01/23/18 7:30am

George Washington Street Art

New street art on the corner of Washington and Liberty Streets, on the side of Cream Newburgh Boutique. Signed Teran and Fuel. We love seeing art work popping up all over the city. More please!

01/19/18 7:30am

Photo © Tom Daley

Besides eviscerating Newburgh’s historic downtown,  urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s also displaced thousands, rupturing the city’s working-class African American community and creating a wasteland where formerly there had been blocks of residences and stores.

The following is a three-part series by Lynn Woods, co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston. 

Of course, it wasn’t just millions of square feet of brick, stone, clapboard, marble, and glass that vanished. An entire community was uprooted and dispersed, causing hardship to thousands. Many residents were African Americans who’d been part of the Great Migration and had resided in Newburgh less than a decade. The urban renewal records, which include files on many families and businesses that were displaced, reveal that in the mid-1960s, most residents of the urban renewal districts were locally employed.

“Urban renewal has poured thousands of dollars into Newburgh, and the people in the ghetto and others have seen increased hardship caused by the poorly administered Federal program,” declared William Sayles, chair of the city’s housing committee, in a talk before HUD and urban renewal officials at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on August 9, 1967. “There has been no relocation. Over 300 families have been displaced…most forced to find refuge within the confines of the Negro ghetto, which has caused severe overcrowding.”

James and Bertha Cousar, who had eight children, moved four times in little more than two years. At 12 Broad Street, urban renewal records indicate, the five-room apartment was “substandard,” with no hot water or bath. James worked at a farm in Marlboro and his wife worked at West Point Laundry. A year and a half later, they moved again, to 346 Liberty Street. Six months later, Bertha died, age 45. One speculates that the stress of moving so many times while working and caring for so many children undermined her health.

Photo © Tom Daley

In 1964, Joseph Cotton worked at Bedford Novelty Co. The bulldozers had forced him, his wife, and four children to move four times since their arrival in Newburgh five years before. They landed in the Bourne Housing public housing project in 1963, but had to move out because Joseph’s income was too high. That year a doctor submitted a report to the public housing authority noting that “Mrs. Joseph Cotton’s children have had repeated colds and sore throats which are undoubtedly related to the damp, unhealthy conditions in which they lived.”

Lily Howard recalls her grandparents’ house on Smith Street, which “was awesome…they had a backyard with an apple tree, a peach tree, and a grapevine.” They had lived there a dozen years when they were forced out. “They weren’t offered the money it was worth,” Howard said, referring to the payments the agency made to homeowners for property it acquired. “My grandmother bought a house on Lander Street but had a heart attack and died. She was broken-hearted.”

Urban renewal underway. Photo via Newburgh Free Library

Many of the houses in the urban renewal area “were not substandard,” recalled Reverend Nelson McAllister, whose father worked at the Roseton Brickyard, then Mastic Tile. “People were keeping them up. There was strong-armed pressure to sell their houses to the urban renewal agency. People didn’t feel very good about this, and it pushed us to Lander Street.” McAllister’s family lived on Smith, Montgomery and South Water before finding permanent housing on Lander. “Water Street was called Little New York, because of all the stores, including a Grant’s, Penny’s, Kresge’s, an apothecary center, and quite a few markets,” McAllister recalled. Lily Howard’s son, Phil Howard, noted that “a lot of people who were displaced went from being homeowners to renters. That changes the family structure. It tore a lot of families apart, because [their home] was their nest egg.”

Thirteen years after the first urban renewal plan was approved, the big development hadn’t happened, an irreplaceable architectural heritage had been lost, and a vibrant working-class community destroyed, but still, government officials pushed for remaking the city. In the spring of 1973 state Senator Richard Schermerhorn introduced a bill to create a public venture corporation to redevelop Newburgh’s East End with $50 million of state-backed bonds. Residents would be relocated outside the city, and the “slum” housing would be replaced by a high-rise luxury apartment building. It was an egregious attempt at black removal, and African American leaders vociferously denounced the bill.

Photo via Newburgh Free Library

The bill was approved by the state senate, but the plan never came to fruition. An article published in the Evening News on August 17, 1973, entitled “Once, Newburgh’s Waterfront bustled,” described the result of millions of dollars of urban renewal funding: “The area looked like a shell-shattered town of some gigantic war. Now with all the buildings gone it has become an undulating wasteland of weeds.” Urban renewal has left huge empty scars, and the plans still come and go.

Much of Newburgh’s waterfront is gone, but the memory of it is preserved in city and state records and numerous photos, including pairings of scenes before and after urban renewal on display on the first floor of the Old Courthouse, 123 Grand Street, the office of city historian Mary McTamaney [newburghhistory@usa.com].  Recently, the Newburgh Historical Society has scanned all of Tom Daley’s thousands of slides of the lost buildings and is in the process of indexing them by address. The full story of this sad chapter of Newburgh’s history is waiting to be told.

Thanks to Mary McTamaney for assisting with this article.

Lynn Woods is co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston.

01/18/18 7:30am
Preservationists raised the alarm when bulldozers in Newburgh’s 1960s urban renewal project began systematically destroying the city’s historic downtown. While some outstanding landmarks of Victorian architecture were razed, preservationists did succeed in saving a portion of the waterfront district. Plus, the promised redevelopment failed to materialize.

The following is a three-part series by Lynn Woods, co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston. 

Unsurprisingly, considering the difficulties of relocating thousands of people prior to the construction of new housing, the projects were beset by delays. To speed things up, in 1968 the state took control. Newburgh was selected as the first project of the newly formed Urban Development Corp. (UDC), which was founded by Governor Nelson Rockefeller as a private corporation that had the power of eminent domain and could override local zoning laws and raise its own bonds to build housing and other development. Its director was Edward Logue, who had overseen the urban renewal projects in New Haven, which was then heralded as a model and was soon deemed a disaster, and Government Center in Boston (which included the highly successful Faneuil Hall marketplace). Logue’s job was to “carry on the $6 billion war on New York State’s ghettos,” noted an article in the November 2, 1968 Evening News. 

“Courthouse Square” or “Palatine Square”. Helen Gearn helped designate the Dutch Reformed Church on the National Register, saving the building from destruction. Marvel, Witfield, and Remick Architects

In his projects, Logue, who has been compared to New York City master builder Robert Moses in his ability to implement ambitious urban renewal projects, sought to integrate the housing stock, recommending that 20 percent of the new building be low income. He exemplified the progressive face of urban renewal, which ostensibly was a form of social engineering designed to eliminate slums, improve the housing stock for the poor as well as build new housing for the middle class and bring investment back to the city. (Ironically, the outcome of many urban renewal projects was stockpiling blacks in prison-like high-rise public housing projects and replacing their old neighborhoods with convention centers, cultural complexes, and high-income housing, increasing the segregation between black and white, rich and poor and fraying the community ties and human-scaled infrastructure that had helped keep low-income neighborhoods safe.)

Once again, the area of urban renewal was expanded. The UDC planned to demolish dozens of blocks for a $60 million plan that included new civic buildings, office construction, 575 units of middle income housing units, a department store, supermarket and parking lots connected to a new 9W arterial highway. Johnson, Chambers, and Landers streets between Broadway and First Street would be razed. But still, the developers failed to arrive. The UDC put most of its energies into the Lake Street mixed-income development, on the western side of the city. In the East End, it built the new library, scrapping plans for a locally designed library building designed within the old street grid, and new public safety building (currently in dire condition, despite being less than 50 years old).

Ultimately, garden apartments were built in a portion of the cleared land by the AME Zion church with federal HUD grants. They are backed by a massive, unsightly 18-foot-high retaining wall, in stark contrast to the graceful accommodation to the hill made by the sloped stone foundations of the 19th-century buildings that once stood there. Today, more than 45 years later, most of the leveled area still mostly consists of grassy hillside.

“Barry Benepe, former Newburgh director of urban development left office yesterday after receiving a subtle message – the lock on his outer door was changed” Photo by Pocne

Intensive lobbying by preservationists, as well as the exhaustion of federal urban renewal funds (which were eliminated in 1974 under President Nixon), eventually stopped the bulldozers. The Dutch Reformed Church, slated to be torn down, was saved, and in 1973 former city planner Barry Benepe and other preservationists were instrumental in having Montgomery, Grand and portions of Liberty designated the East Newburgh Historic District, one of the largest in the state. Benepe, along with co-author Arthur Channing Downs, Jr., also helped raise awareness of Newburgh’s outstanding architectural legacy in Newburgh Revealed, a booklet with numerous black-and-white photographs. Among the lost buildings is a trio of fine Second Empire-style houses on Grand.

Homer Ramsdell Mansion facing Liberty Street

Tom Daley has also preserved a record of the lost city, having taken thousands of photos of Newburgh’s East End when he was working for National Cash Register on Colden Street in the 1960s. Venturing into abandoned buildings, Daley captured architectural marvels with his camera, including details of grand curving staircases, marble mantelpieces, stained-glass windows and doors, intricate iron railings of limitless variety, pocket doors, gilded capitals covered in acanthus leaves, federal doorways topped by fan windows, parquet floors, terracotta panels, slate roofs, coffered ceilings…an embarrassment of architectural riches. Once, crawling through the partially open door of an abandoned firehouse, he climbed a staircase and discovered a huge room with pocket doors and a ceiling adorned with a medallion encrusted with cupids. He witnessed the unfortunate stripping of the doomed Homer Ramsdell mansion, which he visited one day to photograph after getting permission from the urban renewal agency. He had admired the second-floor Tiffany stained glass windows from the sidewalk and upon entering discovered them stacked up in the dining room, along with the mantelpieces and dismantled chestnut paneling; the next day it was all gone. “The antique dealers were making a fortune,” he said.

Particularly tragic was the loss of the 1868 Newburgh Savings Bank, a fanciful Gothic-style brick pile with granite trimmed arched windows and peaked roofs designed by Frederick Withers. The building was lauded by historians as one of the nation’s finest examples of Ruskinian Gothic architecture, but no matter: Jack Present, who succeeded Stillman as director of the urban renewal agency, explained to preservationists that the building had to go because it was in the path of one of the new proposed sewer lines. Among the protesters was Benepe, who insisted that the cost of rerouting the sewer line would be “infinitesimal.” But there was no stopping the bulldozers, and in November 1970 it came down. Two weeks later, the 1893 Palatine Hotel was demolished, the last of the grand 19th century public accommodations. Its destruction was approved to make way for a county office building on the site, which also never materialized.

Much of Newburgh’s waterfront is gone, but the memory of it is preserved in city and state records and numerous photos, including pairings of scenes before and after urban renewal on display on the first floor of the Old Courthouse, 123 Grand Street, the office of city historian Mary McTamaney [newburghhistory@usa.com].  Recently, the Newburgh Historical Society has scanned all of Tom Daley’s thousands of slides of the lost buildings and is in the process of indexing them by address. The full story of this sad chapter of Newburgh’s history is waiting to be told.

Thanks to Mary McTamaney for assisting with this article.

Lynn Woods is co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston.

01/17/18 7:30am

Photo © Tom Daley

Newburgh occupies a special place in the nation’s history: as the headquarters of General George Washington in the last year and a half of the Revolutionary War, it’s where peace was declared and where Washington subsequently refused to accept a crown as America’s first king. In 1850, the stone farmhouse where he stayed became the state’s first historic site. But as the city’s manufacturing base declined in the mid 20th century, Newburgh’s heritage was threatened as never before by urban renewal, which destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.

The following is a three-part series by Lynn Woods, co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston. 

In the 1960s and early 1970s, urban renewal devastated Kingston, Poughkeepsie and other Hudson Valley cities, but Newburgh likely suffered the most, given the scale of destruction and the nature of what was lost. Approximately 1,300 buildings were demolished, annihilating the downtown commercial district, which dated back to the 1820s. Nine streets were plowed under, including Clinton Square, a triangular confluence of streets that was punctuated by a bronze statue of George Clinton. The city’s African American community was uprooted, with thousands of businesses and residents displaced. Adding insult to injury, as in Kingston’s Rondout, the promised rebuilding mostly didn’t happen.

As President Johnson’s War on Poverty heated up in the mid 1960s, Newburgh became a poster child of the problems of the failing city, a place ripe for the radical transformation promised by urban renewal. In stories in The New York Times and other national media, Newburgh was symbolic both of the depths of poverty to which urban America had descended and the hopes for resurrection, which planners believed could be achieved only through drastic measures—leveling the “slums” and rebuilding from scratch. With a population that was nearly half minority—the city of 28,000 had 8,000 blacks and 4,000 Puerto Ricans–Newburgh was representative of the challenges and restiveness of what was then referred to as the Negro ghetto and the inequities endured by blacks. The overt racism of Joseph Mitchell, who served as Newburgh’s city manager in the early 1960s, heightened the tension: Mitchell had blamed the city’s sagging economy on African American welfare recipients, claiming they were cheating the system, but a subsequent investigation revealed not a shred of evidence for his claims. (Mitchell resigned in 1963, after he was cleared of bribery charges, and subsequently became head of the White Citizens Council.)

Certainly, the city exemplified the crisis of urban America. Its decline had been dramatic, even as remnants of its former beauty persisted in its architecture and the still-stunning views down the Hudson. Built on steam technology, the city had prospered in the mid and late 19th century manufacturing boilers, generators, train wheels and other components, according to city historian Mary McTamaney. The merchant class, along with wealthy New Yorkers seeking a respite from the heat and dirt of the city, built commodious mansions on the bluff overlooking the river. Newburgh became a showcase of Victorian architecture and in fact was at the vanguard of the new eclectic style, thanks to native son Andrew Jackson Downing, a national trendsetter who heralded and promulgated the Romantic movement.

From his turreted mansion on Broad Street, where his family had begun a nursery business, he wrote a series of articles and best-selling books advocating for charming Gothic, Italianate, or Swiss style domiciles nestled in leafy gardens and park-like settings.

His widely disseminated house plans transformed wealthy estates and residential neighborhoods into a fairyland, resulting in the first suburbs; picturesque Gothic cottages sprouted up in every town and city. He was on his way to Washington, D.C., to design the National Mall when he was killed in a steamboat explosion near Yonkers in 1852. Downing had attracted top architects and craftspeople to his hometown, including Alexander Jackson Davis, who designed the monumental Dutch Reformed Church, which was modeled after ancient Green temples; Calvert Vaux, who emigrated from England to work with Downing in his design studio; and Frederick Clarke Withers. Following Downing’s death, Vaux partnered with Frederick Law Olmstead to design the Greensward Plan for New York, which would become New York’s Central Park (it was Downing who had first advocated for urban public parks). In their last project, the partners designed Downing Park in Newburgh 35 years after Downing’s death as a tribute to him.

Broadway 1940s

Broadway 1950s

Newburgh’s legacy of wealth dissipated in a generation or two, with most of the large mansions broken up into apartments in the Depression years of the 1930s and the post-war housing crunch of the late 1940s. Along Grand and Liberty streets, many big homes were occupied by doctors, lawyers and other professionals, who used the downstairs as office space. By the mid-20th century, Newburgh had evolved into a solid working-class town. Machine shops were turned into garment factories and included Sweet-Orr, the world’s largest producer of work clothes. Pocketbooks also became a core Newburgh product, produced at the six-story Regal Bag Company and in small sewing shops around the city. A massive Dupont plant that made coated fabric for car seats employed 800 and Stroock and American Felt companies employed hundreds more. People came from near and far to shop at Newburgh’s bustling downtown. The city had five movie theaters, two roller skating rinks, 15 auto showrooms, dozens of barbershops, 50 clothing stores including the family-owned Schoonmaker’s Department Store (the store was spliced by the elevated railway tracks; you had to traverse a tunnel to get from one building to the other), 66 restaurants, 16 jewelry stores, and 25 clothing manufacturers, according to McTamaney. The city was served by a passenger railroad, regular ferry service across to Beacon, and regular bus service that precluded the need for a car.

But, as was happening in other northern cities, cheaper labor and business costs in the South had begun eroding its manufacturing base, which was collapsing by the late 1960s. The closing of Stewart Air Force Base in 1969 was another blow. The opening of the Newburgh Beacon Bridge and the construction of the New York State Thruway and Interstate 84 put the ferry and passenger train out of business and carried cars to exits in the suburbs. Strip malls sprung up along the main roads outside of town, siphoning off business from the downtown stores.

To attract investment and halt the city’s decay, the Newburgh Urban Renewal Agency approved the Water Street Urban Renewal Program in 1959. The 26-acre area encompassed Water, Smith, and Montgomery streets between Second and Broad; 323 families would be displaced. A public housing project was also proposed (whose siting became such a political hot potato that it was never built). The $3 million plan included garden apartments, an office complex, a shopping plaza, industrial park, and marina.

In order to qualify for the federal funds, which paid for most of the demolition (the city and the state had to contribute a third of the cost between them, which was often fulfilled in kind by the building of a new school or highway), the city had to demonstrate the targeted area was a slum. That requirement perhaps accounts for the strange consistency in the comments accompanying the city’s 1958 appraisals of the hundreds of buildings targeted for demolition. Each building is described on a two-sided form, and virtually every form contains the same boiler-plate text–“area generally undesirable. Majority of properties in poor state of repair…Current neighborhood has no identity except as a slum area”–regardless of the fact that many of the buildings portrayed in the black-and white-snapshots look well-maintained. Some have active stores on the first floor and one photo even shows someone washing a window. However, even in cases where urban renewal officials were forced to concede a building was in good repair, and possibly of historic value, the logic of urban renewal—clearance for large-scale development—necessitated its destruction. Nothing could get in the way of the plan—even though it remained just that, a plan. The funding was not contingent on a contract with a developer that ensured the promised rebuilding would actually occur.

In 1964, a second, larger plan, the East End Urban Renewal Project, was approved. The project was slated to level 102 acres at a cost of nearly $15 million, with more than 500 families displaced. A group of preservationists pushed back in a letter sent to the local chamber of commerce as well as Jackie Kennedy, the New York Times, the Ford Foundation, and other prominent parties. “Newburgh was sitting on a goldmine of a historically important American heritage, which we feel must be preserved,” the letter read, according to the November 21, 1964 Evening News. The group was particularly concerned about the urban renewal project signs posted on Water Street. “It’s terrible that many of our beautiful houses have been ripped down without too much thought,” Newburgh historian Helen Gearn was quoted as saying in the article. “A group of mill houses with Moorish type brick balconies on North Water Street are interesting.” Of particular note was “an old Regency house with wrought iron dating back to the 1820s and 1830s.”

George Tatum, president of The Society of Architectural Historians, wrote to Newburgh’s urban renewal director John Stillman in 1967 that “destroying the unique character of the neighborhood” for a parking lot or a supermarket would “ultimately cost the city money, not to mention the impoverishment to the spiritual and intellectual life of the community.” His words were prophetic: decades later, the subsequent resurgence of Newburgh as well as Hudson, Beacon, Kingston and other Hudson Valley towns is based on the appeal of the region’s natural beauty as well as the human-scaled historic architecture that survived urban renewal, attracting transplanted New Yorkers who can no longer afford the city’s sky-high rents, tourists and artisan businesses. If anything, the failure of urban renewal to construct ugly, oversized Modernist buildings and proposed highways in the old neighborhoods has been an advantage.

Much of Newburgh’s waterfront is gone, but the memory of it is preserved in city and state records and numerous photos, including pairings of scenes before and after urban renewal on display on the first floor of the Old Courthouse, 123 Grand Street, the office of city historian Mary McTamaney [newburghhistory@usa.com].  Recently, the Newburgh Historical Society has scanned all of Tom Daley’s thousands of slides of the lost buildings and is in the process of indexing them by address. The full story of this sad chapter of Newburgh’s history is waiting to be told.

Thanks to Mary McTamaney for assisting with this article.

Lynn Woods is co-producer and co-director of Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, a one-hour documentary chronicling the urban renewal of downtown Kingston.

Photo by Newburgh photographer Cher Vick. 

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