Many Hudson Valley cities — especially small ones — share a common history: The urban renewal movement from the 1950s through the 1970s led to the bulldozing of “blighted” neighborhoods and uprooted their residents. The promised renewal was often unfinished, even now, decades later. Many cities across the Rust Belt suffered a similar fate.

In New York between 1954 and 2002, good-paying jobs disappeared. Dutchess County saw a greater than 42 percent decrease in manufacturing work and Putnam, greater than 58 percent. That and post-World War II demand for housing and highways led to plans to redevelop cities by demolishing older buildings in poorer neighborhoods to accommodate both.

Beacon, for example, lost its entire West End between what is now Route 9D and the Hudson River, a neighborhood of hotels, bars and restaurants, and a great deal of housing. The majority of Beacon residents opposed this plan. We never saw much development of the razed areas of the city, although we did gain 9D and Interstate 84.

Main Street in Beacon, shown here in a mid-century postcard, was disrupted by Urban Renewal.
Main Street in Beacon, shown here in a mid-century postcard, was disrupted by Urban Renewal.

In many cities such as Beacon, Main Streets often were similarly disrupted by this wave of razing. This is why Main Street in Beacon to this day has vast parking lots, holdovers from three-story, largely brick-fronted “shophouses” with retail below and apartments above that are now gone. 

In Beacon, the plan was to build wider streets parallel to Main Street — such as Henry Street — to turn the thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall. The failure of a similar project in Poughkeepsie averted that initiative but Main Street, despite its rebound as a tourist destination, retains the scars of urban renewal in the form of an extended middle section with architecturally undistinguished one-story retail buildings that are out of character with the historic east and west ends. 

The city’s Comprehensive Plan is channeling development toward the historic and denser form of shophouses, but at the current pace, it will take decades to realize that vision.

Many Rust Belt cities were also confronted with the movement of retail businesses out of downtowns to spots along newly constructed multilane highways, as has happened in the Highlands with the sprawl represented by Routes 9 and 9D and their box stores, chain restaurants, car dealerships, gas stations and fast food. 

As part of that transition, secondary main streets — formerly residential or undeveloped county and state feeder roads — were pulled into the landscape shaped by 20th-century car culture and urban renewal.

These thoroughfares will be familiar to the small-city resident, notes Reif Larsen, the founder of The Future of Small Cities Institute, based in Troy. “They are a byproduct of the automobile — often they can be found on feeder state roads that lead into cities and are marked by absence — a series of gas stations, underpasses, condemned factories and vacant lots eviscerate any kind of box-like containment.”

A drive along Fishkill Avenue (Route 52) from Beacon’s Main Street to the city limits reveals this terrain to anyone passing by. There are inconsistent sidewalks, isolated buildings dotted along a high-speed corridor (despite Beacon’s 30 mph speed limit) and — until recently — a long section of Healey car dealerships, now relocated elsewhere.

The grand clearing out of the Healey dealerships has led to a new Beacon committee initiated by Mayor Lee Kyriacou to consider the Fishkill Avenue thoroughfare. Specifically, he asked the group to think about building design standards and the proximity of buildings to the street and sidewalks.

This group will also be charged with thinking through the implications of the disused Metro-North line running along Route 52. The line is envisioned as a future bike and walking path from the Beacon train station to the city line.

In the more than 50 years since urban renewal swept across the Rust Belt like wildfire, many small cities have made progress downtown, albeit through leveraging gentrification and an influx of residents from New York City and elsewhere. Still, the secondary main streets have been the orphans of urban renewal. Perhaps, at long last, we can see a vision of these feeder roads becoming an integral part of our communities, not just a low road to the nearest Walmart. Perhaps we can right that wrong and put that 20th-century disaster behind us.

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Stowe Boyd, who lives in Beacon and is a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, specializes in the economics and ecology of work and the “anthropology of the future.” This column focuses on the local impacts of larger trends.

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1 Comment

  1. The last committee picked by the mayor to improve the free Loop bus route in Beacon, could not figure out how to include any of the established taxpaying citizens and businesses along that part of Fishkill Avenue? Why? Maybe because the Bus Route Committee members were mostly from Main Street. Instead of inclusion they decided on exclusion.

    The Fishkill Avenue businesses and citizens never had a chance for that free bus route. Heck, Fishkill Avenue is not Main Street. There aren’t many new outsiders, and they did not have enough shiny new money for that committee to even consider it, never mind those pesky Hedgewood people. The mayor, City Council and Dutchess Transportation approved it? Are they ignorant or complicit?

    Many people over here feel that the mayor should pick people from our area as he did with the bus committee. We want committee members who know that all that glitters is not gold, that they are fair and not driven by special interest groups or by greed but will serve for the best interest of Beacon as a whole. After seeing the decisions made in the past by his highly qualified (connected) appointed committee members, if two or three Hedgewood residents were appointed on this next committee, it would be an improvement on common-sense alone.

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