Newark: Architecture of Fear


The space man, in the 1952 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, lands on the Washington Mall and announces to the earthlings, “I only fear that fear has replaced reason.” Thank God that the alien did not come to Newark, where reason often fails to prevail. When Arthur Stern of Cogswell first arrived at 744 Broad Street about ten years ago, a few drug addicts huddled up in a corner shooting their daily stimuli and some nesting pigeons were startled, fluffing their wings in the hallway. For better or for worse, fear almost stopped him from forging ahead on his real estate Odyssey in Brick City. Cliff Stein, whose family developed the Tavern-on-the-Green, told me a similar story of coming to “look at a Newark building.” The cab driver dropped him off a few steps away from his destination, a 17-story office building at 33 Washington Street, which he later successfully purchased.

Fear! He tiptoed as quickly as possible towards the building entrance. Even experience in the city tends to further blur reason. An assistant told me stories about two top university administrators, one who had worked in the city for over 30 years and the other who studied urban issues for a living. A few years ago when spending nights here in their spare apartments in a married student dormitory, they often had a great quandary to approach their cars in the parking deck two blocks away across the “dark” campus. Somehow, reason always succumbs to fear. Newark has become associated with civil unrest, crime, and contaminated air and water—intensified by the density of desperate people surrounded by buildings of architecture of fear.

Physically and metaphorically, the 1967 Riots has created a historic ground zero in the city and in people’s psyches. A reference of time has becomes a phrase, such as “three years before the Riots,” or “four decades after that hot summer.” A location is often described by its direction to, or its distance from, the 1967 epicenter at Hayes Homes in the Central Ward. Most of all, architecture has reflected the tortured history of Newark in the past century better than anything else. At the turn of last century, as slaughterhouses, smokestacks, and industrial waste multiplied, Newark, known as “the nation’s unhealthiest city,” responded enthusiastically to the City Beautiful Movement. Landmarks, such as City Hall (1903), the Public Library (1901) and the Newark Museum (1909), as well as monuments, such as the George Washington statue in Washington Park and the Abraham Lincoln statue in front of the Essex Court House, demonstrated the power of the city in its public places.

Starting from the 1930’s, the city sought to “clear” slums, to open up breathing space, and to unplug transportation arteries. The Urban Renewal in the 1950’s followed Le Corbusier’s Radiant City model, but destroyed communities for the ideological and aesthetic monotony of high-rises with fresh air and bright light. If the architecture of the time was euphemized as “constructive destruction,” the decades after the 1967 ground zero created an equally painful architecture of fear, which could be called “destructive construction.” University Heights with its higher education institutions, in particular, clearly reflected the state’s collective fear towards the city’s post-1967 devastation.

In 1962, after over ten years’ preparation, the Urban Renewal Project NJ R-45 (Newark College Expansion), with federal capital grants of $7,674,309 and millions more of state and local bonds, “relocated” more than 1,300 families in 87.5 acres next to the now James Street Commons Historic District. Rutgers’ ugly but open academic buildings included the law center (Ackerson Hall), buildings for science (Boyden Hall) and humanities (Conklin Hall), and Dana Library, where Newark’s first girl’s school was located years ago. However, political, social, and demographic changes following 1967 dramatically turned the universities inward to create a fortress-like environment.

On September 11, 1987, the first residential hall was completed at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Central Avenue. The red cinderblock building, with jail-like narrow windows, was named after Malcolm Talbott, a Vice President of Rutgers and a dominant figure in forming University Heights. Two years later, Woodward Hall, the second residential hall of stern grey cement, turned its back against Central Avenue. Professor Herbert Woodward, who specialized in subjects far away from the urban environment, Appalachian caves and copper mines, served as the first Dean of Arts and Sciences of the newly formed Rutgers Newark in 1946. At the university’s first faculty meeting, he celebrated the college’s virtual autonomy, “We can create; we can build, and we can plan…”

However, control immediately shifted from the banks of the Passaic to the banks of the Raritan in New Brunswick. For almost 20 years, generations of students, who lived in these mice-infested buildings, were taught to fear their host city. Cameras aim at “mean” streets outside and harsh lights beam from the top of buildings, sending a clear message to both Newark residents and university students about the demarcation of the two worlds.

A circle of the fortress was finally completed when the $51 million 13-story University Square rose up at the corner of University and Central Avenues. When working on the state demolition approval for the site in 2003, Provost Steven Diner held a public forum on the building’s plan. He presented a rendering, which had been released to the New York Times, featuring a public square, as the building’s name suggested. After the building was completed in 2006, however, the then Chairperson of the city’s Historic Preservation and Landmarks Commission, Liz Del Tufo, shared her great astonishment with many participants of the forum.

After a 180-degree turn of the L-shaped building, the celebrated public square is actually a private inner courtyard. Executive Vice-Provost Gene Vincenti told the New York Times, “Its location couldn’t be more advantageous for our students, as it is situated just minutes away from the Newark Public Library, the Newark Museum, NJPAC, the Riverfront Stadium and downtown businesses.” Students could safely come out through an ingeniously designed narrow passageway to city streets. The New York City architect firm, Davis Brody Bond, who designed the building, holds its design philosophy as “to create environments which encourage human spirit, while incorporating state-of-the-art technology.”

On the other end of the Central Avenue, the internationally acclaimed architect Charles Gwathmey designed a rough-hewn yellow sandstone building, with long horizontal panels of cold satin-finish gray zinc. Designed before President Altenkirch’s tenure, the NJIT building leaves no setback from the narrow sidewalk, but posits a huge horizontal air vent against pedestrians and a powerful shadow on the beautiful 1857 Eberhart Hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “A forced contrast,” as the architect called it.

Mr. Gwthmey is credited for university buildings all over the country, from Princeton to Harvard, and Cincinnati to the University of Iowa. To dedicate the $83.5 million building in 2004, the architect said, “University buildings…have an obligation to give the campus a sense of place, and happily, that is what we are achieving here.” Obviously, he did not have citizens of Newark in his mind and cared nothing about the university’s sense of place in this deprived city. The architectural critic Paul Goldberg’s description of the Freedom Tower can be also used to summarize this structure, “It is a pretty grim piece of architecture…It advertises fear.”

To illustrate the architecture of fear, one has to read between the lines of Rutgers’ 2004 Physical Master Plan. In order to “further reconnect” the campus to the city and neighborhood institutions, the plan claims, “of primary importance is clarifying and extending the New Street Corridor, connecting the university with NJIT, Science Park, and UMDNJ to the west, and Military Park, the central business district and future waterfront development in the east.” The military sounding “Corridor” was specifically promoted through the website “GoNewarkU.com” to “encourage” tens of thousands of university students to approach the excitement of the city through a single one-way street, with guaranteed police presence and special lighting.

Furthermore, the master plan paradoxically calls for creation of pleasant streetscapes, together with closed or semi-closed “quadrangles, forecourts, inviting lobbies and atriums.” However, students are obviously receptive to the clear message of fear. In a survey done by the social psychology lab class in the spring of 2006, Rutgers students reported their fear not only about parking decks and the Essex Lot in the evening, but also spaces inside buildings like Bradley and Boyden Halls.

Last August, the Regional Plan Association responded to Mayor Booker’s request to host an exciting visioning process of Newark’s future at NJIT’s School of Architecture. Richard Roberts of New Jersey Transit, the leader of the transportation panel, was late for an afternoon session. “I just had a meeting with the Mayor on issues of the Prudential Center,” Mr. Roberts reported. The mayor refused to reinforce suburbanites’ fears by letting them circumvent the city through fortified corridors and sky-walks to the arena.

That effectively set the tone for the planning process. However, when coming to give a speech later, Mr. Booker was greeted from the street by a note on the locked door: “Mr. Major, please enter through the door inside the campus.” A month later, at the Central Ward public hearing on the RPA Plan, Mayor Booker called for stopping the “hostile structures” like the heavily fortified FBI Building on the Passaic riverbank. Meanwhile, the fearsome city was ranked last out of 96 cities by Prevention Magazine’s Annual Walking City List, as a result of our architecture of fear. The prophetic humanoid alien should come to Newark after all to warn its leaders: “Restore your quality public space, or suffer further devastating consequences.” However, where can he land, in this strange city of fear?

Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Newarker, PCA Elder, Business Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

4 thoughts on “Newark: Architecture of Fear”

  1. A lot can be done to change Newark image. The city council needs to start running some psa like Jersey City . Newark has a lot going for it. Most of the ill can be solve by putting people to work. this will give folks a sense of worth and encourage them to bill towards the tomorrow.

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  2. Great piece, as always Zemin. Interestingly, the “20 ugliest college campuses” has been making the rounds in the blogosphere:
    http://campussqueeze.com/static/20-ugliest-colleges-in-the-USA.html
    Number 19 on the list, unsurprisingly, is Rutgers University. It’s a shame that one of the oldest and most distinguished educational institutions in NJ has such sorry architecture. I went to Rutgers-Newark for three years — it really does feel like a prison. While I welcome changes like the new law building which actually created a walkable quad and opened into Halsey St, the university has a long way to come to create the architectural perception of partnership with the city.

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  3. Yes, a great post Zemin. Personally I think NJIT is even more guilty than Rutgers of architecturally insulting Newark. All of NJIT’s Central Avenue buildings blatantly have their backs towards Central Ave and the City of Newark.
    At least Rutgers has the New Street corridor, with its broad steps and welcoming gate. When a college really wants to symbolically demarcate its campus from the outer world it will erect gates like Princeton has on Nassau Street.
    When a college really wants to separate itself from the outside community it will do as Seton Hall does and wrap its entire campus in fencing. Seton Hall’s fencing is, in my opinion, even more difficult to understand than Rutgers’ and NJIT’s placement of doors. It’s one thing for an urban campus in a high crime area to make entry for outsiders difficult, but Seton Hall is in bucolic South Orange, NJ.

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