Curator’s Self-Reflection

To hear my interview about this jail and exhibit, please listen to this podcast from Pod & Market.

Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Built 1837, this is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is currently landmarked by the National Park Service. However, the building desperately needs investment and a vision for its transformation.

In Spring 2018, this building was the subject of a graduate studio at Columbia University’s architecture school. Eleven students and two architects documented and explored the jail’s condition, context, and history. They built upon this analysis to form preservation strategies. Each student developed a reuse proposal. Inspired by their work and seeking to share it with a larger audience, Myles Zhang, Zemin Zhang, and Newark Landmarks proposed to transform the results of this studio into an exhibit in the Hahne’s Building. We are grateful to Anne Englot and Liz Del Tufo for their help securing space and funding. Over spring 2019, the curators collaborated with a team of graphic designers to design the exhibit panels and create the corresponding texts and graphics.

My curatorial work required translating a strictly academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of this site. While some of these drawings and all eleven reuse proposals are included in the exhibit, the focus shifted away from examining the jail as a work of architecture. Instead, we shifted focus toward the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine  Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of the work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.

The finished exhibit will be on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. We are making the case for preserving the buildings on this site and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding – and largely blighted – neighborhood. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where thousands will see it – we can build calls for preservation and the political support needed to pledge funds to stabilize the site. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while city government determines the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.

All photos on this page were taken by Myles Zhang.


View the Exhibit Design

Video soundtrack above from