Warren Street School Demolition

As featured in:
1. Darren Tobia for Jersey Digs

2. The Vector, NJIT’s student newspaper
3. Read my analysis of campus architecture for some context on this demolition.

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“Those historians want to keep these old bricks. I can’t see why you’d want that shit. Fuck 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

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“The university has never demolished any historic building of any value. Name one!”

– President of the university during a community meeting in October 2020

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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.

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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.
It is the burden of history that shapes us, and it is on our commitment (or failure) to interpret and enrich history for the next generation on which each of us will be judged. I am reminded of architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s words in 1963 when she described with horror the demolition of New York Penn Station.
“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.”

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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.

Bulldozer Urbanism

As featured in:

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

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James Street Commons demolitions completed and proposed as of April 2021

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

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A Pedestrian’s Observations

Experiencing NJIT’s campus from the street

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

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

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

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

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1. Architecture of Fear at NJIT

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

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

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

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Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn
Google Earth street view image

NJIT Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

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Sidewalk view of NJIT Microelectronics Center

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

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Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

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Warren Street School before

 

and during NJIT’s demolition

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

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

was demolished and now looks like this.

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

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2. The campus of NJIT before and after urban renewal

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

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Mueller’s Florist in 1960[3]

Building demolition in 2021

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Intersection of Warren and Summit Street in 1960[4]

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

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Warren looking west to High Street in 1960[5]

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

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

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

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251 to 245 MLK in 1964[7]

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

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Summit Street and New Street in 1960[8]

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

Fenster Hall now stands here.

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Intersection of Bleeker and Hoyt Street in 1960[9]

Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

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3. A sensitive development model by Rutgers Newark

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

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

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

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Teachers Village (Image courtesy of RBH Group)

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

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

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

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

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

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Endnotes and Image Credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

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The street as public space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How much of our cities belong to We The People?

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

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

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Public spaces in theory vs. in practice

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

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Can democracy survive with eroded public space?

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

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City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan

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

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Further reading

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

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

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

Update March 2021: Marijuana is now legal in NY state.

 

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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.

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Race
Percentage of New Yorkers who identify as this race 3
Percentage of marijuana arrests of individuals belonging to this race
White
44.0%
11.2%
Black
25.5%
67.5%
Asian/Pacific Islander
12.8%
4.2%
Other
17.7%
17.1%

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2017 data

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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.

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View this pie chart in more detail.

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Below are three maps of neighborhood “hotspots” for marijuana arrests. The income of every block is indicated on a red to green color scale from low to high 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.

 

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Research Method

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

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Endnotes

  1. Marijuana arrests represent 5.98% of all NYPD arrests in 2017.
  2. From “Statista,” accessed 15 January 2019, link.
  3. From the United States Census Bureau, 2010 statistics on NYC demographics, link to report, link to database.
  4. From the Drug Policy Alliance, accessed 15 January 2019, link to press release, link to report.
  5. From the American Civil Liberties Union, accessed 18 January 2019, link to article.

Interactive surface parking map of central Newark

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.

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Interactive map of Newark’s blight of parking

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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.

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Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

Featured June 2017 in this NJ.com news article about my computer simulation

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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.

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City Council Speech

September 19, 2017

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I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.
To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.
MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.
Why?
inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.
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.

Say no to Edison ParkFast!

Newark’s parking and land use crisis

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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.
Click here for interactive map of Newark past and present.
Here is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on 19 May 2016 in protest to Edison’s anti-urban practices:

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Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.
My name is Myles. I am a proud, lifelong Newarker.
Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.
To the south lies our port and airport, comprising 1/3 of Newark’s land area. Our airport handles 40 million passengers a year. Our port handles over a million containers of cargo a year. Both pollute our air.
Our city is surrounded by highways: Route 78 to the South, The Parkway to the West, Route 280 to the North, and McCarter Highway to the East. Millions of car travel these congested highways every year.
Our urban core is buried in asphalt. Thousands of commuters per day. Millions of cars per year.
Edison Parking is beneficiary of this pollution. Their 60 thousand parking spots are valued in the billions. They make millions on the land of buildings they demolished often illegally. They pay no water bills; their water runs off their lots and into our sewer mains. For a company so wealthy; they contribute little to the health of our city.
One in four Newark children have asthma, far above the national average. Chances are that your children or the friends of your children also have asthma.
I, too, have asthma. Always had. Always will.
Enough is enough. It is time to develop our city sustainably. Public transportation. Public bike lanes. Public parks. Sustainable infrastructure.
Edison Parking is not a sustainable corporation. When our zoning board approves of the illegal demolition of our historic architecture, they are complacent in this violation of our law. When our zoning board sits silently as Edison Parking uses our lands for non-permissible zoning use, they are not upholding the laws they are subject to.
It is time to change. You, as our elected officials, are in a position to enact the change your public needs. You, as informed citizens of Newark, are responsible for holding corporations accountable to our laws.
This is not a question of complex ethics or morality. It is a matter of common sense. Edison Parking has and continues to demolish our heritage, pollute our air, and violate our laws. Edison parking is breaking its responsibility to the public. Will you hold them accountable?
Please consider the city you want for our children and our future.
Thank you.

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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.

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Urban Garden in Newark

By Myles and Maia Zhang

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In time, we will wind our way and rediscover the role of architecture and man-made forms in creating a new civilized landscape. It is essentially a question of rediscovering symbols and believing in them once again. […] Out of a ruin a new symbol emerges, and a landscape finds form and comes alive.
– John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (1994)
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In the past 60 years, my home city of Newark, NJ has lost 40% of its population and nearly 50% of its buildings.
The timely and needed development of Newark’s land is prevented through a combination of flawed government policy, economic downturns, risk-averse landowners, and lax enforcement of land use laws. As a result, hundreds of acres of prime urban land remain undeveloped as vacant parking lots. There are over 300 acres of paved surface parking lots in my neighborhood (link to interactive parking map). This sub-optimal and low-density land use has consequences for city government (undeveloped lands are taxed less), housing (Newark has a shortage of quality affordable housing), and the environment (parking lots burden the city’s sewer system with surface runoff). American cities are unique in the world for being so built around, and effected by, the car.
One of Newark’s larger vacant parcels was an electric factory and has sat empty for nearly 40 years — 25 years as a decaying warehouse and 15 more years as wasteland filled with yellow crabgrass and decomposing trash. For five years, rusting demolition equipment and a towering pile of brick, steel, and construction debris moldered in the center of the lot — visible to the millions of commuters who pass this site yearly, watching day by day as the building gradually deteriorated into weeds.
Then our family decided to experiment with ways to bring a semblance of new life to this tired soil: a garden. Our proposal to cover this raw earth in spring flowers was denied by the site’s owner, who was afraid community access would weaken his ownership stake as an absentee landlord. Undeterred, on a quiet weekend with few commuters passing by, we slipped behind the barbed wire fence to sow under the smiling sun. The wondrous flower mixture danced out of the plastic seeder, humming a soothing rhythm. Thanks to more nourishing rain, hope germinated from the infant seeds. Soon, sprouts began popping up hesitantly. At first, the green shoots looked no different from the weeds, but with time they grew taller and flowers bloomed — clover, sunflowers, daisies, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Where once commuters walked pass, now they would stop and take photos of our work, with the city skyline rising in background.
Every June, the sanitation workers come with their oily machines and sweaty equipment to level the land of the flowers we planted. With hatchets, they destroy the flowering fruits of our labor and re-expose the rubble strewn dirt. With chainsaws, they chop down the trees that sprout from the chain-link fence. They leave the mauled flowers and trees strewn on the ground where they fall. Over the following weeks, the flowers and leaves dry in the hot sun and return to the dusty earth tones of the dirt from which they sprang. However, each new year, the flowers return more resilient than before, and with more numerous and larger blossoms. In earlier years, the seeds’ return required our help and gentle watering. These days, they return unaided, attracting the occasional bird. The cycle repeats… “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

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Learn more about this project on GoFundMe.
Read more about Newark’s urban decay.
This project was also featured in the spring 2018 edition of Sine Theta magazine.
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Westinghouse demolition

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Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

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The chimney falls

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Newark Broad Street Station

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Now an urban garden

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The Panopticon and Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, have undertones of conformism and oppression. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or it can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power against its critics, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]
Despite the seeming differences between them, many utopias and dystopias often resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal surveillance state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestioned control.

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The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, an English-born philosopher, social reformer, and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see image below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

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View computer simulation of panopticon.

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The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship between inmates and guards, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. In contrast, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are divided from each other by cell walls. In the panopticon, there is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, and bars that enforces the power structures. In dystopian society by contrast, there is a metaphysical or political arrangement, where the government demands total control of speech and surveillance, all the while isolating citizens and denying them freedom of speech.
The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopian police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable and diffused across institutions. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.

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Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,
To arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)
The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the attendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s functionaries. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” between attendant and inmate in which the inmate is its “bearer” and victim. Because the guard and state see the inmate while the inmate cannot see the guard, the inmate does not know when she is watched and therefore must always be on the lookout. Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.
The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”
The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, she must guard her body, her language, and her thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation,” like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]
Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. This constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct.” Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body. Gilead and Oceania are not physical panopticons like Bentham’s image, but the operations of these dystopian societies function like panopticons.

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Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.
Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. Punishments for human communication and self-expression become draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.
As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail. The panopticon aims to suppress communication between inmates in the way that the surveillance state aims to suppress communication between people. The panopticon might accomplish this aim through physical barriers, while the utopian state uses a mixture of social norms, spaces, and oppressive institutions.

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The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. The citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. This self-censorship, consequently, insures control and order, two of autocracy’s core aims.
The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.
Bentham observes that the panopticon should be opened to members of the public so that anyone can come and see how prisoners are confined. Bentham, unfortunately, neglects to mention that allowing anyone to supervise the panopticon can lead to a corruption of power. What happens if someone unscrupulous controls the systems of surveillance and weaponizes Bentham’s utopian project into a dystopian society? Bentham envisioned his panopticon as part of utopian society, but the recurrent imagery of panopticism in dystopian novels and dystopian states hints at the underlying problems behind Bentham’s utopia.

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Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia’s leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often falls back on the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

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Plan for the factory and community at Arc-et-Senans in France, designed in 1771 by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Note the panoptic arrangement. The factory is above the semicircular courtyard. The worker housing is ringed around the semicircle. The intendant’s office is at the top, in the center. From his office, he can survey his workers in panoptic fashion. Ledoux envisioned his factory as a self-contained utopia. Dystopic panopticon or utopic society? Arc-et-Senans is both.

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Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose many manifestations are totalitarian and dystopic. For Orwell, the word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.
As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. Bentham similarly prescribes a single cell of set dimensions for all inmates of his society; his is a society of conformism. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.

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Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,
Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)
Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.
Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. Social media, the most notorious vehicle of state and corporate surveillance, is itself a place of spectacle and exhibitionism, where people curate their self-image and choose how to present themselves to the world. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, the spectacle and surveillance states are almost interchangeable.
The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:
There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)
According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of what Orwell calls thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.
Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. Regardless, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?

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Endnotes

[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).

 

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipedia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.