Developed with the Newark Public Library for a photo exhibit on the history of Newark’s built environment
All historic photos are from the New Jersey Information Center
All contemporary photos are by Myles Zhang
Over the past century, Newark lost much of its architectural heritage and urban fabric. Along with cities like Chicago, Camden, and Detroit, Newark’s built environment evolved in response to population loss, urban renewal, and suburban growth. Explore the changing face of Newark in this interactive map with 150 comparative views of past and present streetscapes.
All historic images in this series are selected from the Newark Public Library’s collection of c.1916 postcards. All new photos were taken in 2016 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Newark’s 1666 founding. My images capture Newark around 1916, at a moment just before American cities entered the automobile era. Postcards were a medium of communication popular in the early twentieth century. Many postcards feature views of Newark’s important landmarks; others are of mundane street scenes and structures. Through color corrections, careful editing, and marketing, these postcards present a curated and idealized view of Newark as postcard artists, business owners, and city planners desired the city to be remembered.
Interactive Map of Newark Past and Present
A city is more than its monuments, skyscrapers, and grand civic architecture. A city is a collection of structures, small and large, wood and stone, humble and grand. Newark has dutifully preserved its large monuments but has not successfully maintained the cultural and urban fabric of its tenements, wood frame houses, warehouses, and single-family homes. Individually, these small-scale structures are seemingly unimportant. Yet collectively, they constitute the living fabric of the city. Too many have been demolished in the name of progress, creating a cityscape radically different from a century ago. For a short video about Newark’s evolving neighborhoods click here.
In this essay, I analyze evolving conceptions of progress in Newark, and I trace a few of the changes to the city’s built environment from 1916 to the present.
What does “progress” mean to Newark?
In 1916 and with great fanfare, Newark celebrated the 250th anniversary of its 1666 founding. Massive classical columns sculpted of plaster were erected at the city’s main intersection of Broad and Market Street. Soldiers soon off to World War I marched down Broad Street with rifles in hand. A few months later, women followed in their footsteps carrying banners reading: “The girls behind the men behind the guns.” The United States, though not yet entangled in Europe’s war, would soon suffer 117,000 war deaths. Women did not have the right to vote until 1920 and blacks, then a minority in Newark, were denied the rights many still lack today.
Despite these challenges, Newark citizens and much of America believed the future held great things in store. In only fifty years, America had transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economy, built the world’s largest rail system, introduced electricity to every major town, and had the world’s largest industries from meatpacking and steel to the stock market. America also had the world’s most affordable, mass-produced car, a symbol of modern consumerism: Henry Ford’s Model T. At this rate of progress, the future and American way of life looked promising. As World War I, America told herself that this would be “the war to end all wars” and looked to the future in hopes of endless progress.
Leaders had optimistic predictions for the future city. Artists drew whimsical predictions of Newark in 1986: a city of dense skyscrapers, railroads spewing outwards in all directions, and all manner of blimps and airplanes crowding the skies. Planners like Harland Bartholomew drafted Newark’s first comprehensive master plan with infrastructure fit for a predicted population of three million. (Newark’s population in 1909 was only 280,000.) Newark corporations like Public Service planned for the future by building the nation’s largest trolley terminal in 1916, capable of accommodating over 300 trolleys an hour. Even use of the words “future” and “progress” in printed media slightly increased after World War I, peaking around 1920 and declining every following year until World War II.
A century ago, progress meant improvement and and society’s forward march. Today, after witnessing a century with two world wars, a cold war, and the emergence of an interconnected world economy, the implications of progress seem more ambiguous and less naively optimistic than Newark and America predicted. Progress delivered better living standards, education, and life expectancy. But progress also led to the decentralization of American cities since the 1950s and now, in the twenty first century, the loss of distinct urban neighborhoods through gentrification and rising income inequality. Newark, alongside the New York metropolitan region, is now more interconnected to the world economy, but this connectivity also caused Newark’s manufacturing jobs to migrate abroad. Unlike the Newark planners and artists of 1916 who predicted an upward climb of Newark and America, society now has a more jaded view of progress, and the role of government in delivering that progress.
In many regards, Newark is a healthier city than it was in 1916. Life expectancy rose from age 50 in 1920 to about age 80 today. And unlike the 1890s when the US Census Bureau deemed Newark as “America’s unhealthiest city,” Newark citizens now have better access to medicine at the city’s many hospitals. Admittedly, Newark remains in great poverty with 79,000 residents (28% of the population) below the poverty line in 2016. Poor high school graduation rates, water contamination, and income inequality remain major problems. However, being in poverty today is very different from a century ago before Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1916, private charities were the extent of the social safety net, and government did precious little to aid those in poverty. Our present and deeply troubled society is, in some ways, more democratic, less socially stratified, and a lot wealthier than a century ago.
However, often in the same name of progress, Newark sacrificed large amounts of its cultural and architectural urban fabric. In the 1920s, Newark had countless dense and distinctive immigrant enclaves. Springfield Avenue was home to Newark’s Jewish community. A few blocks north was Newark’s Seventh Avenue Italian Community. And behind City Hall was Newark’s Chinatown with its restaurants and alleged dens of vice. In following decades, as the predominantly white population of second and third generation immigrants fled Newark for the suburbs, they left the fabric of old and now empty neighborhoods. With time, many of these neighborhoods were demolished as part of urban renewal. For instance, the former German and Jewish communities of Springfield Avenue are now most empty land, strip malls, and low-density public housing. A similar fate met Newark’s Italian community when it was evicted to construct public housing at the Columbus Homes. Meanwhile, Newark’s Chinatown, Greektown, and other communities became the hundreds of acres of surface parking lots in Newark. (Click here for interactive map.)
In urban studies courses, the conflicting images of NYC urban planner Robert Moses and activist citizen Jane Jacobs are placed in opposition. Moses envisioned a city built by, for, and around the car through urban renewal and the construction of massive infrastructure and public housing projects. Jane Jacobs envisioned a city of small streets and the adaptive reuse of the existing, human-scale urban fabric for vibrant neighborhoods. In Newark, the image of Robert Moses seems to have been more powerful and triumphant. Now, fifty years after Newark’s July 1967 civil unrest, there is the desire for more human-scale development, but so few of these old buildings survive that Jane Jacobs’ image of urbanism is lost.
Walking through Newark’s Central Ward illustrates the direction of development. Springfield Avenue, one of Newark’s commercial corridors, links the city center with outlying suburbs. From the empty intersection of Prince Street and Springfield Avenue, downtown corporate skyscrapers rise in the distance. Even though thousands of cars pass by, the four lane street is empty of pedestrians. In the area around, an empty lot is being developed into a fast-food chain and big box supermarket.
In 1916, this was a vibrant immigrant community of three and four story tenements comparable to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Horse-drawn trolleys and later electric streetcars plied Springfield Avenue delivering commuters to work. The Prince Street Synagogue (now the Greater Newark Conservancy) was nearby, now abandoned after white flight. A few blocks west were three of Newark’s largest factories, all now closed: Krueger Brewery, Pabst Brewery, and General Electric. This dynamic neighborhood, among many in Newark, was occupied by waves of English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and finally Blacks after the Great Migration of the 1930s. Each generation left their mark on this built environment.
As immigrants and industry ebbed away to the suburbs, this neighborhood vanished. Reflecting the failure to share the benefits of American progress with African-Americans, race riots rocked the city in summer 1967. Newark’s reputation is still trying to shake this image of the violent ghetto. Neighborhoods like this one attest to the challenge.
Scenes of contrast like the images above, and on Springfield Avenue, play out across Newark. By examining individual instances of changes to the urban fabric, one can begin to question naive notions of urban progress and rebirth. Although individual instances of, say, a closed church, demolished factory, and vanished neighborhood might seem like isolated events, they are visual evidence of larger historical and cultural trends. Expressions of urban decay vary from street to street, but the socio-economic factors driving this decay are consistent across America. By comparing scenes of Newark past and present, in 1916 and 2016, one can unpack how suburbanization and de-industrialization affected Newark, and one can question the nature and contested meaning of “progress.”
These images comparing past and present do not intend to call for a return to past building styles and ways of life. One might examine these images and wish that Americans still lived in this kind of built environment. But the Newark of 1916 was the unique product of its time. Despite the external beauty of these postcards, this was a society involved in colonialism and denying voting rights from women and minorities. The impressive public works projects of old Neoclassical style schools, libraries, and courthouses were only possible through masses of immigrant labor working long hours with little pay. The interconnected lifestyles of Newark’s elegant upperclass houses and the adjacent immigrant enclaves were inseparable. Newark’s courthouses and public works projects built with immigrant labor are still around, but the unhealthy and crowded tenements where these laborers lived are largely vanished. This absence of a built, historical record for the working classes might lead to a distorted view of history. Newark Metamorphosis is an attempt to reassess this nuanced history.
We can examine these images of a vanished urban fabric of tenements, churches, factories, and densely packed neighborhoods, but it is important to reserve judgment. The built environment of each era is merely the product of its culture and economy. The objective of this photo project is to get a better visual picture of where Newark was, is, and will be. A century after 1916, we look to the future.