Newark’s “Autopia”

In a 1957 lecture, the city thinker Lewis Munford observed, “…instead of planning motor cars and motor ways to fit our life, we are rapidly planning our life to fit the motor car… that we have no life that is worth living.” Arguably, Munford has summarized our 100-year collective experience in Newark and far beyond.
In the afternoon of August 20, 1834, Newarkers cheered their first glimpse of rapid transit: a team of powerful horses made an epochal trip, pulling a car (the “Washington”) on tracks from a Broad Street tavern to Jersey City. On December 2, 1835, the first steam locomotive (“Newark”) started to replace horses on the line. In the winter of 1871, the locally built Baxter Steam Car operated on the Bloomfield line going 18 miles an hour. In 1888, a spectacle of cable cars had a short life on Springfield Avenue. Newark’s first electrical trolley car began operation on October 4, 1890, and swiftly took over the city’s streets.

In 1893, America’s first gas-engine automobile was built in Springfield, Massachusetts. On February 21, 1908, the first Newark Auto Show opened at Essex Troop Armory on Roseville Avenue, featuring moving pictures of the thrilling Vanderbilt Cup race. Thousands of visitors admired over 30 brands of magic machines, including Maxwell, Crawford, Jackson, Peerless, Ford, Fiat, Oldsmobile, and Regal. The subsequent shows even gained national significance, attended by President Tufts, and focused not only on sales, but also the politics of auto legislation and road construction. Motor cars aggressively but arrogantly charged into Newark’s maelstrom of dirty horse wagons, trotting carriages famously made locally, darting bicycles, and hyper streetcars.

The city builders of the “Progressive Era” believed that automobiles provided the solution to urban traffic problems. Newark’s Harland Bartholomew said in 1913, “The logical development and growth of a modern city depends almost exclusively upon its transportation facilities.” Once Newark’s streets were cleared of slow vehicles, they would be dedicated to the smooth flow of motorized traffic.

The modern “Autopia,” however, quickly turned into a bloody nightmare, with hundreds of deaths under wheels annually. Local motoring organizations, supported by the automobile industry, directed public attention to trouble makers – “jaywalkers.” They even heavily advertised against popular images of spoiled “joy-riders” and demanded the press to cease attacks on innocent motorists. With the auto lobby, State Motor Vehicle Commissioner Magee said in a 1939 Newark City Hall meeting:

Approximately 3,000 pedestrians have been killed and more than 35,000 injured in the last five years…. Careless action of pedestrians, the almost absolute defiance of many stubborn-minded individuals of their probable chances for injury, is an outstanding reason for these casualties.”

As some people observed, even Ralph Nader’s auto safety reform in the 1960’s did nothing for those lives outside the car. Starting from 1923, Newark adopted strict laws against jaywalkers. Through endless efforts of widening streets, particularly after Essex County took over major corridors (e.g., Springfield, Bloomfield, Central Avenues) as county roads, many sidewalks were further narrowed or even eliminated. Many ordinances were adopted against traffic problems, such as uniform traffic control (1915), street parking bans (1921), and one-way streets (1940). In the 1920’s, Police Director Brennan (the father of our beloved U.S. Superior Court Justice) was the most-hated figure in town for his traffic law enforcement.

The great German historian Oswald Spengler, who chronicled the decline of the West, observed as early as 1932, “In great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot.” Twenty years later, however, the magic machine reached its new pinnacle in American, with an average of three persons owning a car, compared with one out of every 20 Britons owning a car. Optimistic city planners are divided into two camps, like today. Some are confident that cities can build their way out of their decline by making them more auto-friendly, using further regulatory tools, providing plentiful and convenient parking, and building express highways into the city center. (Sound familiar, Newark?) The other school was represented by Victor Gruen, a refugee from Vienna who hated cars and loved old cities. He proposed a wide ring road outside the city center, with an archipelago of commuter parking, an underground freight-delivering network, and an efficient bus system to reduce traffic pressure. His new American downtown would be a car-free mall attracting diverse interests, such as churches, offices, and educational institutions.

In the late 1950’s, Newark commissioned Gruen for a comprehensive study on its downtown and for the design of Gateway One. From a Newark Evening News report, one can see that Gruen did a very decent job educating the public, “For a long time he (pedestrian) was the forgotten man in the soaring dreams of the City Beautiful. The plan often sounded as though tomorrow’s town was expected to have no people, only skyscrapers and unbroken streams of swift traffic.”

With the power of automobiles and anti-urban national policies, however, Gruen was (and still is) too remote to Newark’s business people, politicians, and most planners. Leslie Blau, one of the most influential businessmen in town, predicted in 1957, “The construction of the east-west freeway (Rt. 280), together with additional garages and adjusted downtown taxes, will wipe out most of the store vacancies, greatly improve existing business… bring more business. People want to drive to the shopping area.” At the time, Downtown Newark still had five department stores: Bamberger’s, Hahne’s, Chase, S. Klein, and Ohrbach’s. Pasqual Guerrieri, the president of Kresge/Chase and Chairman of the Newark Parking Authority, predicted with the Military Park underground parking, “Millions of dollars will be spent here. They will go into payroll, supplies, and into the general stream of the economy.” Bamberger President David Yunich said that Newark “is looking forward to its fair share in the space age from visiting consumer and capital expenditures.”

The auto-oriented prosperity, or “revitalization” in today’s term enthusiastically used by politicians, has never really happened. While Newarkers like to boast of its great “transportation advantages,” in the past 100 years, highways and automobiles actually drained the urban center in favor of peripheral areas, where driving and parking were less arduous. Before World War II, Le Corbusier, the great creator of the “Radiant City,” enjoyed driving with his lover in her powerful Ford V8 towards Newark. He noted, “…the ‘sky-way,’ so-called for the way its enormous length rises high above the industrial districts, the coastal bays, the railroad lines….A roadway without art, for no thoughts of that was taken, but a prodigious tool.” He did not know that as early as 1926, Newark’s chief engineer James Costello had to launch a “showdown” with the State Highway Commission against the design and the intention of this “prodigious tool,” the Pulaski Skyway, which had no point of access to the city of Newark.

From the beginning, highway construction aimed for sprawl and decentralization. For instance, for highway funding in 1930, Ocean County got 410 percent of its tax dollars; Sussex and Hunterdon 324 percent and 333 percent, respectively, while Essex got only 37 percent. Federal and state legislation further deprived Newark’s funding for road construction. In the 1930’s, under the County Engineer Stickel, Essex County took over ten “county roads” beyond High Street (MLK Blvd.) to better serve suburban needs.

Under the economic boom with massive highway construction after World War II, a large number of “Boomtowns” mushroomed in New Jersey. For instance, by 1950, New Providence (original Turkey Town), a country hamlet, had expanded threefold in 20 years, becoming the home of engineers, research scientists, technicians, and sales personnel, in general young people with families and “definite” ideas about local affairs. Following Bell Labs that settled in New Providence, large and small corporations located along highways, such as Ciba Pharmaceuticals in Summit and Standard Oil in Linden. Even the native institution, the Newark Academy, followed young families to pastoral Livingston. As Frank Lloyd Wright prescribed for his “Broadacre City,” every family lives in an individual house at the equivalent of the lowest suburban densities, linked by universal car ownership and fast roads.

As a Chinese proverb said, “No banquet will be endless.” The good life in Bo-bo land, La-la land, or wonderland is finally coming to an end under economic and environmental constraints. We even get an “urban president” in the White House, as we have all hoped for. More and more suburban towns have started serious efforts to build more dense and pedestrian-friendly centers, particularly along mass transit lines. That has not happened in Newark! In the City Council meeting a week ago, the Chancellor of our urban university addressed his ambition to grow the school by constructing 3,500 new parking spaces on the city’s best land for transit-oriented community development, indeed the largest parking development in the history of the city and the state. Although the paradigm of Newark’s “autopia” did not work for its five department stores, it seems to still have the support of our leaders and planners, calling it “urban revitalization.”

My grandchildren will see what Newark will look like in 2025. Since this is a discussion of the city, Jane Jacobs will have the last word: “What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles? What if we are prevented from catalyzing workable and vital cities because the practical steps needed to do so are in conflict with the practical steps demanded by erosion?…. In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purpose indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles.”

(See also Newark’s Lethal Traffic and The Iron Cage: A Very Brief History of Parking in Newark, both posted at this site.)

The New York Times Profiles the Richardson Lofts Building

The Times real estate section has a piece on the rehabilitation trend of old manufacturing buildings into condos in New Jersey urban centers: New Jersey Developers Recycle, and Sell, Some History

In addition to discussing how these projects have been fairly — though not wildly — successful in the face of the meltdown in the real estate market, a portion of the article is devoted to the promising Richardson Lofts building in downtown Newark.

The Newark building – which like the Hoboken and Jersey City structures lay vacant for years before being eyed for renewal – was originally a jewelry factory. Known as the Richardson Building, it has stood for a century at the corner of Columbia and Green Streets, and it gets a mention in Philip Roth’s novel “American Pastoral,” which is set in historic Newark.

The building has one jaw-dropping feature: a six-story-tall steel spiral staircase that stands in an open central atrium. The elements turned the staircase rusty, but that deterioration will be halted, as plans call for a skylight roof and a small courtyard around the central spiral.”

It will be a natural gathering place, a social center for residents,” said Brendan Murray, the chief executive of Tekton Development, which is creating Richardson Lofts.

Tekton is recycling materials, using “green” techniques, and installing energy-efficient features throughout the building, in a bid for a “silver” rating from the United States Green Building Council, which issues certifications based on LEED standards – for Leadership in Energy and Energy Design. This would be a first for Newark.

Shaq Wants to Bring the Nets to Newark

Steve Politi opines for the Star Ledger on the possibility of whether the Nets might ever come to Newark.
While idle speculation has been free-flowing since construction of the Prudential Center was completed, the prospect has caught the attention of real-estate developer and NBA phenomenon Shaquille O’Neal: Shaquille O’Neal may be the man to bring New Jersey Nets to the Prudential Center.

Why the Nets insist on moving forward on what seems to be a doomed project, abhored by fans and Brooklyn residents escapes all logic. Hopefully, Shaq can bring some much needed sanity and influence into the deal and convince the Nets to stay in their home state.

The question nags at Shaquille O’Neal every time he visits his home city now, the same way it should nag at every basketball fan in this state. He sees the gleaming Prudential Center in the heart of a community that loves his sport, then shakes his head in wonder and frustration.

“Why,” he wants to know, “aren’t the Nets playing in Newark?”

On this topic, like everyone else, Shaq is stumped. The Nets should be playing in Newark, and not just for a few lousy preseason games as the team is proposing. And the 7-footer could be a major force in making them — to borrow his favorite Scrabble word — a Shaqtastic success.

Barack Obama’s Urban Agenda

Barack ObamaNewark’s story just got bigger. With the inauguration of President Obama into the White House, America has a renewed focus on domestic policy in general and cities in particular. We’ll be watchful of how the Obama administration develops its urban agenda, and what impact those policies wil have on the city of Newark in the months to come.
President Obama gave this speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s convention in Miami on Jun 21st, 2008 while running in the general election against Senator John McCain. Below are some notable excerpts on just how the new administration is thinking of cities as hotbeds of innovation and opportunity rather than problems that need to be dealt with.

Barack Obama is arguably the first urban president since Teddy Roosevelt, a New Yorker.  With this level of intentionality toward urban policy, it’s an exciting time to live in one of America’s cities.

But you shouldn’t be succeeding despite Washington – you should be succeeding with a hand from Washington. Neglect is not a policy for America’s metropolitan areas. It’s time City Hall had someone in the White House you could count on the way so many Americans count on you.

…So, yes we need to fight poverty. Yes, we need to fight crime. Yes, we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America. That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it – a strategy that’s about South Florida as much as Miami; that’s about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix; that’s about Stamford and Northern New Jersey as much as New York City. As President, I’ll work with you to develop this kind of strategy and I’ll appoint the first White House Director of Urban Policy to help make it a reality.

Burglaries Up: Barbed Wire Ordinance the Culprit?

barbedwireThe Associated Press is reporting today that a 17% rise in burglaries in Newark in 2008 has been, according to critics, in part due to the city’s ban on barbed wire: Critics say Newark barbed wire ban helps criminals.
It’s not surprising with all the positive coverage about the 30% drop in violent crime that the contrarian story is emerging about burglary. I’d be curious to hear from Police Director McCarthy about how the NPD plans to fight this trend rather than whine about this ordinance.

We live across from two churches whose lots are both surrounded by barbed wire — the aesthetic impact to the neighborhood is costly.

Some business owners in this crime-plagued city say recent enforcement of a decades-old ordinance prohibiting some types of barbed wire and razor wire is making Newark more attractive — to thieves.

Burglaries are up 17 percent from 2007 through November in Newark, which has a young, charismatic mayor who has vowed to help the city rebound from decades of official inaction, incompetence and outright criminality.

The city is aggressively courting new investment and development, but people who have been ordered to downgrade their fences say officials are worried more about aesthetics than security.

Ditch that Christmas Tree

The city of Newark has published an advisory that collection of old trees will begin on Thursday, January 8th. Be sure to get rid of that dried-out tree as soon as you can as it’s a fire hazard.

Division of Recycling workers and vehicles will pick up discarded trees during that period on the following schedule: Monday, West Ward; Tuesday, East Ward; Wednesday, South Ward; Thursday, North Ward; Friday, Central Ward.

Click through for the full press release.

Continue reading “Ditch that Christmas Tree”

Why Is Newark Not Baltimore?

There are times when a short trip to exciting New York City streets is not enough to ease the frustration from Newark’s troubles. On Christmas Day, 1994, we woke up only to find our car was among seven within two blocks, stripped by smashed windows. On the next day, we booked a bed-and-breakfast room on Ann Street of Baltimore’s thriving Fells Point. The four-term mayor Schaefer’s urban revival projects had started to change Baltimore’s downtown decay. At the time, Governor Schaefer was pushing a $500 million light rail line through the heart of the once “Cinderella City.” Encouraging!
On the morning before returning home, we sat at the hostess’ kitchen table for an elaborate breakfast with Andy, the hospitable husband. After learning our destination, he could not help giggling. “What is it, Andy?” “When I drove through the fallow city blocks, wind blew waste paper against my windshield. I am sorry. Newark is such a dirty city.” We headed back immediately after, without a single word in two hours.

Earlier this year, after two years into the Booker Administration and much talk of Downtown Revitalization, we had another visit to Baltimore, by now a completely different place. Its urban redevelopment strategy has worked impressively. As a Fortune magazine article envisioned 30 years ago, “Their [public and private sector] strategy has been to convert the heart of the city into a culturally rich, architecturally exciting magnet where both affluent and middle-class families will choose to work, shop, and live.” A closer look at the city’s success points to a single word—“Leadership.”

William Donald Schaefer was born in Baltimore in 1921 to a modest Lutheran family of German descent. After finishing his early education in public schools and Baltimore City College, he went to England not to attend Oxford, but to serve with distinction in the Army during World War II. With the GI bill, he received his law degree from the University of Baltimore and spent 19 years on the city council, tackling the city’s planning and housing issues. The Baltimore native son was elected mayor in 1971, 1975, 1979, and 1983 by over 85 percent of the votes in a city with an African-American majority. In 1986 and 1990, he was elected the governor of Maryland with an overwhelming majority. Over his almost 60 year career of public services, the driven and focused visionary had his heart only in his city.

The legendary mayor was known for his attention to detail, taking note of problems of every project large and small, such as the seal pool at the National Aquarium and street violations like strewn garbage as he rode around. “Fix it right now!” Aiming to redevelop the downtown and the waterfront as fast as possible, he devised strategies to overcome the slow-moving bureaucratic city machine and to win the confidence of ordinary citizens and corporate investors. Under his leadership, redevelopment efforts were directed and implemented by 24 flexible and efficient quasi-public development corporations, which could pay higher salaries with less politicized regulations. As a city researcher observed, Schaefer encouraged “apolitical means for improving the city’s development potential by infusing speed, flexibility, and technical expertise into the policy-making process.”

The Ann Street Bed-and-Breakfast opened during the transformation of the Inner Harbor. Those rat-infested piers, rundown structures, and eclectic parking lots were scenes familiar to Downtown Newark residents. The blighted mess smelled “like a million polecats,” as H.L. Mencken described. Under Schaefer’s leadership, the city acquired over 400 structures to provide land for redevelopment. A few blocks away from Ann Street, the Harborplace, a delightful and warm place of people, includes two translucent pavilions of diverse shops and restaurants. Its success assured Schaefer’s audacious dream of making Baltimore a national tourist destination, attracting 18 million visitors the first year, earning $42 million, and creating 2,300 jobs. During the year of our first visit, the nearby aquarium added another 18 million visitors. By 1998, visitors spent $847 million annually, contributing $81 million in tax revenues, and covering a payroll of $266 million. Schaefer’s legacy also includes the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the reduction of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and higher standards for public schools.

A “public entrepreneur,” Schaefer lives most of his life in humble row houses in the city, with no interest in material things except fast food and political-convention freebies. The no-nonsense pal held public positions over half a century, not for his political ambition, but for his intrinsic motivation of getting things done for his beloved city. Like any strong leader, he never shied away from controversy. His successor, the first African-American Mayor Kurt Schmoke, observed, “If you revisited Baltimore today after a 20-year absence, you would find us much prettier and much poorer.” The national organization “Good Job First” complained about using millions of Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG) on Inner Harbor projects. With our own Newark experience, I am not convinced by his detractors’ accusations. He served during the worst urban decline, the fastest manufacturing depletion, and the deepest racial and economic segregation in this country’s history. When Baltimore poured UDAG money into its tourist and entertainment infrastructures, Newark was busy building parking garages and industrial parks with the same money. To this day, these facilities are still strangely under the total control of our infamous Al Faiella, with no contribution to the city and its poor people, but to his own $200,000 plus salary and “charitable” choices.

A few months ago, Schaefer sold his row house in Fells Point for $225,000. However, the 87-year-old man only moved to a sixth-floor apartment at a retirement community, with his friends and a view of the Baltimore skyline shaped by none other but himself. Having been a Newark resident for 12 years and our mayor for 30 months, Cory Booker has yet put his money down on Newark soil for a permanent home. In an August master plan hearing, NJPAC’s CEO Larry Goldman commented on Newark’s slow motion redevelopment, “There is no value-free planning. We are expecting the administration’s strong leadership to move the city forward.” Absolutely, leadership!