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The Old Essex County Jail (AKA the Newark Street Jail)





 

The Old Essex County Prison (AKA the Newark Street Jail)

 
It was an unusual day - When filming, it's not often we find ourselves in a group setting, and it's even less frequent that we aren't the ones tasked with driving. So, from the onset this was a unique venture for us. It was an enjoyable change of pace for us, as we were in good company, and enjoyed the downtime lazily gazing out from the windows of the SUV as we made our journey. Eventually our ride made a final turn and slowly proceeded down the rough pavement of Newark Street, creeping to a stop alongside a curb. “We're here”, said the driver as he put the vehicle into park and killed the ignition. We paused as we exited the truck into the warm summer sun, taking a moment to stare at the plum of greenery across the street. A small forest in the middle of Newark, and within it lie the old city jail.

Though decades-abandoned today, the Newark Street Jail enjoyed a long history as the city jail to Newark, New Jersey. A history which begins with its construction along the bank of the then newly completed Morris Canal in 1837, a canal which no longer exists today. This prison was built to replace the former city jail, which had burnt to the ground in the summer of 1835, any remains of which are now sealed away beneath what is today Newark's Grace Episcopal Church. The Newark Street Jail was a standalone prison, and is several blocks removed from the courthouse, whereas the previous building had housed both functions.

Built of brick and local brownstone, the initial structure was little more than a two-story square, attached to a single wing of cells, and did not see further renovation until the 1890s when several additions were made to the base structure. 1907 saw the largest expansion to jail, with 112 new cells added and all the older blocks equipped with running water and toilets. The aging prison continued to see service as a jail until 1970, when it was abandoned in favor of a newer and larger facility. By this point it had expanded to contain more than 300 cells within its stone walls. For a short time after closing as a jail the complex served to house the Essex County Narcotics Bureau. When they relocated in 1989 the jail was left without use.

Our first steps on the property were not unlike the beginnings of a nature hike - We sought out a foot path in the woods and followed it onward. These urban woods are shallow though, a natural facade of twisting forms which hides away man-made geometry. Within minutes we were inside, and the transition was jolting. Even after one's eyes adjust, it took a few moments for the mind to comprehend where you stand. We had entered beneath a wall of cell blocks several stories high. Far above, light spilled through holes in the rot-pocked wooden ceiling. Where it reached the floor, it shimmered off embossed decorative ceiling panels that had let loose their moorings. Their brothers that remained above were tenuously suspended, like rust-filigreed guillotine blades over our heads.

One often takes for granted that cities are sterile places, as if their souls are made of asphalt and brick, and thick concrete blood will spill forth to clot any wound. In truth though, the urban landscape is just a thin skin over something much more primal, and without constant maintenance, nature is quick to reclaim what has been taken. The Newark Street Jail could serve as a textbook illustration of this principle at work. In the subsequent decades of disuse the jail has seen both tremendous decay and verdant new growth. Light catches and dances through the limbs of the trees, throwing silhouettes of color and shadow down the cavernous cell blocks. Cell blocks which, upon closer examination, proved to be far from vacant. As it would turn out, our time within the jail proved far more social than we had anticipated. We crossed paths with many others during our few hours inside, some were “just passing through” while others clearly resided here, their homes made within the old cells. It was evident from the personal effects strewn about that many more people called the old jail home than just those we had met that day.

Perhaps the most visually arresting sights of the jail awaited in the wings. To one side was wall of cells, again four stories high, the opposite wall was once home to a series of tall, arched windows. Their exteriors were steel framed and barred to prevent any possibility of escape, but the inner faces were constructed of a grid of glass panels in a wooden frame. Time has taken little toll on the steel or brick, but the wooden frames had fared badly - When the wood no longer had the strength to hold the massive window in the wall, it gave way, but most did not fall far. Nearly every window had tipped backward in its frame to rest against the highest tier of cells, forming a series of archways from which dangle countless panes of glass. The floor is littered with the remains of those that have already fallen, and the sunlight piercing the ceiling reveals a subtle beauty here, as it is captured and refracted in every direction by these fixed, dangling, and shattered squares.

Exiting the building we once again found ourselves in the forest, and though brief, it's impact is nonetheless intense as you pass through and back to the streets of Newark. Unfortunately our first sight upon re-entering the city was that of a police car parked next to the SUV we had arrived in. With our heads hung low in defeat we slowly made our way to the cruiser. When we reached the car two officers got out to greet us. They weren't here about our trespassing, rather they had just gotten on the scene in regards to someone having broken into our ride. Glass was everywhere, and on the passenger seat lay a large chunk of cement, which was obviously the culprits 'tool' of entry. All of our belongings were safely stowed in the bags we were carrying upon our backs all day, but the others we were with didn't fair so luckily. Asking if we should make a report one of the officers replied “You can, but I doubt much will come of it.”, noting that this was far from an unusual occurrence. In the end we passed on conducting any official paperwork, and decided to part ways with Newark as quickly as possible.
It was an unusual day.






 


 The courtyard, as it were in the 1940's

The courtyard today.

















Several of these mechanisms controlled the locks on the cell blocks.