By Maddie Orton
A shipping container painted gold nests in Newark’s Military Park. It’s a portal linking New Jersey’s largest city to Milwaukee — Wisconsin’s largest city. And those who step inside experience what creator Amar Bakshi characterizes as a virtual wormhole to the other side.
“I used to be a reporter myself, and I traveled around the world and found some of the most amazing conversations of my life were when the camera was off, were when I had no iPhone to distract me and I was on a long bus ride with a stranger and just chatted for no particular purpose. And because of that, talking to someone different than myself for no particular reason, I really had some of the more meaningful profound incounters and conversations of my life,” Bakshi said.
Bakshi wanted to create a space where an exchange of ideas between strangers would be possible in a more personal way across long distances.
His nonprofit, Shared Studios, insulated shipping containers and fitted them with audio and visual capability. There are now 15 portals across the world — in Iraq, Germany, Cuba, even a Syrian refugee camp.
“Our jail system is so crowded that there are people sleeping on the floor in the gym in the county jail,” said Lewis.
The criminal justice system is the prescribed topic for the Newark-Milwaukee connection. According to Milwaukee public radio, “One out of every eight black men of working age [in Wisconsin] is behind bars.”
“People are talking in Newark to people in Milwaukee and finding that the same problems are rearing the same consequences, but no one is using the same solutions or resources to help find a way to eradicate the problem. So people are definitely sharing ideas,” Newark Portal Curator Divad Sanders said.
“People come in and they talk about their personal experiences in regards to the criminal justice and judicial systems and in the researchers are able to take from those experiences the commonalities, the findings and the trends,” Sanders said.
Newark resident Djalna McSween took her sister visiting from the Virgin Islands to give the Portal a try.
“Institutional racism is real, it’s a problem still, and it was the catalyst for a lot of the issues that we do have new black community right now,” she said. “I think it takes the conversation off of social media and brings it back down into real life. Even though this was virtual in a way, it was more real than anything else — any other conversation I’ve had with keyboard warriors or everyone having ideas. But just to actually discuss it with someone who is living it for real it was different.”
The connection with Milwaukee has created friendships. It’s even led to virtual chess games and jam sessions.
Of course the ambitious project is not without its speed bumps. Fast, reliable internet for example.
“And so our challenge is to combine reliability with the best kind of experience we can create while making it affordable,” Bakshi said.
But Bakshi says this is just the beginning.
“We really see a world where you look at the side of the shipping container and you see right into Milwaukee or right into China or India,” he said.
In the meantime, anyone can stop by Military Park or schedule an appointment online to talk with Milwaukee. The Portal is scheduled to remain through June 30.