The Citizen’s recent series on urban renewal and the changes associated with it has struck a chord with many Auburnians. The bisecting and bulldozing of so many neighborhoods still reverberates through the community. Auburn not only lost quite a bit of historic architecture (including a building on the National Register of Historic Places), but it lost its essential 19th-century identity. The saddest part is that it was completely avoidable.
I have heard it argued that Auburn is often five to 10 years behind national trends. The story of urban renewal demonstrates that there is truth to this. Consider what happened to the school system during urban renewal as one example. When the current high school was conceived, enrollment in the district was on an upward trajectory. The planning officials didn’t consider that the region was at the end of its 30-year population peak, which ran from about 1930 to 1960. Yet the effects of suburban flight were well established. One would assume that Cayuga County officials would have been able to see what was on the horizon given the examples elsewhere. One could argue that the three city high schools would have remained adequate as the city regressed to its 1890 levels. Yet the Arterial was built across Garden street, effectively erasing the functionality of Central High, and the new high school on Lake Avenue was built. Funny how a plan comes together.
The Federal Housing Act of 1954 was chief among the pieces of post-World War II legislation that provided funding for the multiple years of study, planning, demolition and rebuilding. More than one of these laws provided earmarked funds for “slum removal.” What constituted a “slum” was broadly defined by municipalities throughout America. Often the traditionally African-American neighborhoods, or simply those in the way, were designated slums regardless of their actual level of quality. This led to the destruction of historic urban landscapes across America that dwarfed Auburn’s experience. By the mid-60s the American people felt burned by the project, and lobbied for the passage of several landmark acts, the most important being the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The protections included in this legislation to empower local municipalities to protect themselves existed before the bulldozers came down Clark Street. So why didn’t Auburn protect itself?
The answer at this stage is unknowable, given that most of the key players have passed on. Theories will undoubtedly be speculated on for some time, as they have been for years, at local diners and in the gross netherworld of online commenting. Our elder townspeople are enflamed by memories of demolished structures and unfulfilled promises, while younger generations try to move forward with the world they have inherited.
Auburn may have lost its 19th-century identity, but it was given a late 20th-century one, for better or worse. As big changes come our way, let’s make sure we are prepared to receive our 21st-century identity with intelligence, foresight and dignity for everyone above all else.