What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.

This lecture is in two parts. First, I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. Then, I identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

Related Projects

– Computer Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon
Essay on Problems with the Panopticon Design
View Panopticon Model in Virtual Reality

The Panopticon: A Problem of Definition

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A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Prisons serve as a clear example.

Erving Goffman, Asylums1

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1. Introduction and Method

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The panopticon is now a theoretical design, a symbol of surveillance and state power. The building’s inventor, Jeremy Bentham, claims it is a perfect building and a total institution that cares for and controls all aspects of its inhabitants’ lives. No panopticon was built to Bentham’s exact instructions. We have little evidence from Bentham to verify or falsify the architecture’s claim to total vision and total power. However, Eastern State Penitentiary, built 1829 in Philadelphia, follows Bentham’s model and is the prototype for over three hundred radial prisons around the world. By analyzing the shortcomings of the panopticon as proposed (by Bentham) and as realized (in Philadelphia), and by situating the panopticon in the broader critique of total institutions and the virtual Internet we can, indirectly, assess how the panopticon’s form (and means of attaining power) evolved to the present-day. We can also use this historical lens to assess the strength of the contemporary analogy that the Internet perfects the panopticon’s surveillance mechanism.

Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to create an open source, virtual reality computer model of the panopticon. Essay illustrations are from this model. This model allows us to interrogate this total institution’s design.

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Computer Animation of the Panopticon

Play the video below. Or click here to view more details about this model and to download it to your computer.

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The Panopticon in Virtual Reality

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Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) designed the panopticon c.1789. Panopticon comes from Greek: pan (all) + opticon (seeing) = all-seeing. Bentham describes how this architecture monitors and reforms souls in his series of 21 letters entitled Panopticon: The Inspection House. He commissioned architect Willey Reveley c.1791 to draw the panopticon’s plan and section (fig.1-2).2 These images still circulate. Today, the panopticon has evolved from prison design to symbol of the surveillance state. No structure was ever built to Bentham’s exact instructions. It remains a perverse, dream building.

Bentham’s proposal is simple: a 100-foot-diameter round room. There are perimeter cells (H in fig.2). Each cell is for one prisoner. Each cell is identical to all others with toilet, bed, sink, and workspace. By day, natural light filters through the window behind each prisoner. By night, searchlights illuminate the interior. In the centre, there is a tower from which guards (standing in corridors marked D) survey all surrounding cells (marked H). The tower’s one-way blinds allow guards to look out (fig.3), but prohibit prisoners from looking in (fig.4). Bentham claims one guard can survey everything with one sweep of the eye. One-way visibility allows guards watch inmates without their knowledge. Thus, the prisoner must always guard his actions because he does not know when he is watched. Lateral walls between cells are supposed to prohibit prisoners from seeing each other and planning a joint escape.3

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The panopticon, this incident in the social history of architecture, is a philosopher’s utopian project. The panopticon workhouse reflects Bentham’s philosophy of Utilitarianism and efficient labour. Each prisoner, working in his cell, is monitored from a distance. Prisons are, more than many structures, inseparable from systems of justice, power, and punishment. The panopticon also reflects a larger historic event. Bentham wrote his panopticon letters in 1789. This was the same year French revolutionaries were dreaming of a new nation and new political system to rationally structure society, based on equality instead of privilege.4 Bentham advertised his building as a prison and educational institution, as noble in its ends as the hospitals and schools he also designed on the circular surveillance model. Bentham had every intention to build an actual panopticon. To this end, “a proposal made to the newly established Paris National Assembly, through Brissot, was warmly and gratefully received. Bentham suggested that the revolutionary government hand the management of the enormous Bicêtre Hôpital Genéral with its 3,850 patients and prisoners over to him.”5 After trying and failing for twenty years to receive funding from the English Parliament to build his panopticon for 288 prisoners and at least three guards in Battersea, London, Bentham abandoned the project.

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2. Design Flaws with Proposed Panopticon

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We must question whether Bentham’s architecture functions as he claims. Prisoners must be visible in Bentham’s plan. Although the panopticon is six floors high, a guard standing at the ground floor could not see six stories up (fig.5). The photo at left shows the guard’s point of view standing at the ground floor. The photo is from my computer simulation. The guard sees into the ground floor cells. But above the second floor, the passages, stairways, and steep angle obscures all visibility of prisoners.

Recognising this problem, Bentham placed surveillance corridors at every other floor. This produced three, independent areas. Figure 6 shows each guard’s cone of vision. But, this solution is self-defeating. If the panopticon is round to permit everything to be seen from the centre, and there is no centre, then why continue to have a round structure?

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Figure 7 is a 180° panorama from the guard’s viewpoint. From any angle, the guard can see into no more than eight cells. The rest are made invisible by odd angles and poor optics (fig.8). To survey, the guard must walk circles (fig.9). Bentham describes three guards surveying 288 prisoners. If each of the three guards only sees eight cells at a time and is continuously walking, then only 24 inmates (3×8) out of 288 are visible at any inmates, about 8% of inmates.

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Fig.7: Panorama from Surveillance Corridor

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The circle implies forceful vision from centre to perimeter. But blind spots and poorly angled blinds might allow prisoners to guess when they were watched, defeating the architecture’s self-regulatory mechanism.6 According to Ivan Manokha:

Bentham’s Panopticon had an important flaw, namely, the possibility that the watched might one day try to find out whether they are indeed being watched. An inmate could hazard, entirely at random, a minor pardonable transgression; if this transgression goes unnoticed, then he could commit another, this time more serious, transgression.7

The leading English prison reformer John Howard also disliked the panopticon’s poor ventilation, “By condensing the prison back into a single enclosed volume, salubrity had been sacrificed to surveillance.”8 During this time, reformers discouraged self- contained and compact prison design (like the panopticon) in favour of spreading the cells over a larger area for better ventilation and light. Another, more serious flaw, is that Bentham provides no way to stop sound from travelling. He opens the interior to light, air, and visibility, but at the expense of sound. Circular interiors have echoing qualities that permit sound to travel farther. Unless prisoners cannot speak, sound will travel; they will communicate. Bentham rarely mentions in his 21 letters over 50 pages any means to muffle sound. The panopticon seems to sacrifice acoustics for visual surveillance.

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3. Design Flaws with Panopticon as Built

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Bentham’s ideas, however flawed, influenced the American Quakers, who were among America’s first prison reformers and shared Bentham’s belief in the redemptive power of solitary confinement. The first (or at least the first popular) translation of Bentham’s ideas into architecture was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. This model proved popular in Europe and influenced numerous English prisons, starting with HMP Pentonville in 1842 and lasting until WWI. Three hundred prisons built between 1800 and 1880 followed this plan.

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Fig.109

ACCESS CORRIDORS          CELLS          INDIVIDUAL EXERCISE YARDS

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In response to observations that the panopticon lacked good ventilation, Haviland converted Bentham’s circle into the radial prison. He displaced the cells into corridors, and then arranged corridors around a central point, like spokes on a wheel. This system improved circulation and gave each prisoner more space (fig.10). Central heating and internal plumbing in each cell ensured prisoners never needed to leave solitary confinement. This new system allowed prisoners to be “inserted in a fixed placed,”10 to borrow a phrase from Foucault.

In the centre, stood a guard tower, analogous to Bentham’s tower. From this place, guards observed some of the exercise yards. Only the tops of the cells and roofs were visible, but never prisoners in their cells and exercise yards. Figure 11 shows the tower’s limited cone of vision. Invisible areas are shaded black. Years later, due to blind spots, this tower was rebuilt ~30 feet higher to command a better view.

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Fig.11: Guard Tower Blind Spots

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Perhaps, the guard is symbolically but not actually all-seeing. Guards later installed a clock on the tower, as if to remind prisoners of who gave and took time from their lives. Bentham’s guard tower seems analogous to Eastern State Penitentiary’s, both visually commanding yet both incapable of actual, all-powerful vision.

Despite the circular form, surveillance was not continuous. The guards had to walk through the corridor, with padded shoes to muffle footsteps, and open the peephole into each cell, one by one, to check on prisoners. Surveillance was discontinuous. But, it was the isolation that controlled. Thick walls muffled sound and sight, but at the expense of total vision of each prisoner from a central point. Bentham’s visual surveillance and Foucault’s concept of inmate self-regulation were not quite as visible here as in the original panopticon. Instead, “it was the isolation of the person, the total distance from others, that would serve to control.”11

The similarities between the panopticon as proposed and as built are limited. The general circular form survives, but the hundreds of details Bentham describes are not followed: none of the cell dimensions he gives, the staircases, surveillance corridors, the edifice’s size, and prisoner numbers. It is the theory of inmate self-regulation and the circular form that survive more than Bentham’s particularities. Unlike the panopticon, which aspired to be a prototype for all manner of institutions, Eastern State Penitentiary operated as the model prison but not as a model for other institutions like hospitals. The panopticons as built, in other words, are scaled-down and less culturally ambitious versions of the original proposal.

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Eastern State Penitentiary in Virtual Reality

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Bentham and Haviland were trying to imagine a form of prison architecture fit for this new democracy. If the punishment must fit the prisoner, if the system makes no distinctions for prisoner class and wealth, if guards must know at every moment the activity of every inmate, then the architecture must breathe the principle that the law is “the same for all.” Each cell in Bentham and Haviland’s world was identical to all others: 6 feet wide, 9 feet deep, and 8 feet high.

As of 1829, the most expensive structure built, the most technically complex, and the largest in America’s 200 year history was not a palace, senate house, or theatre. It was a prison. It was Eastern State Penitentiary. This fact speaks to the builders’ aspiration to embed symbolism into the prison. The Philadelphia Prison Society describes: “This penitentiary is the only edifice in this country, which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middle ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe.”12

Among tourists and schoolchildren who visited after the opening, the usual response was admiration and support for solitary confinement. Among the supporters was Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, where he spent two weeks interviewing prisoners.13 In his resulting report On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France, he describes the supposed benefits of total isolation on prisoners’ health and preparation to rejoin society.14

Not all visitors saw solitude as a positive. Charles Dickens visited America for six months in 1842. In 1850, he published American Notes for General Circulation. Judging by the number of pages he spends describing Eastern State Penitentiary, what impressed him most during his travels was not this democracy’s government, cities, or landscapes, but its largest prison. Dickens condemns solitary confinement:

Very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. […] I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.15

In the job of making prisons feel penitence through isolation, Eastern State Penitentiary failed. By depriving convicts of all human contact, the solitary system did not address the antisocial personality that brought him to prison. Prison reports estimate upwards of 10% of the inmates went “insane” during their confinement. About a quarter of black inmates died during confinement, and the architecture proved unhealthy due to poor ventilation, fumes from the coal furnace entering cells, and malnutrition.16 Dickens mourns released prisoners. The ex-convict stumbles down the street, blinded by all sensory activity and sound. From years in confinement, he has trouble speaking. His words become stunted and halting; his eyes glaze over and become windows into unspoken pain.

Ideally, the effects of solitary should be so permanent, so debilitating, and so forceful that the inmate retains feelings of “permanent visibility” long after leaving prison. In the free world, they continue to act as if they were watched, even though they are no longer watched. However, 1960s sociologist Erving Goffman catalogued the relationship between inmates and medics over three years he worked in an asylum. He concluded the effects of rehabilitation were only limited and passing. The institution may reset the inmate’s personality and teach the inmate behaviour that aligns to socially acceptable norms. But, once they leave and are re-exposed to the comforts, temptations, and randomness of the outside world, the asylum’s lessons are soon lost.17 The “perfection of power” within the total institution might cause the inmate to self-regulate his behaviour, but only so long as he is in the institution. Alternatively, even permanent change might not be of the kind intended by staff. Think of Dicken’s inmates stumbling down the street. In contrast to Goffman’s empirical observations of actual inmates, Foucault dubiously claims the panopticon’s effects are permanent:

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The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.18

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James Scott pushes the critique of total institutions, like prisons, still further, when he writes: “No administrative system is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematised process of abstraction and simplification. […] State agents have no interest—nor should they—in describing an entire social reality.”19 Scott’s hypothesis is that states, throughout history, tried to control their people through large-scale architectural, legal, and social institutions. These efforts included, for instance, land collectivization under Communism, urban renewal projects in American cities, and scientific forestry in Germany. In each instance, Scott identifies how, despite different geography, time, and political systems, these efforts always fail and for the same reason: Reality is too complex, too diverse, and too evolving for man-made systems to capture and control. Scott never mentions prisons or failed state efforts to control through prisons. But, we can apply this theme to prison design. For instance, a recent literature review of the panopticon cites how we should neither speak of the panopticon in generalities nor take Bentham at face value when he claims his structure has universal use:

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Theoretical accounts often talk in abstract entities (‘institutions’, ‘the government’, ‘networks’, ‘the market’). These entities are described as invisible forces exercising power over subjects. This perspective often ignores any form of situatedness, context or the specificities of surveillance technologies and practices.20

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As an example of this failure to ground the panopticon in specifics, Bentham speaks of schools, hospitals, and asylums as abstract entities, where watching people, instead of caring for their mental and physical health, is of primary importance. This is problematic because both prisons and hospitals are concerned with different kinds of surveillance. Foucault and Bentham are right these are “disciplinary” institutions. Both doctors and jailers must establish “security.” Doctors keep the patients secure from disease. Jailers keep the public secure from the inmates. As applied to prisons and hospitals, security has in fact two opposite, even conflicting, meanings.

Although Bentham claims the panopticon is equally suited for prisons and asylums, the architectural form of prisons and asylum did not converge in the nineteenth century. They diverged. Most prisons followed Eastern State Penitentiary with radiating wings from central point (fig.12). Windows improved circulation but encouraged escape and communication with outsiders. So, in the interest of security over comfort, cell windows were small and inaccessible. By contrast, most asylums and hospitals followed the Kirkbride Plan for better views and air circulation (fig.13). Thomas Kirkbride, a doctor turned architect, invented the architectural template most nineteenth century American hospitals follow. The hospital wings, instead of clustered around a single point like radial prisons, were distributed over larger areas. This maximized airflow and inmate views of nature. As part of the “rest cure” and tuberculosis treatment, patients were placed on open terraces with good views.21

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After the French and American Revolution, these new democracies required new institutions: the congress hall, records office, hospital, prison, asylum, and university. Institutions, formerly the responsibility of private initiative and charity, were increasingly seen as democracy’s duty to care for the poor, educate the middle class, and regulate trade. Industrialists built railroads and factories; both required custom and highly specific architectural typologies. All these institutions, no matter how varied in purpose, share one quality in common: specific and niche institutional demands. The nineteenth century witnessed an explosion in buildings of diverse function, style, and appearance.22 Bentham’s panopticon sits at the edge of this moment. There is tension here. Bentham speaks of the panopticon as the ideal architectural form applicable “to all establishments whatsoever” at the very moment in time institutional forms were splintering away from a single prototype.

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4. Evolution of the Panopticon’s Meaning

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Early prison designers like Bentham and contemporary philosophers both speak of panopticons. However, contemporary use this word in an abstract and symbolic way that Bentham and his contemporaries did not.

Although the panopticon is now a theoretical design and symbol of surveillance, it began as a proposal for an actual prison. Bentham had every intention to build it with himself as prison master. So, when Bentham writes that:

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The panopticon will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection. […] No matter how different, or even opposite the purpose: whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry.23

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He means this literally. The panopticon could physically be employed in all manner of circular buildings: prisons, hospitals, asylums, workhouses, and schools. And, for most of its 200-year history, the panopticon operated as physical model for prisons. Only in the late twentieth century was the panopticon re-interpreted from physical model for actual buildings into theoretical model for the surveillance state. I consulted several hundred papers on panopticons. And I have found none from before the 1970s that speaks of the panopticon as an analogy and symbol for something other than institutional architecture.

This shift toward abstraction began with Michel Foucault’s 1975 book, Discipline and Punish. In the chapter entitled “Panopticism,” he compares the surveillance schemes of medieval towns under quarantine against disease, with Bentham’s panopticon, and then with the modern nation state, tracing analogous control mechanisms across time. Foucault applies Bentham’s line that the panopticon is “applicable…to all institutions whatsoever” to institutions that were not fully formed at the time of Bentham’s writing, such as the modern hospital, police station, and modern prison. At the same, the Internet was introduced and spread rapidly in the 1980s. At time of writing, Foucault seems unaware of this technology, or its latent possibility to perfect surveillance. Discipline and Punish does not mention platforms, like Facebook, that give news, information, and entertainment while harvesting users’ personal information and using this information to manipulate user behaviour for profit. Both Goffman and Foucault were writing before the Internet revolution, and could not have factored in the Internet’s effects into their critique.

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Fig.14: A few stock photo representations of the Internet.

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Yet, for all the Internet’s power, the public cannot visualise: What does the Internet look like? People frequently represent the Internet as a series of connected dots, or speak of this abstract and ethereal thing called “the cloud.” The stock photos above are a few from online. The variety of things the Internet could be (connected dots, clouds, circles, a spider’s web) encompass a range of forms which begs the question: How can the Internet be all this at once? In this information and knowledge vacuum, Bentham’s building seems to represent and visualize this network in more concrete terms than “the cloud.” While the visual representations above are vapid and not politically charged, the panoticon image is a more powerful metaphor and hints at the darker possibilities of Facebook’s mission statement: “Bring the world closer together.”

Foucault’s writings and the rise of the Internet prompted a renewed interest in the panopticon. They also signal this linguistic shift from panopticon (a physical space) to panopticism (a philosophy, theory, and –ism). The word panopticism does not appear in any printed text before Discipline and Punish in 1975. When we speak of panopticons, we need to speak of two waves in thinking: the first wave was from 1787 to c.1870 and the second from 1975 to the present. During this first period, the panopticon operated as a physical institution and prototype for designing actual structures. In the second and contemporary period, the panopticon operates more as theory and abstraction of power relationships. Figure 15 is from Google Ngram, an online search engine that charts the frequency by year (x-axis) of word use (y-axis) in the 30 million books Google Books scanned from 1800 to 2008. This is not an entirely scientific measurement as not all books were scanned, but the general sweep of the graph loosely follows what I observe in the literature.

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Fig.15

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5. Conclusion

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The panopticon sits on an uncomfortable edge between dream and reality. The structure is now a dream. But this dream was powerful enough to influence prison reformers and actual buildings. Yet, not one of these buildings follow Bentham’s exact instructions, allowing their shortcomings to be chalked up to a failure to follow Bentham closely enough rather than innate flaws in total institutions. The moment total institutions are built, they become victim to decay due to design, materials, and time. Foucault can claim the panopticon “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power”24 so long as he ignores problems with actual panopticons: complaints from prison wardens, records from frustrated Parliament, or evidence of prisoner escapes from supposedly perfect and all-seeing radial prisons.

The constant threat facing total institutions, like prisons and asylums, is that inmates will try to subvert, undermine, destroy, or escape from the architecture of their confinement. Total institutions are designed with walls and bars to be difficult to destroy and attack. The Internet is also a total institution; it is total in the sense that it is mobile bank, department store, library, television, movie theatre, and social space wrapped into one device.

For all its power, the Internet relies on visible architecture. When we store data on “the cloud,” what we are really doing is storing our information on someone else’s server. The data from my laptop travels by WiFi signal to the nearest router, and from there it is whisked along at light speed through buried cables to a data centre that could be thousands of miles away. The data centre is a room full of servers, small computers stacked on each other like shelves in a warehouse. The space can be as small or as large as the number of clients it serves. Servers can fit into almost any type of building shape and size, as long as the location is secure, free from floods, and has reliable electricity. In contrast to the non-descript architecture of a data centre, driving by a prison or hospital, the exterior looks like a prison or hospital and conforms to certain expectations we have.25 The server, this backbone of the Internet and its control mechanism, is malleable and usually safely distanced from the people whose lives it effects. While a local jail and hospital must be near the catchment area in which inmates are caught, the Internet’s infrastructure can be anywhere. The U.S. government can, for instance, record people’s phone activity in Iraq, store and process the information in its Utah Data Center, and then pass judgments on whom to arrest in Washington D.C. In this distancing of server architecture from victim might exist the Internet’s strength, and by extension the panopticon’s strength. Unlike other total institutions, the Internet seems less “architectural.” Does this immunize it from the blind spots and design problems plaguing other types of institutional architecture?

Panopticon is a problematic word. In theory, scholars use the term, beyond prisons, to describe a diverse range of buildings, institutions, governments, and now the Internet. These are all “panopticons.” But, in practice, these different and so-called “panopticons” do not have much in common beyond their general circular form. Both prisons and hospitals are concerned with power relations, surveillance, and control. But “panopticon” does not articulate specific institutional demands or the fact that control (and control mechanisms) look different across institutions.

The guiding principle of Foucault’s panopticism is as follows: Because inmates do not know when they are watched, they must act as if they were always watched. They therefore self-regulate their activity and follow rules, even if there is nobody watches them and punishes them for breaking rules. But on visual analysis of how the panopticon would have appeared if built, the built panopticon does not perfectly embody the principles of panopticism. Firstly, inmates are not passive objects and will communicate with each other across Bentham’s open spaces. Secondly, inmates can and will try to find out when they are watched by exploiting blind spots and faults in the architecture. Thirdly, there is no guarantee inmates will continue to self-regulate behaviour after they leave prison and are no longer under fear of surveillance.

Both terms – panopticon (the building) and panopticism (the theory) – seem to describe total institutions like prison and the Internet. But, both the building and the theory are too broad and too expansive. Panopticism ignores specific institutional needs and habits. Saying panopticism describes modern surveillance is like saying “connectivity, power relations, or fear of punishment describe modern life.” This statement does not push for any specific positive outcome and could imply all manner of surveillance and nastiness. Panopticism does not offer insight unique to a particular era or to a specific total institution. In the Middle Ages, God-fearing people self-regulated sinful thoughts and behaviour, too. The panopticon building, from which panopticism originates, is too broad as a general template for almost every institutional building. The fact that, 200 years later, the only structures to consciously follow this architectural model are prisons (and a few hospitals) might speak to this template’s more limited application in practice.26

How does the Internet change our critique of total institutions? As the internet becomes more complex and more invasive, is it time for a new paradigm to visualize and describe surveillance?

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Bibliography

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  • Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon: The Inspection House. Whithorn: Anodos Books (2017).
  • Comte Gustave de Beaumont, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Francis Lieber (translator). “Inquiry into the Penitentiary of Philadelphia” and “Penitentiary System of Pennsylvania.” In On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard (1833), 187-198 and 287-301.
  • Dickens, Charles. “Chapter VII: Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison.” In American Notes for General Circulation. London: Chapman and Hall (1850), 67-77.
  • Evans, Robin. “A way of obtaining power.” In The fabrication of virtue: English prison architecture, 1750-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1982), 195-235.
  • Evans, Robin. “Bentham’s Panopticon: An Incident in the Social History of Architecture.” Architecture Association Quarterly, no. 3, spring 1971.
  • Furlong, Gillian. “Designs for a Panopticon Prison by Jeremy Bentham: Section of an Inspection House; Plan of Houses of Inspection; Section Plan, c.1791.” In Treasures from UCL (2015), 136-39.
  • Galič, Maša, Tjerk Tima, and Bert-Jaap Koops. “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation.” Philosophy & Technology 1, no. 30 (2017), 9-37.
  • Goffman, Erving. “Characteristics of Total Institutions” in Asylums. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company (1962), 1-124.
  • Greer, Dave. “The Internet I.R.L.” The New York Times Magazine. 5 June 2015. Photo gallery of the architecture of server warehouses and data transmission. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/05/magazine/the-internet-irl.html.
  • Haw, Alex. “CCTV London: Internment, Entertainment and Other Optical Fortifications.” AA Files, no. 52 (2005), 55-61. www.jstor.org/stable/29544801.
  • Kirkbride, Thomas S. On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston (1854).
  • Knight, John. “Inquiry into the Penitentiary in Philadelphia.” Mechanics’ Magazine, and Journal of the Mechanics’ Institute, vol. 5 (1835).
  • Foucault, Michel (author) and Alan Sheridan (translator). “Panopticism.” In Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, (1977), 195-228.
  • Manokha, Ivan. “Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age.” Surveillance and Society, vol. 16, no. 2 (2018), 219-237.
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus. A History of Building Types. London: Thames and Hudson (1976).
  • “Plan of Eastern State Penitentiary. ”Paris: Demetz and Blouet (1836). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eastern_State_Penitentiary_Floor_Plan_1836.png.
  • Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press (1998).
  • Thibaut, Jacqueline. “‘To Pave the Way to Penitence’: Prisoners and Discipline at the Eastern State Penitentiary 1829-1835.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 106, no. 2 (1982), 187-222. www.jstor.org/stable/20091663.
  • Yanni, Carla. “Transforming the Treatment: Architecture and Moral Management at Eastern State.” In The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2007), 49. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt2gd.

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List of Figures

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* indicates image created by author from computer model

  1. Willey Reveley’s Floor Plan of Panopticon,c.1791
  2. Willey Reveley’s Cross Section of Panopticon,c.1791
  3. View from guard tower to cells: VISIBILITY*
  4. View from cells to guard tower: INVISIBILITY*
  5. Guard’s view on ground floor*
  6. Guard’s cone of vision from surveillance corridors (annotated from Reveley)
  7. Panorama of cells from guard’s viewpoint in surveillance corridor*
  8. Guard’s cone of vision (annotated from Reveley)
  9. Guard’s walking circuit (annotated from Reveley)
  10. Plan of Eastern State Penitentiary, c.1836 (with author’s colour annotations)
  11. Guard tower blind spots *
  12. General shape of radial prison
  13. General shape of hospitals on Kirkbride Plan
  14. A few stock photo representations of the Internet
  15. Google Ngram search results for the term “panopticon” and “panopticism.

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Endnotes

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  1. Goffman, Asylums, xiii.
  2. Furlong, “Designs for a Panopticon,” Treasures from UCL.
  3. Author’s illustrations from his computer model.
  4. Evans, “Bentham’s Panopticon: An Incident in the Social History of Architecture,” Architecture Association Quarterly, no.3.
  5. Evans, The fabrication of virtue, 197.
  6. Haw, “CCTV London: Internment, Entertainment and Other Optical Fortifications,” AA Files, no.52.
  7. Ivan Manokha, “Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age,” Surveillance and Society, vol.16, no.2.
  8. Robin Evans, The fabrication of virtue, 224.
  9. Colour-coding added by author to 1835 plan.
  10. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 197.
  11. Yanni, “Transforming the Treatment,” in The Architecture of Madness, 49.
  12. de Tocqueville, et al., On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France, 74.
  13. Knight, “Inquiry into the Penitentiary in Philadelphia,” vol.5.
  14. de Tocqueville, 189.
  15. Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, 68-69.
  16. Thibaut, “’To Pave the Way to Penitence,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 106, no.2.
  17. Goffman, Asylums, 71.
  18. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 201.
  19. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 22.
  20. Maša Galič et al., “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond,” Philosophy & Technology 1, no.30.
  21. Kirkbride, On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Incidentally, the templates for most American prisons and asylums emerged from Philadelphia within twenty years of each other.
  22. Pevsner, A History of Building Types.
  23. Bentham, Panopticon: The Inspection House, 5.
  24. Foucault, 206.
  25. Greer, “The Internet I.R.L., The New York Times Magazine (photo gallery).
  26. There are city plans (Paris) and buildings (stadiums) that seem to resemble panopticons. These similarities are purely formal and accidental rather than intentional. Not every circular building you can stand in the middle of is a panopticon, or rises to the level of panopticism.

California Waterscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2. Research Methodology and Sources

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

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

Consult the research methodology and bibliography for complete details.

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

3. Source Data on Dams and Reservoirs

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

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4. Source Data on Aqueducts and Canals

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

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

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

Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

 

 

 

Canal & Mott Streets

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

Doyers Street – Barbershop Row

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

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

Mosco & Mulberry All

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

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

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

Bayard & Mulberry Grocery

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

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

Forsyth & Delancey Grocery

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

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

Geography of Incarceration

 

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

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Race

Percentage of New Yorkers who identify as this race 3

Percentage of marijuana arrests of individuals belonging to this race

White

44.0%

11.2%

Black

25.5%

67.5%

Asian/Pacific Islander

12.8%

4.2%

Other

17.7%

17.1%

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

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Click here to view this pie chart in more detail.

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

 

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Research Methodology and Sources

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

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

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

Big Data and Historic Preservation in New York City

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

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

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

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Introduction

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

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

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

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

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Case Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs

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

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125,594 records above

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

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

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

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128,212 records above

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Case Study Two:

Contextual preservation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Borough . Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

NYC

Totals

Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560

17,325

 

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

1,512

 

17,504
Number of vacant parcels within historic districts 40 457 74 444 29 1,044
Percentage of buildings in historic districts that are non-designated and/or vacant 16.731% 13.713% 9.5541% 17.054% 22.38% 14.74%
Borough totals 38,881 30,920 28,260 20,887 6,885

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

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Case Study Three: Keeping up to pace?

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

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

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

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5,451 records above

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

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

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

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93,691 records above

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

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

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Case Study Four:

How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click map to launch interactivity − opens in new tab.

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion: The Future of Historic Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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Footnotes

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

  1. “Individual Landmarks,” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Individual-Landmarks/ch5p-r223 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” New York City: Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/LPC-Individual-Landmark-and-Historic-District-Buil/7mgd-s57w (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  3. New York City’s 2017 population estimate is 8.623 million.
  4. More on this topic: Rachel Mollie Levy, “Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City,” (Master’s diss., Columbia University: Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation, 2015) https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8HD7TVM (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  5. “General Purposes of Residence Districts,” in The Zoning Resolution: Web Version, (published by New York City Zoning Department, 2018), pp.252-53. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/zoning/zoning-text/allarticles.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  6. The total for all five boroughs is 127,833. Including landmarks not registered in any borough, like Ellis Island, the total is 128,954.
  7. New York City Planning Department, “Spatial Data Properties and Metadata,” from MapPLUTO, (published to the web, 2018), pp.5 https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/open-data/meta_mappluto.pdf?v=18v1 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, https://www.westminster.gov.uk/conservation-areas (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Historic-Districts/xbvj-gfnw (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  10. Anthony W. Robins, “Differences between Landmarks Commission Designations and National Register Listing,” in Similarities and Differences between Landmarks Preservation Commission Regulation and Donation of a Preservation Easements, (Prepared for The Trust for Architectural Easements, 2009), pp.10, http://architecturaltrust.org/~architec/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1a-2009-0512-Robins-Report.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  12. “Outbuildings” mostly include garages, stables, street furniture, and accessory structures, generally small. This category skews our results. Since many accessory structures were turned into residential structures, the actual percentage of residential dwellings should be slightly higher than 27.66%.
  13. Manhattan has more residential than commercial landmarks even though more people work here than live here. On weekdays, 3.1 million people work in Manhattan, while only 1.6 million live here.
  14. “New York City owns or leases 14,000 properties around the five boroughs—a public asset roughly the size of Brooklyn.” From: “Public Assets: Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York,” The Municipal Art Society of New York, https://www.mas.org/initiatives/public-assets/ (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  15. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, http://culpa.info/quotes?professor_id=97 (retrieved 5 November 2018).

New York Penn Station: Past and Present

Published by Viewing NYC on 15 May 2019.

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

– Vincent Scully

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

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

– Kenneth Jackson

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

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

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

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Exterior

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

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

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

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

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

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Shopping Arcade and Waiting Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Train Concourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

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

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

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

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Computer Simulation

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Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19

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The text of this speech is transcribed below.

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

Secondly, what is sustainability?

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

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

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

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

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

What does “progress” mean to the American city?

PostcardT.

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

America's Unhealthiest City

America’s Unhealthiest City

 

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

 

1911 Demographic Map

Newark’s Predominant Ethnic Groups in 1911

 

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

 

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

 

Newark in 1873 and 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

Prince Street

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A century after 1916

 

 

A Not So Perfect Past

 

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Downtown Newark

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

 

Say no to Edison Parking!

Interactive Map of Newark’s Blighted Parking Lots

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Comparative Views of Downtown Newark, Then and Now

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

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Newark’s Parking Crisis

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

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

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

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

 

 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.

 

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

 

Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I too have asthma. Always had. Always will.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thank you.