The story behind Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal
A few years after moving to Kingston’s historic waterfront district in 1996, I learned why Broadway, the main drag, was so schizophrenic, with capacious old-fashioned storefronts in brick Italianate buildings lining one side of the street facing bland modern townhouses backed by huge expanses of grass on the other: most of the commercial district, which had belonged to the port city of Rondout before its incorporation into Kingston in 1876, had been torn down in a federally funded 1960s urban renewal project. One evening the community group I belonged to hosted a slide show by Al Marquart, a lifelong Kingston resident who had photographed the teardown. The images were a shock: entire blocks had been leveled. Wanting to know more about how the city could have allowed this to happen, I researched the Kingston Urban Renewal Agency files in the Ulster County Archives in 2009 and learned about the wholesale removal of thousands of people and the difficulties African Americans especially had finding alternative housing.
A year or so later, I was working with Ulster County Historian Geoff Miller, who was then spearheading the creation of The Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History in the area’s last remaining intact storefront, on an exhibit at the Downtown Heritage Visitors Center. We needed images of the urban renewal (Mr. Marquart had passed away and I wasn’t sure where to find his photos), and after making a few phone calls, I was directed to Gene Dauner, who had taken nearly 1,000 photos of the area just before and during the demolition when he was in his early twenties delivering flowers for his father’s floral business. The rolls of film had sat in his attic for 40 years, and we arranged to meet Gene and view his slides, whose comprehensiveness and beautiful compositions constitute an amazing record of the doomed area—in essence, a late 19th-centiury time warp; since downtown Kingston was the poorest part of the city, having long lost its vitality as a busy Hudson River port, many of the buildings had never been modernized and still bore their original corbels, stained-glass transepts and iron pilasters. A year later I ran into filmmaker Stephen Blauweiss at a gallery opening and told him about Gene’s photos and my research, which resulted in one of us saying “let’s make a film.”
We envisioned a short film showcasing Gene’s photos, but as we began contacting sources it turned into a much more ambitious project. Over the course of three years, we interviewed more than 40 people and collected dozens of family photos, historic photos (most of them from the comprehensive collection of Jack Matthews) and archival film footage as well as images by other photographers to complement Gene’s work, editing and piecing together the material in front of Stephen’s computer at his loft in the Shirt Factory. In conceiving, researching, and writing the script, I sought to create a context for this tragic chapter of local history by describing the federal policies that worked against cities and their minority populations in the 1960s. The heart of the film, however, is people’s stories—and their often-eloquent descriptions of the personal devastation they experienced. After the area was demolished, the promised new development failed to materialize, and the commercial buildings that remained were mostly abandoned. We chronicle the gradual revival of the neighborhood and talked with storeowners in Rondout today about the area’s appeal as well as urban renewal’s unfortunate legacy.
Gilles Malkin narrated and Kingston-based composer and musician Peter Wetzler composed the original score and wrote the title song. Peter recorded distinguished trombonist Roswell Rudd for much of the soundtrack, which also includes music by the late Pauline Oliveros and singer-songwriters A.J. Croix and Adam Snyder, among others. In order to cover our expenses, we raised nearly $20,000 and also hosted numerous work-in-progress screenings, which helped us fill in the story and gather material.
The 69-minute documentary was completed in October 2016, and we have since screened it at dozens of museums, libraries, historical societies, theaters and other venues to enthusiastic audiences.
In the late 1960s, more than half of the waterfront commercial district of Kingston was demolished in an ill-conceived urban renewal project. It was a tragedy repeated in countless working-class neighborhoods all over America. The 69-minute documentary Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, which I produced and directed with Stephen Blauweiss, tells that story through hundreds of photographs taken by Gene Dauner and others and more than 40 interviews. The film received the 2017 Special Citation, Ulster County Executive’s Arts Awards and a 2015 Excellence in Historic Preservation Award from Friends of Historic Kingston.
To purchase a DVD, click http://lostrondoutproject.com/#pricing.
Learn more about the film, including the interview with us on Channel Five’s “Good Day New York.”
“The reckless idiocy of 20th-century urban renewal is beautifully documented in Lost Rondout, an elegy for a wonderful Hudson River town that was all but erased from the map… ”
—James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere
“Lost Rondout should be required watching in all university-level urban planning programs… ”
—Barry Lewis, architectural historian, Cooper Union and PBS Television
“Your documentary film is top-rate, very professional and a strong art form. ”
—Barry Benepe, author, Early Architecture of Ulster County and founder of New York City Greenmarket