Urban Garden in Newark

By Maia and Myles Zhang

.

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)
.
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.”

.

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.
.

Westinghouse demolition

.

Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

.

.

The chimney falls

.

Newark Broad Street Station

.

Now an urban garden

.

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.

.

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.

.

View computer simulation of panopticon.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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?

.

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.

Public Speech: “Make Newark more bike friendly.”

Livable City

.

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

.

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

Public Speech: parking vs. preservation

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

.

.

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

.

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

.

.

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

.

Petition against Panasonic Company’s Newark Offices

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

.

.

Panasonic Poster

.

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

Save Our Water: public speech in Newark

Newark City Hall

Newark City Hall

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

.

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

Save Our Water: public speech in Trenton

David and Goliath

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

.

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

End the Privatization Scheme: public speech in Newark

When Mayor Cory Booker tried to privatize Newark’s water system, thousands of citizens protested by signing an initiative called the Save Our Water Ordinance. Privatization would jeopardize the city’s 35,000 acre watershed, permitting its forests to be developed by private companies. After much public outcry, the city was forced to reconsider privatization.
However, the city government still needed to close the corrupt and semi-private agency managing the watershed, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). The presiding judge formed a committee to manage the closure. Yet, months later, the procrastinating committee was still not finished and was even trying to sue the impoverished city for over a million dollars. Even worse, the same law firm that started the privatization hassle was managing the closure, a clear conflict of interest. At a February 2014 board meeting in Newark, I read the following statement:

.

My name is Myles Zhang. I am a seventeen-year-old resident of Newark.
I do not have the speaking capabilities of high-priced lawyers. I am unable to twist and mutilate reason and logic, making a mockery of our nation’s justice system. I am unable to magically conjure obscure legal justifications. But, I see needy Newark every day.
On the way to school every day, I pass by the veritable old institution of the Newark Public Library. Its doors are often shuttered to the public. Its budget is too slim to serve Newark’s needy citizens. On the way to school every day, I pass the empty lots of this needy city. They are overgrown and waiting for development. On the way to school every day, I see a city that is in dire need of help.
Today, I ask you the question: How are Newark’s limited resources to be spent? Are they to be spent paying a corrupt and greedy law firm millions of dollars? NO! Are they to be spent on spoon-feeding lawyers and former employees of the NWCDC? NO! Are Newark’s limited resources to be spent fighting for the people? YES!
The corrupt farce of the NWCDC has dragged on far too long. Needy Newark has been deprived of a clean water department for years. You were appointed, with the full faith and credit of Newark’s people, to kill this monster once and for all. More than six months later, I see mountainous legal bills, a court case, and little discernible progress. Nobody should drag Newark’s already tarnished name through the mud again.
The next time I walk by the Newark Library, I would like to see it open to all people at all hours. The next time I walk by City Hall, I would like to be rest assured that this city has a clean water department delivering clean water to a clean city. You have a responsibility, no a duty, to help this city. Act now.