Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

 

In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. 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 Ironbound for 18-story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.

Motivated by profit, a large parking corporation and other landowners lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowable height – thereby increasing the value of their land and threatening the existing community with gentrification. The small streets and infrastructure of the Ironbound would not have been resilient or large enough to support such a large increase in density.

To oppose this ill-devised proposal, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed. This computer simulation and the proposed legislation were also the subject of a Star Ledger article by human-interest reporter Barry Carter. I am providing the link to this article here. This computer simulation was also watched by members of the City Council and the property owners effected by this legislation. I also spoke five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this project and argue for development in Newark that is genuinely sustainable and genuinely respectful of the existing community and the city’s people.

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Computer Simulation

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Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19

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The text of this speech is transcribed below.

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.

But, 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. But, 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.

What does “progress” mean to the American city?

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To view photos of progress in Newark, explore the interactive map above. If you are having difficulty using this map, please watch the accompanying video tutorial here.

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In 1916 and with great fanfare, Newark celebrated the 250<sup>th</sup> anniversary of its founding in 1666. Massive classical columns sculpted of plaster were erected at the city’s main intersection of Broad and Market Streets. Soldiers soon off to WWI marched down Broad Street with Colt rifles in hand. A few months later, women followed in their footsteps carrying banners reading: “The girls behind the men behind the guns.” The United States, though not yet in the midst of Europe’s World War, would soon be at battle and suffer 116,000 deaths, mostly caused by disease and influenza. Women had not the right to vote until 1920 and blacks, then a minority in Newark, lacked some of the basic human rights many of them sadly still lack.

 

 

And yet the citizens of Newark, alongside much of America, had come to believe that the future held great things in store for them. In a mere fifty years, America had transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economy, developed the world’s most extensive rail system, introduced electricity in every major city, and could boast the world’s largest industries from Chicago’s packinghouses to New York’s Wall Street stock market to Newark’s 37 breweries, countless tanneries, machine shops, and insurance companies. America had also the world’s most extensive power grid and the world’s most affordable and durable car: Henry Ford’s Model T. The way of life was rapidly changing, often for the better. At this rate of progress, the future looked promising. And as World War One drew to a close in 1919, America told herself that this would be “the war to end all wars” and confidently looked toward the future in hope of unremitting progress.

 

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, 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.

 

Indeed, leaders of the time predicted what the future would bring to cities like Newark and New York. Artists completed whimsical predictions of the Newark of 1986, a city of dense skyscrapers, railroads spewing outwards in all directions, and all manner of blimps and airplanes flying in the sky above. Planners like Harland Bartholomew drafted a master plan of Newark with infrastructure fit for a city of three million (Newark’s population in 1909 was a mere 280,000). Newark corporations like Public Service planned for the future by building the nation’s largest trolley terminal in 1916, capable of accommodating over 300 trolleys an hour. In fact, even the use of the words “future” and “progress” in printed media sharply increased after World War I, peaking around 1920 and declining every following year until World War Two.

 

Now, as Newark celebrates its 350th  anniversary in 2016, the city has opportunity to reflect on the past, at the Newark of 1916, and ask: What is the nature of progress?

 

A century ago, progress meant change; progress meant ceaseless improvement and the forward march of society. Today, after witnessing a century with two world wars, an almost fifty-year cold war, decolonization, and the emergence of an interconnected world economy, the implications of progress seem more ambiguous and less naively optimistic. Progress <em>does</em> mean an increasing standard of living, greater educational attainment, and a longer lifespan thanks to advances in public health. But, progress has also led to the decentralization of cities and the loss of distinct urban neighborhoods, processes that continue to play out today. Progress now means many much more than it did a century ago. Unlike the planners and artists of 1916, who predicted that progress would mean the never-ending onward and upward climb of Newark and America, society now knows that progress has not delivered on all it has promised.

America's Unhealthiest City

America’s Unhealthiest City

 

In many regards, Newark is a better city than it was in 1916. Newark, alongside the New York metropolitan region, is now more interconnected to the world economy. The average age of death has risen from age 50 in 1920 to about age 80 today. And, unlike the 1890s when the US Census Bureau deemed Newark as America’s “unhealthiest city,” Newark citizens now have better access to medicine at the city’s many hospitals. Admittedly, Newark is still a city of great poverty with 79,000 residents (or 28% of the population) below the poverty line. But, being in poverty today is very different from being in poverty a century ago when private charities were the extent of the public’s social safety net and when government did little to aid those in poverty. Our present society is, in many regards, more democratic, more egalitarian, less socially stratified, and a lot wealthier than before.

 

1911 Demographic Map

Newark’s Predominant Ethnic Groups in 1911

 

At the same time, often in the same name of progress, Newark has sacrificed large amounts of its cultural and architectural urban fabric. In the 1920s, Newark was home to countless densely built immigrant enclaves. Springfield Avenue was home to Newark’s Jewish community and its many businesses. A few blocks to the North was Newark’s Seventh Avenue Italian Community. And, behind City Hall was Newark’s Chinatown with its restaurants and alleged dens of vice. In the following decades, as the predominantly white population of second and third generation immigrants fled Newark for the suburbs, they left behind them the fabric of old and now empty neighborhoods. With time, many of these neighborhoods fell prey to demolition and urban renewal. For instance, the old Jewish and German communities of Springfield Avenue are now predominantly empty land, low-density public housing, and strip malls. A similar fate met Newark’s Italian community when it was forcefully evicted to construct the low-income Columbus Homes, ironically named in honor of the Italian explorer. Meanwhile, Newark’s Chinatown, Greektown, and other small communities are now largely devoid of large population or are dedicated to the ubiquitous parking lots of downtown Newark (click here for interactive map).

 

In the belief that the new is inherently better than the old, much of the city’s architectural fabric was outright demolished or replaced by structures inferior to what they replaced, as these images often testify to. The sterile housing project, strip mall, and block of low-income housing are not necessarily more beautiful than the dynamic neighborhoods of churches, businesses, and tenements they replace. Such is the direction progress can take.

 

Newark in 1873 and 2016

Downtown Newark in 1873 and 2016. Note the near complete loss of the neighborhood and its replacement by the city’s hockey arena at bottom and parking garage at top. In over a century, all but a handful of the structures pictured in 1873 were demolished.

 

A walk through Newark’s Central Ward will illustrate this direction of development. Let’s take a walk up Springfield Avenue, one of Newark’s major commercial thoroughfares linking the city’s center to its outlying suburbs. We stand in a desolate intersection at the corner of Prince Street and Springfield Avenue. In the distance rise the skyscrapers of Downtown. In front is a wide and street empty of pedestrians. Springfield Avenue slices diagonally through the urban grid, a band of asphalt with the faded markings of yellow and white lines indicating where to drive. On one side, is a vast empty lot now being developed into low-income housing. On the other side, is a low-slung housing project built to replace the decaying urban fabric. The scene is one of near desolation with few pedestrians and thousands of cars.

 

But, a century ago, this neighborhood was a vibrant immigrant community comparable to New York’s Lower East Side. Three and four story tenements edged up on either side of the street. Horse pulled trolleys and then electric streetcars plied up and down this street delivering immigrants to and from work. One block ahead was the Prince Street Synagogue, one of the city’s many vibrant churches and now an empty shell. A few block behind were three of Newark’s largest factories now closed, the Krueger Brewery, Pabst Brewery, and General Electric. Around us were crowded streets and the sound of horses on cobblestone pavement. This neighborhood, among many in Newark, was a dynamic one inhabited by subsequent waves of English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and finally Blacks during the Great Migration of the 1930s, each generation of immigrants leaving their mark on the built environment.

 

Prince Street

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

 

As the flow of immigrants slowed and as industry ebbed away, this neighborhood has gradually vanished without the people that cared for and resided in it. Industry too slipped away with the consolidation and closure of nearby factories to move abroad, the subsequent loss of employment, and later riots that rocked the city in summer 1967. Newark and its reputation are still recovering from this loss of industry and employment, as the appearance former neighborhoods like this one attest to.

 

Scenes of contrast much like this one play out across Newark to varying degrees. The manifestations of changes to the built environment may vary from street to street and from building to building but the social and economic factors motivating these changes remain consistent: white flight, the automobile, loss of industry, suburbanization, racial tension, urban renewal, among other factors too numerous to discuss in detail.

 

A city is more than its monuments. A city is more than its grand civic structures and skyscrapers. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully maintained its large monuments: cathedrals, skyscrapers, and civic structures. But, Newark has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, town-homes, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. But, collectively, they constitute the living and breathing heart of Newark.

 

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.

Circa 1916, the Prudential Headquarters at left and the City Post Office at right. Both later demolished.

 

My belief is that by examining individual instances of changes to the urban fabric, one can gain a more accurate understanding of the nature of progress in the American city. Though individual instances of say a church’s or factory’s demolition and the disappearance of a neighborhood might seem to be events independent of larger social and historical trends, these individual historic events can and do provide hints and are visual evidence of larger historic movements. By comparing scenes of Newark then and now, one can start to understand the bigger picture how cities developed historically, how suburbanization and de-industrialization affected the city, and most importantly one can start to question the nature of progress.

 

In many regards, one can examine these images and wish that society still built structures as tall, as proud, and as ornamented as those of a century ago. But, one must also recognize that the built environment of a century ago was the unique product of its time and is in fact inseparable from its era. The same culture and society that laid forth the grand boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of Newark and New York, and the vast parklands that surround many American cities, was also a society that denied women the right to vote, blacks the right to participate in society, and colonial peoples the right to govern themselves.

 

In fact, one could posit that the beautiful architecture of early America and its vast public works at the turn of the century would not have been possible without the wealth derived from imperialism, the availability of cheap labor, and the masses of immigrants willing to work twelve hours a day in trying working conditions. To embrace the beauty of the past, one must also recognize the concomitant negatives that made this beauty possible to begin with.

 

We can examine these images of vanished urban fabric of tenements, churches, factories, and densely packed neighborhoods. But, we must recognize that neither past nor present is superior to the other. The built environment of each era is merely the product of its society, culture, and economy. The objective of examining this visual history is not to pass judgment on past or present but to objectively understand where Newark was, where Newark is, and where Newark will be in the near and distant future. A century after 1916, we look forward to the future.

 

Click here for an interactive map about Newark’s vanishing heritage.

 

A century after 1916

 

 

A Not So Perfect Past

 

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Downtown Newark

Downtown Newark in 1912 and almost a century later in 2016. Note that the building at right, in construction in the first image, is now abandoned and awaiting restoration.

 

New York: City of Immigrants

The Viaduct

Golden Rectangles SuperimposedAs northbound Broadway dips down to the valley of 125th Street, the subway soars above. A jumble of steel slicing through the orthogonal city grid. A massive arch, 250 feet from end to end. Two hundred tons of mass channeled into four concrete pylons, resting on the solid bedrock of Mannahatta.[1] It is the intersection where the underground and aboveground worlds of New York converge.

The subway, the alphabet lines that snake their way beneath the city and above the boulevards. Take the  to Brighton Beach, the to Jamaica, the to Forest Hills. From the towers of Midtown, to the factories of Flatbush, to the shouts of Shea Stadium, the subway is a panoply of color, motion, and people. For the price of $2.75, the world is within reach. Chinatown, Little Poland, Russia, Greece, India, and Italy, all neighborhoods joined by the umbilical cord of the subway. New York is a world unto herself, knit together by the bands of black asphalt and steel subway track.

Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

Once wooded island of the Lenape Indians, now home to a peculiar race of people. Every day, New Yorkers step to the tune of the stoplight. Every day, they ride in sardine can subways. Like smoked ham on the butcher’s hook, they hang from subway straps. And, at their respective stops, they scramble on to work, home, and family. All New York is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances as subway doors slide open, and they time their exits to the familiar recording of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please.” [2]

 

New York, New York, home of the Lenape, town of the knickerbockers, and city of immigrants and refugees. The Irish fleeing famine in 1845, the Germans fleeing Revolution in ‘48, the Italians in ’71, and now waves of Dominicans and Mexicans, Chinese and Czechs. As the metropolis pulsates in motion, the spirit of the city evolves with each wave of newcomers who ride her subways, inhabit her humid tenements, and dream of home, family, and future.

In 1856, Walt Whitman published “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”[3] He writes of immigrants and bourgeois businessmen alike, all part of “the simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” The scheme of the city. The cogs of capitalism. The human machinery of the metropolis. To each immigrant her place, to each worker his seat, and to each vagabond a place in the breadline. Together they form the metropolis.

 

Whitman also writes:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Rome is nicknamed the “Eternal City” for its ancient architecture and generations of development. But, New York too is an “Eternal City” of sorts. Its skyscrapers may rise and fall with changing tastes and a growing economy. But, people are the “eternal” constant that marks life in this city. A city with over three million foreign born from all corners of the world. A city whose functioning depends on the legions of immigrant window washers, janitors, and taxi drivers without whom this urban machine would screech to a halt. The centuries of men and women of New York, city of immigrants, capital of finance, and home to over eight million. In 1856, Whitman wrote of a fluid and dynamic city of people not unlike the New York of today.

New York, you have not the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the pomp of London, the antiquity of Rome, the parks of Peking, or the beauty of Budapest. But in your diversity of people, cuisine, and culture, you are something far greater. You are home to a city of strangers, a city of neighborhoods, a city of sound. A city of subways, taxis, and buses flowing from the canyons of Midtown to the quiet bedrooms of Westchester and Park Slope, like rivulets of water. Flow on city, flow with the tide, and glide through the eras. Flow on Isle of Mannahatta for “a hundred years hence”. A ship anchored on bedrock between the two proud rivers of the Hudson and East.

 

 

But, New York, you too are home to the injustices and inequalities urban life nurtures. Hart Island, New York’s pauper’s cemetery, is the final resting place of over a million mostly unknown corpses, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of immigrant New York. Over a quarter million infants are buried here, each one in an unmarked coffin hewn of pine, the size of a shoebox. Mass graves three coffins deep and 25 long. Nearby Riker’s Island, America’s largest jail, imprisons 10,000 a night awaiting trial in the city’s many courthouses. The South Bronx, per capita income $12,500, is a mere mile away from the Upper East Side, per capita income $85,000+. The glassy condos of Manhattan are priced at a million plus per piece, but these homes are only made possible by the immigrant workers and janitors paid $10 an hour to sweep the hallways of dust and wipe the windows of grit. And, every night, they too return to their homes in the gritty outer boroughs. They too ride the subway that burrows underground, as generations have before them.

In the 1880s, social reformer Jacob Riis was working on How the Other Half Lives. [4] Through photography, he captured the squalor, darkness, and misery of New York’s impoverished immigrant community. He showed children at work in sweatshops, vagabonds at work collecting the refuse of those more fortunate. He exposed the darkness of another world a few steps from Wall Street and a few miles from the opulent mansions and department stores of Fifth Avenue and Ladies’ Mile. That very same year, on March 26th 1883, the Vanderbilt Family of railroad fortune hosted the largest and most expensive costume ball in New York history, costing six million in today’s currency. While the idle rich came dressed as the “Count of Monte Cristo” and “Otho the Barbarian,” the poor slept in squalor a carriage ride away in the Lower East Side. As the New York Sun reported three days later, “[This] festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of the many.” [5]

 

 

Though a century has passed since Riis, New York still is a city of social contrasts and economic disparity. Ironically, Jacob Riis’ Lower East Side is now a fashionable community for the upper middle class. But, the eternal New York City of immigrants endures in the outer boroughs of Flushing, Queens, Jackson Heights, South Bronx, and Bed Stuy. And, in many regards, their social condition is not too different from Riis’ era. His images of New York testify both to how much and to how little New York has changed. America’s Eternal City still is a place of great inequity and injustice.

New York aggregates and accents both the dynamism and the dangers of urban life. New York, a place of wealth and of anonymity. New York, a place for the powerful and for the disempowered. To appreciate the beauty of this environment, one must realize that this city too, like Chicago, Paris, and London “has been [and still is] one of the dark places of the earth.” [6] New York, like any living individual, has both beauty and darkness. This product of human labor and ingenuity is only as perfect as its imperfect Creator.

George Tooker depicts the alienation of urban life in his 1950 painting "Subway."

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

As E.B. White wrote in 1949: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” [7] Over 400 years since New York’s founding in 1609 by the Dutch, these words remain true as each generation of Men and Women creates the City in their own image. [8]

 

 

A City of Immigrants: Then and Now

For more about walking in New York, click here.

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Footnotes:

[1] Before Manhattan was settled by Dutch explorers in 1609, it was known by the local Lenape Indians as Mannahatta.

[2] Adapted from “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare

[3]Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” from the 1849 book Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

[4] How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.

[5] The New York Sun, March 29th, 1883.

[6] Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1899.

[7] Here is New York by E.B. White, 1949.

[8] “So God created mankind in his own image.”

Little Boxes on the Hillside

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Working with my hands is liberating. By folding, cutting, pasting, and assembling, a creation emerges. From sheets of paper and with pen and knife in hand, I build something out of nothing. And in the end, a small box or building stands as testament to my miniature effort… (Inspired by the 1960s song Little Boxes on the Hillside)

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Urban Garden

(Broad Street Station in background)

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Two years ago, my family planted flowers at the former site of the demolished Westinghouse Electric factory. Just yesterday, 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.

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Westinghouse in the 1940s

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On Top by Maria Mijares 32″ X 32″ 2008

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Westinghouse Demolition – 2008

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Urban Garden Year One – 2015

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Urban Garden Year Two – 2016

Essay by Maia Zhang

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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.

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Rome: The Eternal City

Roma, te amo

Roma, te amo, labeledFor a labeled map of Rome, click on the image above.

 

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 eternal.

Rome is the city of reinvention with each subsequent structure built on the physical and symbolic history of Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and then the Renaissance and 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. But, the Eternal City will endure and evolve.

When I returned home, I painted a map of Rome from memory (seen above). The streets of the city radiate from its center. When I gaze at this map, framed in my room, I am reminded of the generations of architects who passed before me. And, I wonder in what way will I contribute to this architectural legacy, adding the language of my structures to that of generations before me. Rome still appears in my dreams, when I walk through the city streets on the cobblestone path that guides me forward. When I awake, I have an image in my mind of where I traveled. I dream and envision paths and cities, unbounded by the limits of reality.

 

 

 

Pantheon Facade

 


 Rome: The Eternal City


 

 

 

 

Neon Night

Cities, wherever they are, realize the human desire for dynamism and movement through their cultures of change and consumerism. Neon Night is a triptych exploration of spontaneous movement and urban life. Each image, taken of city lights, is the accidental result of sudden camera movement.

Neon Night

(From left to right, lights from Newark, Detroit, and Santander.)

Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, are oppressive. 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, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]

Despite the seeming differences between them, most dystopias share one common trait: they resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal police state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestionable 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, a 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 diagram below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

2013 Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

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, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. But, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are firmly divided. Whereas in the panopticon, this is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, bars, and brute force, in dystopian society, this is a metaphysical or political arrangement where the government values control and observation over communication between citizens.

The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopic 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. 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 intendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s bureaucrats. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” in which the inmate is its “bearer.” 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, one must guard one’s body, one’s language, and one’s 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. And, 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.

 

 

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. And, punishments for human communication and self-expression are 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 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. As already discussed, the citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. But, the state also starts to function independently of its operators. This consequently insures control and order, two of the primary tenets of autocracy.

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.

 

 

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 leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often adopts the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

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 every manifestation is totalitarian and dystopic. 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. 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 of 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. 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, they 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 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. But, 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?

 

Panopticons Throughout History

 

 

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. Wikipédia. 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.

Vanishing City

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about redevelopment in Newark, my birthplace. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots. Through this series, I document the beauty behind decay, destruction, and rebirth.

 

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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 to the sky.

But, behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the ephemeral.  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.  And, it is the hope that someday the past will become cherished in its entirety because a culture without history is like a body without life.

Yet, to replace this storied past, the flashy future promised by developers and politicians is hardly a substitute.  The so-called “Gateway Center” skirts the city with its corporate skywalks and backdoor facing the city.  The blinding glass monoliths that rise in the graveyard of history are alien and indifferent to their city.  The proposed casino, in a city where 32% of children are in poverty, speaks to blatant inequality and the excesses of capitalism.  The shoddily built strip mall, gated community, and superhighway hardly convey a culture of urbanism and civic consciousness.  Developers and politicians promise progress, but bring troubled change instead.  The promised rebirth of tomorrow does not justify the ongoing destruction of today.

The ephemeral nature of my environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes in the protean vortex of memory.  Years from now, my city will continue redefining its identity.  Years from now, I will assess my memories with fresh experience and nuanced perspective.  And, although today’s present may become tomorrow’s past, the present will survive through our collective consciousness.

 

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When one visits the ruins of past civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  These ruins are powerful because of their decay, not in spite of it.

The battered past should remind the proud present of its transience.  I look at the built world of today and ask: Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure?  What will the future remember us by?  Roman roads lasted millennia; will our potholed highways last as long?  Obelisks of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusty skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Greek forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society with its twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?  Maybe the question should be different: in a culture of blind “progress”, what past will there even be to preserve?  Time will tell.

 

Downtown Newark

Growing up in Newark, I’ve been 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 blanketing my city’s architecture in a medley of color and consumerism.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Growing up in Newark

Arrested Motion(selected from college application essay to Columbia College)

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.

Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.

At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.

At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”

At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.

In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.

From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”

Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

Detroit: Year Zero

Detroit is living misery. It is the very antithesis of urbanization and a victim of America’s senseless auto culture. Thousands of homes lie vacant and decaying. Copious infrastructure built to serve millions serves only thousands. Highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods serve a city devoid of life in many parts. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full of empty storefronts and a labyrinth of rotting art deco architectural gems.

During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment it rolled out. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities (like Dresden) to smithereens. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit has been bombed to smithereens. Except this time, it isn’t a B-27 doing the dirty destruction, it’s a culture of decay and the very society that erected this metropolis.

After Detroit’s 1967 Riots, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit for good. They left behind a racially divided city. They wiped their hands clean of decades of corruption and let the “blacks manage themselves.” White corruption became black corruption. Out with the old rascals and in with the new. And the birthplace of the automobile plummets ever lower.

Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen stature make a mockery of progress. An empty monorail endlessly circles a downtown devoid of life. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the helpless city. Renaissance Center is a corporate Death Star accessible only by car. The ominous Greektown Casino abuts the city jail. Whites commute to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field and then flee afterwards. Everywhere there is parking, parking, parking . . . Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert even proposed creating a demolition countdown clock that listed the number of vacant buildings to be demolished.

Detroit is a failure on countless levels. It represents the failure of government to stem the victorious forces of suburbanization and cars. It represents the failure of short-sighted planning and American industrial might. It represents the failure of democracy to level the playing field of racial divides. De facto segregated Detroit has become de jure segregated Detroit. Detroit is by all means a failure. Then and again, the forces causing the downfall of this metropolis are just as guilty. Government. The free-market. The auto industry. Capitalism.

Detroit’s Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”

We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.

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New Jersey Meadowlands

The meadowlands nestled between New York City and Newark is a strange sort of interstitial zone. It belongs to neither nature nor to man. The grasslands and birds of nature are abundant. Yet, so are the derelict factories and warehouses of yesteryear. The unwanted detritus of civilization is cast off into the meadowlands, ranging from garbage to industry.

Through this region of indeterminate identity pass millions of commuters on their way to and from work. Many look out the windows of passing trains, planes, and cars. Yet few care to observe the lapping tides and bizarre beauty of this unwanted strip of land. The meadowlands are simultaneously omnipresent yet strangely absent. It is something one sees but does not recognize (as Sherlock Holmes would note).

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Dino-Ville

In the New York of my imagination, dinosaurs emerge from the Museum of Natural History to haunt the city “that never sleeps.” They roam the streets doing things only dinosaurs do, namely haunting and eating. For one night, the fabled city is theirs.

The Legacy of Today

   Rome left a legacy. What will we leave?

Roman Ruins

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When one visits the ruins of vanished civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  This architecture is powerful because of its ability to display dignity despite decay, not in spite of it.  These ruins are by all means a legacy.  But, will we too be fortunate enough to leave as indelible a mark for future generations?

To answer this question, it is critical to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture.  This divide is perhaps no better illustrated than by one book:  De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer (also infamous for his nepotism).  For hundreds of years, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, European architects were governed by this book, their user manual and Bible.  His principles of design guided the likes of Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and even da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man.  Yet, despite centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards.  The globalized world of today with its glimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology bears little resemblance to the Rome of centuries ago.  Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in tradition and precedent that modern architecture largely abandons, either rightfully or wrongfully so.  But, so complete a break with the past is questionable without examining the past’s strengths and weaknesses.  Thus, the question arises: What lessons about modern architecture can be drawn from examining Rome’s architecture?

In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of architecture:  firmitasquality, utilitasutility and venustasbeauty.  For Vitruvius, to attain all three and to pass the test of time is the ultimate signifier of great architecture.  But, to fail in this endeavor, through shoddy construction or succumbing to time and the elements, guarantees that a building will be relegated to the dustbin of oblivion.

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Venustas—Beauty

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Unlike modern architecture, the architecture of Vitruvius’s time was governed by strict aesthetic principles.  Above all, Vitruvius emphasizes that architecture must relate to the human body,  “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14).  Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures.  As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so must architecture.  Consequently, the architect becomes less of a freelance designer and more of an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings.  As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top.  As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right.  As the human body considers each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature.

Yet, behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice.  “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173).  There seems to be the following implication:  If perfect buildings replicate perfect humans, then humans are the perfect species, no further evolution required.  Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world.  To the modern world, the existence of the perfect species (or the perfect anything) is laughable given the basic biology mantra:  There is no perfect genotype.  (Nonetheless, it may be possible to forgive Vitruvius, assuming that he never took high school Biology.)  Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress.

Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics.  Building materials have changed; sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic have supplanted stone, earth, and wood.  Scale has also grown, the superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman road and proud obelisk of yesterday. Unlike Vitruvius, the modern architect probably would not lay claim to racial or aesthetic divinity.  The constraints of economy, in tandem with the desire for architectural variety, dictate that modern structures need not model the human form.  Unlike Roman structures, which were almost always perfectly symmetrical, modern structures employ symmetry and ornamentation as mere “icing on the cake,” not as critical components in the architectural scheme.  In other words, the Roman human to building harmony is no longer a guiding principle.

On the one hand, the absence of aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy.  On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder.  For instance, take Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi comparing the plan of Rome to that of Las Vegas.  Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in general adherence to Vitruvius’ principles of perfection.  Most Roman structures have a clearly defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale.  Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their density and orientation.  The scale is human; the city is a microcosm.  On the contrary, Las Vegas, a modern city created virtually overnight, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty.  Consequently, the highway and city street feel hectic and visually crowded.  The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper.  The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle.  Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are merely exaggerations of Main Street and roadside America, which employ the principles of Las Vegas more discretely.  Ancient architecture imbued order; modern architecture imbues confusion.  Yes, anything goes when buildings may adopt any form or any style from any culture, regardless of Vitruvian principles.  But, this variety comes at the cost of aesthetic disarray that would make Vitruvius aghast.

The question then arises:  Might it be possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society?  Probably not.  To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different.  Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests.  Monolithic architecture does not play a comparable role in our society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts.  The profession of architect is also different.  In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to precisely describing engineering methods to be employed by architects.  In our time, the architect is not always an engineer for the complexity of a modern building is far beyond the design abilities of any single person.  Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest.  In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society.

Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse.  Architecture, even if it is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style.  As historian Kenneth Jackson writes:  “History is for losers. [Preservation] is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.”  We cannot and should not emulate Rome because Rome was what it was, and we are what we are.  The identity of the one should not restrict the development of the other.

Met 4.

Firmitas—Quality and Utilitas—Utility

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Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not.  Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.

Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures.  He writes:  “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53).  Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last.  In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time.  Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as beautiful in ten years as it will be in a hundred.  This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow.  A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple.  A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.

Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition.  In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes:  “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6).  An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius.  The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers.  The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial.  Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations, gradually refining architecture.

Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase ostensibly coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan).  Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated.  He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment.  This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture.  The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory.  For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function.  Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture.  As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes:  “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for Concern?

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Modern architecture radically differs from Vitruvian principles, in terms of both aesthetics and construction.  Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long?  Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Roman forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society?  Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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But, in the end, who am I to judge?  The broken statues, pottery, and amphora proudly displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind nor would they be valued by their creators in the shattered state the public now sees them in.  The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction.  If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments of intent.  Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one.  Perhaps we too may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent.  The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives.  Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask:  How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end?  History has a strange habit of reviving old skeletons and turning trash into treasure.  Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world?  Only time will tell.

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St. John the Divine 1

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Works Cited:

Venturi, Robert et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972. Print.

Vitruvius, Marcus. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.

Space Age Imagery

When I gaze at the night sky, I wonder, “What does that infinite darkness contain?” I imagine a plethora of other worlds I can only dream of. I see worlds where gravity and inertia vanishes. I see worlds devoid of directions and natural geometry. It is a world of my own fabrication, superimposed over the pitch black sky.

Chirico

Stage Sets

Community service in the “standard” sense of aiding the homeless or preparing lunches does not appeal to me. But I must apply my artistic skills toward helping my community. So, I design and execute customized stage sets for school plays. I try to express myself before my audience of peers and teachers, providing a “visual” service. Below are a few of my designs.

Each set is divided into two, 8 by 16 foot panels.

.Pirates of PenzancePirates of Penzance (2015)

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Uncle Philips Coat

Uncle Phillips Coat (2014)

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stage set finalParadise (2014)

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Wizard of Oz Set

Wizard of Oz (2013)

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Death Set Final

Death (2012)

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The Nightmare Before ChistmasNightmare Before Christmas (2011)

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The Nightmare before ChristmasNightmare Before Christmas (2011)

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Crazy for You SetCrazy for You (2010)

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Stage Set Sketches