Urban renewal led to misery on Main Street

When I was a teenager I had a friend who lived downstate and was in Niskayuna visiting her grandfather. We made a plan to have her drive from Schenectady to Johnstown for an afternoon visit. The directions seemed easy enough. Take Route 5, turn right at Route 30A in Fonda and head straight into Johnstown. No need to use back roads to save time – we just needed to make the drive easy for a new driver navigating unfamiliar territory to find a friend. Simple, right?

Not so fast. There was this little business of getting her through Amsterdam. Okay, now you see where I am going with this? As any newcomer can attest, getting from one side of that city to the next is an exercise in frustration and misdirection. And, if I am being frank, it does not make a very good presentation to the general public from any direction once you approach downtown.

Some perspective may be in order. Amsterdam is suffering the legacy of the devastating post-war urban renewal policies of the ’50s and ’60s. Broadly speaking, urban renewal was an effort to physically alter the built infrastructure of urban environments to expand economic activity and, maybe more pointedly, to remake the social fabric of cities. To be clear, urban renewal theory and practice developed at a time of rampant economic growth and American social transformation. The need to move goods and bury the smoldering social embers of dense inner cities coalesced into a viral and brutal imposition in the fabric of our oldest cities.

Many educators, planners, architects, and municipal managers championed urban renewal because it seemed to solve so many problems with such utopian zest. Largely initiated in more metropolitan urban centers, these renewal strategies trickled down to the smaller communities such as Amsterdam and the Glove Cities over time to radically change the form and function of our smaller cities.

Honestly, I don’t really think it is fair to pillory the mid-century doers and decision makers for their actions. They were doing what they believed to be the right things for the right reasons, even if they ultimately proved wrong. This is unfortunate, because it is the urban renewal legacy, I think, more than any other initiative, that drove a wedge between society and the design professions. Shouldn’t they have known after all? It is my contention that urban renewal is to planning and design what Thalidomide was to medicine. It is a useful and effective therapy, but it had damaging side effects when used without clear knowledge and strict controls.

What was so bad about urban renewal? Just look at Amsterdam for the evidence: Arterial bypasses to skirt around the congestion of Main Street. The removal of whole city blocks within downtown. Placement of a shopping mall overtop the original Main Street. Annihilation of walking paths and sidewalks. Removal of residential structures. Complete obliteration of free and open public space. Erased architectural heritage.

Just look at what Amsterdam did to itself. It tore its heart out and threw it up the hill with the promise of prosperity for all at the cost of its soul.

Oh, don’t laugh, Johnstown and Gloversville. You may have been spared the indignity of losing Main Street to a mall, but the arterial bypass has all but made your downtowns irrelevant. Let’s face it, the Route 30 and 30A corridors are our new Main Street. They are our modern commercial centers – the Golden Miles. But they have adopted a different spatial language, one that works for the speed and mono-directional automobile. Try walking one of these corridors. There are no sidewalks or trees. Sterile and ubiquitous commercial shopping architecture desperately mimics Main Street storefronts. Expansive paved parking lots bake in the summer and push the buildings away from the road, requiring massive signs to tell us where we need to go to get our stuff.

It is an environment based on the impersonal and singular isolation of the automobile. It is the exact opposite of what we love and cherish about the Main Streets that survive. And this is what is maddening about our predicament. We have what much of suburban America yearns for: a physical place that expresses our collective character as a whole community. I mean, don’t you feel that, in some sense, we are each a part of Main Street? Why else should any of us care about our Main Streets if we don’t, on some level, feel we are connected to it?

I contend that we care because we recognize in Main Street what we feel has been lost in the Golden Miles – civility and the intimacy of community. As we become more encapsulated and isolated by technology, there is a deeper stirring within our collective conscience to reach out and connect with others. That is what Main Street afforded us, a public stage for a shared community life.

In the end, my friend navigated Amsterdam without too much trouble. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon touring where I lived. I showed her my city, my streets, my places so that I could tell her about me, my story. It was an act of friendship I would repeat many times over with many people, including my wife, who liked it well enough to move back here with me.

Restoring our Main Streets to their rightful role in our lives must first and foremost be seen as a gesture of friendship. It will take planning, design, business savvy and political will to roll back the urban renewal legacy. It will not happen overnight. Someone will need to make an investment, to take the first step. The best way forward is simply to care enough to do something for an old friend.

David D’Amore is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design, based in Johnstown (and-architecture.com).