it seems inconceivable that the permanent and imposing appearance of the original station could, one day, vanish without a trace. This old station is more dream than reality, and it seems almost impossible to imagine the current arrangement as having anything to do with what came before. So little of the original station – and the pride in civic life and New York City this station stood for – remains visible. Interestingly, more of the original architectural fabric survives belowground than meets the eye aboveground.

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View from corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue in 1962 and 2019. The structure is unrecognizable aboveground.

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32nd Street entrance to waiting room in 1962 and 2019
The southeast corner of the still-standing General Post Office is in both frames, in the far left hand distance.

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In the five years that demolition and rebuilding lasted (from 1963 to 1968), Penn Station remained in active service. While builders demolished the old station above, commuters continued to pass by on the platforms and corridors below. For this brief moment, the two buildings lived side-by-side, until the present building swallowed almost all visible traces of the past. In spite of this loss, the confusing floor plan of the current Penn Station has much to do with remaining traces of the original. Column for column and void for void, the current Penn Station is built within the fabric of the original. 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. In the five-year re-construction process, none of the tracks and platforms were moved, and most of the stairs between concourse and track-level survived. This similarity enables us to situate parts of the old structure in relation to the new.

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Frame of new Penn Station rises simultaneous to the demolition of the old c.1963-68
Passengers in train concourse as new structural frame divides them from the soon-to-be-demolished glass canopy of the old station.

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Train concourse before and after insertion of the new structural frame, from the same camera angle

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The above cross-section of old Penn Station’s waiting room shows the extent of change. The orange line indicates the elevation at ground-level to which the architectural fabric of the old building was demolished. Above this line, nothing of Penn Station survives. Below this line, most of the original structure, tracks, infrastructure, stairwells, and the general contours of the original rooms survive, except now hidden.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, its architectural monuments to empire and power fell into disuse; many were repurposed for more humble and practical purposes. The Coliseum became a stone quarry, the Roman Senate House a humble church, and the Theatre of Marcellus a medieval fortress. New purposes were developed in the shells of old monuments. When a building is reused and altered but still bears visible traces of its earlier form, architectural historians call this creation a palimpsest. A palimpsest is neither of the present nor of the past; it is a mixture of both. For instance, the two square fountains of the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan mirror the locations of the now-vanished Twin Towers. For a modern and young city in world terms, Penn Station is New York City’s largest palimpsest.

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Shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019

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View from 7th Avenue shopping arcade into the waiting room in 1911 and 2019

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“Cutaway illustrating the principle of adaptive reuse.” Drawing by architectural children’s book illustrator, David Macaulay, proposes to discard the “non- functional” spaces of the medieval cathedral by erecting a Styrofoam drop ceiling just above the floor. Everything above – light, soundscape, and ornament is “superfluous” to the cathedral’s function.

The oppressively low ceilings of the current station are the structural division between the public areas belowground and the now private (formerly public) areas aboveground. These ceilings also align to the border between the infrastructure of the original station that survives and the architectural fabric that was lost.
The Pennsylvania Railroad made the decision that made the most economic sense: to keep the infrastructure beneath and decapitate the “non-functional” aesthetics of the soaring ceilings and open spaces aboveground. This was valuable land that could be put to more profitable use. Into these empty “air rights,” the corporation could insert Penn Station’s new functions of Madison Square Garden and office towers that would, at last, generate additional income. While exploring the station, I discovered this palimpsest valued the practical and made absolute economic sense: Who needs to enter the city on the scale of a titanic-sized god when humans require spaces no higher than 8-feet-high to pass through?

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A cathedral with a drop ceiling

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The shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019
Statue of Samuel Rea is in the shadows.

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President Samuel Rea

The nuances of this palimpsest become clearer from inside the building. Passengers entering the old station proceeded down a long shopping arcade to the waiting room and platforms. What was once public space is now the private lobby of the commercial offices aboveground. On the right hand side, in the shadows of the private lobby, stands a statue of Samuel Rea, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A century ago, Rea stood at the entrance and welcomed passengers and the public; he now stands and watches the corporate clients and office workers. In old Penn Station, an inscription beneath announced his name and title. In the current location, Rea is out of place and has no relationship with his surroundings; the once prominent inscription is almost invisible on the new tablet behind him.

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Statue of Samuel Rea is in the left hand niche.
Almost stone for stone, the location of the current waiting room escalator mirrors the location of the original.

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Main entrance to waiting room: The left hand niche contains the statue of Alexander Cassatt, Pennsylvania Railroad president during construction.

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The waiting room, once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot.

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From the street-level arcade, passengers descended into the cavernous waiting room, sunken a few feet belowground. While the room itself is gone, the contours of this room survive in the general footprint of the sunken parking lot that now occupies the site. What was once public space is now private and patrolled by Madison Square Garden security guards who forbade me from standing at this location with my camera.

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Perhaps, beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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Train Concourse

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Train concourse, past and present.
White cutouts on the drop ceiling mirror the former locations of the demolished skylights.

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This part of the train concourse is now the VIP entrance for spectators at Madison Square Garden.

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The design problems with the current Penn Station are similar to those of old Penn Station: too few tracks, too many passengers, confusing circulation, and outdated infrastructure. After all, it is not the engineering and infrastructure that set these two buildings apart, as brick-for-brick and beam-for-beam, the 1960s rebuilding did not generally alter the areas belowground. This early-twentieth-century infrastructure was, after all, designed to handle no more than 200,000 passengers-per-day, and yet now struggles under the burden of 650,000-per-day. Instead, it is the envelope around this infrastructure that was rebuilt in the 1960s, and whose loss the public and historians now mourn.

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At track-level, the railroad ties, location of the third rail, and support columns are original to 1910. The columns in the foreground were added in the 1960s to support the weight of Madison Square Garden. The columns in the distance are original to 1910. The 1960s modernist buildings above conceal below what is, in essence, early-twentieth-century infrastructure.

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View from Track Six

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Generations of New Yorkers hoped Penn Station would one day be restored with an architectural monument befitting New York City and the Western hemisphere’s busiest train station. In addition to rebuilding the General Post Office next door, other proposals over the years have called for rebuilding Penn Station exactly as it appeared before, or imagining a futuristic Penn Station emerging from the structural shell of the current Madison Square Garden, entitled “Penn Station Palimpsest.” Precedent exists for both proposals. Some post World War II cities rebuilt their monuments and bombed out city centers as they appeared before (such as Dresden and Warsaw), while others incorporated the rubble of the lost buildings into a modern building (such as Coventry Cathedral in England and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin). What we miss about old Penn Station was not the infrastructure, operations, or even the building itself, but rather the way this architecture made us feel dignified, and which we feel no longer.

The Vanishing City of Newark

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about architecture and redevelopment in Newark.
I am witness to the poetic decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home. An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body. As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the transient. It is the realization that what was built to last forever will not last. It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city. The ruin forces the viewer to imagine and reconstruct what was there in ways the restored building does not.
Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure? The ruins of the Athenian Acropolis became a symbol for democracy. Could the same fate await our society’s equivalent forums, the strip mall, grocery store, and drive-thru? Will we be good ancestors?
My transient urban environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes from memory.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

Eastern State Penitentiary: Decorative Fortress

Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at the University of Cambridge

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Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies

 

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Digital Reconstruction

Created in SketchUp. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison.
All measurements are accurate to reality.

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With ambient music from Freesound

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Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reported as the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between cell blocks. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.

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360° panoramic view from guard tower

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Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

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Research Paper

Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders. The architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of confinement’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent, understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

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Continue reading paper.

Opens in new window as PDF file.

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Related Projects

Master’s thesis on this prison
Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon