New York Chinatown: Time Lapse

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A 60  hour time lapse of New York City’s Chinatown, accompanied by the Chinese song: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum).

The original watercolor measures 26 by 40 inches with the tenements of Chinatown in the foreground and the skyscraper canyons of Lower Manhattan rising above.

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Chinatown

View of Chinatown bounded by the Bowery, Canal Street, and Columbus Park.

New York: City of Immigrants

The Viaduct

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

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

Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

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

 

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

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

 

Whitman also writes:

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

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

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

Others will see the islands large and small;

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

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

 

 

A City of Immigrants: Then and Now

For more about walking in New York, click here.

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Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane’s Carousel

A wind-up music box featuring Jane’s Carousel along the Brooklyn Waterfront. When closed, the antique cigar box measures a mere 7 by 7 by 3 inches deep. When open, the Brooklyn Bridge and historic Jane’s Carousel fold out. The carousel spins to the tune of the music while the moon gently slides across the night sky. Materials: $4 cigar box, $5 wind-up music box, electrical wire (for trees), plastic lids for wheels, string (for motion), tape measure (for spring), tin foil (for water), and thick paper.

Jane’s Carousel with my hand and a pen for scale. Dimensions: 7 by 7 by 3 inches.

Walking in Manhattan

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of the Upper West Side. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Even further, and I reach the mindless bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations.

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading “Here is New York” by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past sixty odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

Click here to learn more about my New York walks. Or, click on the images below for full resolution.

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Day One: Chinatown and Lower Manhattan

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Lower Manhattan

City Hall Park and the Financial District

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Chinatown

View of Chinatown towards Lower Manhattan

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Day Two: SoHo

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Mercer Street

Mercer Street in SoHo

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Day Three: The East & West Villages

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Day Four: The High Line

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Day Five: Madison Square

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Day Six: Midtown

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Elderly man approaches and extracts a crumpled and blurry image of a dollar sign from his bag.

Hey, can you draw me some money bags.

Me: Sure.

You know, it’s for my product. I’ll pay you well. What’s your name?

Me: Myles Zhang

You Chinese? You parents from China?

Me: No, America.

No, China…!

He walks off.

 

An Latin American immigrant drives up  in Midtown in his pickup truck.

Him: How far is the statue of Liberty from here?

Me: Oh… About seven miles.

 

Jurgen from Germany

Jurgen from Germany

A homeless musician approaches and observes my painting of Grand Central.

Jurgen: You are an artist.

Me: No, that is a title I have yet to earn. Are you from Germany? You sound like the director Werner Herzog.

Jurgen: Herzog? Him? His films put me to sleep. [Jurgen shows me his noteboook.] If I lived in Nazi Germany, the Nazis would burn my work, maybe even me. My grandfather, he used to go to rallies to give the Nazi salute. I still don’t know why he did that. I don’t think he even knew.

 

Jihadist proclaims that "America will soon be destroyed by fire!"

Convert proclaims that “America will soon be destroyed by fire!”

Convert preaches the impending doom of America on Sixth Ave and 34th: “The US government, they invented this virus that will kill off all the black people.”

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Day Seven: Central Park

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Day Eight: Riverside Drive

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Waterfront

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Day Nine: Morningside Heights

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Columbia University's Campus

Columbia University’s Campus

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Cathedrals of Industry

Cathedrals of Industry: Saint John the Divine and the 125th Street Viaduct

For more about Saint John the Divine, click here.

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Day Ten: Harlem

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

The composition of the watercolor below is based on the spiraling arc of the Golden Rectangle.

The Viaduct

The 125th Street Viaduct

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New York City..

“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

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Here is New York by E.B. White

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

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

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


 

 

 

 

Columbia University

Columbia University

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Before my first day of college, I assembled a miniature model of Columbia’s campus out of folded paper and cardboard. This creation, featuring most of Columbia’s Morningside campus, folds out of a vintage cigar box that measures a mere 5 by 9 inches.

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Columbia Campus

Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches.

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Morningside HeIghts Final

Watercolor of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches.

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Columbia University – my home, my tranquil place, my utopia of learning. I am grateful to be here for I know that each day will bring new revelations. I draw the little world I find at Columbia so that, years from now, I can look at this image and reflect on the formative four years I spent here.

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To read an interview and article about this project: click here.

Chinatown: A Living Neighborhood

Chinatown is both static and dynamic: Static in its resilience against gentrification, dynamic in its cultural interplay between past and present, immigrant and American.

Everywhere in Chinatown, past and present intermingle. Dusty and decrepit Jewish textile stores struggle onward; their elderly owners wait to close up shop and sell out for many millions. By Division Street rests a former synagogue with an AT&T outlet on one side and an immigrant job agency on the other. Bustling bakeries and bodegas abut reminders of past immigration. Lyricist Ira Gershwin’s birthplace is still inhabited, red paint flaking off its brick walls. Weathered brick tenements, serving successive waves of Germans, Italians, and Irish, still serve elderly Asians and urban “hipsters.” Streets are still chronically dirty, as they were a century ago. Chinatown is still a living, breathing being in constant flux.

On select corners sprout feeble tendrils of gentrification: a pricey café, a garishly painted crêperie, a chic souvenir shop advertising “I love Chinatown” tote bags. This neighborhood is devoid of its youth; little children and wizened elderly remain. The rest have left to work in the America beyond. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge a sign reads, “Chinese-American special carrier to return infants to China.” The shabby A Train rumbles on above.

On the neighborhood’s fringes is the touristed Tenement Museum. The cycling documentary chronicles life on the Lower East Side. Black and white imagery flickers across the screen: Italians and Irish, Germans, and Jews, the immigrant experience, dreams of coming to America. It is all too convenient to reflect on the past and to falsely conclude: That what was New York no longer is.  That its immigrant travails have now vanished. That overcrowding and grime is no more. Problem solved. Case closed.

Much has changed. Much has not. The city awaits the next tide of tired, poor, and huddled masses.

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IMG_6173This high-density tenement on Eldridge Street is home to a myriad of businesses including: 

Third Brother’s Fuzhou Snack Bar

Green Forest Internet Bar

United Express and Lottery Tickets

Universal Phone Cards

Everything OK Job Agency

International Job Agency

Twinkling Star Job Agency

.Field Chicken

These frogs, marketed as seafood and known as “Field Chicken,” are sold for $5.19 each.

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All Purpose Flower Shop and Funeral ServicesThis all purpose establishment advertises the following services:

Weddings

Conferences

Concerts

Gatherings

Ceremonies

Western Chinese Music

Performing Arts

Potted Plants

Floral Arrangements

Funerary Flowers

Funerals and Birthdays

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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Growing up in Newark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint John the Divine

St. John the Divine 12

 

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine soars above the low-slung tenements and boxy towers that edge up against it on all sides.

Unfinished it survives; funds have long since dried up in our era of secularism and consumerism. Yet powerful it stands; solid stone will outlive concrete and glass any day.

Five hundred years from now, the urban environment may change. Glass behemoths may rise and fall and condo homes may come and go, but this monument to past ages will stand, solid as ever.

Its soaring jagged silhouette seems to proclaim against the soot that darkens its façade and the urban din that drowns out the sanctity of silence: Come weather, wind, or rain, I will remain.

saint-john-the-divine

 

 

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