“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 sometimes 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 planner, 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?