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GUEST COLUMN

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

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Urban renewal overhead

An overhead view of downtown Auburn during urban renewal and the construction of Loop Road and the Arterial.

Editor's note: This is the second 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 third part will be published next Sunday in The Citizen's Lake Life section. To read the first part, visit auburnpub.com.

In spite of the fact that Auburn was my entire world — or perhaps because of it — I was endlessly fascinated by both its built and its natural environment. From the time my parents bought me a two-wheeler for my seventh birthday, I was all over town looking at everything: leftover corner stores in the middle of residential neighborhoods, gullies and culverts that transported water toward The Outlet, the little waterfalls, the handsome Depression-era schools, the fabulous 19th century mill owners’ mansions along South Street, the railroad tracks, the churches (there were more than 40 of them), the farmland only a few blocks from town, and most of all The Outlet itself and how it intersected with downtown — the two most prominent features in the city, at least to my mind at the time.

The Outlet was the very reason Auburn existed where it did, because it had been the steep drops in elevation from Owasco Lake northwest toward the Seneca River and, eventually, Lake Ontario that had attracted the first settlers, who operated grist mills. All of the factories were located along the river because they had originally used water power. And, of course, at the time the Outlet was almost completely invisible in the downtown, because so many buildings had been built backing up to it in the 19th century, as was typical everywhere in America. Yet even then a good portion of the Outlet was open, with woods on either side, so I remember the experience of weaving in and out of natural and built settings all the time as I rode my bike. And in those days, no street in town — not even the main drag, Genesee Street, which doubled U.S. Route 20 — was so intimating that a seven-year-old on a bicycle was afraid to cross it.

Most of the buildings in town — especially downtown — dated from the late 19th and early 20th century and I was fascinated not only with the buildings themselves but also with how they had been imposed on a natural landscape that was almost impossible to find. Both Hogan’s Meat Market and Hunter’s Diner were perched on platforms above the Outlet. (Hogan’s is long gone because of urban renewal, but Hunter’s is still there in the location where Auburn was first founded, sporting perhaps the most iconic sign in town.) And while the Outlet was hard to find, it wasn’t impossible. If you found your way to the backsides of the old commercial buildings downtown — sometimes by walking around them, sometimes by ducking through a small doorway or driveway — you were in a completely different and fascinating world. Buildings built on stilts. Old loading docks. Rusty porches. At home in my sandbox, I tried to recreate the town and these buildings on a regular basis.

Later on, in high school, when I began to drive and had friends from all over the city and not just my neighborhood, I got to know the factory-gate neighborhoods that had been settled a half-century before by Poles, Ukrainians, and Italians. The families lived in modest but comfortable homes and many of the breadwinners still walked to work, almost literally down the street, in the factories. And, of course, the biggest and most important factory in town was the prison itself, located along the river less than a half-mile from downtown. It did not seem odd to me at the time that many of the prison guards themselves lived in two-story homes across the street from the prison and its guard towers (on a street called, not surprisingly Wall Street), nor that when you had dinner at Balloon’s, the wonderful Italian restaurant on Washington Street, you parked against the back wall of the prison, which was across the street.

Many years later, when I was a practicing urban planner, this type of very concentrated urban development came to be known as “smart growth” — “smart” because it was space-efficient, walkable, and inexpensive to provide services to compared to the suburbs — but in those days it was just the way things worked. In fact, the word “growth” never really entered my mind because there wasn’t any. Auburn’s urban patterns as I knew them growing up had been pretty much set by World War I — built on somewhat in the 1920s, but stagnant, of course, during the Depression and World War II. The factories were still mostly thriving in the postwar era, but the population of the city was not growing, so the postwar suburban boom almost completely bypassed Auburn. A few houses were built on the outskirts of town and out on Owasco Lake, but suburban production homebuilding was nonexistent. The 1920s subdivision where I grew up was still being built out in the 1960s — so slowly that I didn’t realize I lived in a subdivision at all.

As it happened, this period of stability coincided with the lifespan of my parents, both of whom were born around World War I. My father, in particular, had an amazing ability to absorb and understand Auburn’s physical environment and what

it meant — an ability he passed on to me, even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time.

My Dad was a salesman and a P.R. guy, so there was no reason to think he had any particular intuition or insight into how cities worked. He grew up on Lawton Avenue in Auburn, behind St. Alphonsus Church, and he always lived — and, for most of his life, also worked — no more than one mile from the house he grew up in.

Yet for some reason he had an instinctive feel for cities. My Mom used to say that they could drive into any town and he could immediately find the downtown and the ballpark. (He also loved trains and especially the long-gone interurbans, which connected Auburn to Syracuse and Rochester when he was a kid.) He loved all the things that made Auburn distinctive before urban renewal, especially the businesses downtown like Poolos’s soda fountain, where he had gone as a kid and still bought ribbon candy at Christmas. His uncle, Bill Fulton, had operated a jewelry shop on Genesee Street for decades. Dad had grown up in First Presbyterian Church — the one whose steeple eventually collapsed — just steps from downtown. And he was the kind of guy who always wanted to be in the middle of what was going on in Auburn. I can remember that when the Osborne Mill caught fire in 1969 — helping to create the vacant lot that became Parcel 21 — most people in town got in their cars and drove away from it. Our whole family got in the car and drove toward it. This was going to be an important event that would change the city’s physical environment and my father wanted to witness it.

From Dad I learned one of the most important lessons of my life — one that has always caused me to favor cities and villages over suburbs: As wonderful as your home can be, it is not enough to all by itself. You have to look beyond your own home to fulfill yourself on a daily basis. Or, as I have often said over the years, my town is my house.

Dad also understood how the town worked — how things got done — and he understood the relationship between the power structure and the city itself. He knew the mayor and the general manager of the radio station and the prominent merchants and lawyers, but he also knew the cops and the firefighters and the bus drivers, all of whom he had gone to high school with, and he saw how it all fit together. He understood intuitively what I did not understand until I was a reporter — that all that demolition and change I saw on my walk from The Citizen-Advertiser building to City Hall occurred because of the decisions made inside that City Hall, which in turn were influenced by a wide variety of interest groups in town ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to the police union to the Mafia.

So it was not surprising that when the urban renewal reckoning finally came, it broke my father’s heart.

In 1965, a “central business district subcommittee” of the Auburn Planning Board, then led by future Mayor Paul Lattimore, released a study of downtown Auburn’s conditions. I am in possession of a copy because of an incredible coincidence: Thirty-five years later, when I was living in Ventura, California, I was given a copy by Dick Maggio, planning director of nearby Oxnard, who had worked on the document as a young planner in Auburn.

The report itself makes for sobering reading. While acknowledging that downtown was still the commercial center of Auburn and surrounding Cayuga County, it raised a number of red flags. Downtown’s advantage was already being undermined by strip shopping centers nearby. (The only reason a full-fledged regional mall didn’t exist was that the city hadn’t grown in population since the 1920s. The Planning Board could see that a mall was coming sooner or later — and it did when the notorious Pyramid Co. of Syracuse opened Fingerlakes Mall in 1980.) Even so, there were two lingering problems: Downtown was extremely congested by traffic — only ten cars at a time could make it through the traffic signal at the main intersection — and the 19th century commercial buildings throughout downtown had long since become obsolete. Something needed to be done.

Thus was born the Auburn Urban Renewal Agency. It wasn’t an unusual move at the time: Backed by federal funds, urban renewal was a trend throughout the country. “Obsolete” buildings and districts were razed all over the country in the name of “slum clearance”. In Auburn, as in many other cities, the goal was not just to remove “slums” but to revitalize a struggling downtown business district by making it more competitive with suburban shopping centers. As a result of the 1965 analysis, the Auburn Urban Renewal Agency came up with a huge and daring plan: Tear down half the buildings in the downtown and build a “Loop Road” around the downtown in order to facilitate traffic flow and revitalize commerce. The federal government was just as happy to give Auburn the money to do this, just as it gave the money to hundreds of cities around the country for similar efforts. And many business owners — already struggling and saddled with 19th century buildings — were just as happy to get paid off to go out of business.

Of course, at more or less the same time, the State of New York was working on its own plan to clear out the traffic congestion on U.S. 20 (and New York State Route 5) through downtown Auburn. Several routes were considered, including a route that would have completely bypassed the city. But in typical fashion, many Auburn small business owners were fearful that they would lose too much business if traffic didn’t go by their stores and so they lobbied for a route that went through the center of town, just two blocks to the north of Genesee Street.

As a result, in the early 1970s, at the same time that the city was razing half of downtown and building the Loop Road, the state was building the Auburn Arterial just to the north, demolishing 200 structures and eliminating century-old neighborhoods in the process. (Uncharacteristically — but mercifully — the historically black neighborhood was spared, largely because it was located adjacent to the historic district containing the 19th century mill owners’ mansions south of downtown, away from the through highways.)

The city’s leaders thought they were saving the town.

But they could not have predicted the current they would be swimming against: The 1970s turned out to be the era when factories began to shutter all over Upstate New York and ambitious young people — like me — left for economic opportunity elsewhere. The result was that the Auburn Urban Renewal Agency had set the table for developers to take advantage of a market that no longer existed. For almost a half-century now, downtown Auburn has existed in a kind of statis: Half a beautiful historic town, half a wasteland, waiting for the market to return.

By the time the devastation was complete, my father had lived in Auburn for more than 60 years — his entire life except for a short time at college in Michigan. The city defined him, consumed him. He was full of stories about the city and its places — especially the downtown, where virtually all the important experiences of his life had occurred. And yet, after urban renewal and the arterial, when he and my Mom retired to the Adirondacks, he never looked back.

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 bfulton@rice.edu or contacted on Twitter @billfultonvta.

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