Last year, my children’s two bicycles were stolen in front of Intrinsic Café on Sussex Street. My homeless friend Joe volunteered to take me to the Baxter Terrace to look for the loss. In the middle of the courtyard, a child was happily riding my daughter’s bike while a group of men were watching from the doorsteps. “Hey, Joe, f**k you. What are you up to, with that man?” “Hey, f**k YOU,” Joe replied. I left without my bicycles, but with a burdened conscience for my arrogance and indifference. However, my “recklessness” of breaking the taboo for entering the war zone had deeply bothered some neighbors on my own street. Even in this largest city of the most segregated state in the nation, life has been further segregated, creating visible and invisible prisons for everybody. In my 17 years in the city, I have witnessed a number of ”triumphant” implosions of public housing buildings, including Columbus Homes, Scudder Homes, and Hayes Homes. After next summer, the city will again schedule another demolition, this time for the Baxter Terrace. Kaderia Boykin, a 26-year-old Baxter Terrace mother reportedly said, “Tear it down today. Move me now.” This time, the enduring people of Newark have to go through the experience very differently and mindfully. This is our city, our city planning, our lives, and our souls. Flying all flags at half-mast, ringing the bells of Saint Patrick and Sacred Heart Cathedrals, and playing taps along Orange Street, we will mourn the loss of 67years and generations of lives. Good-bye, Baxter Terrace, birthplace of the Book of Love, but having seen little of it itself. Breaking the Box: Newark City Planning Forum 11/30/2007 “Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, is the commercial, industrial, and cultural center of an urban area containing more than a million people. About half of these people live in Newark, while many of those residing elsewhere, work in Newark, shop there, attend its theatres, and are part of the complex economic and social structure inherent to a large urban community.” Unfortunately, this introduction to Newark’s 1947 City Master Plan has become the very distant past, after a painful, brutal, and sometime even bloody decline of six decades. However, the author of the master plan, the legendary American city planner, Harland Bartholomew, would be happy last night at the Newark Museum to watch Toni Griffin, a talented city planer, conducting an exercise to “break the box” in order to revitalize this desperate city. In March 1914, Harland Bartholomew was hired as America’s first municipal planner, here in Newark. In 1920, he worked on the first city master plan of Washington D.C. Against tremendous political pressure, he insisted that the already started planning process had to go back to a systematic survey, the foundation for a sound city plan. Eventually, he settled in St.
Louis while contributing to hundreds of plans all over the country. As he often said, the city plan “must be a plan of the people and for the people. Otherwise, it is doomed to failure from the beginning.” Interestingly, Toni Griffin has built her career following the exactly opposite geographic route from her Mid-Western origin to Washington D.C.
And to Newark. In Washington D.C., she started the planning staff and the process from the ground, hiring a planner for each of eight wards and creating 39 neighborhood plans, which served as the basis for some larger-scale master plans. Her eclectic team of planners, attorneys, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and people with development expertise worked in collaboration to master the complexity of urban growth. Newark, with its long decay followed by an anarchistic but shallow real estate boom, is in a rather chaotic aftermath waiting for Toni Griffin, particularly when the unprecedented American economic growth has just moved into a dangerously uncertain retreat. Starting right after her arrival, Griffin invited a group of architects to look at the ubiquitous Bayonne Box, which many people love to hate. However, from last night’s design presentation, the architects have seemingly taken the order of “breaking the Bayonne Box” rather literally. As Professor Toni Schuman of NJIT told me, “Some new designs are just better boxes, which have to be constructed by better developers.” Deep setbacks, vast curb cuts, car-forward frontage and the vinyl box, are obviously Toni Griffin’s lesser concerns. The country is facing a drastic demographic change. Among all industrial countries, America will be the only one that will experience a rapid population growth, with a rate even much faster than China’s in the future 20 years. Toni Griffin’s guest, Laurie Volk of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, a highly respected market researcher and expert on the new urbanism, provided a fast approaching urban future, dominated by aging Baby Boomers and 78 million “Millennials,” which will more likely to live in cities with smaller and more sustainable housing as singles and couples, rather than as traditional families. Our cities will look very different. “It will be a crime if Newark misses the opportunity to reflect changes in this center of population growth,” she concluded to architects, planners, and city leaders. The era of the Bayonne Box is over, not only because of an already observed surplus of these expensive cheap products, but also because a Newark of “any-development-was-a-good-development” is over, declared by the Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor. On my way out of the auditorium, where hundreds of local “Utopians” were still excited about the new Newark, I passed by the 12 new housing designs in the hallway. Interestingly, many of them call themselves “Breaking down the box,” or “Push/Pull” boxes, but they all leave a large sacred box at the ground level untouched, the box for parking our beloved automobiles. I cannot help thinking about Lewis Mumford, the great American thinker of the city, who said many years ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar, in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” Has the country adopted policies of obsessive automobile ownership as its de facto urban (suburban) policies? Have the people of New Jersey acted on that right to destroy Newark? Haven’t we had enough? Have we reached the historic moment to also break that sacred box, once and forever? Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets 11/28/2007 Nobody naively believes that Newark’s renaissance would be as easy as real estate dealers’ trumpeting, which has been going on in the city for over two decades with limited results. Meanwhile, everybody has been talking about the city’s unique assets, such as transportation advantages and higher education institutional presence (ie, “ed and med”) for as long as people for more than one generation can remember, also with limited results. All of us, however, would agree, at least in theory, that the comeback of this city cannot simply be copied from somewhere using questionable conventional strategies, such as tax-abatements and public assistance, but should follow a powerful, courageous, and creative new paradigm. The resilient people of Newark fortunately have had a demonstration of this new paradigm, which could become a unique national model for urban economic development, engineered by a local higher education institution. President Bob Altenkirch of the New Jersey Institute of Technology , since coming here in 2003, has long concluded that “Newark offers every asset basic to such a cluster (for economic development): invention, design, development, product, market and distribution.” He believes that “higher education is a primary engine for moving technology into a knowledge base that serves as a basic national resource.” Now, with an energetic young mayor supported by competent economic development expertise, President Altenkirch has taken his paradigm further out of the ivory tower and into the streets through the NJIT Gateway Project. (See HYPERLINK “http://www.njit.edu/about/administration” \n www.njit.edu/about/administration in “Office of the President”, then “University Planning”.) — With what is happening now on Wall Street and on main streets, however, will the Westinghouse building lead to a happy ending soon? What if the seven-phased demolition results in “temporary” surface parking, which turns into yet another scheme of land-banking? I am sure that the owners’ deep pockets and unique investment strategies will not suffer from the delay. Then, will we become losers for another 24 years, waiting for “an incredible new light,” while our city cannot even take any “political action” on a now “legitimate” parking lot for automobile-loving commuters? Smart Growth in Newark 11/2/2007 Portland, Oregon has attracted national attention and admiration as the most livable and well-planned city in America. The city is positioned to grow its population by a million in the future twenty years. The architect of this impressive accomplishment, John Fregonese, is the country’s most sought-after planning expert, who has led regional plans not only in Portland, but also in Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Florida, Utah, Southern California, and my parents’ home of San Francisco East Bay area, among many, many other projects. Portland may not be that far away from Newark for many reasons. Fregonese believes that the conditions for Portland’s smart growth are mainly two: population and traffic congestion, and the rising shortage of regional government revenue. These are exactly the crises we are facing in Northern New Jersey, which have made Newark’s revival not only palatable, but also possibly the only feasible strategic solution for decades to come. New Jersey’s suburban sprawl has led to an unsustainable property tax burden in our suburban “wonderland.” Meanwhile, the state cannot find money to fix its infrastructure and improve its road conditions. For instance, bridge improvement costs are estimated between $6 billion to $11 billion. The state has yet to find $2 billion to expand the Turnpike only between exits 8A to 6. Studies have indicated a new trend in state population loss, together with billions of lost revenue. We are living a bankrupt life here in New Jersey. All these, in my opinion, offer an opportunity, as well as responsibility, to the city of Newark, its leaders, and citizens. “Stop treating us as a laughing stock. The state’s salvation might point to this direction.” Mr.
Fregonese’s expertise is timely needed here. The ultimate smart growth should happen in our urban centers. Some strategies in Portland remind me of what has been missing here in Newark. For instance, Portland implemented an efficient light-rail system, which effectively defined the city’s redevelopment. Yes, we have a new light-rail, in addition to the city’s wonderful subway. However, so far, we have only treated the system as a gift bought by federal dollars and an increase in civic pride. New Jersey Transit has sadly marketed the under-utilized system as “Newark’s best-kept secret.” Let Fregonese lend us some ideas on how to use our system as a powerful engine for our long-waited smart growth. On November 8, John Fregonese is coming to NJIT to deliver a speech on smart growth, titled “Design for Efficiency: Using Urban Design to Combat Global Warming.” This will be part of the greatly successful Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a partnership program of the National Endowment for Arts, the American Architectural Foundation, and the US Conference of Mayors. Thanks to NJIT, our hometown university, for bringing the event here. Our former Mayor Sharpe James, who claimed the title of “Road Scholar,” was a graduate of the Mayors’ Institute in 1989. However, we have not seen any smart growth here. Now, our forward-looking city administration, including our Director of Community Development, who has long been involved with the institute, will take the opportunity to bring a new paradigm of development to the city and the state. So, mark your calendar for the evening (6:30 p.m.) at NJIT’s Campus Center Atrium. If you don’t care, then who will? Jane Jacobs and Newark 10/21/2007 Cities, such as New York City, Barcelona and Istanbul make my heart beat faster. Although my own city, Newark, NJ, is far from the list of these great cities, it, however, sets fire in my heart. Yes, fire, fire of thirst, anger, pain, and, most of all, hope. Anyone who claims to be a city person cannot talk about his or her favorite subject without referring to Jane Jacobs, the ultimate analyst of all things urban and the most eloquent defender of American cities. The Municipal Art Society of New York is holding an exhibition, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York. It is a timely tribute to every city person’s great teacher and friend, Jane Jacobs, who left us last year. Her first book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), has become a part of our ethos and daily language. Without Jane Jacobs, New York City, or many endangered cities in an automobile age of a fetishlike suburbanized culture, would, in a devastated way, lose its vital characters. Her last book, The Dark Age Ahead, however, left us a pessimistic awakening call to fight not only for our cities’ future, but also against the fatal greed and indulgent arrogance that eat our souls. A few months ago, a good friend of Newark, the Columbia urban historian Kenneth Jackson, organized a wildly successful exhibition (in three New York City cultural venues) and seminars on American’s master builder, Robert Moses. However, the resuscitation of Moses’ reputation falsely suggests the limits of Jacobs’ vision. Michigan historian Robert Fishman even declared, “Jane Jacobs’ era is over.” Is it so? The brief but powerful current exhibit revisited Jacobs’ principles on city planning, which cannot be more relevant to our city and our neighborhood — mix of uses and users, short blocks, varied buildings, concentration of people, that foster lives, diversity, and a sense of community, and most of all, community planning. Furthermore, Jacobs provides clear guide for getting to our practical “ideal” through the plainly simple but learned activism: observe, think, assess, learn, assemble, participate, advocate, and speak, at all societal and governmental levels. Yes, Jacobs said, “One person (you, you, and you) can change the city.” To our city and community, one of the public programs is particularly interesting to city administrators and planners, to university leaders, as well as to neighbors of this unfulfilled college town. On November 6 (Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.), a panel under the title–When the Big Gets Bigger: New York’s Universities and Their Neighborhoods–will feature Judith Rodine and Lee Bollinger. Under Rodine’s presidency, the University of Pennsylvania successfully generated urban revitalization in the poor West Philadelphia neighborhood. (See the attached review of her new book, The University and Urban Revival.) Her unprecedented experience has become the model of NJIT’s brave approach to its Gateway Project. On the other hand, Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, is famously known for threatening, unnecessarily according many, to use eminent domain against Harlem property owners. This is a rare opportunity for planners and advocates of this college town to have some insight and guidance for our own pursuits.
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