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.
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 [firstname.lastname@example.org]. 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.