Finding the small-scale urbanism his hometown lost to urban renewal


After a car-centric urban renewal plan irrevocably changed the town where he grew up, a young urbanist found the essence of Auburn, New York, in Southern California.

Ventura California

Photo by Joseph R. / Unsplash

After a car-centric urban renewal plan irrevocably changed the town where he grew up, a young urbanist found the essence of Auburn, New York, in Southern California.

Editor’s note: This is the second part of Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton’s essay on the impact of 1970s urban renewal on his hometown, Auburn, New York, and the ways it changed both him and the city he loved when he was growing up. If you haven’t read part one, we recommend you start there before reading part two. You can find it here.

By the time I left Upstate New York for good, in 1980, the United States was a solidly suburban country, with cities still strongly in retreat. For no particular reason, I landed in Los Angeles — the epitome of the suburban United States. LA was a low-rise, auto-oriented place that for more than half a century had served as a kind of “national suburb” — where people from all over the country could escape places like Auburn that boxed them in, and build a prosperous, happy and auto-oriented life. Although LA was fascinating — so fascinating that I wrote “The Reluctant Metropolis” about it — it was also alienating. I was pretty sure I would never experience anything like the walkable, small-scale urbanism I knew as a kid.

As it happened, however, the ’80s turned out to be a time when people began to rediscover the experience of cities. This was when gentrification began — when we first saw Brooklyn and Oakland and Hoboken gain new residents and new investment. And, surprisingly, Los Angeles turned out to be a great place to look for the small-scale urbanism I missed.

LA seems unplanned, but as Greg Hise wrote in “Magnetic Los Angeles,” much of it was, in fact, deliberately planned: Small-scale downtowns surrounded by working-class neighborhoods close to a nearby factory or plant (including, in some cases, a movie studio — no less of a “factory” to Los Angeles than the prison was to Auburn). These neighborhoods were connected — in the early 20th century, at least — by the most extensive interurban system in the nation. Although, by the ’80s, LA was defined primarily by its freeway system, it was actually dotted with small-scale downtowns on the verge of bouncing back. The most famous of these, of course, are Pasadena and Santa Monica, but there are dozens more. This was a form of urban development that I intuitively understood.

The beach town of Ventura was not literally one of these old interurban suburbs, but it was definitely the same kind of place. Sixty miles from downtown LA, on the road to Santa Barbara, it was far enough removed from LA that it was not really integrated into the region’s larger commuting pattern. But it was historically a working-class town without much pretension, and it was one of the oldest cities in Southern California. By the ’80s, it was largely suburban in a way that Auburn was not, because, unlike Auburn, Ventura had not been bypassed by postwar suburban growth. The downtown that had once been the center of everything was in transition and day-to-day retail activity had moved to shopping malls on the edge of town.

But the remnants of an Auburn-type urban history remained downtown — the Knights of Columbus, the Masonic Temple, the Elks Club, the bank on the main corner of downtown, the downtown movie palace that was now a live music venue, the 1920s building where all the lawyers had historically had their offices, a downtown post office, locally owned camera and stationery stores and a beautiful Beaux Arts county courthouse that was now the city hall. There was even, just to the west of downtown, a kind of “factory gate” neighborhood with modest homes from the teens and ‘20s for working families — the “factory” being the nearby oil fields.

Ventura was not without its scars from urban renewal. In the ’60s, California Highway 101 (“Ventura Highway”) plowed a path through the center of town, between downtown and the beach. Thankfully, the historic downtown was spared, but the beachfront area was redeveloped with an uninspiring collection of condos, apartments and hotels.

Yet, the older part of town was still eminently walkable and bikeable, and a fair number of people lived there without owning a car. And given what I learned from Dad back in Auburn, it was not hard to figure out how the town worked — how the power to get things done radiated from the politicians, the business leaders, the police department and the rest of the civic infrastructure. (Unlike Auburn, Ventura did not have a Mafia, though it did have the Hells Angels, with whom the police department had an uneasy working relationship.) Once again, I could see how decisions made by the power structure affected how the city worked and how the whole physical environment of the city was structured — a power structure I eventually became part of as an elected city council member and mayor.

Most astonishingly, as the county seat and historic center of oil and agriculture in Ventura County, Ventura was pretty self-contained — much as Auburn was when I was a kid. Far more than other Southern California towns, it was a place where you could live your whole life. Most people who lived in town worked in town, so the people you saw at work were also the people you saw at the farmer’s market or at your kids’ soccer practice. In the 25 years that I lived there — and, in particular, the eight years that I served on the city council — I fought fiercely for the idea that Ventura should remain a self-contained place and not deteriorate into a mere bedroom suburb or retirement town.

In other words, Auburn shaped my approach to Ventura more than I can say. Twenty-seven hundred miles from home, my town was still my house.

In recent years, I have not lived in Ventura, but I have returned to Auburn more frequently than I used to. Like most of Upstate New York, Auburn still struggles economically. And the retail businesses that fled downtown for the mall have had a tough time, as the mall has fought losing battles against the local Walmart, where the parking lots are perpetually full to overflowing.

Downtown Auburn has seen few new buildings constructed in the last half-century — a turn of events that Paul Lattimore and the civic leaders of the 1960s and ’70s never expected. Half a century after urban renewal, downtown still has many gaps. The Wegmans still presents a blank wall to Genesee Street, the main drag in town. Most Auburnians are accustomed to the Outlet — now commonly referred to as the Owasco River — as an open feature of downtown, rather than something hidden behind 19th-century buildings.

Still, a lack of building does not mean a lack of investment. Downtown Auburn — like Downtown Ventura and so many other downtowns across the country — has reinvented itself successfully with breweries, restaurants and entertainment venues. Many of these investors are native Auburnians who moved away for opportunity like I did — not a few of them, ironically, to Los Angeles — only to return because they missed the sense of community Auburn provided and the sense of authenticity they felt downtown. Half the historic downtown may be gone, but the other half is pretty great.

It has been a long journey for me since that day in the summer of 1974 — from an 18-year-old kid covering his first urban renewal meeting to a 65-year-old man who has been in the middle of urban development battles all over the country for most of his life as a journalist and urban planner. But through it all, I have carried Auburn with me every minute of every day.

Many urban planners grow up in big cities and they have a big-city perspective on what urban life should be like. But Auburn endowed me with a deep understanding that the benefits of urban life — proximity to everything you need, the ability to walk and bike everywhere, a rich tapestry of everyday life — did not exist only in big cities. They could exist in small towns as well, so long as those towns had jobs, as well as people, and could hang on to culture, entertainment, sports and other activities indigenous to the place. When I saw these attributes begin to disappear in Auburn, it broke my heart and set me on a course to find them — and re-create them — in other small cities across the country.

But it is more than satisfying to see these things still thriving to a certain extent in Auburn — and thriving and growing in small cities all across the country, including Ventura. Because, without all these things, you can live in a place, but you are incomplete. With them, your town can be your house, as it was for both my father and for me.

This essay originally was published on Medium.



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