Opinion- The Tragedy of Newark’s Commons

By mantunes

To illustrate the problem of unregulated access to a public resource, economics teachers across the country will refer to the classic story of the “tragedy of the commons.” In the 18th century, much of the land for livestock grazing was held in common by the members of the community. These same economics teachers will be quick to point out that, without regulation of the shared resource of land, these commons would be ruined by overgrazing and overuse. 

What they are quick to elide, however, is the actual history of what happened to the commons. The commons that were once a bulwark of the village or town and a shared sense of identity became the victim of enclosures, land grabs where owners were allowed to close off part of the commons for their own private use in the name of economic advancement and progress. The true tragedy of the commons was the destruction of a public institution, leading further to a destruction of a sense of community. 

Newark is suffering a similar fate. A quick look downtown will reveal many former sites that were accessible to the public that no longer are. What was once available for walking through or a nice sit down on a bench has been cut off by chintzy fencing, a locked gate, or a conveniently placed piece of shrubbery. This is a loss for the Newark community as a whole and not just the residents of downtown. 

The park at the intersection of Central Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard

Enclosure of public spaces in Newark is a long running problem, but one that has extra resonance at this moment. The first example that comes to mind for many Newarkers is PSE&G Plaza on Park Place. For decades, the plaza was a makeshift forum for the residents and workers downtown. People would eat their lunch within sight of the flowing fountain and overgrown ivy. Community groups could use the amphitheater to hold meetings in the hundreds. (I know this, because I too used that space to hold meetings of that size.) On the weekends, you would inevitably find teenagers improvising the space as a skate park. Then, suddenly, right when Prudential purchased the plaza from the energy behemoth in 2018, the gates shut and access was limited to a paltry few hours when the Downtown District would hold a market on Thursdays in the summers. As if that were not enough, an interior fence was placed around the amphitheater, doubly cutting off access. Our only enjoyment of the space now comes from looking at it from the public sidewalk or the few hours we get during market hours once a week. 

The pattern repeated itself recently with a new space that appeared in University Heights. This new “park” at the corners of Central Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard appeared almost instantaneously during the COVID-19 crisis. The New Jersey Institute of Technology acquired the site of the old Mueller Florist building, which had languished for some time, with the goal of demolishing it for some green space. Normally, demolition is a cause for concern for me, given the city’s awful history with destroying great and useful architecture, but I was a bit overjoyed when I saw the lovely little park resting on the hill with beautiful views of New York City and benches to enjoy those views. (In fact, I thought it may be NJIT’s mea culpa for destroying the historic Warren Street School against strong community opposition.) For a few weeks, I was able to walk through that park on my daily constitutionals. Then, to my horror one Sunday, the gates were locked, rendering the park inaccessible. The park was still there, but for all intents and purposes, it was taken away from the broader community—a community that is here on Saturdays, Sundays, and evenings and not just during the work or academic day. 

PSEG Plaza

It is not just these two isolated instances. The more I look around, the more I see spaces being closed off from the public. Outside my apartment, there is a lot of land I would cut across to get to the only crosswalk point for pedestrians through Route 21 for half a mile. Now there is a pointless temporary fence barring any access across the piece of land and basically forcing any pedestrian to veer dangerously to the light rail or walk alongside the Wild West that is Route 21. It feels as if those 18th century enclosures are slowly creeping back from their historical oblivion. 

The plot of land near Route 21

The irony is that these spaces were publicly accessible because private institutions—and to some extent, some public ones as well—didn’t care. Now that talk about economic development has reached fever pitch in this city, these institutions are taking notice of these lots and blocking them off, either in anticipation of redevelopment, as reassertion of control of the space, or in some zealous interpretation of liability. 

We need to reintegrate these spaces back into the public sphere by making them accessible to the public again. Even if these actors are overcautious in letting the public use their space out of fear of liability, there are some great models out there. New York City’s Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) program has created some beautiful spaces next to iconic buildings in the city, providing much needed green and resting space in the densest parts of the town. As to the park on Central and MLK, NJIT needs to interrogate its relationship with the residents of this city and ask itself—as a public institution accountable to the community—how it can maximize the use of its park. Most importantly, we as residents of this city must reassert our interests and demand that these public spaces stay open and remain accessible to a broader swath of people. We need to hold institutions to account when they claw back spaces—recreating those enclosures of the 18th century. That way, we can turn Newark’s tragedy of the commons into a celebration and a model for public space. 

mantunes is a resident of Newark and writes about the city.