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.

 

Pictures of Newark

As a proud, lifelong Newarker, I’ve spent much of the past few years painting and photographing my changing city. Pictures features a selection of my work, complemented by Mussorgsky’s seminal composition: Pictures at an Exhibition. Five movements out of an original fifteen are selected, each of which represents the feel of a certain part of Newark. The following five locations are featured:

THE PASSAIC RIVER – Promenade (1)
ESSEX COUNTY JAIL – With the Dead in the Language of Death (13)
MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY – Promenade (8)
DOWNTOWN NEWARK – Two Jews: One Rich and One Poor (10)
PORT NEWARK – Promenade (3)

 

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 Featured work from the above film

Renaissance City

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

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

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


 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Places: City & Suburb

Growing up in inner-city Newark and attending school in suburbia, I have always wondered how these two environments were so distinctly different. How could so many cultural and socioeconomic differences exist in communities only a few miles apart? Furthermore, how did the suburban environment of my school effect the urban environment of my home?

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

Murphy Varnish

Murphy Varnish, built in 1886, is one of Newark’s oldest factories still standing. Its elegant brick walls and detailed brickwork reflect a time when industrial structures served more than just utilitarian purpose. They reflect a time when industry was central to Newark’s wealth and key to its future success. Murphy Varnish is not just a factory; it is a monument to industry and beauty built to endure (historically landmarked by the National Park Service). Recent renovation efforts promise to turn this derelict structure into a community of apartments.

The summer after my first year at Columbia University, I had the privilege of working with Studio for Urban Architecture & Design (SUAD), the firm hired to redevelop this derelict factory into some 40 apartments. During my time at SUAD, I observed firsthand the workings of a small architectural firm and the inspiring conversion of an old factory into something viable and living. As my internship neared its end, I photographed the historic factory and created a detailed watercolor rendering of the finished conversion, both featured below.Murphy Varnish B&W

During these formative three months, I learned that architecture is more than the creation of art and beauty for their own sake, but a means to build a stronger city and more stable society through inspiring architecture. For decades, Newark has seen architecture that does not connect to the city’s rich history or value aesthetics. Prefab, cookie-cutter homes are often built here, but do not respect their historical or urban context. They are set back from the street with little more than driveways and vinyl siding for decoration. Large corporate monoliths rise in the downtown, but through catwalks and the absence of entrances on public streets, their occupants need not engage with the city. Every morning and every evening, they can ride to and from Newark without setting foot outdoors or on city soil. Even in terms of historic preservation, the city has seen so much of its old architecture lost to parking lots, urban renewal, and urban blight.

It is in this context that Murphy Varnish is a unique endeavor in Newark’s redevelopment. In a city once home to thousands of small factories, Murphy Varnish is one of the few that remain. Old maps of the Newark will reveal the presence of dozens of factories in the vicinity of Murphy Varnish and comparable to it in scale. In the past few decades, all of these industrial structures have been demolished and replaced by empty lots and distasteful prefab homes. Now, Murphy Varnish stands alone in a now largely residential neighborhood; it serves as a unique reminder of the past and hopeful beacon for how old industry can be converted into residential. The process of renovation might not be as easy as demolition, but it is in the longer run far more respectful to the neighborhood’s and city’s history.

As I begin my second year of college, I return to campus with a greater appreciation for historic preservation. I return with deeper admiration for the tireless efforts of Newark activists and architects to preserve the city’s rich architectural heritage for future generations. Thank you!

Digital Signature

 

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Permaskin is God.

This project was made possible by a generous grant from Columbia’s Center for Career Education.

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The Finished Conversion:

(As Proposed)

Murphy Varnish Color

Watercolor rendering completed for SUAD of the restoration project.

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A Work in Progress:

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Scenes of Murphy Varnish before Work Began:

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Murphy Varnish

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Neighborhood resident Angel and his dog Tigressa stand before Murphy Varnish.

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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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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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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.

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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.

Unmanufactured Landscapes

Visiting China, I was shocked by the massive reach of globalization. On the train, I witnessed an endless treadmill of mile after mile of identical crops, villages, and cities. The polluted skies and downcast weather hinted at the relentless combine of economic growth. I swore to myself that such a sterile environment was fit for helpless ants.

Returning home, I earned greater appreciation for my own artistic creations. They seemed so much more innocent, smaller, and quainter. I had something independent of “the combine” I could call my own. No matter how much the volatile world changed, my art would forever remain the same, my Unmanufactured Landscapes locked in time.