Lost Newburgh: The Tragedy of Urban Renewal, Part 3

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.

2 Comment

  • Interesting point about the “family structure and nest egg”. What the bulldozers accomplished in urban removal, the bankstas accomplished with sleight of hand decades later…https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/RHORUSQ156N
    Discrimination need not apply.

  • One would hope that if the government could fund with millions the destruction of a city they could fund it’s rebuilding. Still, this is a human trait, to see only the obvious and in this case older buildings that could use some maintenance and overreact with a simplistic solution, just tear them down. Clearly to anyone in the profession one would know that funding could have easily cleaned up enough old buildings to make the city vibrant enough making it a desirable place to invest.

    Now what, given the existing circumstance where there isn’t enough local money to maintain the roads, infrastructure and services? It is something I’ve tackled on my blog (simpletwig.com/blog), to make suggestions to lower operating costs for Newburgh and leverage the savings towards enhancing blocks to promote growth while addressing some fundamental social issues. Newburgh has so much potential, it just needs a leader with the right vision.

    If action isn’t taken soon to change the tide the city will continue to decline as witnessed by more buildings being demolished as recently reported, and in this scenario preservation doesn’t have a chance.