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How urban renewal in Auburn shaped me as an urbanist, part one

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Before urban renewal overhead

An overhead view of downtown Auburn prior to urban renewal.

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part essay by Bill Fulton, an Auburn native and urban planner. Fulton originally published the essay on Medium, where it can be read in full. The second and third parts will be published the next two Sundays in The Citizen's Lake Life section.

One warm summer’s day in 1974, when I was a college kid interning as a cub reporter at what was then known as the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser, I left the paper’s new building on Dill Street in downtown Auburn and walked three blocks to the City Hall on South Street to cover a meeting of the City Council — or, to be technically accurate, the Auburn Urban Renewal Agency, or AURA, which was an offshoot of the council.

In my recollection, it was like traversing a war zone. As I walked down Dill Street to North Street, on my left a new arterial road — the Auburn Arterial — was being plowed through the middle of long-established neighborhoods I had known my whole life. Ahead of me, along Market Street, buildings dating back to the 19th Century were behind demolished with federal urban renewal funds, making way for a new “Loop Road” around downtown and opening up access to the Owasco River (which in those days we called “The Outlet”) for the first time in a century. And as I crossed Genesee Street where North and South Streets met — downtown Auburn’s “100% corner” — the main street was torn up as the city began a 16-year effort to separate the sanitary sewer and the storm sewer.

Although I was only 18 at the time, the city I had known all my life — the only city I had ever known in my life — was disappearing before my very eyes.

When I got to City Hall and the City Council emerged into the council chambers from an anteroom, I was in awe — especially of Auburn’s legendary mayor, Paul Lattimore. My parents knew everybody in town, including the mayor, for whom my father had no good words. Nevertheless, it was the first time I had ever covered the City Council and it was a heady experience. Even at that young age, I somehow had an understanding of how power in a city worked and I knew I was in the presence of it. At a time when Auburn’s factories were closing or moving South — just as they were all across the northern industrial belt — Lattimore had recently gained national publicity by persuading two Japanese companies to open a new steel mill in town. And it was clear that all of the city-changing activity I had witnessed on my stroll over to City Hall had resulted from decisions made in this room.

I was sitting at the press table, which was located not in front of the dais but to the side, so I could see Lattimore behind the dais. After he sat down he hiked his pants up to the knees, revealing his legs to me (but, because of the dais, to not one else) — which I later realized was his habit during council meetings. The group met briefly as the City Council, then reconvened as the board of the Auburn Urban Renewal Agency to discuss the notorious Parcel 21.

Parcel 21 was a large, now-vacant property at the corner of Genesee and Osborne streets almost directly across the street from City Hall. Only a few years before, part of it had housed the Palace Theater, a movie theater dating back to World War I. For much of Auburn’s history, most of the parcel had been home to the city’s most important factory, the Osborne Works, which manufactured agricultural combines starting around the time of the Civil War. The Osborne Works had long ago been sold to International Harvester and moved out of town, and five years earlier some of the old buildings had burned down. Subsequently, the urban renewal agency had condemned all the properties, assembled a large lot, and torn the remaining buildings down. (Fires were a constant problem in Auburn, and urban renewal was in part an effort to get ahead of the arson curve.)

As I sat at the press table looking at Lattimore’s bare legs and watching the Council operate, I realized two things. First, in those days before open meetings laws, most of the topics on the agenda had already been discussed in detail behind closed doors in the anteroom. Second — even more alarming — it was clear that, to the council’s surprise, the city couldn’t find a developer interested in Parcel 21, in spite of the fact that the councilors clearly viewed it as the most attractive downtown site that urban renewal had created.

Eventually, after several visits to Rochester, the city persuaded a regional grocery chain to relocate its stores from a suburban shopping center on the outskirts of the city to Parcel 21. The market was nobody’s idea of great urban design — it faced a giant parking lot and presented a blank wall to Genesee Street — but it was better than nothing. And close to half a century later, the Wegman’s in downtown Auburn is viewed as the heart and soul of downtown.

Because it was the first City Council meeting I ever attended — and because it dealt with the first urban development challenge I had ever learned about — that meeting from the summer of ’74 is seared in my memory. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first time I experienced the intersection between the two professions that would define my life, journalism and urban planning. And it would be many, many years before I understood how Auburn and its history — and especially the urban renewal scars the city experienced in the 1970s — shaped my understanding of cities and, indeed, my entire career.

It is hard for anybody who grew up in America in the last half-century how self-contained — how totally complete — towns like Auburn were. And not just in the 19th Century or during World War I, but as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s.

In my memory, Auburn — a city then barely over 30,000 people — had four local banks, three local jewelers, two local meat markets, two mainstream local department stores as well as a locally owned high-end boutique department store, two movie theaters, two or three hotels, a locally owned newspaper and radio station, several locally owned car dealerships, at least three locally owned jewelers, a sporting equipment store, a music store, an iconic diner, a YMCA, a museum that had once been the home of William Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State), a handsome building housing the police and fire departments, an iconic post office that looked like a castle, innumerable restaurants and bars, a high school — and, believe it not, a maximum-security state prison that had been built by the inmates in 1820. Remarkably enough, all these businesses and institutions were concentrated in a downtown barely six blocks long and three blocks wide.

The downtown was also home to the City Hall and the County Courthouse, as well as a lively cadre of lawyers and political operatives that revolved around them. Several churches and other civic institutions such as the local library and an historic cemetery were situated on the edge of the downtown within easy walking distance. I never recall going to a doctor’s office that was not downtown. My family lived in a handsome 1920s doctor/lawyer/merchant neighborhood — one mile from the downtown.

Elsewhere in the town — which was only two miles long and three miles wide — ethnic neighborhoods clustered around factories, each neighborhood featuring its own shopping district, bars and restaurants, and social clubs. Even into the ‘70s, these ethnic neighborhoods held firm, with their local groceries and candy stores and churches, almost all of which were Roman Catholic. Auburn had a popular minor league baseball team (which was and still is the only community-owned, non-profit team in the country) as well thriving recreational softball leagues in the summer and bowling leagues in the winter. The entire city was easily walkable, bikeable, and busable.

Our family’s life revolved around this small city and especially around the downtown, where everything we might need was located. There were just very few reasons you would ever leave town — or look beyond it for anything that had to do with your day-to-day life. You might go to Syracuse or Rochester for a concert or occasionally go to a shopping mall in suburban Syracuse, 20 miles away, to get something at a particular store not located in Auburn. Once in a while I couldn’t find — or wait for — a book I wanted at our local bookstore and took the bus to Syracuse to get it.

The Fultons had lived in Auburn for more than a hundred years, gradually moving upward from the working class to the middle class. My parents seemed to know everybody. My father had been a rogue school board candidate and my mom was one of the first women on the city parks and recreation commission, where she focused — to everyone’s astonishment — on parks and the civic band rather than on recreational softball, which was viewed by most people as the commission’s most important mission. It wasn’t surprising that they knew everyone, of course: Few families moved in or out of Auburn. The population had stopped growing when immigration shut down in the 1920s and everybody had pretty much stayed put ever since.

For all these reasons, life beyond Auburn didn’t really exist, or so it seemed to me when I was growing up. We’d have dinner on special occasions in the nearby charming villages of Skaneateles and Aurora. We’d occasionally visit relatives in other small upstate towns and once a year we’d go on vacation to the Adirondacks. But other than that we never traveled anywhere. (Indeed, we seemed glued to Upstate New York: One year when our favorite Adirondack resort was closed, we spent our vacation traveling to see other sights, but they were all in Upstate: the St. Lawrence Seaway, Cooperstown, Niagara Falls. We never even went to Pennsylvania.)

Obviously there was a big world out there: I saw it on television and read about it in the three New York newspapers my father bought every day. And, of course, as a manufacturing town, Auburn was connected to the world in ways I didn’t understand — raw materials flowed in from everywhere and finished products flowed out to everywhere. But the outside world didn’t seem real — or, perhaps more accurately, accessible — to me. My favorite athlete was the enthusiastic and graceful Willie Mays, and I spent many an afternoon watching him chase fly balls up against the chain-link center-field fence of Candlestick Park on television. But the idea that San Francisco was an actual place in a the real world—a place that I could go to, visit, and experience—was simply something that never occurred to me, even as a teenager.

Auburn native Bill Fulton is the former mayor of Ventura, California, and currently serves as director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. He can be emailed at or contacted on Twitter @billfultonvta.


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