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Advocate Leads Tour of 50-Year-Old Urban Renewal Fight

A rendering of Wise Towers, the public housing development built during urban renewal on the Upper West Side.
A rendering of Wise Towers, the public housing development built during urban renewal on the Upper West Side.
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Courtesy of Kelley Williams

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Kelley Williams was a teenager when the city announced its plan to bulldoze her building as part of a swath of Upper West Side tenement buildings slated to be torn down in the name of urban renewal.

She fought back, successfully organizing tenants in her West 88th Street building to stop the demolition. A half-century later, her childhood home is now a low-income co-op building, and an example of the battles spawned during the urban renewal plan that Williams will discuss during her one-time walking tour Saturday.

"Connecting to the history, and understanding how a building remained low-income or how we got a middle-income building constructed, will make people have a better connection to the West Side," said Williams, executive director of Strycker's Bay Neighborhood Council, which has fought to bring back people displaced by the city's urban renewal plan. 

The city's 1959 preliminary map for urban renewal on the Upper West Side.
The city's 1959 preliminary map for urban renewal on the Upper West Side.
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Courtesy of Kelley Williams

The walking tour will visit 20 sites on the city's 1959 urban renewal plan for the Upper West Side, which spanned from West 87th Street to West 97th Street between Central Park West and the east Side of Amsterdam Avenue.

The area was home to a mix of low-income Puerto Ricans, whites and African-Americans, and was considered blighted. Urban renewal was intended to revive the neighborhood without destroying its character, according to the 1959 plan.

"This urban renewal was supposed to be different," Williams said. "They were going to do it in stages and be focused on not necessarily completely bulldozing a neighborhood. The goal was to maintain the ethnic and economic diversity of the neighborhood, but to improve the quality of the housing."

The results were mixed, said Williams.

At West 91st and Columbus Avenue, the tour will visit a spot known as "Site 30" where 70 families agreed to leave their homes. They were promised slots in public housing, but that housing was never built, Williams said.

Ultimately, urban renewal paved the way for the gentrification of the Upper West Side, creating the diverse, yet wealthier neighborhood that exists today, said Williams.

Williams said she hopes the walking tour will help people recover a sense of community that's been lost on the Upper West Side.

The tour runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sat. May 7. It begins at the William F. Ryan Health Center at 110 West 97th Street, and ends at the northeast corner of West 87th Street and Columbus Avenue. For more information, visit the tour's Facebook page.

The Upper West Side's Park West Village, once known as Manhattan Town, was built during urban renewal in the 1950s.
The Upper West Side's Park West Village, once known as Manhattan Town, was built during urban renewal in the 1950s.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht