Summer Well Spent: Kate Anderson experiences the Newark Riverfront revival and an evolving city narrative

Summer Well Spent: Kate Anderson experiences the Newark Riverfront revival and an evolving city narrative

Kate Anderson (MUP candidate) interned in Newark, N.J., with Damon Rich (LF 2007 and design critic in urban planning and design) through the GSD’s Community Service Fellowship Program. She experienced the notorious city as full of promise, with signs of the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Her report follows.

This summer I interned in Newark, NJ with Damon Rich (LF 2007 and design critic in urban planning and design), the city’s chief urban designer and director of planning, through the GSD’s Community Service Fellowship Program. I worked on projects designed to upgrade one of the most infamous urban environments in the nation. Recently named the “least friendly city in the world” by Conde Nast Traveler, Newark has a reputation for violence, corruption, racism, and decay. However, during my ten weeks living in the city, working in the Planning Department and supporting the Newark Riverfront Revival, I was introduced to inspiring community leaders, a rich cultural history, and natural resources that have the power to guide Newark towards a transformed narrative of pride and growth.

I was drawn to Newark, NJ in part to connect to family roots, as my Irish American grandfather and his siblings held jobs in the city at the local brewery, in the fire department, and with the minor league baseball team. But I mainly sought to learn from Rich, who founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that brings together designers, advocates, educators, and students to foster civic participation.

Rich, who is currently leading the GSD studio Haters Make Me Famous: The Newark Riverfront and the Post-Great Migration City, has brought CUP’s creative approach to his planning and design work in Newark. Working with the city, he has helped initiate zoning workshops, a public art program, and Plan It Newark, a model of the city to be exhibited in City Hall.

Passaic River Boat Tour

I primarily worked with the Newark Riverfront Revival, an ongoing effort to reconnect Newark residents to their river (as discussed in the N.Y. Times). I helped prepare the August 3rd park opening and also developed a poster to be used as educational material for Newark residents, students, and riverfront visitors. The project creates advocates for sustainable change for the riverfront by means of a fun, how-to guide to getting involved in the riverfront revival.

Like all successful city projects, the Newark Riverfront Revival poster is one of collaboration. It is in part funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Endowment for the Arts. MTWTF, the Brooklyn firm that designed the interpretive signage for the riverfront park, collaborated with the Newark Planning Office on the poster’s graphic design: a large, cartoon map of the city with the Passaic River running through the middle. The poster displays the rich local history and encourages use of public amenities and participation in local development. Community-based organizations like the Ironbound Community Corporation are currently reviewing it to ensure that local information is accurate.

Newark Riverfront Revival poster

While searching online or digging through photographic records in the Newark Public Library or the New Jersey Historical Society, I discovered facts that succeeded in making me excited about the city.

A few examples:

  • The name: The city was named “New Ark” when a group of Connecticut Puritans founded the city in 1666 after purchasing the land from the Lenape tribe, the Passaic riverfront’s first inhabitants.
  •  Landscape architecture: Two Newark parks- Branch Brook and Weequahic- were designed by the Olmsted brothers.
  • Modern architecture: Mies van der Rohe designed Collonade and Pavilion Apartments in Newark’s North Ward.
  • Recreation: Branch Brook Park Roller Rink is one of the last remaining urban roller parks in the tri-state area. It hosts dancing, music, and roller skating at night and is featured in a new documentary The Rink.
  • Civil rights: The first Black Power Conference was held on July 20, 1967 and hosted hundreds of delegates to discuss pressing issues on race at the current site of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
  • Nightlife: Club Zanzibar dominated the house music scene in the 1980s and brought visitors from throughout the nation to join local djs Larry Levan and Tony Humphries.

In addition to seeking content online or in libraries, I met with local figures like Vincent Bryant, Club Zanzibar’s house photographer, who came to City Hall to show images from the club’s heyday. Clement Price, a Newark historian and professor at Rutgers, shared with us his collection of images of the Great Migration and Works Progress Administration images from the 1930s.

Overall, I had an memorable experience supporting the Newark Riverfront Revival, and found it to be invaluable for my urban planning studies. I look forward to seeing the poster printed and the continued development of the riverfront park.

Kate Anderson (left) with summer internship colleagues

Kate Anderson (left) with Ellen Nicholson (MUP '14) and Joshi Radin

But the experience has left me with questions that Damon Rich, the ICC, and many others are posing in their work. How can you galvanize and empower city residents to make sustainable changes in their environment? How can you combine education, design, and planning to support cities with struggling economies?

What became clear to me this summer is that - beyond smart planning and investments - patience, persistence, and collaboration among inspired local leaders are necessary to develop successful projects such as the reclamation of the Passaic River. Damon Rich and current Loeb Fellow Baye Adofo-Wilson (LF 2014), founder of Newark’s Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District, are two of these individuals. The Riverfront Revival is creating a new generation of leaders to continue growth, especially important following the likely departure of famous Mayor Cory Booker this fall.

For those of you who have never visited the "least friendly city in the world,” I highly recommend staying for longer than a layover at the airport and forming your own opinion. And if you’re there in the summertime, make sure to take a boat tour! 

Poster image from "Resident's Guide to the Newark Riverfront," design by Newark Planning Office and MTWTF.

For more information about Newark:

Public art
Center for Urban Pedagogy
Newark Riverfront Revival
"Newark Revival Wears Orange Along the River,” N.Y. Times

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