Essay by Maia Zhang
Photos by Myles Zhang
Growing up in Newark, I observe and appreciate our world through different lenses. I remember dangling my legs over my father’s oak chair, thumbing through photos from Camilo Vergara’s acclaimed book, The New American Ghetto. It depicts harrowingly beautiful scenes of urban decay, thirty percent of which were captured in my city, fearfully nicknamed “the car theft capital” by outsiders. However, I have also learned that sweet dreams can emerge from the unexpected garden of determined cultivators. For my middle school fundraiser, my family canned “Forgotten Apples,” gathered from a derelict mansion. We harvested cherries from a tree hemming a parking lot. By creating a tradition of planting flowers each spring, we impress commuters and students alike by winning city greening contests. Life is brought to a bleak landscape.
Unfortunately, when I was eight, the former Westinghouse Factory at this site was demolished due to exaggerated contamination in the building. Its cool, empty breath and silhouette against the morning sky were daily comforts. The storied factory crumbled into rubble before my eyes and those of commuters at nearby Broad Street Station. I heard stories about the bygone glory of these seven acres. Here, Seth Boyden invented malleable iron, and Hannibal Goodwin discovered celluloid film long before Kodak. Even Edison’s footsteps graced this factory’s floors when he established his first lab here in 1871. The 1921 World Series (between the Yankees and Giants) was broadcasted on the radio for the first time from this very place. Those roaring days are long gone. Watching refuse and weeds collect in this empty side saddened me on my daily commute to high school. Two years ago, I started an experiment. I seeded drought-resistant wildflowers on a corner of this huge wasteland. In the late fall, after many fragile flowers withered in the unforgiving sun, sunflowers endured the first frost. Indeed, flowers could create the urban oasis of my dreams.
In the spring of 2016, my ambitions spurred me to take the next leap. I started a fundraising campaign online, and I held weekly plant sales at my school. Enthusiasm flooded in: from neighbors, California, even Switzerland. With $2,500 in hand, I purchased 100 pounds of wildflower seeds. Supported by friends and teachers, I interviewed a horticulturist at the Greater Newark Conservancy (a local nonprofit) about cultivating urban gardens. I cleaned up garbage and weeds over many weekends. Finally, nature announced the planting season in April with generous spring rains. With my father and little dog Oskar, I slipped behind the 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. Despite my daily desperation and doubts, sprouts began popping up slowly, yet surely.
The Westinghouse Factory’s Life and Demolition:
In spring 2015, my family planted flowers at the former site of the demolished Westinghouse Electric factory. A few weeks later, we went to see the fruits of our labor, beautiful wildflowers rising from the rubble, creation in the midst of destruction. Hopefully, this sight of urban blight will become more than another parking lot blanketing our city in asphalt. Hopefully, some beautiful and lasting development will emerge, given time and political will.
I was reminded of what Voltaire’s inquisitive Candide tells his good friend Pangloss, “We must take care of our garden.” Pangloss may parrot Liebniz when he claims that we “live in the best of all possible worlds.” But as Candide reminds us: creating the best of all possible worlds is only possible through careful cultivation. One must work with what one has.
By extension, Saint-Exupéry also warns us in The Little Prince that one can create one’s own garden, but one must also protect it from the creeping baobabs that threaten its survival. One day of negligence, and the baobabs will undo a life’s work. One day of careful weeding and fighting, and one is safe from these enemies. Newark too has symbolic baobabs that threaten its sustainable development: gentrification, demolition, ignorance of history, fear, rampant surface parking, and pompous politicians.