Public Speech: “Make Newark more bike friendly.”

Livable City

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

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Here are a few facts:
One: Bikes are affordable.
On the one hand, the average used car costs $16,000 (National Automobile Dealers Association). On the other hand, the average bike costs less than $500. Cars are 32 times more expensive than bikes, and that’s discounting gas, maintenance, and environmental costs. In a city whose average annual wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.
Two: Bikes fight poverty.
Over 29% of Newark’s population is below the poverty line. Over 31% of our male and 38% of our female population is obese. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). Poverty, obesity, and lack of exercise are closely correlated. Biking is a form of exercise. Exercise fights obesity and poverty. Newark needs bikes.
Three: Bikes fight childhood obesity.
Newark’s been ranked as one of the least walkable cities in America. We must do something about that: 30% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unfit for walking, running, or biking; 44% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unsafe due to automobile traffic; only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Rutgers Center for State Policy). Maybe, there’s a correlation here. Improve the livability of our streets; help our children.
Four: Bikes are sustainable.
Newark is 27 square miles. The average commute within Newark is 11.5 minutes and under 4 miles (US Census). Yet, despite the small size of our city, the average commuter goes by bus and car. Why not by bike? Why not by bike?
Five: We need more bike lanes.
Our city has 320 miles of streets. But our city has few miles of exclusive bike lanes (NJDOT). Bikes are the way to the future. Cars aren’t. We don’t need more room for roads and parking lots. We need more room for bikes.
Now…
The culture of the car caused white flight from our city, gave asthma to our children, and destroyed much of our city’s culture and heritage. Newark needs fewer cars. Newark needs more bikes.
We can’t give every Newarker a car (no should we), but we can give every Newarker access to biking opportunities.
Every idea has a start. It is true that our bike lanes are not as busy as those in Amsterdam or New York. It is also true that our city government is not enforcing legislation intended to protect our bike lanes. Build our bike lanes well and protect them; people will use them with time.
Change takes time. We don’t have the firm roots of a bike culture. We have only the seeds we need. Plant and grow these seeds of green bikes, green bike lanes, a green waterfront and a green city; and these seeds will take root.
If not now, then when…? If not with bikes, then with what…? If not in our city, then where…?
As a Newarker, I see so much potential in our city. Our city, at the doorstep of New York, is currently the confluence of planes, trains, and buses. So, moving forward, we have the foundations for a more sustainable Newark. Starting today, with bikes, we can create a greater Newark for us all.
Thank You.

Public Speech: parking vs. preservation

As featured by NJ.com in spring 2019
Update: Following a case filed by New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center on behalf of PLANewark, Edison Parking admitted that they demolished this building without seeking proper permission from city and state agencies. Edison was in negotations out of court with PLANewark about ways to mitigate the damage they caused.
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On a warm Sunday in August 2014, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space. Although the first floor was sealed with cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago-style windows, intricate white terracotta carvings, and Greco-Roman ornament. The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews hours of pounding and smashing to weaken the structure. When the outside walls fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and thousands of steel re-bars for added durability.
Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Street, the two-story structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District. Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but… The property’s owner is Edison ParkFast, one of the largest landowners in Newark and a company with a business model linked to gentrification and lawlessness. Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line because he feared the public park would decrease his property values. Gottesman’s company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City cynically read – “Bloomberg is gone. Time to put the bikes away.” To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without investing anything to improve the community. While waiting, Edison ParkFast generates huge revenue from surface parking – often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot. Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

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In fact, demolition is in Edison’s selfish self-interest. Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land. Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden. Meanwhile, developed properties – whose residents might have invested thousands in upkeep and preservation – are taxed disproportionately higher than Edison’s lots. Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption. In other words, the public subsidizes surface parking. Under the current land-use policy that financially incentivizes demolition, Edison’s greed and urban blight is rewarded.
Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art. In this case, the building Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law. All the same, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land. Then, Edison removed the historic property’s windows and poked holes in its roof to cause water damage. Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property. Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission. In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.
When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late. The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis. Sitting directly behind me was a heavy suburban lady, working for Edison. Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and promptly left the meeting.
Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

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My name is Myles. I am a life long Newark resident.
Parking is a travesty. I have seen:
– Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.
– Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.
– Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.
This blight of so-called “development” must stop. Newark is a city with a strong history. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.
Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.
Newark is a lawless city. Its buildings are testament to that:
– Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures. They do so anyway.
– Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent. They do so anyway.
– Parking developers are not above the law. They think they are anyway.
Those who break the law must be held accountable.
Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.
Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”
A thief does not think he will be caught. A thief does not stop until he is punished.
I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals. But this commission has:
– The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.
– The power to prevent continued parking construction.
– The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.
I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far. I encourage you to do more. I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers. Even if victories may be Pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.

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In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district. In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed. Each time I review these images, I remember demolished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison ParkFast is not alone. Other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to the loss of their own city’s identity. For instance, a few years ago, Rutgers University schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman. Rutgers owned a historic Art Deco building from the 1930s. Edison owned a parking lot. Rutgers exchanged their building for the parking lot, knowing full well this transaction would doom the old building to rubble. As a result of this short-sighted practice and the frequent demolition of Newark’s architectural fabric, Rutgers has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, with inadequate housing in the immediate area for students and faculty to live and walk to work.

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Detroit: visual essay

Detroit represents the shortcoming of American-style, car centric urban development. Wide highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods now serve a city devoid of people in whole neighborhoods. In a city that lost 60% of its population since its 1950 height, extensive infrastructure designed to serve millions of people now serves thousands. After Detroit’s July 1967 civil unrest, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit in fewer than five years. Now over 50,000 homes lie vacant and decaying.
During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment that rolled out of its auto factories. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit, too, has been bombed. Except this time, it’s a city destroyed from within by the American forces of racism, the automobile, and anti-urban government policies.

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Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen status fall short. Everywhere there are fields of surface parking lots, where there were once businesses, people, and wealth. A near-empty monorail system circles a quiet downtown. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full rotting Art Deco architectural gems and empty storefronts. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the aging and indebted city. The imposing appearance of the nearby Greektown Casino abuts the ominous city jail. Suburban residents travel to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field; they return afterwards by car to their safe, quiet, and white communities.

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Detroit represents flaws in American culture across levels: government policies that encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities; corporations that developed America’s love of car culture; planners who designed cities and city life around the car. Most of all, Detroit represents the failure of American democracy to end racial segregation. Over fifty years after the end of legal racial segregation, Detroit is a city divided along borders of race and class.
Detroit’s fitting Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”
We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

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Political Cartoons

The following images are political style cartoons about nationalism, fascism, and communism. They are drawn in the pedantic and high-contrast style of propaganda images from the Soviet Union. The rigid use of geometry and symmetry is intentional to communicate the oppression these regimes stand for.

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McDonald’s Fast Food Slaughter Machine

This image is inspired by H.G. Wells’ 1895 book The Time Machine. H.G. Wells describes two worlds. The world above is a peaceful garden and amusement park full of naïve residents. Monsters live in the dark world below of tunnels, machines, and the equipment that sustains the aboveground garden. In my rendition of H.G. Wells’ story monsters emerge at night with their nasty machines to harvest people for “USDA approved grade A” burger patties.

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A Goliath made of corporate logos fights a tiny David dressed as Uncle Sam.

The Legacy of Vitruvius

Rome left a footprint on the built environment.
What will our society leave?

Essay selected from successful 2014 application to the Telluride Association Summer Program

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Visitors to the ruins of vanished Greece, Carthage, and Rome do not see whole structures, so much as shards of memory and the detritus of a lost civilization. Ruins’ emotive power comes less from seeing them intact and more from imagining them as they once were. There is something powerful about “the lost cause.” The imagery of loss draws viewers in to imagine a civilization that was or still could be if history had gone differently. Roman culture and art left a visible impact on the built environment, and on how later civilizations constructed their own identities through claiming legitimacy (real or imagined) descended from Rome. The aesthetics of the southern plantation house, the US state capitals, and thousands of old bank buildings evoke the imagery of Roman columns, white marble, and solid proportions. What material legacy will our own civilization leave when it, too, splinters apart? Who or what is included in the process of memory making? Who is left out?
There are many ways to answer this question. One way is to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture, and to see where they diverge. This divide is well illustrated by one book: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written around 30-15 BCE by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer. From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, architects drew on the content of this book as a user manual and their profession’s “Bible.” Vitruvian design principles guided Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man. In the face of centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards. The globalized world of today with its shimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology makes Roman technological achievements seem small and quaint by contrast. Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in the ornament of tradition and precedent that modern architecture dispenses with. Roman culture seems to have little do with, or say about, modern culture and architecture.

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In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of good architecture: beauty (venustas), quality (firmitas), utility (utilitas). The built environment must fulfill all three; to pass the test of time is the measure of good design. I will establish the relevance of each of these principles to modern design thought.

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Beauty—Venustas

Aesthetic principles guided the architecture of Vitruvius’s time. Vitruvius emphasizes how architecture must relate to the human body, “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14). Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures. As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so too must architecture. Consequently, the architect becomes an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings. As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top. As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right. As the human body measures each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature. The gendered language is Vitruvius’, not mine.
Yet behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice. “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173). There seems to be the following implication: If humans are perfect creations in the image of the gods, then a perfect building should draw from the perfect human. Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world. The creation myth that Roman people are descended from the gods via Romulus and Remus, as well as the sophisticated appearance of the Roman built environment, is used to justify conquest and colonialism. Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress. In comparison, the narrative of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism’s claim to technological progress seems to claim, like Vitruvius, that our own civilization is the most advanced and best. It is the end of history.
Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics. Like Vitruvius in service of his client, the Roman Empire, modern architects can also be agents of injustice through their design of prisons and institutions that perpetuate violence. Unlike Roman structures, the modern built environment has turned toward functionalism, rationalism, and cost-saving measures at the expense of hand carved stone ornament. All of Vitruvius structures were designed by and for people to live and work in. Today sees whole new varieties of structures for different types of “people” – houses for cars, houses for airplanes, houses for industrial equipment, electricity generators, and computers. The superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman roads and crumbling obelisks of antiquity. Building materials have changed from stone, earth, and wood to sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic. The constraints of economy dictate that modern structures need not model the human form. The built environment has become alienating.

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On the one hand, the erosion of human aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy. On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder. Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi reads the respective urban plans of Rome and Las Vegas as symbols for different philosophies of space. Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in obedience to Vitruvius’ principles. Most Roman structures have a well-defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale. Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their human-scale density and orientation to the sun. The scale is human; the city is a microcosm. By metallic contrast, Las Vegas, an asphalt civilization constructed in the desert, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty. The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper. The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle. Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are exaggerations of Main Street and the roadside America of strip malls, car washes, and prefabricated houses. With technology comes freedom of movement and aesthetics but also an associated disorder and non-Vitruvian decadence.
One should ask if it is possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society. Probably not. To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different. Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests. Architecture seemingly does not play a comparable role in twenty-first-century society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts. The profession of architect is also different. In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to describing engineering methods to be employed by architects. In our time, the architect is no longer an engineer because the technical complexity of a modern building like an airport or hospital is far beyond the design abilities of any single person. Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest who collaborate on construction. In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society. While Vitruvius expected three rustic qualities of architecture – quality, utility, and beauty – occupants today expect a lot more: electricity, gas, plumbing, heating, wifi, etc.
Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse. Architecture, even if the aesthetic ideal is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style. As urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson writes: “History is for losers. Preservation is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.” We cannot and should not unquestioningly emulate Rome because the cultural forces shaping our respective societies are uniquely different.

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Met 4

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Quality—Firmitas and Utility—Utilitas

Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not. Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.
Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures. He writes: “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53). Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last. In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time. Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as durable in ten years as it will be in a hundred. This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow. A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple. A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.
Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition. In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes: “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6). An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius. The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers. The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial. Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations and refines the built environment through incremental change.
Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan). Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated. He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment. This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture. The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory. For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function. Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture, even if they seem to differ in their materials and construction methods. As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes: “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

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St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for concern?

Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long? Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long? The Roman forum became legendary; this architectural space become a powerful symbol for democracy and government long after the Roman buildings themselves had decayed. Could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru? The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the grandeur of our society? Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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

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St. John the Divine 1

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Further Reading

Robert Venturi et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.
Marcus Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Film featuring a few of my art projects

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Visiting China in 2011, I was shocked by the reach of globalization. On the train, I witnessed an endless treadmill of mile after mile of identical crops, villages, and cities. The polluted skies and downcast weather hinted at the consequence of growth. Returning home, I earned greater appreciation for my own artistic creations. They seemed so much more innocent – a naïve refuge from reality.

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Scenes filmed from Levittown, Pennsylvania are paired with the corniest rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I could find.

Petition against Panasonic Company’s Newark Offices

I am saddened when I walk through downtown Newark. The corporate towers of the “Renaissance” Center ignore the very city that gave them millions of dollars in tax breaks. They erect austere metal fences and protect their towers with obedient security guards that threaten pedestrians with arrest. They are scared of Newark.
When Panasonic decided to move their national headquarters to Newark, I hoped they would buck the trend of icy disrespect. However, I saw that their new building turned its back to the city like so many other lifeless behemoths downtown. I wrote the following petition, signed by Newark children during the opening of Riverfront Park.  On 11 June 2012, when the Central Planning Board asked Panasonic to open their grounds for public access, I read my petition in support of the city.
This poster and petition were featured in a June 2017 exhibition about about planning and urban policy at the Yuerba Buena Center for the Arts, entitled Space Brainz. The exhibit was organized by Damon Rich, a MacArthur Fellow and former lead city planner for the City of Newark.

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Panasonic Poster

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Dear Mr. Taylor,
We are children of Newark, the new home of Panasonic North America.  We would like to start with Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant”:
There was once a “selfish giant” who had a most beautiful but closely guarded garden, where, to his dismay, all the little children were found playing. Scaring the children away angrily, he built around the garden a high wall, with a sign: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”  Children could no longer go in to play, but dreamed about all the fun behind the wall.  With the children’s absence, the trees never blossomed again, the animals disappeared, and the garden was always barren.  The selfish giant no longer heard the birds or smelled the spring air.  Then, one day, to the giant’s amazement, the garden was in blossom again.  From the window of his fortress, he saw the children had crept through a hole in the wall to play in the garden again.  Finally, the spring had melted his icy heart.  The giant “took an axe to knock down the wall,” and played with the children in the beautiful garden.
When you moved to Newark, we were hoping to have a socially responsible new neighbor.  We expected your home to be different from the corporate winter gardens we have often seen here.
As your glassy home steadily rose, we were mistaken.  Surrounding the building, a tall metal fence with spearheaded points rejects the surrounding world and separates the lonely giant from the city.  Strategically located at the gateway to our city’s newly energized waterfront, the Panasonic winter garden, however, tells a story of the giant in the fortress, his feebleness, his fear, and, most of all, his old urban biases.   We, the children, who were born and grow up in the surrounding neighborhoods, ask you, the giant, to “take an axe and knock down the wall,” and to open your garden to Newark and its people.  As a neighbor, this is the least you can and should do.
Sincerely,
The Children of Newark

Save Our Water: public speech in Newark

Newark City Hall

Newark City Hall

On September 11, 2011, the Newark City Council was on the verge of passing landmark legislation: The Save Our Water Ordinance. This ordinance would guard the city’s public watershed from corporate privatization. I spoke before the city council in favor of the proposed legislation.

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MUA’s do not work: to see, look no farther than Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg. In 1992, the cash-strapped city sold its garbage incinerator for 42 million to The Harrisburg Authority, their MUA. The incinerator, already plagued with problems, only further deteriorated under private hands.
In 2003, only 11 years later, the federal government closed the incinerator because it spewed dioxin, science’s most dangerous substance. Instead of permanently closing the incinerator, as the city would have done, The Harrisburg Authority borrowed one hundred and twenty million dollars to rebuild and expand the incinerator. THA’s “solution” was riddled with shady, mismanaged deals. So it was no surprise when it could not repay the loan. Yet, since the loan was city guaranteed, Harrisburg was stuck paying for THA’s failure.
Everything went downhill from there. The city was swamped with 120 million in new debt, 108 million in old debt, 30 million in lawyer’s fees, a dioxin-spewing incinerator and its toxic landfill, and the highest garbage disposal rates in the nation—288 dollars per year per family. Altogether, the city owed more than 300 million, more debt than any American city. If equally distributed among the city’s 49,000 residents, each person would be stuck with 6,200 dollars of debt.
The result?  The city went bankrupt and was taken over by the state. The hijacked city is now selling its parking, water, sewer, and perhaps a park. But this only covers a fraction of the debt; the city will have to also cut back on basic services. Harrisburg is stuck in debtor’s prison for life.  But don’t worry, Newark could very well become Harrisburg’s cellmate for life.
When an MUA controls Newark’s water, it can easily hold the city hostage. There is nothing, at all, to stop it from raising our water rates when we refuse to guarantee its debt. The money that the MUA offers us is bait. One nibble and our beloved city is buried in a mountain of debt.
This city will follow Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Atlanta, Buffalo, Puerto Rico, Guam, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Gary, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Harrisburg if this council passes the despicable MUA. A scepter is haunting Newark, it is the scepter is of privatization. You must prevent Newark from receiving the MUA’s lethal dose. Pass the SAVE OUR WATER ordinance today!

Save Our Water: public speech in Trenton

David and Goliath

Water is a fundamental human right that private corporations cannot monopolize. For several years, my beloved Newark has been trying to privatize its public water system. On July 14, 2010, Newark’s attempt at water privatization needed approval from the Department of Community Affairs in Trenton. I went there and voiced my objections before the state committee:

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I, Myles Zhang, born and raised in Newark, care passionately about my city’s past, present, and future. I find it the duty of the Department of Community Affairs to seriously question the plan’s merits, timing, and intended purpose.
On December 12, 1888, Newark’s Mayor Joseph Haynes said, “I want to say emphatically and positively that speculators have no power at all to touch a drop of that water in spite of their boasts […] It lies there awaiting the cities, and when Newark wants, Newark can go and take it.” Four years later, in 1892, mayor Haynes and the city concluded their 30-year effort to establish a publicly operated watershed. In the process, they had to overcome catastrophic public health issues, great financial sacrifices, and coordinated legislative battles. Contrary to this history, the current city plan of privatizing the watershed has only been prepared in extreme hast and secrecy. The citizens of the city and state have not been debriefed on a single convincing feasibility study.
For decades, as well as for the past four years, the City of Newark has been operated in a most wasteful fashion. For instance, according to city budgets in current years, the City Council’s and Mayoral Offices operating funds are three to four times higher than compatible Jersey City, which itself is not known for financial frugality. Meanwhile, the weak city government has caused a deep financial crisis with shrinking revenues. Further borrowing through an MUA without careful study about how to spend it will only lead to a devastating loss to the city and its struggling citizens. The decisions that you make today will effect my generation and others to come.