Monday, October 28, 2019

The Centennial Project

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
In 1964, as part of Elmira’s 100th anniversary, the city unveiled the Centennial Project meant to transform the Eastside. The plan called for the clearing of approximately 48 acres of land between Harriet Street and Madison Avenue from the river north to Church Street. The city initially estimated that some 231 families would be displaced, but, in the end 515 families, 130 individuals, and 54 business were displaced for the project.  The neighborhoods were slated to be replaced by a new county health complex, apartments for seniors, a low-rent housing complex, and a neighborhood shopping center. 

Proposed site plan, 1964
The Eastside was one of the oldest sections of the city. During the 19th century, it was a predominantly working-class, immigrant neighborhood. It boasted a mix of Irish, German, and Eastern European Jews, with a sprinkling of African-Americans. As the immigrants moved their way up the economic ladder post-World War II, they began to abandon the old neighborhood, leaving the homes in disrepair. By 1964, most of the buildings were approaching 100 years old. Elderly residents often struggled to keep up with repairs, and many landlords simply didn’t bother. 

113 Dewitt Avenue, 1967
 Reactions of people in the renewal area were mixed. People had been steadily moving out of the area since the 1950s, but a lot of older residence had a strong sense of community and were reluctant to leave. While displaced elderly residents would be given first dibs in the Newtown Towers Senior Apartments, they would have to find temporary accommodations while they waited for it to be built. Homeowners worried about being able to buy new homes, especially since the city was offering bottom dollar for their properties. Families who lived above their own shops had trouble finding other places in the city zoned for mixed use. Many renters, on the other hand, welcomed the prospect of safe, affordable, and modern rental units. 

In January 1967, the city began purchasing homes in the urban renewal area. They established a relocation office meant to help the displaced find new places to live. Relocation officers surveyed the needs of the displaced to match them with available apartments and helped those who wanted to buy homes apply for mortgages. Elmira had long had a problem with landlords who refused to rent to African-Americans. The relocation office forced them to comply with anti-discrimination laws, helping to desegregate many neighborhoods. 

The project was carried out in phases. Construction began first on Newtown Towers in January 1968. It opened in October 1969. Next came the Chemung County Health complex which includes a health center and nursing facility. Work began in 1970 and finished in spring 1971. The Heritage Park low-income housing complex was started last and its opening was pushed back to August 1973 thanks to the flood of 1972. The proposed neighborhood shopping center on the south side of Water Street was never built. The Holiday Inn hotel sits there now. 
Newtown Towers and Chemung County Health Complex, 1973

Heritage Park Apartments, 1974

If you have stories or images related to the Centennial Project or Eastside urban renewal, we would like to hear about it. Please contact me at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207 or drop me an e-mail at

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