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Archive for June, 2012

Leave Them Kids Alone

Rutgers College.

The last year has seen attacks on the American academic model reaching a crescendo. The stratospheric costs of attendance, financed by usurious debt burdens, along with an indefensible smugness throughout the system, have all become favorite (and often valid) criticisms. N+1 launched the latest salvo. Without a doubt, law schools embody all of the major problems that plague academia, but they certainly aren’t alone. It’s true that a lot of students don’t pay the sticker prices of their schools; but it’s also true that the costs of living usually more than offset any scholarship and/or residency reductions that most students are likely to see.

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America’s Changing Capital

Natalie Hopkinson has a good piece in today’s Times Sunday Review about the demographic changes that are underway in Washington, DC. I like the honesty with which Hopkinson depicts the anger and resentment, and also the hopefulness, that go hand in hand with quick neighborhood change. It’s depressing how often the coverage of these issues will try to sanitize the messy reality and recriminations that so obviously characterize changing groups’ claims to valuable urban territory. (These can be especially ugly when the claims are being made in the zero-sum game of politically-regulated urban land use.) Hopkinson doesn’t do that, nor does she patronize the parties to the dynamic by attempting to treat their grievances as being petty. But– and I think this is what makes her piece more meaningful than most lamentations of change– she also captures the significance of the sort of organic cultural integration that is happening, as well. I wonder if it can last, or if it is just a fleeting moment.

Meanwhile, Matt Stiles, an NPR data journalist who writes at The Daily Viz, has some new maps of the changing capital:

Stiles created several new maps of Washington, DC, based on the 2010 Census.

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The Times ran an intriguing piece by Chicago’s Luigi Zingales proposing to substitute ‘student equity’ for student loan debt. There’s something unsettling about the author’s choice of a term that typically describes an ownership stake in property to describe an investor’s relationship with an individual’s future. But Zingales persuasively takes on the current academic establishment by framing it as a privileged class whose wealthy institutions are subsidized by taxpayers, generally, and by young people who have few resources, but who arguably require the services of its institutions to progress in their own lives. In reality, the current debt industry has worse than an ownership stake in many individuals’ futures. And it seems patently unfair that universities with massive war chests can charge astronomical tuitions to teenagers and twenty-somethings, financed by government and banks– only to have the students be the ones who take on almost all the financial risk.

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One summer during graduate school, I often walked past the National State Bank Building on my way to an internship in Newark’s City Hall. The building is located at 810 Broad Street, at Edison Place. I wondered: Why did Cass Gilbert, architect of the neoclassical tower that was completed in 1912, design his building to have a completely detailed façade that faced a mid-block lot line?

It’s unusual for a zero-lot-line property to have its lot-facing wall detailed. And this one is elaborate. How did the developers here know– correctly– that more than a century later, their southern exposure would continue to look out on sunlight and green space, rather than find itself pressed flush against a high brick wall?

A first thought was that maybe the bank had owned the yard, but that didn’t seem to check out: Behind the yard is an older, church-related structure which the green space adjoins; across the yard, and closer to the street, is a very old church. These two structures are related: along with the yard, they make up the campus of the Old First Presbyterian Church.

The Old First Church had its origins in the Puritan congregation of Robert Treat. Treat’s was the party that settled Newark under a charter from Governor Carteret in 1666. The church building, itself, was begun in 1787, simultaneous with the Philadelphia Convention. That’s all pretty significant, at least on a local level. Could the history of the church have meant that its property would be preserved by some device that predated formal historic designations?

It sounds plausible that Newark might have had an ad hoc arrangement to preserve its first church, even though widespread historic preservation statutes didn’t arrive until the late 20th century. But even if some arrangement had been made to preserve the historic church, that structure is located far enough from the lot line that the intermediate land, including the yard and the auxiliary building beyond, could presumably have been sold and developed without disturbing what was meaningful to the city’s history.

Another thought was that there might have been a burial ground on the land in question, and that some common-law precept would have therefore prevented its future development in the minds of 1912 architects. I actually thought this was the answer, but it turns out that what had looked (to me) like tombstones once before are actually weathered concrete benches. Here’s the patch of land, and it doesn’t contain any visible tombstones (at least, not in the summer undergrowth):

The gates are usually padlocked, so it’s difficult to get close. But a look at the Sanborn map from 1892 also fails to support the cemetery theory:

In 1892 there was, in fact, a large cemetery near the Old First Church, but it was in back, where the Prudential Arena now stands, reaching east toward Mulberry Street. The land in front was not labeled at all. Meanwhile, the same bank also had a previous building on the site of its 1912 building. So, what’s up here? Are we dealing with a private law device? Some early way of preserving genuinely historic properties, including their grounds, before everything that had grown old was ‘historic’? Was there some sort of a covenant between the bank and the church?

I’m only writing about this because I drove past the site today. There was an empty stretch of curb, and it was a good day for taking a few pictures. It jogged my memory. I’d like to dig some more, but if anyone could shed some light, please do.

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