Newark’s “Autopia”

In a 1957 lecture, the city thinker Lewis Munford observed, “…instead of planning motor cars and motor ways to fit our life, we are rapidly planning our life to fit the motor car… that we have no life that is worth living.” Arguably, Munford has summarized our 100-year collective experience in Newark and far beyond.
In the afternoon of August 20, 1834, Newarkers cheered their first glimpse of rapid transit: a team of powerful horses made an epochal trip, pulling a car (the “Washington”) on tracks from a Broad Street tavern to Jersey City. On December 2, 1835, the first steam locomotive (“Newark”) started to replace horses on the line. In the winter of 1871, the locally built Baxter Steam Car operated on the Bloomfield line going 18 miles an hour. In 1888, a spectacle of cable cars had a short life on Springfield Avenue. Newark’s first electrical trolley car began operation on October 4, 1890, and swiftly took over the city’s streets.

In 1893, America’s first gas-engine automobile was built in Springfield, Massachusetts. On February 21, 1908, the first Newark Auto Show opened at Essex Troop Armory on Roseville Avenue, featuring moving pictures of the thrilling Vanderbilt Cup race. Thousands of visitors admired over 30 brands of magic machines, including Maxwell, Crawford, Jackson, Peerless, Ford, Fiat, Oldsmobile, and Regal. The subsequent shows even gained national significance, attended by President Tufts, and focused not only on sales, but also the politics of auto legislation and road construction. Motor cars aggressively but arrogantly charged into Newark’s maelstrom of dirty horse wagons, trotting carriages famously made locally, darting bicycles, and hyper streetcars.

The city builders of the “Progressive Era” believed that automobiles provided the solution to urban traffic problems. Newark’s Harland Bartholomew said in 1913, “The logical development and growth of a modern city depends almost exclusively upon its transportation facilities.” Once Newark’s streets were cleared of slow vehicles, they would be dedicated to the smooth flow of motorized traffic.

The modern “Autopia,” however, quickly turned into a bloody nightmare, with hundreds of deaths under wheels annually. Local motoring organizations, supported by the automobile industry, directed public attention to trouble makers – “jaywalkers.” They even heavily advertised against popular images of spoiled “joy-riders” and demanded the press to cease attacks on innocent motorists. With the auto lobby, State Motor Vehicle Commissioner Magee said in a 1939 Newark City Hall meeting:

Approximately 3,000 pedestrians have been killed and more than 35,000 injured in the last five years…. Careless action of pedestrians, the almost absolute defiance of many stubborn-minded individuals of their probable chances for injury, is an outstanding reason for these casualties.”

As some people observed, even Ralph Nader’s auto safety reform in the 1960’s did nothing for those lives outside the car. Starting from 1923, Newark adopted strict laws against jaywalkers. Through endless efforts of widening streets, particularly after Essex County took over major corridors (e.g., Springfield, Bloomfield, Central Avenues) as county roads, many sidewalks were further narrowed or even eliminated. Many ordinances were adopted against traffic problems, such as uniform traffic control (1915), street parking bans (1921), and one-way streets (1940). In the 1920’s, Police Director Brennan (the father of our beloved U.S. Superior Court Justice) was the most-hated figure in town for his traffic law enforcement.

The great German historian Oswald Spengler, who chronicled the decline of the West, observed as early as 1932, “In great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot.” Twenty years later, however, the magic machine reached its new pinnacle in American, with an average of three persons owning a car, compared with one out of every 20 Britons owning a car. Optimistic city planners are divided into two camps, like today. Some are confident that cities can build their way out of their decline by making them more auto-friendly, using further regulatory tools, providing plentiful and convenient parking, and building express highways into the city center. (Sound familiar, Newark?) The other school was represented by Victor Gruen, a refugee from Vienna who hated cars and loved old cities. He proposed a wide ring road outside the city center, with an archipelago of commuter parking, an underground freight-delivering network, and an efficient bus system to reduce traffic pressure. His new American downtown would be a car-free mall attracting diverse interests, such as churches, offices, and educational institutions.

In the late 1950’s, Newark commissioned Gruen for a comprehensive study on its downtown and for the design of Gateway One. From a Newark Evening News report, one can see that Gruen did a very decent job educating the public, “For a long time he (pedestrian) was the forgotten man in the soaring dreams of the City Beautiful. The plan often sounded as though tomorrow’s town was expected to have no people, only skyscrapers and unbroken streams of swift traffic.”

With the power of automobiles and anti-urban national policies, however, Gruen was (and still is) too remote to Newark’s business people, politicians, and most planners. Leslie Blau, one of the most influential businessmen in town, predicted in 1957, “The construction of the east-west freeway (Rt. 280), together with additional garages and adjusted downtown taxes, will wipe out most of the store vacancies, greatly improve existing business… bring more business. People want to drive to the shopping area.” At the time, Downtown Newark still had five department stores: Bamberger’s, Hahne’s, Chase, S. Klein, and Ohrbach’s. Pasqual Guerrieri, the president of Kresge/Chase and Chairman of the Newark Parking Authority, predicted with the Military Park underground parking, “Millions of dollars will be spent here. They will go into payroll, supplies, and into the general stream of the economy.” Bamberger President David Yunich said that Newark “is looking forward to its fair share in the space age from visiting consumer and capital expenditures.”

The auto-oriented prosperity, or “revitalization” in today’s term enthusiastically used by politicians, has never really happened. While Newarkers like to boast of its great “transportation advantages,” in the past 100 years, highways and automobiles actually drained the urban center in favor of peripheral areas, where driving and parking were less arduous. Before World War II, Le Corbusier, the great creator of the “Radiant City,” enjoyed driving with his lover in her powerful Ford V8 towards Newark. He noted, “…the ‘sky-way,’ so-called for the way its enormous length rises high above the industrial districts, the coastal bays, the railroad lines….A roadway without art, for no thoughts of that was taken, but a prodigious tool.” He did not know that as early as 1926, Newark’s chief engineer James Costello had to launch a “showdown” with the State Highway Commission against the design and the intention of this “prodigious tool,” the Pulaski Skyway, which had no point of access to the city of Newark.

From the beginning, highway construction aimed for sprawl and decentralization. For instance, for highway funding in 1930, Ocean County got 410 percent of its tax dollars; Sussex and Hunterdon 324 percent and 333 percent, respectively, while Essex got only 37 percent. Federal and state legislation further deprived Newark’s funding for road construction. In the 1930’s, under the County Engineer Stickel, Essex County took over ten “county roads” beyond High Street (MLK Blvd.) to better serve suburban needs.

Under the economic boom with massive highway construction after World War II, a large number of “Boomtowns” mushroomed in New Jersey. For instance, by 1950, New Providence (original Turkey Town), a country hamlet, had expanded threefold in 20 years, becoming the home of engineers, research scientists, technicians, and sales personnel, in general young people with families and “definite” ideas about local affairs. Following Bell Labs that settled in New Providence, large and small corporations located along highways, such as Ciba Pharmaceuticals in Summit and Standard Oil in Linden. Even the native institution, the Newark Academy, followed young families to pastoral Livingston. As Frank Lloyd Wright prescribed for his “Broadacre City,” every family lives in an individual house at the equivalent of the lowest suburban densities, linked by universal car ownership and fast roads.

As a Chinese proverb said, “No banquet will be endless.” The good life in Bo-bo land, La-la land, or wonderland is finally coming to an end under economic and environmental constraints. We even get an “urban president” in the White House, as we have all hoped for. More and more suburban towns have started serious efforts to build more dense and pedestrian-friendly centers, particularly along mass transit lines. That has not happened in Newark! In the City Council meeting a week ago, the Chancellor of our urban university addressed his ambition to grow the school by constructing 3,500 new parking spaces on the city’s best land for transit-oriented community development, indeed the largest parking development in the history of the city and the state. Although the paradigm of Newark’s “autopia” did not work for its five department stores, it seems to still have the support of our leaders and planners, calling it “urban revitalization.”

My grandchildren will see what Newark will look like in 2025. Since this is a discussion of the city, Jane Jacobs will have the last word: “What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles? What if we are prevented from catalyzing workable and vital cities because the practical steps needed to do so are in conflict with the practical steps demanded by erosion?…. In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purpose indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles.”

(See also Newark’s Lethal Traffic and The Iron Cage: A Very Brief History of Parking in Newark, both posted at this site.)

Author: Ken Walker

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

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