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.
Now an urban garden
Like you, I would love to see a sea of wildflowers sprouting on the old Westinghouse site. I take the train to work here in Newark every day, to and from Broad Street Station. I didn’t realize you’d had this project. But earlier this year, I bought a few pounds of wildflower seeds from Amazon and surreptitiously tossed them into the site through the fence, mostly at the NE corner and then down along University. If you’re going to plant again either this year or next, let me know, I’d be happy to go in with you for more seeds and help spread them (and I’d bring my battery powered weed whacker to knock down the weeds!).
Fascinating. I’ve commuted to Newark for two summers as an intern and have always wondered about that lot. Now that I’m getting into urban planning as a career path, I was even more intrigued by the site and how such a large, well-located lot could be vacant for so long. There is surprisingly little literature on it online (I saw images of the old derelict Westinghouse building in a redevelopment plan, but otherwise I had no other info.).
I saw the banner on the fence today and was glad that I finally got more answers. While I have not noticed the flowers myself, I have noticed that the site is a lot greener. I’ll be sure to pay closer attention during my commute tomorrow.
My understanding is that beneath that layer of brick debris is a lot of bad stuff related to PCBs from whatever was produced at that site. So it’s not as simple as it could be.
I haven’t seen flowers this year in any real number. They may not have planted this time around.
We didn’t plant flowers this year around. Most of the flowers you see now are perennials from plantings in previous years.
Many in our James Street neighborhood didn’t believe the claims this building was toxic. We suspected these claims were inflated to justify demolition and erecting a more profitable parking lot at this location. This structure was important to Newark history. It was home to the country’s second oldest radio station, WJZ. A structure with 150 year old wooden floors and high loft ceilings could have become something like the Hahne’s Building and a catalyst for development, if only the landowner had vision and creativity.