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.

 

Say no to Edison Parking!

Interactive Map of Newark’s Blighted Parking Lots

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Comparative Views of Downtown Newark, Then and Now

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Newark’s Parking Crisis

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Edison Parking, among many other local institutions such as Rutgers and UMDNJ, has engaged in the systematic destruction of our city’s heritage. In the James Street Commons Historic District, for instance, Edison Parking and Rutgers are the single largest contributors to demolition between 1978 and today, both demolishing dozens of nationally landmarked properties. As Edison Parking continues to consolidate its properties into larger and larger parcels, the question arises: How will this entity develop this land? Will future development respect old Newark and our threatened architectural heritage? These questions remain to be answered. But new development, from Newark’s 200 million dollar arena to Prudential Insurance’s 400 million new headquarters on Broad Street, reveal that our new architecture is often out of time, place, and scale.

Too often the name of progress is invoked to justify the destruction of old. But, not often enough do Newark leaders realize that progress is only attained by using the past as the literal building block toward the future. One can walk through Brooklyn or preserved parts of Manhattan and then ask oneself: Where would Newark be had it preserved its architectural heritage? I do not know, but for certain our city would be in a very different position to rebuild its heritage.

The degree of what was lost only reinforces the need to preserve what remains. Click here for interactive map of Newark past and present.

Below is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on May 19th.

 

 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.

 

My name is Myles. I am a proud, lifelong Newarker.

 

Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.

 

To the south lies our port and airport, comprising 1/3 of Newark’s land area. Our airport handles 40 million passengers a year. Our port handles over a million containers of cargo a year. Both pollute our air.

 

Our city is surrounded by highways: Route 78 to the South, The Parkway to the West, Route 280 to the North, and McCarter Highway to the East. Millions of car travel these congested highways every year.

 

Our urban core is buried in asphalt. Thousands of commuters per day. Millions of cars per year.

 

Edison Parking is beneficiary of this pollution. Their 60 thousand parking spots are valued in the billions. They make millions on the land of buildings they demolished often illegally. They pay no water bills; their water runs off their lots and into our sewer mains. For a company so wealthy; they contribute little to the health of our city.

 

One in four Newark children have asthma, far above the national average. Chances are that your children or the friends of your children also have asthma.

 

I too have asthma. Always had. Always will.

 

Enough is enough. It is time to develop our city sustainably. Public transportation. Public bike lanes. Public parks. Sustainable infrastructure.

 

Edison Parking is not a sustainable corporation. When our zoning board approves of the illegal demolition of our historic architecture, they are complacent in this violation of our law. When our zoning board sits silently as Edison Parking uses our lands for non-permissible zoning use, they are not upholding the laws they are subject to.

 

It is time to change. You, as our elected officials, are in a position to enact the change your public needs. You, as informed citizens of Newark, are responsible for holding corporations accountable to our laws.

 

This is not a question of complex ethics or morality. It is a matter of common sense. Edison Parking has and continues to demolish our heritage, pollute our air, and violate our laws. Edison parking is breaking its responsibility to the public. Will you hold them accountable?

 

Please consider the city you want for our children and our future.

 

Thank you.

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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Livable City

Livable City

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

Here are a few facts:

 

One: Bikes are affordable.

 

On the one hand, the average used car costs $16,000 (National Automobile Dealers Association). On the other hand, the average bike costs less than $500. Cars are 32 times more expensive than bikes, and that’s discounting gas, maintenance, and environmental costs. In a city whose average wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.

 

Two: Bikes fight poverty.

 

Over 29% of our population is in poverty. Over 31% of our male and 38% of our female population is obese. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). Poverty, obesity, and lack of exercise are closely correlated. Biking is a form of exercise. Exercise fights obesity and poverty. Newark needs bikes.

 

Three: Bikes fight childhood obesity.

 

Newark’s been ranked as one of the least walkable cities in America. We must do something about that. 30% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unfit for walking, running, or biking. 44% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unsafe due to automobile traffic. And, only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Rutgers Center for State Policy). Maybe, there’s a correlation here. Improve the livability of our streets; help our children.

 

Four: Bikes are sustainable.

 

Newark is 27 square miles. The average commute within Newark is 11.5 minutes and under 4 miles (US Census). Yet, despite the small size of our city, the average commuter goes by bus and car. Why not by bike? Why not by bike?

 

Five: We need more bike lanes.

Our city has 320 miles of streets. But our city has few miles of exclusive bike lanes (NJDOT). Bikes are the way to the future. Cars aren’t. We don’t need more room for roads and parking lots. We need more room for bikes.

 

Now…

 

The culture of the car caused white flight from our city, gave asthma to our children, and destroyed much of our city’s culture and heritage. Newark needs fewer cars. Newark needs more bikes.

 

We can’t give every Newarker a car, nor should we! But, we can give every Newarker access to biking opportunities.

 

Every idea has a start. It is true that our bike lanes are not as busy as those in Amsterdam or New York. It is also true that our city government is not enforcing legislation intended to protect our bike lanes. Build our bike lanes well and protect them; people will use them with time.

 

Change takes time. We don’t have the firm roots of a bike culture. We have only the seeds we need. Plant and grow these seeds of green bikes, green bike lanes, a green waterfront and a green city; and these seeds will take root.

 

If not now, then when…? If not with bikes, then with what…? If not in our city, then where…?

 

As a Newarker, I see so much potential in our city. Our city, at the doorstep of New York, is currently the confluence of planes, trains, and buses. So, moving forward, we have the foundations for a more sustainable Newark. Starting today, with bikes, we can create a greater Newark for us all.

 

Thank You..

Parking vs. Preservation

On a warm Sunday this August, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space.  Although the first floor was sealed with unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago windows and intricate terracotta fretwork.  In the neo-classical tradition, the structure sported a detailed cornice, white ornamentation, and copious bunting.  The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure.  When the outside walls finally fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and hundreds of re-bars for added durability.

Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District.  Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but . . . The property’s owner is Edison Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City.  Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line.  His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City read — “Bloomberg is gone.  Time to put the bikes away.”  To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without doing anything.  While waiting, Edison Parking generates huge revenue from surface parking. Often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot.  Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!

In fact, demolition is in Edison’s best interest.  Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land.  Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden.  Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption.  In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking.  Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.

Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art.  In this case, the property Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law.  But, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land.  Then, it secretly removed the property’s windows and poked holes in its roof.  Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property.   Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission.  In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.

When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late.  The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.  Sitting directly behind me was a heavy, suburban lady, obviously working for Edison.  Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and  promptly left the meeting.

Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:

My name is Myles.  I am a life long Newark resident.

Parking is a travesty. I have seen . . .

Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.

Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.

Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.

This blight of so-called “development” must stop.

Newark is a city with a strong history.  Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.

Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that.  Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.

Newark is a lawless city.  Its buildings are testament to that.

Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent.  They do so anyway.

Parking developers are not above the law.  They think they are anyway.

Those who break the law must be held accountable.

Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.

Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”

A thief does not think he will be caught.  A thief does not stop until he is punished.

I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals.  But this commission has . . .

The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.

The power to prevent continued parking construction.

The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.

I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far.  I encourage you to do more.  I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers.  Even if victories may be pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.

In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district.  In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed.  Each time I review these images, I painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage.  Edison Parking is not alone.  Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity.  For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site.  It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures.  As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.

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Panasonic Petition

I am often aghast when I walk through downtown Newark. The corporate towers of the “Renaissance” Center ignore the very city that gave them millions of dollars in tax breaks. They erect austere metal fences and protect their towers with zealously obedient “security” guards. They are scared of Newark. Ironically, they shun the very hand that fed them.

When Panasonic decided to move their national headquarters to Newark, I hoped they would buck the trend of icy disrespect. But, I saw that their new building turned its back to the city like all the other lifeless behemoths downtown. I wrote the following petition, signed by Newark children during the opening of Riverfront Park.  On June 11, 2012, when the Central Planning Board asked Panasonic to open their grounds for public access, I read my petition.

Panasonic Poster

 

Dear Mr. Taylor,

We are children of Newark, the new home of Panasonic North America.  We would like to start with Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant”:

There was once a “selfish giant” who had a most beautiful but closely guarded garden, where, to his dismay, all the little children were found playing. Scaring the children away angrily, he built around the garden a high wall, with a sign: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”  Children could no longer go in to play, but dreamed about all the fun behind the wall.  With the children’s absence, the trees never blossomed again, the animals disappeared, and the garden was always barren.  The selfish giant no longer heard the birds or smelled the spring air.  Then, one day, to the giant’s amazement, the garden was in blossom again.  From the window of his fortress, he saw the children had crept through a hole in the wall to play in the garden again.  Finally, the spring had melted his icy heart.  The giant “took an axe to knock down the wall,” and played with the children in the beautiful garden.

When you moved to Newark, we were hoping to have a socially responsible new neighbor.  We expected your home to be different from the corporate winter gardens we have often seen here.

As your glassy home steadily rose, we were mistaken.  Surrounding the building, a tall metal fence with spearheaded points rejects the surrounding world and separates the lonely giant from the city.  Strategically located at the gateway to our city’s newly energized waterfront, the Panasonic winter garden, however, tells a story of the giant in the fortress, his feebleness, his fear, and, most of all, his old urban biases.   We, the children, who were born and grow up in the surrounding neighborhoods, ask you, the giant, to “take an axe and knock down the wall,” and to open your garden to Newark and its people.  As a neighbor, this is the least you can and should do.

Sincerely,

The Children of Newark

Panasonic Petition

Save Our Water (Newark)

 

Newark City Hall

Newark City Hall

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

MUA’s do not work: to see, look no farther than Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg. In 1992, the cash-strapped city sold its garbage incinerator for 42 million to The Harrisburg Authority, their MUA. The incinerator, already plagued with problems, only further deteriorated under private hands.

In 2003, only 11 years later, the federal government closed the incinerator because it spewed dioxin, science’s most dangerous substance. Instead of permanently closing the incinerator, as the city would have done, The Harrisburg Authority borrowed one hundred and twenty million dollars to rebuild and expand the incinerator. THA’s “solution” was riddled with shady, mismanaged deals. So it was no surprise when it could not repay the loan. But, since the loan was city guaranteed, Harrisburg was stuck paying for THA’s failure.

Everything went downhill from there. The city was swamped with 120 million in new debt, 108 million in old debt, 30 million in lawyer’s fees, a dioxin-spewing incinerator and its toxic landfill, and the highest garbage disposal rates in the nation—288 dollars per year per family. Altogether, the city owed more than 300 million, more debt than any American city. If equally distributed among the city’s 49,000 residents, each person would be stuck with 6,200 dollars of debt.

The result?  The city went bankrupt and was taken over by the state. The hijacked city is now selling its parking, water, sewer, and perhaps a park. But this only covers a fraction of the debt; the city will have to also cut back on basic services. Harrisburg is stuck in debtor’s prison for life.  But don’t worry, Newark could very well become Harrisburg’s cellmate for life.

When an MUA controls Newark’s water, it can easily hold the city hostage. There is nothing, at all, to stop it from raising our water rates when we refuse to guarantee its debt. The money that the MUA offers us is bait. One nibble and our beloved city is buried in a mountain of debt.

This city will follow Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Atlanta, Buffalo, Puerto Rico, Guam, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Gary, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Harrisburg if this council passes the despicable MUA. A scepter is haunting Newark, it is the scepter is of privatization. You must prevent Newark from receiving the MUA’s lethal dose. Pass the SAVE OUR WATER ordinance today!

 

Save Our Water (Trenton)

David and Goliath

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

I, Myles Zhang, born and raised in Newark, care passionately about my city’s past, present, and future. I find it the duty of the Department of Community Affairs to seriously question the plan’s merits, timing, and intended purpose.

On December 12, 1888, Newark’s Mayor Joseph Haynes said, “I want to say emphatically and positively that speculators have no power at all to touch a drop of that water in spite of their boasts […] It lies there awaiting the cities, and when Newark wants, Newark can go and take it.” Four years later, in 1892, mayor Haynes and the city concluded their 30-year effort to establish a publicly operated watershed. In the process, they had to overcome catastrophic public health issues, great financial sacrifices, and coordinated legislative battles. Contrary to this history, the current city plan of privatizing the watershed has only been prepared in extreme hast and secrecy. The citizens of the city and state have not been debriefed on a single convincing feasibility study.

For decades, as well as for the past four years, the City of Newark has been operated in a most wasteful fashion. For instance, according to city budgets in current years, the City Council’s and Mayoral Offices operating funds are three to four times higher than compatible Jersey City, which itself is not known for financial frugality. Meanwhile, the weak city government has caused a deep financial crisis with shrinking revenues. Further borrowing through an MUA without careful study about how to spend it will only lead to a devastating loss to the city and its struggling citizens. The decisions that you make today will effect my generation and others to come.

 

End the Privatization Scheme

Waterworks

When Mayor Cory Booker tried to privatize Newark’s water system, thousands of citizens protested by signing an initiative called the Save Our Water Ordinance. Privatization would inevitably jeopardize the city’s 35,000 acre watershed, permitting its forests to be developed by private companies. After much public outcry, the city was forced to reconsider privatization.

But it still remained to close the corrupt, semi-private agency managing the watershed, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). The presiding judge formed a committee to manage the closure. Yet, many months later, the procrastinating committee was still not finished and was even trying to sue the impoverished city for over a million dollars. Even worse, the same law firm that started the privatization hassle was managing the closure, a clear conflict of interest. At a recent NWCDC board meeting in Newark, I read the following statement:

My name is Myles Zhang. I am a seventeen-year-old resident of Newark.

I do not have the speaking capabilities of high-priced lawyers. I am unable to twist and mutilate reason and logic, making a mockery of our nation’s justice system. I am unable to magically conjure obscure legal justifications. But, I see needy Newark every day.

On the way to school every day, I pass by the veritable old institution of the Newark Public Library. Its doors are shuttered too often to the public. Its budget is too slim to serve Newark’s needy citizens. On the way to school every day, I pass the empty lots of this needy city. They are overgrown and waiting for development. On the way to school every day, I see a city that is in dire need of help.

Today, I ask you the question: How are Newark’s limited resources to be spent? Are they to be spent paying a corrupt and greedy law firm millions of dollars? NO! Are they to be spent on spoon-feeding lawyers and former employees of the NWCDC? NO! Are Newark’s limited resources to be spent fighting for the people? YES!

The corrupt farce of the NWCDC has dragged on far too long. Needy Newark has been deprived of a clean water department for years. You were appointed, with the full faith and credit of Newark’s people, to kill this monster once and for all. More than six months later, I see mountainous legal bills, a court case, and little discernible progress. Nobody should drag Newark’s already tarnished name through the mud again.

The next time I walk by the Newark Library, I would like to see it open to all people at all hours. The next time I walk by City Hall, I would like to be rest assured that this city has a clean water department delivering clean water to a clean city. You have a responsibility, no a duty, to help this city. Act now.

For a recent New York Times exposé about water privatization, click here.