Architect Scott Dutton first visited Kingston, N.Y.—a Hudson River town 90 miles north of New York City—after graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Fresh with architecture credentials, yet saddled with empty pockets, Dutton left New York looking for a less expensive place to call home. “I came up to the Hudson Valley one weekend and that was it,” he says. “There was something about the architecture of the city of Kingston that drew me in.”
Dutton visited in the summer of 1994. He’s been living and working in Kingston ever since.
Kingston, like many Hudson Valley towns, had seen its economic underpinnings shift, altering its development patterns and points of growth.
“Even before European settlement, Kingston was an important hub of trading routes for the native Esopus people. Following the arrival of the first European explorers, the Hudson River, with its radiating tributaries and canals, emerged as a superhighway for goods and settlers into the interior of the continent,” says Tim Weidemann, senior economic developer for the Ulster County Office of Economic Development. “The [Delaware and Hudson] canal had a relatively short life but defined the Rondout, N.Y., area in its early growth, and later in its decline.”
Rondout grew as an independent port city, taking advantage of its prime position as a natural port where Rondout Creek spits into the Hudson River. Railroads, and then cars, would supplant the predominance of Kingston’s river connections. And as preferred transportation modes changed, the vitality of the Rondout community was challenged by massive urban renewal works.
Rondout, whose advantageous harbor would become an economic afterthought that betrayed the surrounding dense, vibrant, and close-knit community, bore the brunt of demolition, losing nearly 500 ante- and post-bellum structures. A four-lane arterial highway and bridge crossing Rondout Creek was constructed after the demolition, bypassing the fragment of the old city. It looms over the neighborhood like a concrete finger shaming the port below.
Beyond the architectural loss of Rondout, the displacement of residents foisted upon an integrated working-class neighborhood— comprised mainly of African-Americans, Jews, and the descendants of the Italians, Poles, and other ethnicities that had immigrated to the area in the previous century— a forced segregation, especially as replacement housing meant to keep residents in place was foiled by restrictive covenants or proved illusory.
Urban renewal is often considered a fissure between one era and another, with top-down prescriptions delivered onto an unwitting populace and landscape. Yet seen through the prism of Kingston’s history as a transportation corridor, urban renewal becomes a continuation of the city’s node as one concerned with the most efficient movement of goods and people. As Weidemann, the economic developer, says, “It takes recognizing the transportation history and how it has shaped patterns of development and growth in Kingston.”
The ambitious scale of urban renewal in Kingston also catalyzed opposition as demolition projects proceeded apace. The Friends of Historic Kingston emerged in the late 1960s to protect and steward the Stockade district’s intact built colonial heritage. After losing the classically ornamented stone-and-brick post office building to demolition, public opinion towards urban renewal soured.
[Note: The Planet Wings building currently sits on the site of the old Post Office.]
In paradoxical fashion—despite the damaging physical, economic, and social effects that urban renewal had in Kingston—one could argue that the era layered a more coherent sense of self onto its dispersed geography.
This eventually led to the more positive developments—like architect Dutton’s adaptive reuse project(s)—that are taking root today. RUPCO is a Kingston-based nonprofit developer that aims to “build for everyone,” chief executive officer Kevin O’Connor says. “We’re best when we’re working with a community, not in a community.”
The Lace Mill, which opened in 2015, is the rehabilitation of an abandoned circa 1903 brick factory into 55 affordable housing units and workspaces for low-income artists. Energy Square is a forthcoming mixed-use project that will house the Center for Creative Education in the Midtown Arts District. (Dutton designed both projects.)
“Neighborhoods need a mix,” says Dutton, “a cultural mix, a mix of business, a mix of residential. When urban renewal wiped out entire neighborhoods, that was lost. Why didn’t those places thrive? Because they lacked what George Allen, the former director of the Kingston Library, describes as the ‘yeasty cultural mix’ that’s so important to making a neighborhood. And now we’re starting to see that.”
(Visual essay by Cameron Blaylock.)