Harriet Tubman Square has the largest and most impressive collection of old-growth trees in Downtown Newark. The oldest trees are over 100 feet high, four-feet diameter at the trunk, and up to 150 years old. The City of Newark’s current proposal is to cut every single tree in our park. The only historical precedent for this is the 1960s project that killed every tree in Military Park to build the parking garage now buried beneath. Based on details and architectural plans revealed through an Open Public Records Act request, this animation shows what is planned for our park:
We cheer for the historic Harriet Tubman Park for a new, prosperous, and most of all just Newark.
However, nobody should even imagine cutting down these 66 century-old trees, oaks, elms, sycamores, all of which represent our history and particularly African-American experience. In America, trees symbolize both freedom and brutal oppression, should any sensible person forget. Unlike any historic treasures – architectural remnants, shriveled old maps, aged documents, or battled artifacts – these trees are among our most valuable historic icons, standing tall for our children.
Tubman embodied the notion of reclaiming the symbolism of trees and woods as tools of freedom in the black tradition. In the antebellum America, abolitionists always voiced lyrics about glorious trees that bore the fruit of freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plan my apple tree.” Tubman was famous for knowing the terrain of trees, woods, and swamps along her journey to freedom. In Tubman’s biography by Sarah Bradford, the black Moses said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold though the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
On the other hand, Billie Holiday sang about fruits produced by these trees: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swing in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ …Here is a strange and bitter crop.” The blood of black men, women, and children who refused to remain silent, and who deserve justice, life, liberty, and love, over the hate that surround them.
Last year, Rutgers Newark restored the history and voices of Frederick Douglass in the Historic James Street Commons. Let us not forget, Douglas also said, “If Americans wished to partake of the tree of knowledge, they would find its fruit bitter as well as sweet.” It is unimaginable that Tubman will allow these venerable trees of knowledge to be annihilated.
Design is supposed to solve the problems of pandemic and climate crisis. This is flawed thinking. The apostles of architecture, technology, and design confront crisis with what they call “design thinking.” They claim they can design our world out of crisis through new technologies: sustainable product packaging, vegetable-based meat substitutes, paper bags instead of plastic, wind and solar instead of coal and oil. Meanwhile, the global super rich build space ships that will allow them to one day escape the mess they made of our planet. “Design thinking” becomes a way of escaping this world entirely.
The techno-optimism of “design thinking” fails to recognize that “design thinking” is itself a poison. The problem is not with design per se. Rather, the problem is with the corporate power structures in which “design thinking” operates. They promise electric cars will replace fossil-fueled cars that pollute. They promise New-Orleans-style levees and elevated houses built on stilts will reduce property damage in flood zones. They promise improved artificial intelligence will stop the virus of online hate speech. They promise we are just one more consumer purchase away from happiness. But this techno-optimism does not address the deeper questions: Why are we not designing a society in which people do not need cars? Why are we building in flood zones in the first place? Why must the profit model of social media networks rely on users spending as must time as possible on their platforms, even when boosting engagement results in exposing users to hate speech? The limited palette of “design thinking” overlooks systemic solutions that require fundamental, but overdue, lifestyle changes.
The entrenched powers that be insist on inserting themselves into whatever solution is presented, when the real medicine needed might be a society in which the powers that be do not exist. It should alarm us all that tech company executives, who resist government regulation and changes to their platforms, restrict their own children from using the very platforms they designed. Online retailers now sell devices to help addicts like us spend less time on our phones, which begs the question whether such anti-phone technologies would even be necessary had phones been designed as less addictive from the start. In a 2010 interview, Mark Zuckerberg described that designers must have empathy for the people who use their products. However, if designing products to be addictive to users makes the designer more profit, then a tension is created where the needs of the user and the desires of the designer work at cross-purposes. Unless “design thinking” is uncoupled from motives of pure profit, design alone will not fix a world in crisis.
Take the twisted logic of Shell Oil rebranding itself as a company specializing in “renewables” and “green energy.” This seems to be the equivalent of a drug dealer selling both the drugs that will kill and then cure the addict. Last year, the public relations team at Shell announced that, by 2050, their company will have net-zero emissions. Offshore oilrigs will be carbon neutral because they will be powered by solar panels and wind turbines. What this “design thinking” hides is the deeper reality that no oil rig, no matter how well designed, can be good for our planet’s health or our own.
“Design thinking” innovates within the existing railroad tracks of a consumer society. Why should a tire company design an affordable tire never runs flat? Why should a bottled water company advocate for clean water laws that make tap water safer to drink? Why should a shoe company design a mass-market shoe that never falls apart? The existing market structure rewards profitable behavior and profitable design, which is different from ethical design. The ethical designer is likely to create the very conditions of their unemployment. The shoemaker who sells a shoe that lasts forever has just lost herself a future customer. “Design thinking” is like a railroad track. Innovation is possible within set limits, but the train must move forward. The products of design – be they cars, houses, or phones – must sell and ideally resell to returning customers.
The world needs a design revolution, not more “design thinking.” Maybe a design revolution produces architecture as stable and as lasting as the monuments of ancient Rome. Maybe a design revolution restricts the sophistication of cell phone design to the way phones were in the 1990s, clunky so that we are not tempted to stare at them for endless hours. Maybe a design revolution makes technology so easy to repair and upgrade that users need only buy one device that lasts for life. Is the 1/16th inch reduction in iPhone width really worth the environmental cost of millions of tons of landfill waste? These changes require revolution, not reform. No institution – just as much as no person – can imagine a world in which they do not exist. But that is the way design needs to be. Designers should be like doctors, who treat the patient and send them on their merry way. The doctor who never needs to see their cancer patient again has done their job and done their job well. Maybe a design revolution creates a world with fewer designers and less “design thinking.” And maybe a world with less design will be better place.
It is a strange world indeed where we have the unbelievably complex technology to shoot Jeff Bezos on a rocket to outer space, but we do not have the technology to design Apple phone and laptop chargers that last more than a few months. I have gone through at least a dozen iPhone chargers, all in different colors, shapes, and sizes but none that could last. Designers a century ago predicted that, thanks to “design thinking” and technology improvements, people today would have lives of leisure “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, [and] rear cattle in the evening.” Why Americans are working as hard as ever and are as burdened as ever with debt from their consumer purchases is one of the miracles of modern society. A better world is possible, but that world requires nothing short of revolutionary thinking. The only limit to what is possible is what we think is possible.
“Those historians want to keep these old bricks. I can’t see why you’d want that s**t. F**k it. We might just slip in some new bricks. You can’t tell the difference anyway.”
– Conversation overheard between demolition workers at the Warren Street School
“The university has never demolished any historic building of any value. Name one.”
– President of the university during a community meeting in October 2020
When walking past the historic Warren Street School in spring 2021, a demolition scene by the local university shocked me. The building had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, together with five other Newark school buildings. Therefore, the drastic destruction should have been under state and local reviews. But demolition was approved on April 1, 2021, on April Fools Day.
The 150-year-old school was built by Jeremiah O’Rourke, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department and the architect of Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the largest civic structures in 1890s America. Before the university acquired the building in salvageable condition, it was the home of American History High School, founded by beloved Professor Clement Price to promote learning of American and local history by coming generations. Even with its windows now stripped out and demolition equipment parked around it, the grand master work for Newark’s proud history of public education was crying for this painful end delivered by the wanton and shameful act of university leadership.
At the orders of the university president, a short-sighted acceleration of demolition around the campus in the country’s third oldest major city has been savagely damaging the city’s history. These actions add to the list of hundreds of buildings already demolished in the area. While institutions like Rutgers and developers like RBH and the Hanini Group have embraced historic preservation, this university still insists on wiping the slate clean of history that it views not as an asset but as an inconvenience.
The future of any great institution depends on the preservation and appreciation of its own history. I believe in saving old buildings not just because they are pretty. More than an argument for historic preservation on aesthetics alone, history – and the visible presence of history – shapes our appreciation for the sacrifices of those before us. Passing by the Warren Street School for twenty years, I thought every time of the thousands of immigrant children who attended school here for over 170 years uninterrupted. I thought of the Irish and Italian brick masons who carved the school’s terracotta ornaments by hand on wages of 5 and 10 dollars a day. I thought of these children’s parents, who came to Newark by steamship and steam engine to give to their children a better shot at life than they could ever dream of. I thought of the architect who built this building in the 1880s with care and love and hope that better civic architecture will produce better citizens.
“Until the first blow fell no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance. Somehow someone would surely find a way to prevent it at the last minute – not-so little Nell rescued by the hero – even while the promoters displayed the flashy renderings of the new sports arena and somewhat less than imperial commercial buildings to take its place.
“It’s not easy to knock down nine acres of travertine and granite, 84 Doric columns, a vaulted concourse of extravagant, weighty grandeur, classical splendor modeled after royal Roman baths, rich detail in solid stone, architectural quality in precious materials that set the stamp of excellence on a city. But it can be done. It can be done if the motivation is great enough, and it has been demonstrated that the profit motivation in this instance was great enough.
“Monumental problems almost as big as the building itself stood in the way of preservation; but it is the shame of New York, of its financial and cultural communities, its politicians, philanthropists, and planners, and of the public as well, that no serious effort was made. A rich and powerful city, noted for its resources of brains, imagination and money, could not rise to the occasion. The final indictment is of the values of our society.
“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”
Learn from the past.
Live in the present.
Plan for the future.
This was the inscription mounted at the Warren Street School’s entrance, which demolition cranes tore off and crushed in the dumpster. A site that once had a past, now has no past to learn from and to inform the present and future. Through demolition, our link with history is severed.
James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021
Note: Visiting NJIT’s architecture school at age six and seeing students working there was what initially inspired my desire to study architecture. NJIT is an asset to Newark, and the school deserves the quality of campus architecture to match. I wrote and circulated this essay about NJIT’s under-performing campus design to members of NJIT and the Newark community. I am sharing it online, too, in the hope that future leaders of NJIT will collaborate with the community to create campus architecture that is culturally and historically sensitive to Newark.
A Pedestrian’s Observations
Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street
In publicity materials and in meetings with Newark residents and historians, the New Jersey Institute of Technology emphasizes the quality of its campus architecture and its track record of historic preservation. The school highlights its Central King Building (formerly Central High School) and Eberhardt Hall (formerly Newark Orphan Asylum) as trophies of historic preservation.
However, beyond its fortified campus carved out during the 1960s era of “urban renewal,” the university is now escalating its demolitions in the neighboring James Street Commons Historic District. Listed since 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, this neighborhood is the city’s first historic district and contains some of Newark’s most significant historic assets. The spending of millions of dollars on building demolitions is odd when NJIT faced a 35 million dollar budget deficit in the first half of 2021, and when other Newark institutions and developers are following an opposite path of historic preservation.
As NJIT expands into the James Street Commons Historic District, there is concern that new construction will not improve the built environment. For instance, NJIT’s proposal for 240 MLK included few to no windows at pedestrian eye level. The entrance to the parking garage and trash collection was from the side of the building that faced toward the residential neighborhood. Several other structures in the neighborhood are also at risk or have already been demolished by NJIT, such as Mueller’s Florist, which was a former corset and tin toy factory built in the 1880s to 1890s. Similarly, NJIT acquired the c.1890 brownstone at 317 MLK for ~$450,000 in livable condition. In following weeks and months before NJIT received demolition approvals, windows were left open and removed, thereby accelerating decay and water damage. The current demolitions follow a longer pattern among hundreds of other buildings demolished in my neighborhood. This would all be okay if only there was better quality architecture to replace what is being lost.
I write this essay as a series of architecture observations followed by recommendations. Firstly, I provide examples of how NJIT’s current campus design is detrimental to neighborhood street life. Secondly, I document the neighborhood’s appearance before and after NJIT’s interventions through my photo comparisons of past and present. Thirdly, I provide examples of more sensitive models for alternative neighborhood redevelopment.
Completed in 2017, NJIT’s athletic facility is the newest building on campus.
The pedestrian view along the sidewalk has no windows.
Demolition of the 140-year-old Bowers corset factory in progress (aka Mueller’s)
Map of NJIT campus. Buildings that face toward the street with no windows at or near eye level are indicated with red lines. Surface parking lots and parking structures for commuter students and faculty are indicated with red squares.
1. Architecture of Fear at NJIT
NJIT’s newest architecture does not actively promote urban street life. For instance, Fenster Hall opened in 2004 at a cost of 83.5 million dollars. The architect Charles Gwathmey told the audience at the building’s dedication: “University buildings…have an obligation to give the campus a sense of place, and happily, that is what we are achieving here.” The main entrance to Fenster Hall faces inward to the campus community. Meanwhile, the side that faces toward the neighborhood and city is the parking garage and eight stories of bare concrete that rise straight up with no windows at ground level.
The photo above is the side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the neighborhood. The emergency police call box and video surveillance signs might make out-of-town car commuters feel safe. But defensive architecture perversely has the opposite effect of making local residents, who must live with this architecture, feel excluded and surveilled.
Activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote that attractive and safe neighborhoods to live in will always have “eyes on the street.” In her ideal neighborhood, shop windows, apartments, and urban life always face to the street. In active and mixed-use neighborhoods where people both live and work, there is always 24-hour street life and therefore people looking from their windows onto the street at all times.
The blank walls and surveillance cameras surrounding NJIT’s campus can be justified on grounds of public safety. However, hostile architecture that turns away from the city eliminates eyes on the street and, ironically, encourages the kind of crime it was built to defend against. In successful campus architecture, there will be reduced need for surveillance cameras.
The side of Fenster Hall that faces toward the city discourages street life and looks like a fortress. There once was a brick mansion here like the Ballantine House or Krueger-Scott Mansion.
NJIT Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
Sidewalk view of NJIT Microelectronics Center
Warren Street School: NJIT says the building is too fire damaged to save.
The photo above shows the building after the fire.
Warren Street School before
and during NJIT’s demolition
Warren Street School before
and during NJIT’s demolition
Another project is the demolition of the Warren Street School for NJIT student dorms. NJIT announced demolition plans in fall 2020 on its website. The Warren Street School from the nineteenth-century is by Jeremiah O’Rourke, a resident of Newark and the same architect as Sacred Heart Basilica and some of the most important civic structures in the US. The Warren Street School passed preliminary review to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also be included in Preservation NJ’s 2021 list of the ten most endangered historic sites in the state.
As a final image, here is a photo past and present of NJIT’s architecture school. At left is the Victorian structure named Weston Hall, built c.1886 as NJIT’s first home. At right is the architecture school that now occupies this site. Originally, Weston Hall faced toward the street and city. Now, the current building at this site faces away from the city and presents its rear toward the public street.
When NJIT’s architecture school hosted a Regional Plan Association conference in 2004, the organizers were afraid that Mayor Cory Booker and attendees could confuse the permanently locked street doors for the building entrance, shown above at right. A note was left on the door: “Mr. Mayor, please enter through the door inside the campus.”
2. The campus of NJIT before and after urban renewal
When the Historic Sites Council was reviewing recent demolition applications for old buildings in the James Street Commons Historic District, one of the commissioners asked: “If NJIT is taking something away from the community, what is it giving back?” This is a more fundamental question that goes beyond historic preservation. All buildings have a lifespan, and preservation is not always possible. But if a building is demolished, the building that replaces it needs to be higher quality and more actively contribute to the quality of street life than what was there before.
NJIT is a commuter school, and most educators who work at NJIT live outside Newark. This is unfortunate because Newark would benefit from having NJIT more involved in the local community. In some ways, NJIT community members who choose to live outside of Newark cannot be faulted because many Newark neighborhoods are not aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, it is in the school’s own interest to make the surrounding neighborhood a more pleasant place to live, walk, and work.
Unfortunately, the photo comparisons below illustrate that the walkability and aesthetics of my neighborhood have deteriorated since the 1960s. Universities are drivers of upward social mobility, economic growth, and knowledge production. NJIT deserves credit for this. However, the university’s built environment falls short of expressing progressive values. Architecture that presents a blank wall to the street does not benefit the city aesthetically. More crucially, this does not benefit the students’ educational experience either. Architecture that turns away from the city communicates to students that the urban environment is not safe and not worth engaging in.
In 1962, after over ten years’ preparation, the Urban Renewal Project NJ R-45 (Newark College Expansion), with federal capital grants of $7,674,309 and millions more of state and local bonds, displaced more than 1,300 families. Through eminent domain, the state demolished 87.5 acres of brownstones and historic structures next to the now James Street Commons Historic District. Five years later, the government expanded the urban renewal projects and displaced thousands more people for the campus of UMDNJ. The resulting civil unrest of July 1967 injured 727 people and killed 26. Newark’s reputation still suffers from the legacy of urban renewal.
These photos were all taken in 1960 immediately before the neighborhood’s demolition for NJIT. The wholesale demolition of old buildings, while unfortunate, was an opportunity to build back better. This opportunity was squandered with defensive architecture. Moving forward, NJIT must take every opportunity to shift toward a more inclusive and street-facing campus.
Completed just last year is Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community on the full block just next door to the Hahne’s Building. At this site within the same James Street Commons Historic District as NJIT’s continuing demolitions, Rutgers inserted new student housing as infill within the urban environment. Existing structures at three of the four corners of the site help to mask the scale and mass of the new construction. The building is not too tall, includes ground floor stores, and employs brick materials and floor heights that mirror the neighboring brownstones and businesses from the nineteenth century. The result is a project of high quality that not only responds to its environment but actually feels safer and more pleasant to walk past.
Similarly, the Newark Teachers Village by Newark-born Richard Meier looks toward the street and stimulates street life with ground floor activities. The project is a first in Newark because it is targeted at encouraging educators to live in the community where they work. The developer was selective about preserving some old buildings to create a more visually rich and organic streetscape of old and new. The average building is no higher than four to five stories and includes frequent setbacks and varieties of materials. Although construction of the NJIT campus displaced an entire neighborhood, there is the opportunity for new construction to resemble the quality of urban life that was lost.
Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT’s Cullimore Hall on Bleeker StreetMost of the façade has no windows and detracts from the quality of street life.Those boxes at sidewalk level are mechanical equipment.
Urban renewal done right: Rutgers’ Bleeker St. brownstones just one block from Cullimore Hall.These are a few of the brownstones that Rutgers fixed up and turned into university offices. The building entrances all face toward the city. Rutgers put a flowerpot at sidewalk level.
Urban renewal done wrong:
Warren Street SchoolThis school was built in the 1890s by Jeremiah O’Rourke. NJIT demolished this landmark.
Urban renewal done right:
Old St. Michael’s HospitalThis hospital was built in the 1880s by the same Jeremiah O’Rourke. The Hanini Group is renovating this building.
Old St. Michael’s Hospital and Warren Street School are two vacant and landmarked buildings by the same architect, built with the same method of brick construction, in the same neighborhood, and at the same period of time. However, one of these buildings is being demolished by NJIT while the other is being saved. The Hanini Group is transforming St. Michael’s Hospital into apartments and an arts center. Adaptive reuse of the hospital might be more expensive than demolition, but the success of a project must not be assessed on profit alone. As a non-profit and educational institution, NJIT needs to think longer term about higher quality projects that might have lower profit margins.
Urban renewal done wrong:
NJIT Fenster HallParking garage at Fenster Hall: The rock landscaping in the foreground and the bare concrete wall are unpleasant to walk past.
Urban renewal done right:
Rutgers Living-Learning CommunityRutgers’ new parking garage: There are street trees, brick walls, and shop windows at ground level.
What sets NJIT’s Fenster Hall and Rutgers’ Living-Learning Community apart is the attitude of the institution to the Newark community. Fenster Hall turns its back to Newark and expresses fears of urban life. Rutgers’ newest projects are part of the city and neighborhood at a later time when Rutgers reassessed its responsibility as an urban citizen. Infill housing and historic preservation put “creative restraints” on developers and institutions. When developers like Rutgers incorporate history into their projects, the process, approvals, and financial cost might be more difficult, but the project is universally of higher quality.
The priorities and values of an institution are reflected in the architecture it creates for itself. NJIT should be an asset to Newark’s economy with so many faculty and staff who genuinely care about Newark. The school deserves better architecture that reflects its commitment to Newark. NJIT and developers alike need to think about historic preservation and the pedestrian scale in all future projects.
“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things—a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact. For us, it is an act of violence.”
– Anne Lacaton recipient of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize
More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.
About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1
New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.
Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
The street as public space
Pedestrians in American cities are confined to sidewalks. Most of the street is for cars. For instance, Manhattan avenues are ~100 feet wide with the middle 70 feet for cars and ~15 feet on either side for pedestrians. Pedestrians walking in the street risk possible death. After a century of the automobile, pedestrians are hard-wired that they must use only the sidewalk.
However, city streets before cars had a more democratic role in urban life. Old films of Lower Manhattan streets in 1911 show pedestrians walking wherever with little concern for the hard edge between sidewalk and street. Before the car, there were no one way streets in Manhattan, no traffic lights, no speeds limits, no road markings, and no crosswalks. There was no need for these features either. Nor was there a need for traffic engineers to optimize the timing of lights and direction of streets. Instead, the street without traffic laws was for everyone: horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, omnibuses, and pedestrians. With residents in dense tenement areas unable to access public parks and playgrounds, the street doubled as recreational space and as an extension of the sidewalk. With lower traffic speeds (horses move ~10 miles per hour), there was little risk of traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries. Fewer vehicles to begin with further allowed streets to serve multiple purposes with large avenues cluttered with pedestrians and traffic, while less busy side streets were alternative sidewalks.
Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
1. Public space lost to cars (1900 to 1945)
Introducing mass-produced cars had consequences for street life. Firstly, traffic accidents increased year on year and pushed pedestrians to the sidewalk. New York City traffic deaths went from 332 in 1910 to 1,360 in 1929 (source, p.73). Crossing the street against moving traffic became dangerous, and using the street was governed by specific rules about speed limits and parking zones. Expanding the police state was needed to enforce these rules – that is, traffic cops. Not only were drivers punished with traffic laws, pedestrians could no longer use the street with the same freedom they had before the car.
Secondly, specific and class-based rules developed for using public space. The car was a measure of social class: The car owner would, by necessity, need to have enough income to buy a car and enough space to park it. This, in turn, restricted most urban residents from owning cars and using the public space given to car owners.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses was adding hundreds of new parks, pools, and public spaces to the city. But this expansion of public space in some areas must be measured against the contraction of public space in other areas. At the same time, Moses was clearing dozens of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and highways. “Cities are created by and for traffic; a city without traffic is a ghost town,” he said. The value of public space must also be assessed by the rules that govern it. The city was taking away the free-form public space of city streets and was adding public space subject to new rules: Park closed from sunset to sunrise. Do not walk on the grass. No dogs allowed. No skateboarding. Children must be supervised.
Before the auto age, Lower East Side immigrant children played on streets within sight and sound of parents in tenements. Think of the 1969 advertisement for Prince Spaghetti that illustrates an immigrant culture of active and car-free street life. Today, play means a trip to the park with parents for supervised play in a gated enclosure. The car (among other causes) was the technology in urban life that transformed play from an independent activity in the public street to a regulated activity in designated playgrounds.
The “Anthony! Anthony!” commercial for Prince Spaghetti shows a boy running home from play in the streets. The ad invokes nostalgia to encourage consumer spending on processed food. Ironically, it was this consumer spending at suburban supermarkets that was eroding the urban street life and small businesses represented in the ad. By abandoning the street and theater culture of cities for suburban living rooms with entertainment on TV, the American public was turning away from the very traditions represented in this ad.
In 2008, 66% of New Yorkers (~5.5 million) commuted by walking or public transit. By contrast, 27% of residents in peer cities like Boston and San Francisco used walking or public transit for work. (source, p.72)
Of Manhattan’s 20 square miles, 36% is for public streets (source). An average Manhattan street gives two thirds of its surface area for cars and one third for pedestrians. So, of the 36% of Manhattan that is public streets, about one third of that is for pedestrians: 12% of available land.
Why are two thirds of all streets in Manhattan for cars when only 22% of Manhattan residents own cars? (source) Should the division of public space in streets be proportionate to the percentage of residents who own cars? Why are the majority of residents confined to the sidewalks that represent the minority of available space?
Taxes on New York City residents pay for paving the ~6,000 miles of roads and salaries for thousands of traffic police. Yet, most residents do not own cars. And most cars are either commercial vehicles on business or the private vehicles of non-New Yorkers commuting to work. In effect, urban residents are taxed for public space they do not use. At the same time, the non-New York commuters who use these streets do not pay for their upkeep. In other words, giving most public space to cars and taxing urban residents for its upkeep is a subsidy for suburban and business interests. Manhattan is the world’s most valuable real estate; there is no reason that the fraction of public spaces that remain should be given to private interests, too.
The city needs a redistribution so that the percentage of public space that is given to cars is similar to the percentage of New Yorkers who own cars. As designer and architectural critic Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a 2009 book about his experiences walking:
There is not exactly a biblical injunction that specifies the proportional division of the cross section of the block, nothing that requires that cars be given three times the space of pedestrians. Of the four lanes reserved for vehicular traffic, two are parking lanes. On our block – as with most blocks in New York – there are no meters, and parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The city, in effect, provides half the area of the public space on my block for the storage of private cars, and approximately forty will fit when all the spaces are occupied. The diversion of public space – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – to the private interests of the least efficient and most dangerous and dirty means of movement in the city is a fundamental affront to the real needs and habits of New York’s citizens, the majority of whom do not own automobiles.
Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
2. Public space lost to the private sector (1945 to present)
In addition to reducing the amount of public space, cars empowered the migration of people, industry, and wealth from urban centers to the suburban and rural edge. In the decades after WWII, New York City lost a population of three million white people. Prominent industries relocated, such as Bell Labs that moved from Greenwich Village to new corporate campuses in suburban New Jersey. At the same time, as lower- and middle-class whites drove out of the city on bands of asphalt, minorities and immigrants with lower incomes and less consumer spending moved in. The net population loss increased poverty and made urban neighborhoods less desirable, causing consumer spending and property values to fall.
By the 1970s, the city was challenged with decaying public parks, public schools, city services, and infrastructure. But it did not enough revenue to make improvements. The city took out loans and cut back on public services like graffiti removal, causing a downward spiral with further decay of public spaces, further losses in the values of neighboring properties, and therefore less income from property taxes to pay for public services. With billions in debt and no revenue to pay off this debt, New York City wobbled within hours of bankruptcy in 1975. President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 captured the spirit of economic crisis:
Great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children‘s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. [….] In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
Reagan condemned what he saw as the over-expansion of government into all aspects of American life: welfare, taxes, regulations, and civic spaces. During his eight years as president, he supervised the largest rollback of public services in American history. With the belief in “small government,” Reagan cut back on welfare to minorities, government regulation of airlines, and government funding for infrastructure and public space. With the desire to create a “free market” for corporations to compete, Reagan announced in his inaugural address that “it is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.”
More broadly, Ronald Reagan’s policies in America and Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain gave birth to the political philosophy of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism believes that government is too large and that private industry can do a better job than government caring for the public good. Therefore, public services like water, electricity, parks, railroads, highways, and healthcare should all be entrusted to corporations. Following presidents like Bill Clinton followed Reagan’s lead by slashing taxes and de-funding public services, while shifting management of many public services to the private sector. As Noam Chomsky describes: “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
Neo-liberalism has consequences for public space. Since the 1970s, city government has been surrendering public space to non-government agencies. Since 1980, Central Park has not been maintained by the city’s parks department. Instead, the non-elected and wealthy members of the Central Park Conservancy rely on donations and private funding. The twenty acres of towers, parks, public streets, and memorials of the rebuilt World Trade Center are run by Brookfield, Silverstein Properties, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on behalf of the Port Authority. Green areas like Bryant Park are managed by the non-profit Bryant Park Corporation, while transit infrastructure like Penn Station is owned by National Railroad Passenger Corporation founded 1971. Similarly, streets in dozens of neighborhoods across the city and in Lower Manhattan are now part of Business Improvement Districts. Sensing that the government was not maintaining public space to adequate standards, business owners petitioned the city to form 76 Business Improvement Districts across the city that spend 167 million annually and can enforce their own preferences for the use of public space. (source)
What neoliberalism means for New York City is not so much a reduction in the actual amount of public space but rather restrictions on its use. Central Park is still open to the public, anyone can still mourn at the World Trade Center, or walk through a Business Improvement District. Many areas of Manhattan still appear to be and function as public spaces, but they are now managed by organizations that can restrict their use without being held accountable the way that city agencies report to elected officials.
More problematic is that neoliberalism has injected a corporate and business ethic for the management of public space. There was something civic and sacred about Central Park when it was built in the mid nineteenth century. Business interests like restaurants and trinket sellers were restricted from using the park, and the park was not expected to make an income for those managing it. Instead, park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. saw the park as an investment by itself in the aesthetic and cultural life of New York City residents.
Public spaces today are expected to pay for themselves through incentives and tradeoffs. A common tradeoff is the public allows a developer to build higher in exchange for the developer setting aside a fraction of his building for public space, in effect sacrificing one public need (light) in exchange for another public need (open space). Old New York Penn Station gave the bulk of its spaces to the public. In the interest of profit and making public space pay for itself, the current Penn Station suffocates the public in dark and narrow caverns beneath the sports arena and office spaces above. Bryant Park hosts dozens of restaurants and dining areas that transform it into more theme park and shopping mall than open space. The new World Trade Center PATH Station opened 2016 devotes almost as much floor space to the movement of people and trains as to the selling of luxury goods at businesses surrounding the main atrium. To reach trains, passengers (or should I call them customers?) must pass through the largest shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. Stores at the PATH shopping mall, like Sephora, Apple, and Victoria’s Secret, pay rent to the real estate corporation Brookfield that values the assets under its control at 600 billion. The shopping mall might allow the magnificent and blinding white atrium that cost four billion dollars to pay for its own upkeep, but at what aesthetic and ethical cost? Why must the sacred land where almost three thousand civilians, police, and firefighters died in a terrorist attack become a site of commercialism and a source of profit?
How much of our cities belong to We The People?
3. Public space lost to the police state (2001 to present)
Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George Bush reassured a frightened nation:
These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.
The foundation of democracy depends on events of public participation like voting, public meetings, courts of law, peaceful protests, and the inauguration of new leaders. These ceremonies, in turn, require public spaces that are often ceremonial in nature like the National Mall in Washington D.C., courthouses, state capitals, and even the in-glamorous public street. A place like the World Trade Center Memorial is itself a part of democracy: a place to see and be seen, to assemble, and to remember those fallen.
To follow the logic of Bush’s statement that September 11 was “intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat,” then the response to anti-democratic acts of terror should be to build more public space, more ceremonial spaces for public participation, not less. Instead, September 11 has frightened the nation into a retreat from civil liberties and public spaces that are now perceived as dangerous. The public has: their internet activity monitored by the likes of Google; their movements in public recorded on camera; their spending recorded by banks and credit card companies; and their use of public space controlled by armed police officers.
The previous two assaults on public space by cars and corporations could be combated through reason and policy. Cars threaten pedestrians and control too much of the street? Add a speed limit and traffic calming measures. Corporations control too much public space? Pass laws restricting them from, say, harassing protestors and closing public spaces by night. The alliance of corporations and state have too much surveillance? This is a more difficult threat to fight. Corporations and the state resist public demands through the language of “free choice.” This street has cameras on it, but you can choose to walk somewhere else. This airport searches all passengers and steals their “contraband” possessions like shampoo, wine, and food, but you can choose other means of transport. This social media platform monitors your activity to give you advertisements that will make you insecure, angry, or depressed – whichever emotional response will bring the advertiser profit. But you chose to use social media. The rhetoric of “free choice” suppresses criticism of surveillance in public space. Besides, surveillance is for “our your own safety,” so we are told. And if we are not doing anything bad in public spaces, then we should have nothing to fear, so we are told.
However, in Manhattan specifically, constant surveillance erodes the most important feature of urban life: privacy. As E.B. White described in Here is New York, his 1949 reflection on walking in Manhattan: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population.” Anonymity is one of the greatest joys of walking, the joy of blending into the urban crowd while remaining anonymous to everyone, to see without being seen. By forcing knowability and tracking the exact location and actions of every individual, the surveillance state erodes the anonymity that has drawn generations of artists, activists, and social outcasts to world cities like New York. From Occupy Wall Street protestors, to undocumented immigrants, to generations of Blacks and Hispanics that are targeted by law enforcement, surveillance denies them the anonymity that their work and use of public space require. In the past year, the murder of Blacks by law enforcement while shopping, driving, walking, and even sleeping has highlighted the dangers minorities face when using public space. While the car and corporation eroded the physical amount of public space, surveillance erodes the quality of public spaces that remain.
Public spaces in theory vs. in practice
Of the public space that occupies ~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area:
~25% is for cars; ~10% is semi-restricted or privately-owned; ~10 is for green space in parks; ~15% is for paths in parks and sidewalks along streets *2
Can democracy survive with eroded public space?
The past thirty years have seen the return of large numbers of middle class young people to New York City, as well as the gentrification they brought. For a few years, there seemed to be a resurgence and reinvestment in public space with new bike lanes, parks, and traffic calming measures in Lower Manhattan. But just over a century since the car arrived in Lower Manhattan streets, the future of public space is again in doubt.
Coronavirus represents both an opportunity and a challenge for public space. Since the virus prohibited indoor dining, thousands of restaurants have expanded onto sidewalks. Entire lanes of parking have been transformed into dining areas, a change that will likely be permanent. While using a parking space requires several thousand dollars to participate in the club of car owners, using a restaurant built on a public space costs only as much as lunch or dinner.
At the same time, the political uses of public space have migrated online. The activities of courtrooms, classrooms, cultural events, and ways people express their dissatisfaction with government have all migrated to online forums and social media. The internet might substitute for some public spaces, but it is not owned by the public. The US Bill of Rights promises that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” during a “public trial.” For generations, a public trial has meant a real space where witnesses voice their accusations in the physical presence of the accused. But can a digital space owned by private company still be considered public? Can the proprietary technology of social media and the video camera substitute for actual public space? Is the World Trade Center Path Station still public space if most Americans are priced out of shopping in nearby stores? Is the High Line still public space if the only people who can afford apartment views of it are the super rich?
E.B. White would cite that diversity and democracy cannot exist without public space. In his stroll across dozens of Manhattan neighborhoods, he observed that urban life forces people of diverse identities into the same crowded public spaces and therefore requires them to coexist and be tolerant of each other:
The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite. In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Time and again, researchers and writers observe that social media and the digital world allow people to self select the communities they are part of and the political views they are exposed to. The rise in both political parties of polarized identity politics and intolerance of anyone who disagrees with one’s views on gender and race are largely the products of a social media world that isolates and radicalizes people.
Public spaces like the city street and subway car mix people of all identities and incomes in a single space and are a lesson in tolerance. It is easy to hate foreigners and people of color when one’s views of these groups are filtered through the polarizing lens of social media, Fox News, and the mainstream media. But prejudice is a good deal harder to feel when one views these groups every day in public spaces going about the same routine as everyone else. While social media highlights the identity politics that make us different, public space highlights the qualities we share in common.
The loss of Lower Manhattan’s public spaces is not just a threat to urban culture. The loss of public space is an existential threat to democracy. More than ever before, this fractured country needs public space.
City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan
“With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.” – Kenneth T. Jackson
236,250 = total | 92,934 = water | 143,316 = land Non-public before: 55,558 = 38.8% (rounded to 40%) Non-public after: 90,826 = 63.4% (rounded to 65%)
* Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space. ↩
Our writing sucks. I am a first year PhD student in architecture with interests in urban studies, planning, and U.S. history. There is a problem if I am in your area and I cannot understand our overly-theoretical writing. Reading recent work decreases my desire to follow your path.
The problem is not that I do not care for our work. As much as ever, we are needed to frame the challenges our society faces with examples drawn from our knowledge. Only we can answer the important questions like: Why do American cities remain segregated decades after the 1960s civil rights movement? How did American cities become so reliant on the car and fossil fuels? How can the built environment be a tool for social equity? As much as ever, society needs us planners, designers, historians, and thinkers in the university to create a more affordable and more just city, a place where everyone can walk to public transit, public parks, and the supermarket. As academics, our job is to create a better society, not just to theorize about it. A scholar who writes about Martin Luther King or Gandhi and has never engaged in civil disobedience has not earned the right to call themselves a scholar. Writing must be a form of civil disobedience.
I do not blame you for bad writing. There are other forces at work. Here are just five of them:
1. We are supposed to say something “new,” while still remaining in our discipline
There are several hundred books about Abraham Lincoln. There are several thousand academic books about New York City history. If there is an important topic, chances are someone else has already written about it. The need to write something new pushes academics into finding smaller and smaller gaps in the knowledge. As time passes, the gaps of what has not yet been written will disappear. I am not writing about scientists or researchers in new and emerging fields. But for many other fields – like history – there is a lot less new to say today than there was a generation ago. The emerging areas of knowledge exist between disciplines, not within disciplines. In my studies, for instance, the unexplored area exists at the intersection of art history, urban history, architecture, and digital medias. And yet, there are no professional venues for this kind of work. For architects, I am too much of a historian. For historians, I am too much of an architect. It is easier to write within the niches others have defined than to produce knowledge at the new frontiers. To be at the edge is a lonely place.
2. We are supposed to follow a straitjacket of academic convention.
The standards of academic writing have been developed over centuries and shaped by tradition. But these same conventions also produce writing that is awkward and difficult to read. One expectation is that we avoid using writing in first person “I.” We are expected to write about ourselves in third person, as in the phrase “this author saw.” But this form of pretend objectivity, as if the author were some distanced and neutral observer, ignores that writing is inherently subjective. When writing about ethno-nationalism, racism, and the decisions of planners decades ago that produced the segregated landscape of today, to be only an observer is to be complicit in that injustice. Martin Luther King Jr. announced “I have a dream.” Had he said “one has a dream” or “this author has a dream” as an academic would have written, he would have done a disservice both to himself and to the civil rights movement. Academic writing must be no different. Only in having a more than intellectual investment in the world can we, as scholars, change the world.
3. We need to get tenure.
America’s population is growing slower, and people are having fewer children. That means fewer students, and therefore fewer job openings and more people competing for a shrinking pie. Combine this with shrunken government investments in education and a culture of austerity that increasingly relies on short-term contract teaching. Most of the people who already have a slice of the pie have been there for decades. They entered the system in the pre-internet age. Chances are they had an easier time getting in than aspiring scholars like me will have. Academic articles and books are the main criteria these gatekeepers will use to judge me. Publish or perish. But these are the venues of yesterday, of a pre-internet age when knowledge was locked in towers. The fact that my non-blind but peer-reviewed research online has millions of views but is published outside an academic journal means that it will not count for much. The twelve PhD programs that rejected me did not view my digital portfolio and website, but the one program that accepted me did, and that made all the difference. Our academic culture is stuck in a past that insists on academic publications with limited circulation. Who does our work serve? Who does my work serve?
4. We write for people just like us.
Our writing is also expected to avoid the short paragraphs and sharp points of newspaper writing. In academia, the phrase “you write like a journalist” is a criticism, not a compliment. But in trying to sound all objective and in trying to avoid the sharpness of journalist writing, we lose out on most audiences. Less than 7% of the world’s population has an undergraduate degree, and less than 2% has a doctorate. I will confess that more that most of my friends have (or will have) a doctorate, and this silently shapes the audience I write for. I am in a bubble, but the incentives and rewards structure of academia does not reward me for getting outside this bubble. Maybe we expect too much of our readers and should not be angry therefore when public faith in the university, in science, and in vaccines is so low. I, too, do not trust authors whose writing I cannot understand. The public has no venues to turn to, and too few public intellectuals to whom they can turn to interpret the world. And so into this world where academia has turned inward, the public turns to false prophets like Fox News. I blame rioters and racists for making Trump possible, but I also blame universities for turning inward.
5. We lock ourselves in towers.
Most academic writing is kept behind a paywall. If you are not a member of a university, or if your employer does not have a subscription, you will need to cough up money to read. A single article costs $15 to $20 to “rent” for 24 hours from the publisher. We paid with years of time and sweat to write these articles, and the publisher probably paid us no or little money to print our work. But now publishers and digital libraries profit from our labor, and most of the world cannot read us. The digital repository of academic work, JSTOR, had about 150 million attempts to read articles on their site and only half as many article readers. The average academic article has ten readers. Ten readers. A lot of what is called scholarship is inaccessible to people outside the university and irrelevant to most people inside the university. With the privilege of an elite education comes the responsibility to make the products of that education accessible to all.
There are no quick fixes.
I cannot pretend I have answers, and I am not in a position of authority to provide answers. Maybe the requirement to publish should be revised. Maybe newspaper articles and alternative venues for publication should be given the same weight as academic articles (or more weight). Maybe the whole model of a PhD program that trains scholars to produce a several-hundred-page dissertation in high academic prose should be rethought. Maybe documentary films and oral history projects should be accepted formats for publication. Maybe publications should be more metrics driven and only count toward tenure review if they have more than a minimum number of readers. Maybe tenured professors should be required to read student end-of-semester feedback as condition of getting their paychecks. Maybe university professors should be given tenure based on the same criteria as high school teachers. That is: Can you teach students? Do students learn from you and enjoy your classes? The deeper question is: Are scholars simply observers of injustice from the Ivory Tower? Or does our work fight for a better world outside the Ivory Tower?
Here is one idea: All academic writing in the humanities must be writing that people outside our field will read for pleasure.
Writing is an art. If you enjoy looking at art, then you should enjoy looking at writing. If scholarship is writing, if writing is art, and if art is supposed to be enjoyed, then scholarship is art that is supposed to be enjoyed. Just as museums will not hang unsightly art on the walls, universities should not hang up obscure articles with a handful of readers as models for other scholars and aspiring scholars like me to follow. If something is not enjoyable to read, then it should not have been written. I am not speaking of scientific writing, which serves a technical purpose to inform others’ research in the field. Just as there is a need for grocery shopping lists and product user manuals there will always be a need for technical and scientific writing. Academic writing in the sciences serves its purpose. I am speaking of a crisis in the humanities. When we cannot write for and speak to the common people, we lose out on the influence we need and society needs to fight misinformation. A good academic article must be as enjoyable and as easy to read as a good novel.
Do not write your way into irrelevance. Make sure others will have as much joy reading your work as you did writing it. And if the power structures of academia and peer review make academic writing stilted and difficult to read, then it is time to rewrite those power structures.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx
Update March 2021: Marijuana is now legal in NY state.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) made 102,992 arrests in 2017 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, 90% marijuana arrests are male, even though only 65% marijuana users are male. 2 Males more than females and Blacks more than others are arrested for marijuana in disproportionate numbers.
Percentage of New Yorkers who identify as this race 3
Percentage of marijuana arrests of individuals belonging to this race
Click table to view in detail
NYPD marijuana arrests are disproportionately of Black males between the ages of 18 and 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 taxpayers. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the city spends $75 million on marijuana arrests and prosecution per year. 4 This is money that could have gone to education, parks, and community programs. Marijuana policy targets our country’s poorest people of color.
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 becoming a “gateway crime” to the legal system. With a prison record from a marijuana arrest, a person of color may have more difficulty finding employment and re-entering society – ironically pushing them to desperation and possibly new and greater crimes than their initial arrest.
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 income. The 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.
Marijuana arrests tend to happen 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 Street, 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 and likely comparable rates of marijuana use. 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.
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 LaGuardia Airport. Controlling for population density, marijuana arrests still target communities of color.
This project was assembled from public data. I downloaded anonymized microdata on the race, crime, gender, and approximate 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 data set, 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 here. Arrest data is from NYC Open Data here.
Marijuana arrests represent 5.98% of all NYPD arrests in 2017. ↩
From “Statista,” accessed 15 January 2019, link. ↩
From the United States Census Bureau, 2010 statistics on NYC demographics, link to report, link to database. ↩
Explore an interactive map of the 300+ acres of parking in Downtown Newark. This map is part of PLANewark’s ongoing fight against the expansion of surface parking in Newark. Click the rectangle icon on upper right hand corner of map to view full screen. Click on individual, color-coded lots to view information on the property owner and acreage.
Interactive map of Newark’s blight of parking
Destruction of the James Street Commons: 1975-2020
This map (accurate as of April 2021) illustrates buildings demolished in one Newark neighborhood, the James Street Commons. When historians first considered this neighborhood for landmark status in 1975, there were 425 historic buildings. Even after earning landmark status in 1978, demolitions and urban decay continued. Rutgers, Edison Parking, St. Michael’s Hospital, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology have demolished dozens of old buildings, mostly to construct surface parking lots as an “interim” land use. It is time that the local and state governments be more proactive in preserving the city’s history.
In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of a neighborhood in my city. 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 area to permit structures up to eighteen story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.
Motivated by profit, the J&L Parking Corporation lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowed height on their land. Though they had little intention to build anything, this zoning change would increase the value of their property when they decided to sell it in the future. In what is called “spotzoning,” the zoning changes were drawn to exclusively benefit J&L’s properties and the parking lots of the nearby Edison ParkFast corporation.
I created a computer simulation of how the area would appear if the proposal passed and the neighborhood was built up to the maximum density allowed by law . This computer simulation was shown to city officials to inform the planning process.
City Council Speech
September 19, 2017
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.
inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.
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. However, 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.
Edison ParkFast, among several Newark institutions such as Rutgers and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, engaged in the systematic destruction of our city’s heritage. In the James Street Commons Historic District, for instance, Edison ParkFast and Rutgers are the single largest contributors to demolition of historic properties from 1978 to the present. Both demolished dozens of historic Newark homes and factories. As Edison ParkFast continues to consolidate its properties into ever larger parcels, the question arises: How will this entity develop this land? Will future development respect old Newark and our history?
Too often, the name of progress is invoked to justify the destruction of old. New development, from Newark’s $200 million sports arena to Panasonic’s $200 million new headquarters, reveal that our new architecture is often out of time, place, and scale. Not often enough do Newark leaders realize that progress is enriched by using the past as the foundation for redevelopment efforts. One can walk through Brooklyn or preserved parts of Manhattan and compare those historic streetscapes to Newark. Newark once had the types and varieties of architecture that Brooklyn still does, but Newark followed the short-sighted path of demolition and urban renewal.
Here is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on 19 May 2016 in protest to Edison’s anti-urban practices:
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.
Comparative views of my neighborhood, past and present
These views compare my neighborhood in the 1960s and today, hinting at the kind of human scale urban fabric demolished.
Central Avenue between Broad & Halsey in 11959, demolished by Edison Parking
Central Avenue between Broad & Halsey in 1978, demolished by Edison Parking
Corner of Central & Washington in 1959, demolished by Edison Parking
Washington Street between Bleecker & Central Avenue in 1978, demolished by Edison Parking
Mulberry & Market in the 1950s, currently owned by Edison Parking
86-88 University Street, demolished by Rutgers
Washington Street School for the Dead in 1978, demolished by Rutgers
Eagle Street in 1978, demolished by Rutgers
15 Burnett Street in 1978
University Street in 1978, demolished by Saint Michael’s Hospital for emergency parking
Park & Clinton Avenues in the early 1900s, currently a parking lot for Sacred Heart Cathedral
Temple B’Nai Abraham, demolished to construct parking for the Essex County Hall of Records
The 18000-seat Tivoli Theater in Roseville section of Newark, demolished to constuct low-income housing project