By Mae Buck, Geography, Class of 2026.
Looking east from the gazebo of the Poughkeepsie Train Station, you can see the North-South Arterial (Route 9) overpass above Main Street. As a pedestrian on lower Main Street, walking under the overpass proves to be uncomfortable—on both sides of the street, you have to cross entry-exit ramps and parking lot entrances. From this perspective, it is hard to imagine a city more integrated by social class and race, as was the case before the arterials. Since their conception by New York State in 1947, the arterials represented a city intent on urban redevelopment. After 32 years of planning, at least $35 million budgeted and expended, and some 400 relocated families later, the Poughkeepsie arterials finished their construction. For better or for worse, this modern highway project restructured life in the city. What drove the city’s urban renewal? Was it worth it? These are questions discussed in this essay.
North-South Arterial (New York State Route 9)
In the early 20th century, Poughkeepsie and other cities struggled to accommodate the national increase in automobile and truck traffic. Locally, one infrastructure project particularly aggravated car traffic downtown: the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which opened in 1930. As the first bridge to cross the Hudson River north of New York City, the Poughkeepsie-Highland bridge knit together traffic along the state’s preeminent New York-Albany corridor. The sudden influx of motor vehicles stretched the capabilities of Poughkeepsie’s street system, especially within the Central Business District. Historically, the city had grown in relation to the waterfront and regional roads. But with the modern new bridge, growing legions of cars crowded the thoroughfares of the central Main, Market, and Church Streets.
In 1947, the New York State Department of Public Works responded to these traffic issues with a proposal for the construction of a north-south arterial highway through Poughkeepsie as a priority, along with an eventual east-west route. State planners furnished numbers that demanded the construction of new traffic arterials. Using traffic speed as a metric, it stated that in 1946, it took around 16 minutes to get from the northernmost point to the southernmost point of Poughkeepsie. By 1960, it predicted that the same journey would take 21 minutes. But with the proposed north-south arterial highway, travel time would purportedly fall to only five minutes.
In 1948, the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1922 to recommend infrastructural improvements in metropolitan New York City, seriously advised the city of Poughkeepsie to consider a new traffic circulation plan. The RPA expressed its concerns for Poughkeepsie with a specific focus on the future. In anticipation of a surge of economic growth and industrialization, the RPA asked the city government: “What kind of Poughkeepsie can they count on?” The answer was certainly not the expensive hit-or-miss development of previous decades, such as the congestion-inducing Mid-Hudson Bridge. That would be a costly mistake. Instead, the solution for Poughkeepsie’s future was the construction of well-planned infrastructure projects designed to keep business in the city center amid growing suburbanization.
The proposals of New York State and the RPA came in a postwar modernist political and ideological framework. In a 1951 article from The Poughkeepsie Journal, James S. Bixby, district engineer for the State Department of Public Works, along with Peter H. Troy, head of the Poughkeepsie City Planning Commission and businessman, warned elected city officials that Poughkeepsie might lose “adequate connection to the [New York State] Thruway” if officials did not quickly accept and construct an arterial. From an authoritative perspective of expertise, these professionals argued that Poughkeepsie must adopt modern highway programs at the state and national levels. Rather than considering improvements to already existing infrastructure, the State called for an entirely new development plan. Urban planners would later name this style of development “urban renewal,” a term now used to describe mid-century infrastructure projects focused on clearing and redeveloping unwanted “urban blight” and “slums.”
The threat of being, as Bixby warned, “bypassed” and left behind motivated much of the professional and governmental discourse regarding the arterials. In this anxiety, the threat concerned not only the management of road infrastructure but housing, businesses, and, the ultimate enemy, “blight.” For many urban renewal programs, the presence of vacant or rundown spaces—homes, streets, neighborhoods, roads—implied criminality. It was out of these dilapidated “slums” or substandard housing that criminals, destitute children, and vagrants multiplied, spreading “blight” to nearby residences like a virus. Urban renewal, as a spatial and ideological project, was the mid-century answer to this problem. Through federally-funded demolition, it was reasoned that these places could be “renewed” with their families relocated and rehoused elsewhere.
The idea of urban renewal initially became very popular in Poughkeepsie. In a statement from the Journal on October 27, 1957, Poughkeepsie Mayor J. Thomas Dietz announced the city’s intention to use urban renewal to “clear worn-out slums and blighted areas, rehabilitate areas that can be saved, and prevent new slums from forming.” For Dietz, containing “slums” and stopping their spread was akin to managing crime. Elaborating on the goals of urban renewal, he states, “In general, [slum areas] comprise only 20 percent of a city’s residential area, but they account for…45 percent of its major crimes, 55 percent of its juvenile delinquency, and 50 percent of its arrests.” He suggested that “20 percent of the city’s area swallows almost half of every tax dollar while returning only 6 percent of its revenue.” Thus, the sorting of useful and non-useful neighborhoods, similar to the more explicitly racialized project of redlining, became a way for the city to manage the same populations of problematic neighborhoods from a different, purportedly more neutral, technocratic perspective.
This same logic influenced the planning of the city’s arterials. In another statement of city plans, Dietz explained the need to “preserve” good neighborhoods from clearance in an article in the Journal: “Outlining highlights of a city administration plan for two-part construction of the state proposed downtown arterial highway jointly with federal aided Urban Renewal redevelopment of areas adjacent to the highway, Mayor Dietz today said, ‘Good neighborhoods would be preserved, other neighborhoods might require slight rehabilitation, and others either spot or complete clearance’ [emphasis added]. However, the greatest clearance would be that in the path of the arterial highway.” (November 22, 1957)
In effect, city personnel quietly communicated a coded message to informed residents: those who find themselves living in undesirable neighborhoods do not have the same right to Poughkeepsie as their wealthier neighbors. The arterial enshrined this message—it physically built it. At the same time, Dietz and others framed the arterial and other urban renewal projects as collective actions done by and for the community. Opposition to the arterial and related projects, therefore, in Dietz’s words, “jeopardiz[ed] the welfare of the city” (Poughkeepsie Journal, March 10, 1957) and irresponsibly disrupted the development of the city. However, there was not much community behind these measures other than the growth alliance of planners, politicians, engineers, and other professionals convinced of the arterial’s urgency, despite its disruption of the everyday lives of hundreds in the path of the highway.
Various organizations and individuals resisted the North-South Arterial before its construction. The Downtown Citizens’ Union, a citizen action group, represented a group of downtown Poughkeepsie residents sharply opposed to the planned arterial. Angered by the perceived carelessness of planners and politicians alike, they questioned why Poughkeepsie, in its attempt to “tear up the downtown section of our city,” would clear rather than build up its neighborhoods. John E. DeLaney, president of the Downtown Citizens’ Union and a resident of the First Ward, asserted that the Chamber of Commerce was attempting to “separat[e] the entire city from one end to the other, from north to south.” He continues, “[W]e have witnessed every day the propaganda to foist this pet of Mr. Bixby on the downtown section of the city.…[The arterial] will benefit only the State of New York and the thousands of New York City’s vacationing ‘cowboys’ on their way to the mountains” (Poughkeepsie Journal, January 19, 1950).
Less than a month after DeLaney, other community leaders and officials began protesting as well. The Rev. Salvatore Cantatore of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church expressed a similar sentiment: “I think steps should be taken to encourage further building up of the First Ward, rather than tearing it down. [The arterial] would destroy rather than improve downtown properties” (Poughkeepsie Journal, February 3, 1950). These voices doubted the increasingly abstract arguments in favor of the arterial—its benefit to downtown business, its role in slum clearance, and its promise of a healthier Poughkeepsie. More than this, as urban geographer Kafui Attoh shows us, these city residents shared a simple message: a home is a home. For many residents, no amount of payment could justify the loss of decades-long generational ties to their neighborhoods.
Poughkeepsie hired a Newark-based planning firm, Candeub and Fleissig, to formulate a master plan for infrastructure redevelopment. Published in 1960, the plan claimed that two-thirds of the “major arterial streets” of the city had “peak hour traffic volumes in excess of the street capabilities.” Main Street was singled out as the most problematic street, with peak traffic volumes exceeding street capabilities by 42 percent. Their findings indicated that a grade-separated arterial highway separating local and regional traffic could relieve the congested Central Business District and increase business. The only idea proposed by organizations and professionals at both the level of the City and State was the construction of an arterial highway. They did not officially consider any other option. After over a decade of planning and property confiscation, construction on the North-South Arterial began in 1963 and concluded in 1966.
East-West Arterial (New York State 44/55)
After the completion of the North-South Arterial, planners and city officials pushed for the adjacent construction of an East-West Arterial. Although the two highways were planned and executed at different moments, New York State envisioned the east-west highways back in 1947, along with plans for the north-south roadway. In the same 1960 Master Plan in which they envisioned the first arterial, Candeub and Flessig used familiar arguments of street-capacity deficiencies and traffic congestion to explicitly argue for the construction of an east-west arterial:
“With the exception of Market Street, all the capacity deficiencies are observed on east-west roads. This illustrates a fundamental problem in the existing street system, namely, that radial streets leading to the central business district are not sufficiently wide to carry the growing traffic volumes from the ever-expanding residential and industrial areas in the Town of Poughkeepsie and the region beyond.”
Although the north-south freeway represented a completely new, limited access road that required prior demolition of existing structures, the east-west expressway widened existing streets through dense urban neighborhoods. Publicly presented in 1966, the plan featured the Dutchess Turnpike (Route 44) to the north and the Manchester Road expressway (Route 55) to the south. The two routes coincided as 44/55 within the city of Poughkeepsie, but just beyond the city limits in the Arlington District, near Vassar College, the state roads split into separate directions, both ultimately traversing Taconic Parkway. In 1969, Poughkeepsie’s Common Council approved the State’s plans for the highway, along with other parts of Dutchess County.
One significant difference in the east-west route planned was its explicitly stated relationship to urban renewal. Although the North-South Arterial shared the general goals of urban renewal, it arose earlier as a modern freeway project. The subsequent East-West Arterial was more directly imagined, designed, and constructed under the terms of urban renewal. The construction of the new City Hall in Poughkeepsie is the most obvious testament to this. In the City Hall urban renewal project, developers intended to extend Washington Street past Mansion Street, which would eventually become the connective link between the east and westbound legs of the highway. The City initially denied this relationship between the arterial and the City Hall project, stating that it was a “happy coincidence” that the street lengthening effort happened at the same time as the renewal project. However, in the 1973 environmental impact statement for the Arterial under a section titled “Socio-Economic Concerns,” public works officials express their mutual interests in either project, emphasizing that “successful development of [City Hall] is clearly dependent upon the completion of the proposed Arterial.”
Beyond City Hall, the arterials became necessary infrastructural supports for other renewal projects. After years of expert planning for an East-West Arterial, the director of the Poughkeepsie Urban Renewal Agency (PURA), James Woodwell, argued that both the highway and urban redevelopment had a “vital” relationship to one another, inseparably linked by planning and politics. He stated that the success of renewal “hing[ed] on the type of roads servicing it,” and opposition to the highways “seriously jeopardized” the city’s redevelopment potential (Poughkeepsie Journal, January 27, 1970).
The city’s Jefferson, Queen City, Riverview, City Hall, and Main Mall projects –– all budgeted and planned according to the arterials’ locations –– purportedly could not change without significant adjustments in federal funding. To PURA’s management, “good neighborhoods,” “urban blight,” and “slums” that justified the North-South Arterial were reconfigured into concrete demands for infrastructure completely entangled in a bureaucratic planning network. Although the reasoning for urban renewal projects remained roughly the same, infrastructure now operated as an outright technology of urban renewal.
Compared to the protests of the North-South Arterial, the public’s response was more organized, especially as Alderman of the Seventh Ward and later Mayor Louie Fiore (D-Seventh Ward) forcefully opposed the East-West Arterial. Having such governmental support and promotion allowed residents to express their concerns in more collective forms of action, like petitions and participatory meetings. Led by Edward J. Filipowicz, the citizens’ committee against the East-West Arterial often organized such actions, with many of their petitions against the Arterial garnering 4,000 to 5,000 signatures.
The City held many community meetings, some very heated and even inflammatory. In one instance, the president of the Luckey Platt spoke in favor of the arterial, citing increased municipal parking space and more business circulation (Poughkeepsie Journal, March 16, 1967). His voice was one of many in the unruly crowd of 400. One opponent of the highway went so far as to call Mayor Richard Mitchell a “despot,” while Alderman Fiore attacked the meeting as a “farce.” The meeting ended with a call for a referendum on the matter, a major goal of the opposition. For Filipowicz and Fiore, a City-wide referendum would represent a demonstration of true democracy and both men argued vehemently for it.
On October 5, 1970, the Common Council authorized the referendum in a 5-3 vote in time for the November 3 election. Unfortunately for the opposition, Alderman Emil Tschudin (R-Eighth Ward) successfully blocked the referendum from reaching the ballot through the State Supreme Court on the grounds of invalid legality. It became clear that the highway had never been a political issue strictly of the city, since New York State controlled such highways. After much delay, construction on the arterial started in 1976 and finished in 1979.
The Aftermath of the Arterials
Relocation was a costly affair that caused many problems for the people on the arterial paths. Attoh tells the story of John Lindmark, a rare bookseller who refused to relocate his bookstore for the construction of the North-South Arterial. After being offered 20,000 dollars to relocate, Lindmark refused the state’s money. His massive book collection alone would cost $10,000 to move. After a lengthy legal battle, the state evicted Lindmark’s bookstore in 1963: once expensive rare books ended up discarded as trash. For Poughkeepsie, this was just one sorry example of the heavy price to pay for urban renewal. Unfortunately, Lindmark’s tragic experience was not extraordinary: around 400 families were displaced by the Arterials, while the improvement predicted never arrived downtown. In fact, the arterials effectively directed traffic away from downtown. Moreover, the industrialization foretold by the RPA did come, but not to the city of Poughkeepsie. It moved elsewhere, such as the IBM plant outside of the city limits, accompanying 11,000 former city residents relocating to suburbs and other places. In nearly every economic sector, business activity declined in the city. From 1950 to 1980, Poughkeepsie’s share of Dutchess County business fell from 73 percent to 30 percent.
In its aftermath, the public came to criticize the loss of commerce and industry intensified by urban renewal. What many saw as the failure of planners and politicians to protect its most vulnerable constituents generated a bleak outlook for the future of Poughkeepsie. One commentator, Thomas N. Tobin, describes this feeling in the following terms: “Not all of downtown’s history can be similarly undone. The two arterials cannot be returned to city streets, with casually lumbering traffic. The caustic effects of urban renewal on Lower Main are too great to be reversed. The disappointments of waterfront development are embedded in the city’s psyche” (Poughkeepsie Journal, April 9, 1993).
Tobin’s sentiment reflected the critiques of such famous urbanists as Jane Jacobs, who advocated walkable cities with more robust public infrastructure for parks or transport systems. They decried urban renewal for its car-centric priorities and destruction of historic buildings. Unfortunately, racial inequality was largely absent from the discourse on postwar urban planning, despite racist practices like redlining. The architects of urban renewal used race to give spatial definition to the otherwise ambiguous terms describing substandard housing. This was such that the spatial boundaries of race made narratives of gluttonous slums overfed by city tax dollars and the ever-infectious “blight” legible: race often drew the lines of who gets to remain in their homes. Ernestine Boone, a Black community leader and Vassar graduate, puts this in more succinct terms: “They called it urban renewal. We call it n***** removal” (Poughkeepsie Journal, May 10, 1981). In Boone’s view, Blacks affected by urban renewal were forced to crowd into the city’s north side or move south to Newburgh.
Today, the arterials are still understood by many to be a detriment to the structure of Poughkeepsie, and many city planners and officials today are grappling with the legacy. Most recently, the Dutchess County Transportation Council worked with the support of the New York State Department of Transportation to reconsider the arterials, in an initiative titled Poughkeepsie 9.44.55, after the state route names for the respective highways. They identified hazardous areas around the Route 9 interchange and parts of the East-West Arterial, while proposing various solutions for safety concerns. These include a redesign of the interchange to reduce accidents and, most prominently, applying a 3-to-2 concept to the East-West Arterial roads. The 3-to-2 concept retains one-way traffic, but reduces the highway from three to two lanes with the remaining pavement converted into a possible bike lane, loading zone, and/or street parking. A fundamental concern of such solutions is pedestrian safety, especially for the people living closest to the arterials, who are more likely to walk or bike for transportation than residents in the rest of the county.
Such projects represent meaningful advances toward social justice in Poughkeepsie but come from a depoliticized, utilitarian perspective. Revitalization plans like these often work with austere budgets far removed from the utopian dreams of brand-new, large-scale infrastructures that in another age fueled urban renewal. Although mid-century architects of urban renewal and redevelopment may in retrospect be considered misguided, their willingness to think big in terms of broad social change is neither funded nor deemed realistic enough to be possible in present-day planning. One cannot conclude whether this reality is wholly good or bad, but it should be clear now that infrastructure alone did not fail Poughkeepsie. Rather, it was also the ideology of modernization and development that cost the livelihood of some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Such ideology was at fault. Poughkeepsie was not just at the mercy of a destructive modern regime leaving cities in the dust. It was mostly a community of people like Lindmark with complex lives and relations to their community beyond ideology. As Attoh reminds us, “People do not live in abstractions.”
Take the P line to North Clover Street and Main Street and walk west on Main for the gazebo mentioned at the beginning of this entry.
To Learn More
Attoh, Kafui. “Infrastructure and the Tragedy of Development.” In Infrastructuring Urban Futures: The Politics of Remaking Cities, 20-42. Ed. K. Ward, T. Enright, M. Hodson, H. Pearsall, and J. Silver. Bristol University Press, 2023.
City of Poughkeepsie, East-West Arterial, City Planning Board and Poughkeepsie Urban Renewal Agency (PURA), July 1966.
U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal HIghway Administration, Poughkeepsie East-West Arterial Construction: Environmental Impact Statement, May 1973.
Opdycke, Sandra. “With Prosperity All Around: Urban Issues in Poughkeepsie, NY 1950-1980.” Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook, 1990, 62-80.
Postscript: I would like to thank Brian Godfrey, Shannon Butler, Kafui Attoh, Emily Dozier, and Gilana Steckel for their time, help, and guidance.