I am in the New York City area this week to celebrate the centennial of the Woolworth Building, a skyscraper designed by the architect Cass. Gilbert. A group of folks, including especially Helen Post Curry and Chuck Post, along with Barbara Christen, have been key organizers of this ambitious week of activities. On April 24, I will lead a tour of Newark, NJ, where Gilbert designed and built a number of buildings. In preparation, I wrote up some of my research in this and the next post.
As a city in the United States, Newark is over three centuries old. Before Newark was occupied and built up by English settlers, the Lunaape (Lenape) people lived there. The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey are based in southern NJ; the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation in the north (around Mahwah, NJ). Lunaape people also are now in Oklahoma. Since I am documenting some of what I know about the context of several twentieth-century buildings in Newark by the architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), I will not focus on the pre-19th century history, and just say that Newark was founded in 1666; it was incorporated in 1836. Named after Newark, England, it is nine miles west of New York City, and is the county seat of Essex County. Broad and Market Streets were among the original thoroughfares and are still busy with traffic and people. Ten miles of waterfront include the Passaic River and Newark Bay; the lower Passaic River is a superfund site due to the long history of industrial pollution.
Among the industries that thrived in Newark were leather-tanning and brewing (tanning and beer do not an appetizing combination make!) The Morris Canal—the bed of which is now mostly filled by train tracks—was completed in 1831, connecting Newark and Phillipsburg (where it connected with other waterways.) For the next four decades, the canal transported ore to Pennsylvania, and coal to New Jersey. The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&WRR) moved into New Jersey in 1867, to connect to markets in New York. The canal’s use waned and closed completely in 1923.
Important for this story is that the DL&W Railroad was a key connection of Cass Gilbert’s: Samuel Sloan, who was president (and then chairman of the board) of the DL&WRR, and William Truesdale, DL&WRR president after 1899, were associates of Gilbert’s through Howard Carroll. Carroll was vice-president of the Starin Transportation Company, and son-in-law of the president, John Starin. (Starin’s company ran tugboats and lighters.) Carroll was the client for the Gilbert-designed West Street Building in Manhattan, which leased the top floors of that building to the DL&WRR upon its completion in 1907. Gilbert would have been well aware of DL&WRR acquisitions and rebuilding because he was in the business of joining clubs and organizations that included these men, such as the Ohio Society of New York.
In Newark, Truesdale added new stations and eliminated grade crossings in the first decade of the 20th century, when Gilbert was obtaining commissions on both sides of the Hudson. (The railroad work divided neighborhoods, as did the construction of the interstate [I-280] later.) These infrastructural changes in Newark paralleled cultural and governmental building projects there: the Essex County Courthouse competition, won by Gilbert, took place in 1901. The Newark Public Library (Kellogg and Rankin), the design of which was inspired by Italian Renaissance palazzi (e.g. the Strozzi) and the Boston Public Library, opened in 1901. The polymath, Dr. John Cotton Dana, became the library director in 1902. (Thanks to Linda C. Smith for the link to Dana’s biography.) There were several institutions of higher education in Newark; the Newark Museum Association was formed in 1909.
Commerce was thriving as well: Tiffany and Co. had plant there, and Newark was one of the great insurance centers, with seven home, fire, and life insurance companies. Prudential was Newark’s insurance leader; in 1903, the company owned the four largest office buildings, each about 11 stories. The 1900 census indicated that Newark had 246,000 people, the sixteenth largest city in the United States; by 1910, the population had increased to 347,469.
The Newark Archives Project will allow people to discover more about Newark: surveys have now been completed at the New Jersey Historical Society, the Newark Museum Library and Archives, the City of Newark Archives, the Newark Public Library, and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark. (Thanks to Dr. Nicole Cooke for the link to NAP.) Newark has been the home of a number of well-known folks: Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Meier, Philip Roth, and Sarah Vaughan.
Stephen Willats is interested in both information networks and networks of meaning, each connected to real people in real locations. In Willats’ art, these networks intersect and overlap in complex ways; words, pauses, gestures, posture, and spaces between, all contribute both information and meaning to exchanges that are captured as “Data Stream: A Portrait of New York” (2011). For Willats’ one man exhibition at Reena Spaulings on East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown (The Strange Attractor, Sept 17- October 23, 2011), he created a long, two-sided wall for us to scan, or crane or squat to study. Ten rows of 57 images and texts of specific individuals make up a grid on this wall, recording parts of Delancey Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City in March 2011.
How does one relate to these images and data? Willats invites us to join him and co-create our own ontology; we perform our becoming in the gallery as we engage with the installation. Information as images and text is mounted down low, in the middle and up high; we parse it for ourselves, connecting to some bits and not to others. We study the photographs, rubbings, and words, seeing aspects of our lives captured visually, but only partially. We make our own meanings in relation to the complexity of a “strange attractor.” As time moves on, and/or new visitors and objects are juxtaposed, our constructed meanings shift again and again.
While my title above comes from Tiziana Terranova’s 2004 essay examining the cultural politics of information, Willats takes his title from the mathematical concept that cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) adapted to his concerns. A strange attractor is both a geometrical pattern characterizing a complex, chaotic system, and a dynamic object that is dissipating into chaos. The tension inherent in this dynamic pattern sustains a tenuous convergence akin to learning. For von Foerster, a “strange attractor” was one way to understand mid-century modern life, helping to define what is humanly knowable or not. Second-order cyberneticians like von Foerster aimed to generalize the feedback and control mechanisms from engineering and science to focus on the unpredictable, open relationships in society. Similarly, Willats’ colleague and mentor, Gordon Pask (1928-1996) and other scientists such as W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972), used the “black box” problem as a means of understanding not only what we know (epistemology), but also how we know it (ontology).
Scholar of science studies Andrew Pickering noted that “Black Box ontology is a performative image of the world. A Black Box is something that does something, that one does something to, and that does something back—a partner in, as I would say, a dance of agency.” Willats and his collaborators, with recording devices, still and video cameras, performed together up and down New York streets on two cold and wet days last March, creating multiple views of the city that, in turn, help us see and understand the give-and-take between objects and people in new ways.
Tiziana Terranova, “Communication beyond Meaning: On the Cultural Politics of Information,” Social Text [Technoscience] No. 80 (Fall, 2004): 52; Paul Pangaro, “The Past-Future of Cybernetics: Conversations, von Foerster and the BCL,” in An Unfinished Revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory | BCL 1958-1976, Albert Mueller and Karl H. Mueller, eds. (Vienna: Edition Echoraum, 2007): 164.
 Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010): 20, 19.