The Vanishing City of Newark

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about architecture and redevelopment in Newark.
I am witness to the frighteningly beautiful decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge slowly sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home. An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body. As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, firmly anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the transient. It is the realization that what was built to last forever will not last. It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city. The ruin forces the viewer to imagine and reconstruct what was there in ways the restored building does not.
Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure? The ruins of the Athenian Acropolis became a symbol for democracy. Could the same fate await our society’s equivalent forums, the strip mall, grocery store, and drive-thru? Will we be good ancestors?
My transient urban environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes from memory.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

Newark Metamorphosis

A story of urban change told through picture postcards

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Developed in collaboration with the Newark Public Library
for a summer 2018 exhibition on the history of Newark’s built environment

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An interactive map and photo project about Newark past and present, 1916 and today
Over the past century, Newark lost much of its architectural heritage and urban fabric. Along with cities like Chicago, Camden, and Detroit, Newark’s built environment evolved in response to population loss, urban renewal, and suburban growth. Explore the changing face of Newark in this interactive map with 150 comparative views of past and present streetscapes.
All historic images in this series are selected from the Newark Public Library’s collection of c.1916 postcards. All new photos were taken in 2016 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Newark’s 1666 founding. My images capture Newark around 1916, at a moment just before American cities entered the automobile era. Postcards were a medium of communication popular in the early twentieth century. Many postcards feature views of Newark’s important landmarks; others are of mundane street scenes and structures. Through color corrections, careful editing, and marketing, these postcards present a curated and idealized view of Newark as postcard artists, business owners, and city planners desired the city to be remembered.

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Trouble navigating map? Watch video tutorial below.   |   View all images on a single page.   |   Spot a mistake? Contact Myles.

A city is more than its monuments, skyscrapers, and grand civic architecture. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully preserved its large monuments but has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, wood frame houses, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. Yet collectively, they constitute the living fabric of the city. Too many have been demolished in the name of progress, creating a cityscape radically different from a century ago. For a short video about Newark’s evolving neighborhoods click here.

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Postcard

Launch map and read essay about urban change.

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Related Projects

Old Essex County Jail
My exhibit on a long-abandoned Newark landmark
Newark Vanishing
A reflection and art project about demolition in Newark
Growing up in Newark
Essay about my childhood experiences in this city

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Newark, a century after 1916

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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and in 2016. Note how the building at right, under construction in 1912, is now abandoned in 2016.

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

Prudential Insurance headquarters (left) and the City Post Office (right) c.1916. Both now demolished.

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Prince Street

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

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

Drawing by Winsor McCary from a 1928 article “Newark 58 Years from Today” shows an impossibly futuristic city that never came to be.

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Launch map and read essay about urban change.

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Murphy Varnish Lofts in Newark

Murphy Varnish, built in 1886, is one of Newark’s oldest factories still standing. Its elegant brick walls, terracotta ornament, and detailed brickwork reflect a time when industrial structures were more than just functional. Murphy Varnish reflects a time when industry was central to Newark’s wealth and key to its future success. It is a monument to industry and beauty, built to last (and landmarked since 1979 by the National Park Service). Recent renovation efforts promise to turn this derelict structure into a community of apartments.
The summer after my first year at Columbia University, I had the privilege of working with the Studio for Urban Architecture & Design (SUAD), the architects hired to redevelop this derelict factory into about forty residential units. During my time at SUAD, I observed firsthand the workings of a small architecture firm and the inspiring conversion of an old factory into something viable and living. As my internship neared its end, I photographed the historic factory and created a detailed watercolor drawing of the finished renovation.Murphy Varnish B&W
During these three months, I learned that architecture is more than the creation of art and beauty for their own sake, but it is a tool to build a stronger city through improving the built environment. For decades, Newark has seen architecture that does not value aesthetics or connect with the city’s rich history. Prefab, cookie-cutter homes are often built here, but they are out of place and context. These kinds of projects are set back from the street with little more than driveways and vinyl siding for decoration. Large corporate monoliths rise in the downtown; through catwalks and perimeter fences, their occupants need not engage with the city. Every morning and every evening, they can ride to and from Newark without setting foot outdoors or on city soil. Even for historic preservation, much of the city’s old architecture was lost to parking lots, urban renewal, and urban blight.
In this context, Murphy Varnish is an exceptional outlier. In a city once home to thousands of small factories, Murphy Varnish is one of the few that remain. Old Newark maps show dozens of large factories surrounding Murphy Varnish. In the past few decades, almost all of these industrial structures were demolished and replaced with empty lots and low-quality prefab homes. Now, Murphy Varnish stands alone in a largely residential neighborhood; it is a unique reminder of history. Renovation is certainly more difficult, but it is far more respectful of the city’s history.
As I begin my second year of college, I return to campus with renewed appreciation for historic preservation. I return with deeper admiration for the tireless efforts of Newark activists and architects to preserve the city’s rich architectural heritage for future generations.
This project was made possible by a generous grant from Columbia’s Center for Career Education.

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Murphy Varnish before Work Began

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A Work in Progress

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The Finished Conversion

 

Watercolor rendering of completed project

Pictures of Newark

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As a lifelong citizen of Newark, I spent much of the past few years painting and photographing my changing city. Pictures features a selection of my work, complemented by classical music. Five of Modest Mussorgsky’s pieces from his composition Pictures at an Exhibition are selected, each of which represents the feel of a certain part of Newark. The following five locations are featured:
1. THE PASSAIC RIVER – music: Mussorgsky’s Promenade
2. OLD ESSEX COUNTY JAIL – music: With the Dead in the Language of Death
3. MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY – music: Promenade
4. DOWNTOWN NEWARK – music: Mozart’s Death March (k 453a)
5. PORT NEWARK – music: Promenade
Growing up in Newark, I am inspired and saddened by the inner city. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of what is called progress.
Curious about the history of the old Essex County Jail? Explore this interactive exhibit.

 

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 Featured work from this film

Renaissance City

Growing up in Newark, I was inspired and saddened by my inner city environment. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. But I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of ostensible progress. “Renaissance City” depicts the Newark of my childhood with garish signage and decayed structures blanketing my city’s architecture in a medley of color and consumerism.
Click here to see a film featuring more of my Newark-based artwork.

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Urban decay in Newark to the tune of Mozart’s death march (k 453a)

Urban Garden in Newark

By Myles and Maia Zhang

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In time, we wil 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. American cities are, perhaps, unique in the world for how much they are designed for and around the car.
One of the largest of these vacant lands was formerly 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 a wall of weeds.
Then our family decided to experiment with ways to bring a semblance of new life to this tired soil: a garden. But 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 silently 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 secretly 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. And 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. And so 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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Rome: The Eternal City

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Roma, te amo, labeled.

Rome, the Eternal City, the city of a thousand jeweled churches. Each church a treasure trove of glistening gold and baroque drapery cascading over its roof and walls. Each street a channel to and from some unexpected street side treasure: A Roman coffin turned public fountain, a marble column turned city wall, or a dark alley where the sound of water drips eternally. Rome is the city of reinvention with each subsequent structure built on the physical and symbolic history of Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern era.
Physicist Isaac Newton once proclaimed that: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Rome, too, can remind herself that: If I stand more powerful and majestic, it is not thanks to current accomplishment but to the bedrock of history that accumulates treasures through time and value through age. Rome, too, stands “on the shoulders of giants:” The Roman Empire gave Rome her aqueducts and temples, the Renaissance gave Rome her churches, and the hand of Mussolini gave Rome her fascist monuments and boulevards sliced through the urban core.
Despite being grounded in history, Rome is very much a city of the present. The human fabric of this city may have left the urban core with waves of gentrification and tourism, but the spirit of a living and breathing city endures. North African immigrants peddle their umbrellas and selfie-sticks in the shadows of the Coliseum. Mass with the Pope continues in Saint Peter’s beneath Michelangelo’s majestic dome. Tourists may come and go. Time may pass. The Eternal City will endure and evolve.
When I returned home, I painted a map of Rome from memory (seen above). When I gaze at this map, framed in my room, I am reminded of the generations of historians who passed before me. I wonder in what way will I contribute to understanding the built environment. Rome still appears in my dreams, where I walk through Rome on the cobblestone paths that guide me forward. When I awake, I have a mental image of where I traveled.

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Pantheon Facade

Public Speech: “Parking vs. Preservation”

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 unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago-style windows, intricate white terracotta carvings, and Greco-Roman style ornament. The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure. When the outside walls finally 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 neoclassical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District. Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but… The property’s owner is Edison ParkFast, one of the largest landowners in Newark and a company with a business model linked to gentrification and lawlessness. Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line because he feared the public park would decrease his property values. Gottesman’s company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City cynically read – “Bloomberg is gone. Time to put the bikes away.” To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without investing anything to improve the community. While waiting, Edison ParkFast generates huge revenue from surface parking – often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot. Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

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In fact, demolition is in Edison’s selfish self-interest. Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land. Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden. Meanwhile, developed properties – whose residents might have invested thousands in upkeep and preservation – are taxed disproportionately higher than Edison’s lots. Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption. In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking. Only under the current land-use policy that financially incentivizes demolition is Edison’s greed and urban blight 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 secretly removed the historic property’s windows and poked holes in its roof to cause intentional 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, obviously working for Edison. Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and promptly left the meeting.
Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

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

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In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district. In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed. Each time I review these images, I painfully remember demolished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison ParkFast is not alone. Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to 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 1940s. 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 comfortably live.

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Detroit: a photo-essay on urban decay

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

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

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Detroit represents flaws in American culture across levels: government policies that encouraged suburban development at the expense of cities; corporations that developed America’s love of car culture; planners who designed cities and city life around the car. Most of all, Detroit represents the fault of American democracy to end racial segregation. Over fifty years after the end of legal racial segregation, Detroit is a racially and economically divided city. People of color are usually confined to the inner city, while those wealthier and with whiter skin benefit from the cleaner and safer streets of neighboring suburbs.
Detroit’s fitting Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”
We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

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