The Iron Cage: A Very Brief History of Parking in Newark

They paved paradiseAnd put up a parking lot.

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi (1969)

Iron cage. I am not talking about the dark social and ideological “iron cage” of capitalism, coined by Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology. For almost a century since the advent of Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T, the world, the country, and, particularly, Newark, as well as every one of us, have been under the power of the iron cage of motorcars. Without exaggeration, the fall and possible future re-rise of Newark depends on our dealing with the iron cage. On February 3, 1948, an editorial of the Newark Evening News predicted that we will soon travel in old-fashioned sedan chairs because of the parking congestion, “a huge cancerous growth destroying the vital elements of commercial life and individual transportation in cities.” However, the author at the time was calling for more roads and more parking spaces for even more automobiles.

Our Constitutional Right?

In February 1961, a Joseph McGuire was extremely unhappy to find a strange car in the Newark street parking niche he had so laboriously cleared at the curb after the recent snowstorm. Huffing and puffing, he got out his shovel and put all the snow back on the invading car. Later, the “malicious mischief” case was argued in the court on the grounds of the “pursuit of happiness” provisions of the “Declaration of Independence” as a prime authority. However, the problem was that both parties claimed the provision. The right of parking has always been fought rigorously here. The powerful Broad Street and Merchants Association, which at the peak of its power often directly approached American presidents with its concerns, had been the defender of parking rights since its beginning in the 1910’s. Among many echoes of the fight, Vincent Illardo, the president of the 15th Avenue Merchants Association, organized an angry demonstration on the steps of the Newark City Hall on January 28, 1959. “We small merchants are suffering tremendously” for lack of parking areas around neighborhood shopping districts. “We can’t take it anymore!” Even with our “constitutional rights” to driving and parking, life in the iron cage definitely has not been easy.

Iron Cage in Repose

Mark Twain famously teased, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about.” Newarkers like Mr. Illardo attempted to replace “weather” in the sage’s sentence with “parking situation.” However, in fact, the city had tried everything under the sun to deal with the problem, often being among the vanguards of parking technology advancements.

Towards the end of the 1920’s, Newark had all major parking provisions in its ordinances. Following the parking guru of the time, Miller McClintock, the director of the Albert Russell Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research, the city banned parking at street intersections and in front of fire hydrants. Alley parking and narrow street parking were strictly limited. Parking restrictions extended quickly to include snow day parking bans, crowded street parking bans, downtown parking bans, night hour bans, morning hour bans (1928), and rush-hour bans. Sometimes, bans were even extended against romantic swains who parked with their girl friends by the roadside—evening parking bans against two occupants of the opposite sex. To enforce these bans, the city added police equipped with increased towing power against violators. In 1929, Benjamin Ratner, a Newark lawyer, took the Newark Police Department to the Chancery Court after his client’s motorcar was towed from Broad Street. He lost the case, but made his name in one of the earliest case laws on parking.

When the law enforcement power reached its limit, Newark tried to follow parking technological advancement and research. After regulating curb parking, the city adopted alternate parking, various off-street parking, subway and underground parking. In 1958, “back-yard parking” was briefly contemplated. The city engineers studied roof-top parking in 1950 at the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal. In 1954, “pigeon hole parking” was observed where tall steel structures with lifts operated by hydraulic hoists stacked vehicles skyward. After San Francisco and Chicago, Newark developed impressive under-park parking in the late 1950’s. “Automatic parking” started from the Newark airport in 1962. Even the most advanced Swiss parking concept, the forerunner of today’s most chic computerized container parking, was tried in the 1960’s. However, the technology Sisyphus always fell short of his conquest in this old industrial city, or in any other American city.

The Meter Parking Revolution

Carl Magee installed the first parking meter in Oklahoma City in July, 1935. Only a few months later, Newark, Passaic, Montclair, and Bloomfield started plans for the revolution, which supposedly would solve the parking problem once and forever. However, the high price tag of $58 a piece, plus installation fees, was prohibitive. Small municipalities all had eyes on Newark, the only force that might drive the price down, not only locally, but also nationally. With the Broad Street and Merchants Association’s powerful influence, the City Public Safety Director, Commissioner Duffy, announced plans to install as many as 3,000 meters in most downtown streets. He was confident that the price would go down to $37.50 apiece, even below $29.75 eventually.

The new technology was welcomed for better traffic control, revenues for cities, savings for motorists in time and gasoline, and reductions in cruising and double-parking, among other endless advantages. Downtown Newark had two hated brothers, “end-seat hogs, who occupied the same curb spot for a generation. Such “anti-social” behavior abruptly ended with the new technology. However, the high hopes were forced to the court rooms around the nation. The Alabama Supreme Court outlawed meters for “imposing another tax on motorists.” The Florida and Massachusetts Supreme Courts, meanwhile, upheld the measure. New Jersey’s Supreme Court also considered testing the legality of the municipalities’ plans.

In September 1941, the new Public Safety Director, John B. Keenan, started to install the first 1,000 try-out meters. Not everybody was happy about the changes. For instance, the Newark Evening News reported a group of housewives’ war against the installation of 5-cent-an-hour parking meters. On a Wednesday night, these ladies clandestinely filled up all the holes that workers had dug to install meters during the day. On Thursday, workers repeated their digging angrily, only to find the holes refilled again. Even stanchions in soft concrete were later pushed over. Police had to be called in to watch the concrete harden. All the cheap metered spots were soon filled up by enthusiastic motorists, some with a systematic collaboration of meter feeding schemes. In 1946, parking meters were used by 430 cities nationwide. The grip of the iron cage was getting tighter.
h3. Parking Authority and Underground Garages

Immediately after World War II, the prospect of unprecedented economic development in American history created a great constraint on municipal infrastructures, particularly in older urban areas like Newark. The day of handling problems caused by the iron cage through technological gadgets sponsored by the city budget was obviously over. In August 1948, New Brunswick established New Jersey’s first municipal parking authority. The five-man authority was equipped with the power of condemning land for off-street parking and floating bonds. Newark quickly put its strategies together by planning its own authority and taking full advantage of the Federal Urban Renewal programs. Digging small holes on streets for meters gave way to massive destruction of neighborhood for parking solutions. The city first labeled a neighborhood off Mulberry Street as the “oldest and ugliest” to schedule demolition for parking structures. Parking garage plans for Newark’s colleges were planned and gradually took shape even before the completion of the campus construction. For instance, in 1967, after planning for years, two garages of $4.4 million were located on the block bound by High Street, Bleeker Street, Central and University Avenues, and another block bound by University Avenue, Orange, Essex, and James Streets. Years of efforts went into deliberately destroying neighborhoods to make rooms for cars. The grip of the iron cage had fully taken hold.

The most impressive city parking adventure was the $2 million 1,300-car garage under Military Park. On November 15, 1946, Newark’s underground parking plan captured the imagination of a roomful of enthusiastic municipal officials in the Regional Plan Association’s conference. The underground garage had certainly inspired New York City’s planning officials in 1947 when they planned parking under Bryant Park and Madison Square Park. After a bitter fight against the plan, the almighty Robert Moses gave up his opposition and remarked irritably, “So, you could build a tunnel to China if no one cares about cost.” Newark did it first, with the city’s credit initially and with $5.6 million bonds sold by the Newark Parking Authority in 1967.

“Atomic Bomb for Parking Problems”

By 1940, Newark had exhausted all tricks on street parking only to see the traffic condition further erode. On October 11, 1941, the Newark Evening News headline announced “Off-Street Parking Ultimate Solution.” In July 1946, the Broad Street and Merchants Association launched its “Downtown Parking Study,” with a special committee whose members included top executives of Prudential, Bamberger’s, Public Service (PSE &G) and the Newark Sunday Call. The city enlisted the consultation of Nathan Cherniack, who was the country’s most accomplished transportation expert and the 13th President of the Institution of Transportation Engineers.

Working all his life for the Port of New York Authority, Cherniack was against subsidized parking, but believed that “Progressive merchants pay for parking and get back from sales… the marriage of merchants’ establishments to parking terminals must be more than a trial marriage. It must be an indissoluble union impossible of divorce.” Having studied parking issues for decades, he elaborated “solutions” to city officials and business leaders in a military analogy. “Some attacks are like hand grenades, others like bombs or ‘duds,’ and still others like ‘block busters.’ What is needed is a weapon of atomic bomb proportions—to obliterate completely the parking problems. Such a weapon must depend on its power, not on gadgets, mechanical or legal, but on its ability to release a tremendous amount of energy to shatter the problem. This weapon is in the making….” In a time soon after this country successfully completed the “Manhattan Project,” people would accept the validity of a powerful ultimate solution to worsening parking problems.

Newark closely followed the national parking weaponry planning. Among many research groups, the Eno Foundation for Highway Traffic Control at Yale conducted a comprehensive study of 70 cities in 1947. The parking atomic bomb called for sweeping zoning and ordinance changes in all municipalities around the country to make parking an integrated part of every aspect of daily life. For instance, each dwelling unit was to include 1.5 parking spaces; every 200 square feet of retail space should include one parking space. The detail of Newark’s parking plan was completed in 1953. Through defining the land use, choosing basis (e.g., number of residents or employees), and specifying the number of spaces, city planners developed a pseudoscience, according to Donald Shoup, who has studied parking for some 40 years. Some municipalities’ parking requirements became increasingly amusing. For instance, some requirements were: for a nunnery, one parking space per 10 nuns; for an adult entertainment establishment, one space per patron; for a swimming pool, one space per 2,500 gallons of water. Obviously, the real atomic bomb was developed only to create fear and exert maximum threat, while Mr. Cherniack’s parking super weaponry, aimed to deal with the most pressing demand of modern daily life, minute by minute and inch by inch, soon turned tediously wimpy. By the end of the decade, people who had to spend their days in Downtown Newark had mostly given up on any city plans. Some turned to their individual market solutions. In June 1961, Sollie Forcella, a chief clerk of the city’s Division of Assessments, pooled with three other City Hall employees and bought a vacant lot at 29 Columbia Street for $800. After spending another $400, they put up blacktop to create their own paved paradise until the sky fell on the city.

NEDC and Parking

Historically and intellectually, not much can be added to this history in the last 40 years. Maybe the only exception is the refinement of a great business strategy called “land-banking” on the flattened and paved downtown blocks. One just needs to get on the Google satellite picture of Downtown Newark to understand why the owner of Edison Parking, Jerome Gottesman, who produces no goods and holds no patents, has replaced many famous Newark names, such as Peter Ballantine, Franklin Murphy, Thomas McCarter, and John Dryden, to amass an absolute power on Newark’s future. The Central Business District’s share of the city’s retail trade fell by 15 percent between 1948 and 1954. Currently, the share of downtown retail nationally accounts for only four percent of the total. The all powerful Broad Street and Merchants Association had long gone by the time Macy’s belatedly ended the city’s regional significance in retail in 1990.

In 1955, the Newark corporate community sensed the short lived optimism after the “New Newark” replaced the commissioner government with a mayor-council system. In response to an ordinance restriction on corporate “out-of-towners” taking city government positions, the Newark Economic Development Committee (later Corporation) (NEDC) was created to influence the city’s development policies for corporate interests. However, only downtown parking construction captured the imagination of its members, who envisioned a network of elevated highways to bring back suburbanites for downtown shopping. The tradition was kept alive even beyond NEDC’s life by the infamous long-time Executive Director, Alfred Faiella.

In the 1980’s, NEDC became a one-stop shop for corporate investors in downtown projects, providing tax-abatements and federal grants worth millions, as well as swift city approvals and variances on corporate construction. At the peak of his power, despite the strong objections of community development agencies, Sharpe James’ top fundraiser Faiella handed out federal Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG) to construct corporate parking garages, such as the huge Legal Center garage (1990), the Prudential garage for 1,125 cars (1999), and the 1999 addition of 500 parking spots in the IDT garage. All planned Passaic Riverfront projects count on the city government to subsidize their parking structures. Much like Martha Stewart, who could drive her car into a special elevator that deposited car and driver directly into her New York Midtown office, corporate men and women in Newark expect to park their cars right under their offices. No walking is needed.

In September 2001, after a series of miscalculations in their power struggle, Newark’s corporate chieftains stripped Faiella of his directorships. However, with Sharpe James’ support, Faiella took all 12 non-profit and for-profit NEDC-affiliated corporations away with him. He had long secretly changed these corporations’ by-laws in order to transfer them into his personal portfolio. He offered himself a salary of over $200,000 to manage the huge downtown parking garages, with a group of new trustees, including City Business Administrator Richard Monteilh and James’ lawyer Raymond Brown. The beneficiaries of these garages’ profits included organizations like Women in Support of the Million Man March (WISOMMM), whose director Fredrica Bey introduced James to his future co-defendant Tamika Riley. Well, are we still talking about parking here?


Any Hope outside the Iron Box? Or is there even a temporary remedy other than the outright abolition of automobiles? City planner Victor Gruen prescribed some measures for Fort Worth and Kalamazoo. He called for a strict separation of pedestrians and motor vehicles in central business districts, with a belt line highway ringing around to receive traffic and parking structures in the “periphery.” Fringe, perimeter, or peripheral parking started in the 1940’s. In 1949, the Broad Street and Merchants Association conducted a survey with Rutgers: Among 1,284 downtown shoppers, 14 percent were willing to walk less than one street block from their cars and 41 percent would generously walk up to two. However, the blessing is that these righteous customers have long gone and will unlikely come back in the near future. More than 100,000 daily commuters have to work or attend school in Downtown Newark, without the luxury to choose parking locations enjoyed by suburban shoppers. The “Park n’ Ride” schemes like the Port Authority’s 1954 Weehawken program for office workers have no reason to fail, given sufficient transportation planning.

In 1960, the state proposed a cross-town highway, Route 75, which failed in 1973 for planning and political reasons. However, some vestiges (e.g., Exit 13 of I-280) and its transportation logic still remain. Most streets along its original route have been widened. A single line of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will create interchanges at Route 21 (North), Bloomfield Avenue, Park Avenue, I-280 at Orange Street, Central Avenue, Market Street, South Orange and Springfield Avenues, I-78, and the Newark Airport. At Market Street, a branch can connect the Prudential Center and further extend along Lafayette and Jackson Streets to Harrison’s Red Bull Stadium. The sleek buses/streetcars, with designated tracks and signal priority, transfer passengers rapidly from parking garages on more available land receiving automobiles from major highways, as well as from neighborhoods in all five wards connected by the line. The 21st century infrastructure, as in many countries, will appreciate land value of neighborhoods; extend economic development and social activities (vs. crimes); and help to reduce the traditional political contention against the “Downtown.” Leaving their beloved automobiles in safe and convenient locations, commuters can ride public transportation with Mayor Booker. Without iron cages, a “walkable” green paradise is only a few minutes away. Am I dreaming?

Author: Ken Walker

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

1 thought on “The Iron Cage: A Very Brief History of Parking in Newark”

  1. After living in Manhattan for 35 years, I don’t see parking in Newark as being as difficult as suggested, except for the most central portion of the business district during certain hours, weekdays. If we want to revive that area as a shopping center, we will indeed have to integrate parking, but I don’t see parking lots in peripheral areas as the solution for shoppers, because unless the shuttle buses are like those for airports, with as much room for shopping bags as airport buses provide for suitcases, people are not going to find taking a bus to their car congenial.+
    If we want to go upscale, we may have to do a Mall of America kind of thing, with a huge parking structure integrated into the project. The current depressed condition of the city, however, may mean that such a megaproject is doable, since there are so many vacant or semi-vacant structures of little architectural or historical value there, that we could just rip a hole in the drearier precincts of Downtown and build a parking structure partly/largely underground, and an enclosed, multilevel mall above it.
    Everything depends on what kind of future we visualize for Newark. Older buildings at low rents may serve as incubators for new small businesses, or be transformed (at higher rents, after renovation) into residential lofts and artists’ studios. But such things don’t have to be Downtown. Arts neighborhoods can be close in but not central, as SoHo and Tribeca are to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan.
    If we want Downtown to become a destination, a place for people to hang around before and after Arena events or go clubbing, only a modest increase in central parking is needed, since most such recreation will be after office buildings and daytime businesses close. What we should NOT do is gut existing multifunction buildings for single-purpose parking structures. But if we can building underground parking structures or garages on the first few floors of the backstreet side of major new office or apartment buildings, with something towering over them, that could work very well.


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