“How Newark is it / to make a rapper wait a New York minute”
Tame-One, “Can You Dig It (feat. TMFSE)”
When The New Yorker published Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue on its cover in 1976, a lasting monument to New York’s solipsistic ways was born. A detailed depiction of several Manhattan blocks takes up half of the drawing. Past this lie the Hudson River; a thick brown line labeled “Jersey”; vaguely defined strips representing the rest of North America and the Pacific Ocean; and finally, tiny lumps marked “China,” “Japan,” and “Russia.”
Jersey might feature even less prominently on this collective mental map if not for Newark Liberty International Airport, one of three carrying millions of people into and out of the New York metropolitan area each year. The city the airport is named for remains largely a mystery to many in the five boroughs, however, although a mere ten miles separate it from Manhattan.
Founded in 1666, Newark was a prosperous center for manufacturing, shipping, and insurance during much of the 1800s.
In the 20th century, however, it was hit hard by the afflictions that devastated cities across the nation: white abandonment, disinvestment, racism, poverty, corruption, and decaying physical and social infrastructure. In many ways, it’s still struggling to recover.
Designer, planner, and artist Damon Rich moved from New York to Newark in 2008 to lead the city’s planning office. We spoke with him about how his work there has shaped his perception of both cities and the relationship between them.
Your work in Newark began when you were named the city’s first Chief Urban Designer. What did that entail?
Someone called urban design the post-divorce child of urban planning and architecture. My job for the city government was to pull broad-brush policy and detailed physical implementation closer together. The role involves understanding and operating the multi-scale systems that shape Newark’s physical environment; hitching imagination to administration, basically. The goal of this work is not to give order to the city, but to push for public design and development decisions that make sense to the democratic public. Some of us call this accountable development.
In Newark, you can easily see what happens when development is unaccountable to municipal democracy. Since the 1930s, the owners of the city’s physical environment have been largely at odds with the majority of the people who use it. For example, even though 44% of Newark households don’t own cars, there are regular conflicts around proposed developments that completely privilege drivers in their layout and spatial approach.
Do other cities have that specific role in their planning departments?
It’s pretty common these days in larger cities, to bring urban planning and design into at least a co-parenting situation.
I can start by explaining what a planning department, which most people have no real reason to know about, is actually meant to do. The story goes back about a hundred years. Before 1920, in most places in the country, if you, say, owned a massive tract of land and you wanted to build something, you generally didn’t have to talk to anyone about anything. You just used your property as you saw fit.
But around the beginning of the 20th century, people start living in the cities more and you have more issues: like, “Oh! I was living in a nice spot until somebody opened up a pig slaughterhouse next door.” So there was a wholesale change in the way that decisions over the built environment were conceptualized. Legally, the public and social right to the environment was asserted in a really clear way. If someone was going to build something, they actually had to stand up and say “This is what I want to build” and show it to people in a public hearing. And there would be a planning commission, and people who supported it could stand up and say so, and people who opposed it likewise, and then there could be democratic and accountable decisions.
Today, a big piece of the urban design job in Newark and many other places is to act as the public’s representative in the negotiation about how development happens. These legally required planning processes, now about 100 years old, mean that no matter how rich you are or how long your family has owned the land, when you want to build something you have to draw it and write it down and go into a public hearing and talk about it.
In short, development becomes a potential subject of discourse and deliberation rather than decree. Remember, today nearly everything that’s built in your city is the result of a negotiation! The urban designer is the one who will oftentimes lead negotiations around the physical form of private development, especially where that private development interfaces with the public realm.
Did you have any prior interest in Newark before taking this job?
It’s funny you ask. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the giant panorama of New York City in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. It’s immense, the size of a roller skating rink. It has every building in the city.
Of course New York City touches Long Island on the other side of Queens; and there’s Jersey, where Newark is, on the other side of the Hudson. The model represents those places, but they’re just painted black. I feel that perfectly represented my mental landscape when I lived in NYC: basically, “I know those places exist, but I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing interesting there.”
That’s not the whole story, but when I moved to Newark and discovered that in fact Newark was just as interesting and just as full of bottomless, complicated struggles over the control of the built environment, that really blew my mind. Maybe the whole world is interesting!
How has your perception of New York changed since you moved to Newark?
I definitely have a more metropolitan view of New York. One of the wonderful, but ultimately small-minded and illusory, things about being a New Yorker was treating the city like a Borges story, where one could plausibly believe that there was just one of everything that one would ever want within the municipal boundaries.
But I also realized that that municipal boundary was for me, at least, very much of a training wheel for thinking like an organizer — or just growing into adulthood. It was a comfortable boundary but violently artificial. After all, as Peter Fend taught me, the state boundaries of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey simply result from the same colonial “access to port” geography the British imposed with Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait.
How do you think that most people in Newark view New York?
Well, like most places, I guess the answer to your question is who’s doing the looking. For example, we just finished this poster about Newark’s riverfront, and one choice we made that’s different from most of the historic examples is Newark is shown looking to the west.
Now, the reason that many historic representations sponsored by chambers of commerce and business groups of Newark have looked to the east is that at the horizon you can put Manhattan and Staten Island. They’re visible; Newark is within eyeshot. It makes sense as a way to say, “Come invest in Newark, it’s basically right here in New York!” So for us, the poster’s setup was one way of reacting to that history.
Another example. I remember moving to Newark and coming upon an internet debate among Jersey hip hop fans about whether Jersey MCs conveniently let themselves be seen as New York MCs because that’s the global brand. With some clear exceptions, like Lords of the Underground, the Artifacts, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature.
A related but third dimension: I’m a visual artist, and I’ve been subtly introducing a bit of experimental design and art into how the planning office operates and how it views public space. We started a municipal public art program, and when I first got to Newark I was making some rounds about that. I remember very well there was a gallery or nonprofit—it was a generally white institution; that’s a part of the rubric here—whose mission was to support emerging artists. I asked “Oh, that’s interesting. How do you define the category?” Without dropping a beat they were like, “Well, someone without a New York gallery.” Which seemed like a resentful and self-stigmatizing way to define people who they were supposedly happy about. [laughs] Once you were emerged you would become a New Yorker?
There’s also a fascinating history of insult ads. Mabel Wilson, an architectural historian who grew up in Jersey, told me that Chanel or another luxury brand was going to put up a billboard in Times Square that was going to say the following: “What is New York without [whichever brand it was]?” And the punchline was: “Newark.”
There’s a history of Newark as the butt of jokes, different than jokes about parts of Jersey populated mainly by people who have come to be known as white. The pattern is that a company or public figure uses Newark negatively, followed by the municipal council passing a resolution condemning it, and finally there’s an apology and charitable donation. This happened in 2009 under Mayor Cory Booker, when Conan O’Brian said the best health plan for Newarkers was bus tickets out of Newark.
The mayor and Conan went back and forth on YouTube, then the mayor got on his show and Conan did a whole performative apology and gave $100,000 to charity. Classic morality play enforcing the status quo, Newark serving as the mud that makes the mainstream appear clean.
Newark’s ideological role as this idealized deprived place goes back over 100 years, from being declared “Nation’s Unhealthiest City” in the late 1800s to its first master plan decrying the city’s forlorn physical infrastructure in 1914, to urban renewal plans to demolish over one-third of the city as obsolete, to providing a LIFE cover image of a young boy killed in the street by National Guard troops during the city’s 1967 rebellion and military occupation, to being scientifically analyzed as the “Worst American City” by Harper’s Magazine, to being voted “#1 Unfriendliest City in the World” by Condé Nast Traveler three years in a row since 2013.
Then look at Mark Zuckerburg on Oprah with Chris Christie and Mayor Booker, talking about how he wants what’s best for Newark because it’s so messed up!
It’s exactly this kind of duplicitious use of a city as an icon or quick morality tale in the name of real change that doesn’t seem to change—urban denigration for money and power. Martha Rosler was the first person outside of Newark who immediately was like, “Yeah, that city was politically and economically punished for rebelling against its class-exploitative and white supremacist status quo.”
A lot of different things come to mind when you ask about the relationship between the two cities. I also have a whole lot of friends who are native Newarkers who tell amazing stories about the role that having New York City accessible by train played for them as young people.
Geographically speaking, in terms of relationship to Manhattan, Newark is basically the mirror image of East New York. And its residential neighborhoods are not so different from East New York—a lot of working families living their lives, along with people struggling to get by. You definitely have a majority of black and Latino residents, with a median household income in the low-to-mid $30,000s.
But a huge difference is that East New York is one neighborhood in one of the richest cities in the world, and Newark is its own city. And so that’s another dynamic here. I’ve met a lot of young people in New York City who feel like their neighborhood is oppressed or a ghetto, who see that it’s targeted for disinvestment—people say things in different ways—but no young person has ever tried to convince me that New York City overall was a depraved and horrible and cursed place. But Newark is a much smaller entity that, as Martha says, was politically punished for its black and brown power politics.
All this complex and seriously deep history of representations is context for people in Newark, where you’ll find many knowing responses to acts of stigmatization. You know, like the T-shirt someone gave me saying “Haters Make Me Famous.”
I’ve heard Jerry Gant, an artist, give more than one lecture about what it meant to him to just get on the PATH train and be in “the city.” Just like in New York’s so-called outer boroughs, people still call Manhattan “the city,” narrating their own sense of in- and exclusion.
The life of Newark’s poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, traced another relationship between Newark and New York. Baraka, whose son Ras was elected mayor in 2014, was born in Newark, then rose to fame hanging out with Greenwich Village poets, then joined the Black Arts Movement and moved to Harlem, then made a very decisive move back home to Newark.
I’ve had increasingly numerous conversations with New Yorkers wondering if Newark can remain a regional center of black culture as Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are reshaped.
A whole other thing I’d love to have time to learn more about—one of the things that became possible in Newark in 1970 that was not yet possible in New York City was to mobilize residents to elect the first black mayor of any major East Coast city. And even though today when many people hear the phrase Black Power they mainly think about the Black Panthers, Newark was a place where Black Power developed many varieties and schools of thought, where it became an active subject of discussion and debate. Newark housed the national Black Power Conference in 1967, and in 1969 the Black and Puerto Rican Convention. I always bring that up when I have Puerto Rican and black students in class.
So not only was Amiri Baraka’s life in that trajectory between cities, but that legacy lives on today. When I go to leftist housing meetings in Harlem every once in a while and mention that I’m from Newark, I inevitably meet a handful of people who participated or directly were affected by black arts, Afrocentric culture exchanges, publications that were circulated between places in New York City—Fort Greene, Harlem—that were really invested in those concepts with people in Newark. So that was another circuit of exchange.
And Ed Koch, of course, came from Newark and went to New York, which is the more standard story. So we have Koch and Baraka passing in the night.
From your perspective as a planner, how do the concerns around the built environment compare in the two cities?
The first piece of context is that they’re very different scales. New York City is close to 300 square miles and Newark is 24. And in fact, when you take away the immense amount of land that’s dedicated to the airport and then the largest seaport on the east coast, you get down to something like 16 or 17 square miles that are densely populated.
In terms of the built environment itself, inevitably New York City and Newark come from the same British-Dutch colonial DNA mixed with 20th-century US sprawl, and lots of that is really workable to this day. We have streets, and we have buildings near the streets, and on the ground floor of the buildings are stores and doctors’ offices and things, and above those are apartments.
Cities built like that are not as common as one might think. Even though it’s easier for me to get my friends from, say, Argentina or Nigeria to visit Newark than it is my New York friends, when my New York friends come—especially if they’re native New Yorkers who were born in the 1980s or earlier—oftentimes there’s a surprised recognition: “Oh my goodness! It really is a city, wow. It looks like New York City as I remember it pre-gentrification.” So again, in New York City there’s a sometimes easy romance or poetry to thinking in idealized categories that I think Newark undermines.
But some of the same things went kind of weird in both cities’ development. In the mid 20th century, New York City and Newark both reconfigured huge expanses of their surfaces through programs like urban renewal: immense projects of destruction and demolition and displacement.
Like urban renewal, most of the things that have threatened healthy environments in New York City are exactly those things that most threaten neighborhoods in Newark. The Great Recession, foreclosures, and vacant homes that come along with them; fires started in vacant homes. All of these destructive aspects of the crisis continue to unfold in New York City as well as in Newark, most definitely. So there are similarities.
In terms of differences, we in Newark by no means have seen the implementation of the Bloombergian landscape, whether that means bike shares or plazas, to the extent that some areas of New York City have. And the export of those approaches or technologies raises interesting questions outside of, say, a Manhattan-below-96th-Street context.
The sustained crisis of pedestrian injuries and fatalities is real in both Newark and New York. Newark is second only to New York City in cities with more than 100,000 people in terms of household car ownership. New York City is just over 50% in terms of households that do not own a car, and Newark is in the mid 40s. So balancing the needs of people who use cars with people who take buses and walk and take the subway is very urgent, and it’s a longstanding issue. There are far too many people being hurt and killed by people driving in Newark.
A couple of other things. Our standard bike rack is way cooler than the standard New York City bike rack; I’ll argue that any day. Our zoning is definitely cooler than New York’s because ours has a name, which is the NZLUR, pronounced “Nuzzler”: the Newark Zoning and Land Use Regulations.
Is it better or does it just have a cooler name?
Well, it is very different. If you want to build something in New York City, generally if you’re going to follow what the zoning says, you never talk to the planning department. All you do is talk to the buildings department, and they review your drawings and let you go ahead. There’s no public process involved.
In Newark, which is more like most cities in the country, if you’re building anything bigger than a two-family house, you’re going to spend some time talking to a planner who’s going to have the opportunity to bring up design and other issues from that public perspective, and you’re going to participate in a public hearing with a planning commission or a zoning commission where people can come and support or oppose your project.
New York City has some amazing innovations in the democratic control of the built environment that have now been in place for decades, but which also have their own shortcomings—like community boards, which were designed to facilitate community-based planning—here in Newark you could say that we actually have a higher level of democracy when it comes down to what actually gets built. So: not just a cooler name!
Our zoning will also soon have its own reality show!
Like, on Bravo?
It’s called “Newark Big Plans,” but it won’t be on Bravo or on VH1, although you never know what will happen eventually. The planning department is producing it; it’ll be screened in workshops that we run, and it will be available online. It’s a staged reality show that involves two guys who are down on their luck, and they have the idea to purchase a foreclosed home in a residential area and make it into a dance club. However, they have no idea about planning authorization or zoning or permits. So you follow their hijinks to accomplish their plan. But then the neighbors get wind of it and are outraged, and also begin to scramble to figure out what tools are available to them to shut down the dancehall entrepreneurs. And then there’s a big climactic scene at the planning board meeting. [laughs]
New York’s design community is huge, although how well it’s integrated into the city as a whole is a very interesting topic. What’s Newark’s professional design community like, and what role does it play in Newark today, broadly speaking?
Well, to talk about that, you have to look at the recent history of Newark, which is similar in some ways to that of many American cities. A big part of that history is reflected in a contemporary statistic, which is that Newark holds the greatest number of jobs of any place in New Jersey—about 150,000 jobs—but less than a quarter of those jobs are held by city residents. Now, many residents of the city who work, their jobs are not in Newark. Some of them are certainly in New York City; more are out in the suburbs surrounding Newark. So what you have is a system in which a huge number of relatively powerful and affluent people come into the city every day for work and then leave at night.
The history of the role of design in Newark in the last 50 or 60 years is much about the retrofitting of the city to serve the convenience and desires of those people coming in or passing through. That’s reflected in what we were talking about before, in terms of how the design of our main public spaces, our streets, tries to balance the needs and the safety of pedestrians versus drivers.
I realize that that isn’t exactly your question, which is equally about design culture as what designers actually do to the city. Newark is a place that’s big enough to sustain many intersecting design cultures. I think they might intersect more than the various cultures of New York City just because we’re in a closer space with fewer people.
These days there are a lot of discussions around town about the relationship between designers and artists, mainly of color, who have been in Newark for many years, and their relationship to younger artists and designers, generally of a paler complexion, who’ve come to the city more recently. There’s been a series of informal intergenerational summits in lofts.
Last summer there was an episode that I call the mural wars. A gallerist, a Jersey native who had opened up a fine art gallery in New York City, got the local paper in Newark to put across the front page of its arts section that he wanted to give back to Newark by transforming it into a city of murals. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that there were people here who worked in that medium already, or ran mural programs, so it wasn’t taken kindly.
This led to a perhaps extreme reaction by some people who said, “Oh, now we should have a more formalized legalistic process by which all public art, whether it’s on someone’s private building or commissioned by the government, should go through a multi-step public approval process.”
But a lot of the tensions, which were really understandable and pretty reasonable, were fundamentally about who gets to make decisions about how our shared spaces tell our stories. And that question is a good one about the shared space of Newark and New York, the extents of the PATH train universe.