How My Hometown Can Heal Its Urban Renewal Wounds

The Phoenix Building, formerly the Auburn Savings Bank, an iconic structure in Downtown Auburn, N.Y.

hen I posted my essay about urban renewal in my hometown of Auburn, N.Y., back in October, I honestly thought I was just giving voice to something I’d felt for a long time: How urban renewal and construction of the arterial road through Auburn in the 1970s had created a kind of trauma for me and shaped my thinking as an urban planner.

But I was not prepared for the outpouring of interest that the essay generated. The Citizen, Auburn’s local newspaper, printed the essay as a three-part series. I did a podcast for Fingerlakes1.com that Josh Durso (@FLXJosh) promoted heavily. And I heard from Auburnians past and present who contacted me literally from all over the country — all the way from Auburn to Southern California, where my high-school acquaintance Kevin Corcoran reminded me that he and I have a longtime friend in common (who, like me, is also a former mayor of Ventura, California). I had many wonderful email exchanges with these folks and even a delightful zoom session with Judge Jim Cuddy, now 92 years old, and his entire family.

A small world to be sure, but more important, a world where Auburnians past and present still hold surprisingly intense feelings about what happened in town almost a half-century ago. I realized more than ever how deeply people feel about the places they care about and how long the wounds take to heal. I heard, for example, from Mary Payne McCarthy, whose family business on North Street — T.F. Conaty’s Seafood — was taken for the arterial. It was clear from reading Mary’s material that the wound is still very real for the Conaty family. (The Citizen did a nice article on the Conaty history back in 2017.)

At the same time, I also from people who defended — or at least explained — how all this came to be. Frank (Joe) Lattimore, son of the legendary Mayor Paul Lattimore, came to his father’s defense, noting that the situation had gotten so bad in the 1960s that businesses in downtown Auburn couldn’t even get insurance. And Kevin Corcoran pointed out that his father — who was on the City Council with Lattimore when we were in high school — got the message from Democratic leaders such as Bill McKeon that he was supposed to get with the program and vote for urban renewal.

Maybe the most evocative response came from someone with no connection to Auburn at all — Jeff Michael, my counterpart at the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Jeff wrote a piece about his own growing up in the planned factory town of Badin, North Carolina, which suffered a significant decline after Alcoa shut down a plant in 2002. Indeed, Badin is so tied to the history of aluminum that a turbine which once powered the plant is on display in a public park in the downtown — the equivalent of a rope-making machine from Columbian Rope on display in downtown Auburn. (Actually, that’s not a bad idea.)

The Alcoa turbine on display in Downtown Badin, North Carolina (photo/Nancy Pierce)

Dolefully, Jeff says that Badin simply did not adapt to the times, concluding that “the celebrated model company town of 1920 seemed to have become just another failed economic model in 2020.” And then he wonders whether Badin is in permanent decline or in the process of reinventing itself. That’s a question that could be asked of Auburn — and, indeed, of hundreds, if not thousands, of once-thriving small cities and towns around America.

It’s easy to get caught up, as so many of us tend to, in nostalgia for the Auburn that doesn’t exist anymore — and the thousands of other Auburns that have changed or declined over the years. Did Auburn have to tear down half the downtown for the Loop Road and urban renewal and allow the state to rip through the center of town for the arterial (a fate suffered by many other cities and towns as well)? Of course not. But the decisions made at that time make a lot more sense if we look at it through the same lens as the people who made the decisions.

State Street in Downtown Auburn before urban renewal.

Even when I was a kid, many of the wonderful old buildings downtown were obsolete and half-abandoned. (The upper floors were mostly unoccupied.) Traffic congestion was gradually making downtown uncompetitive as a retail center, and in fact downtowns all over the country were losing their retail dominance to strip centers and malls. (Local retailers like Conaty’s would have had a hard time surviving in any event, and many others did not survive even though they were not displaced.) It’s also true that slowly, almost imperceptibly, the old ethnic working-class neighborhoods throughout Auburn were breaking apart and, in some cases, going downhill. Something had to change.

And nobody could have predicted the massive flight of factories in the 1970s, which culminated in the sale and departure of Columbian Rope in 1980. Yes, downtown was in many ways obsolete. And yes, some factories had already left — most notably International Harvester, successor to the Osborne Works, which shut down in 1949. But in the 1960s, when both the Loop Road and the Arterial were first planned, most people expected Auburn to continue the prosperity that had carried it forward for a century and a half. The question was how to protect that prosperity and make sure that it brought maximum benefit to Auburn, its people, its downtown, and its neighborhoods.

Auburn was hardly the only place in Upstate New York to make this mistake. As my friend and colleague Rolf Pendall, who used to teach urban planning at Cornell, has pointed out, virtually everywhere Upstate assumed in the 1960s that growth would continue. For example, Monroe County planned a vast countywide sewer system on the assumption that the entire county would be developed and population growth would continue. Instead population growth just stopped and the sewer system in the new suburbs was subsidized by taxpayers in Rochester, facilitating a vicious cycle of white flight and central-city decline.

Meanwhile, in Auburn, many of the historic factories closed, the population began to decline, and the bottom dropped out of the market. As I pointed out in my last essay, the City Council settled on Wegmans for the prime parcel downtown — the onetime location of the Osborne Works — only because nobody else was interested. Furthermore, unlike some other Upstate cities such as Corning, Auburn did not convert its industrial legacy into a new economy focused on artisans — partly because, unlike Corning Glass, the critical core factories such as Columbian Rope closed up shop.

Corning’s Gaffer District

Though many of us are nostalgic for the Auburn of the past, I think we should be proud of Auburn today, which has — against all odds — managed to maintain its manufacturing legacy and build a good local industrial economy based on local entrepreneurship. Simply put, Auburnians today — like their predecessors — are good at making things and finding markets around the world for those products. Auburn today exports almost $1 billion a year in manufactured goods, about the same as Jersey City or Miami. That’s a pretty impressive achievement for such a small city.

Yet even though Auburn has made a lot of progress, we still have not seen much physical improvement to the city — especially to the downtown — and that has clearly gotten in the way of the healing. A few new buildings have been built like Lattimore Hall, while others, like the iconic Phoenix building, have been saved through heroic efforts.

Lattimore Hall on Genesee Street in Downtown Auburn

But the physical scars of the ’70s are still obvious to everybody, and the response to my earlier essay suggests that the emotional scars have not faded. In fact, those emotional scars are reinforced every time somebody travels on the Arterial or the Loop Road, or visits downtown or other neighborhoods — like Five Points — that still bear the scars of the ’70s. Again, this is not unique to Auburn; cities across the nation must struggle with such urban scars even as they begin to revitalize themselves.

Is it possible, at this late date, to complete the physical renovation of downtown Auburn and facilitate the healing, so that in the 21st Century downtown is once again a small urban gem?

Of course it is. But it isn’t easy, and it would be very expensive.

The biggest problem with downtown after the Loop Road and urban renewal is simply that, in some areas, there aren’t enough buildings. A density of buildings — which creates a sense of place and walkability — are critical to successful downtowns. And look where downtown Auburn is thriving these days — in places where there are still lots of buildings, like the area around the intersection of Genesee Street and State Street.

State Street in Downtown Auburn today. This block was spared by urban renewal.

Where downtown is not thriving is where buildings were taken out and never replaced — for example, around Market Street Park, along the Owasco River between Genesee Street and North Street. The iconic flatiron building had to be removed to create the park. But the park itself was supposed to be the gem of urban renewal, a kind of riverwalk that opened up the river to downtown.

An aerial view of Market Street Park in Auburn, surrounded by parking lots and roads.

Market Street Park is a wonderful place to see the river itself, and it does host concerts and fairs, But today, it’s completely surrounded by streets and parking lots on all sides. There’s no sense of place or activity surrounding it on a daily basis. This stands in stark contrast to, say, the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which my pal Mike Long says was the model. In San Antonio, multistory buildings line both sides of the river, giving pedestrians walking along the river a strong sense of place.

The San Antonio Riverwalk

Generations of urban planners have argued that improving the Market Street Park experience is one of the keys to revitalizing downtown Auburn. (In fact, almost 20 years ago, I came to town with Partners for Livable Communities, a national organization then led in part by Auburn native Ruth Gabak Kelliher, and made that exact argument before the City Council.) But maybe, with changing traffic patterns it’s time to take a fresh look at this part of downtown. Should the iconic police/fire building, designed a century ago by the distinguished Boston firm of Coolidge Shepley Bullfinch and Abbott be repurposed? If so, how can it be connected more closely to the river? Should the city consider closing Market Street — or even that portion of the Loop Road (which carries fewer than 1,000 vehicles per hour at rush hour) — to cars and replaced with some kind of greenway? Should new structures be designed and built to give the whole block a stronger sense of place?

The Auburn police/fire building as it faces Market Street Park and the Owasco River. The building was designed a century ago by the distinguished Boston firm of Coolidge Shepley Bullfinch and Abbott.

All these questions are within the control of the city — it’s just a matter of finding the money, the expertise, and the market to make it all work. And while in the past Auburn — like so many other small cities across the North — have had a hard time finding a market, one important thing has changed: The Finger Lakes is now a major tourist destination and downtown Auburn is benefiting from that. In other words, there is more of a market than there used to be. This gives the city a stronger base to build on.

Then there’s the Arterial. Like so many other highways that ripped through urban areas a half-century ago, maybe it’s outlived its purpose. Do the traffic volumes on the Arterial (fewer than 2,000 cars at rush hour) really warrant the separated two-way highway in the 2020s? Or could the Arterial be redesigned so that it’s more of a boulevard and less of a highway, helping to knit together the city’s neighborhoods once again?

The intersection of the Auburn Arterial and North Street in Downtown Auburn, one block from Market Square Park.

It’s a state highway so the city doesn’t control it. But there’s no question that throughout the United States we are entering an era of rebuilding our urban highways in a more community-friendly way. The gold standard for this transition is The Embarcadero in San Francisco, a boulevard that replaced an elevated freeway after the 1989 earthquake and revitalized the S.F. waterfront in the process.

The Embarcadero in Downtown San Francisco. The boulevard was formerly an elevated freeway.

Closer to home, the proposed “community grid” that would replace I-81 in downtown Syracuse is a great example of the way people are thinking about repurposing urban highways today.

A rendering of the proposed “community grid’ that would replace the elevated I-81 in Downtown Syracuse.

And recently Transportation Secretary-designate Pete Buttigieg — the former mayor of a small Rust Belt city that has been hammered by factory closings over the years — vowed to dismantle urban highways that have divided our cities. Attracting the attention of the state and federal governments may be difficult, but redesigning the Arterial is worth a try.

My point here is not to propose specific ideas so much as it is to point out that change and healing is still possible. A “built environment” tends to last 40 or 50 years before it becomes outmoded and no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally designed. The Downtown Auburn older folks like me recall from the 1950s and ’60s dated back to the end of the 19th Century and had reached the end of its useful life, which is why change — however painful — was necessary. Perhaps the same is true today of the Loop Road and the Arterial. Downtown Auburn today is thriving in many ways as a center of restaurants, bars, culture, and entertainment. That energy can be used as a catalyst to move beyond the urban renewal era and redesign and repurpose some of our older roads and buildings. Maybe then we finally heal the wounds that so many Auburnians still feel a half-century after the fact, and serve as an inspiration for other cities to do the same.

Check out these other Medium.com essays by Bill Fulton:

How My Hometown’s Failed Urban Renewal Strategy Shaped Me As An Urbanist

Do You Have The Place Gene?

My Favorite Street Is Closed To Cars. But Not To People.

Bill Fulton is Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and a former Mayor of Ventura, California. His latest book is Talk City: A Chronicle of Political Life in an All-American Town. To email him or be added to his email list: bfulton@rice.edu.

Author, urban planner & former politician. Hometown: Auburn, NY. Mayor: Ventura, CA. Planning Dir: San Diego. Now Dir of Kinder Inst at Rice U. in Houston.

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