It was hot, very hot, on Aug. 7, 1971, when newlyweds Mike and Della Gleason checked into a hotel in downtown Bangor.
Married that day in Ellsworth, the couple decided to keep cool by going to a movie at the air-conditioned Bijou Theater on Exchange Street. They chose a 5 o’clock showing of “The Andromeda Strain,” a science fiction saga about an extraterrestrial organism that is carried back to Earth and destroys human life.
“Foolishly, we had parked the car right in front of the theater, and it had all this [wedding] stuff all over it,” Mike Gleason recalled. “So we come out of the movie … and all these people are standing about, waiting to see who the fools were who went to a movie on their wedding night.”
Everybody, it seems, has a story about the Bijou. Or the nearby Union Station. Or the red-brick City Hall that stood on the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets for about 80 years. Or any of the scores of clothiers, saloons, gas stations, wholesalers, apartments and warehouses that cluttered the area around Kenduskeag Stream.
Another story is how downtown Bangor was dramatically and powerfully reshaped in the 1960s and 1970s by what came to be known simply as “urban renewal,” a joint federal-local program that eventually demolished nearly 150 structures downtown, including the Bijou.
The program still prompts long sighs and outright anger, even as the result was a neater, cleaner downtown, shorn of rickety buildings, cluttered streets — and sometimes people.
Some argue Bangor is still searching for a vision.
“They cut out the heart of downtown,” recalled one of the scores of business owners forced to relocate or, in some cases, liquidate.
And Gleason, now 62, who went on to work for the city of Bangor and retains a deep affection for the downtown, said he was heartbroken when the Bijou was demolished two years after his honeymoon. When crews knocked out the Bijou’s front wall, Gleason took a photograph of the theater’s proscenium arch. He still has it.
Voters approved change
Downtown Bangor’s urban renewal project began shortly after city voters approved it in June 1964. Until then, almost any construction or demolition downtown had been privately financed, except for a few government buildings such as the post office. But federal laws changed in the 1950s, allowing Bangor to establish an Urban Renewal Authority in 1958, a semiautonomous organization that could sign contracts, handle money, petition to condemn property and sell title to property.
Urban renewal in Bangor, according to a 1964 report, was designed to offer “a coordinated, adjusted, and harmonious development” of the city that would “promote health, safety, morals, order, convenience, prosperity, and the general welfare, as well as efficiency and economy in the process of development.”
Bangor was anything but that. It was an old river city, focused at first on the Penobscot River and its connection to lumber from the North Woods and later the pulp and paper industry. After World War II, the city’s focus had shifted to the air, with Dow Air Force Base and its 13,460-foot-long runway. Downtown streets, plotted in the 1830s, were surrounded by a pastiche of retail, wholesale and service businesses.
The authority had a voting board as well as a small staff.
The Urban Renewal Authority’s first big project was not downtown at all. It was a housing project called Stillwater Park, an area bounded by Stillwater and Mount Hope avenues. The authority would acquire, then redevelop about 200 parcels of single-family homes. It spent most of the 1960s selling the new homes.
The first significant change after World War II in the way downtown looked was not part of government urban renewal. The railroads had built Union Station with its Romanesque Revival clock tower in 1907, and the railroads sold it in 1961 to private developers, who eventually found it more cost-effective to tear it down.
A second significant change came when the Urban Renewal Authority in the early 1960s won approval for a nearly $1.5 million narrowing of Kenduskeag Stream downtown, from 250 feet to 80 feet. Its purpose: to increase downtown parking.
Once the city’s urban renewal planners found that they could count Bangor’s share of the cost of that project as the city’s down payment on a bigger project to rejuvenate the heart of downtown, they worked up a campaign to win a referendum to make downtown Bangor anew.
But first they had to tear much of it down.
‘It became desolate’
Gene W. Sing, 60, remembers throwing rocks at the rats he and his buddies spotted behind the old buildings abutting Kenduskeag Stream and elsewhere downtown. “We just roamed around. It was back when you didn’t have to worry about being abducted,” said Sing, an engineer who now lives in Cary, N.C.
His family owned Wong’s Laundry, which was housed in Pickering Square — right in the heart of Bangor’s new downtown urban renewal district.
“There were a lot of promises made,” Sing said. “We’re going to have all these grandiose buildings … then they tore everything down and it became desolate.”
The Urban Renewal Authority began acquiring downtown parcels in 1965, and by the end of May 1966, it had bought more than $2 million worth.
Wong’s joined scores of businesses that were uprooted. It wound up moving to a location that had not initially been part of urban renewal: the site of Union Station. The Urban Renewal Authority acquired the riverfront parcels from their private owners and midwifed Penobscot Plaza Development Corp. into existence in the summer of 1968.
Wong’s joined Bangor Hardware, Eastern Beauty & Barber Supply and other businesses in a new business condominium constructed on the site of the railroad station, according to monthly reports filed by the city that year.
The mundane information contained in city reports from the 1960s is a recitation of Bangor’s economy and sociology at midcentury:
• Displaced: Pic’s restaurant; Spiro’s Shoe Hospital; Earle’s Radio Shop; Steve’s Dry Cleaners; food wholesaler Arthur Chapin Co.; Bangor Picture Framing; Eastern Eatery. In October 1966, a city report noted, two families (not identified) were forced to move from Exchange Street: One went to Fort Kent; the other, elsewhere in Bangor.
• Not all businesses moved. A city report in April 1967 noted that the Silver Dollar Cafe, formerly of Exchange Street, filed a claim for loss of property in lieu of moving expenses. It settled for $2,082, according to the city report.
• Not everybody accepted the Urban Renewal Authority’s offers. Some went to court. The authority offered $19,000 for one Exchange Street property, but its owners won a $22,000 judgment in November 1968.
• Not all parcels in the downtown urban renewal district were torn down. A significant portion of Main Street, from Pickering Square to Union Street, was included, but many of those buildings have survived. While the authority reported acquiring 96 parcels by October 1968, it also reported that another 90 property owners had completed rehabilitation of their buildings.
• And some property owners chose to fight.
From 1969 and into the early 1970s, wholesale clothing distributor A. Emple & Co. fought eviction from its 100-year-old three-story home at 21 French St. Brothers Maurice and Irving Emple challenged the Urban Renewal Authority in court, but finally were forced to move on Sept. 24, 1973, when a Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy and a moving van arrived to evict their business.
“It wasn’t a move. It was a raid,” said Irving Emple, now 87. He recalled making many visits to the Urban Renewal Authority office, to lawyers, and to court. “It’s not if you’re guilty or innocent, right or wrong, but who’s involved,” he said.
Mike Gleason was a young moving crew member sent that September day to move the Emples. He remembers seeing a “Remember the Alamo” sign in the shop window.
“I think they had pursued every legal battle that could have been pursued to try to hang on to their building and their property,” Gleason said. “And the almighty Urban Renewal Authority just won the case, and they were literally being evicted.”
A city report that month noted simply: “A. Emple and Co. completed the move to 73 Pine Street during the month.”
Good went with bad
“A lot of good went out with the bad,” said Rodney G. McKay, who first showed up for work in Bangor’s city government as an intern in 1966 and today is the city’s community and economic development director.
Possibly the most dramatic loss of the downtown urban renewal program was demolition of the Samuel F. Hersey Memorial Building, or more simply Bangor’s City Hall. Built in 1893, the 4½-story building was viewed for decades as inadequate for the city’s needs.
As early as 1938, city managers were calling for a new City Hall, and the city’s first comprehensive plan in the early 1950s urged that a new one be built across from the Bangor Public Library.
Complicating matters was the fact that the city still was paying interest on a $100,000 loan from the Samuel Hersey Library Fund, dating from the 1890s. By 1963, the city had paid more than $275,000 in interest.
So the Urban Renewal Authority agreed to buy the building and the land on which it stood in 1969, then tore it all down to build a parking lot. The city, meanwhile, had arranged to acquire the old post office from the federal government for use as a new City Hall.
“I suppose City Hall could be saved if someone wants to” was the response of Harold Thurlow, director of the Urban Renewal Authority at the time. Preserving the building was viewed as costly or even unsafe.
McKay, in a recent interview, said such sentiments also governed destruction of some other downtown gems acquired during the 1960s, including the Flat Iron Building off Pickering Square. Use was the chief barometer, he said, and other options, such as downtown housing, were rarely mentioned.
Federal law changed dramatically in 1974, when “urban renewal” was succeeded by new styles of federal funding, particularly “community development” grants.
By 1975, Bangor’s Urban Renewal Authority had effectively been transferred to the city government. McKay said it still exists for legal reasons, and he is effectively its executive.
By the mid-1970s, much of the demolition downtown was complete.
But vacant lots were used only rarely for construction, despite a succession of potential developers and consultants’ reports. The problem: The wholesalers were operating where urban renewal had wanted them to be: on the outskirts. But retail in Bangor was shifting to strip shopping on Broadway and Union streets, and, after 1978, to a mall on a former dairy farm on Hogan Road.
The city’s banks, still locally owned and controlled, tentatively began developing the now-cleared Kenduskeag Stream area. Depositor’s Trust and Merchants Banks were the first to open. What is today called the Bank of America Building was built during the same period on the site of, among other structures, the Bijou Theater.
Gene Sing, who renovates schools in his work in North Carolina, notes that plenty of buildings can be brought up to standards. But he cautioned, “When you go in and retrofit, it typically costs you twice as much than if you start from scratch.”
Among his hobbies is modeling, and he is beginning an effort to build a scale model of Bangor’s Union Station.
City still struggling
Robert Klose, who teaches at University College of Bangor, argued in an essay published last year in the Bangor Daily News that the city still struggles with urban renewal, which he called the city’s “poorest planning decision and most catastrophic blunder.”
“Since that time, hobbled by the trauma perhaps, the city has not been able to pull together a vision or direction that was in any way unique or drew upon its rich history, opting instead for cheap-jack copycat projects like the Bangor Mall and its associated and seemingly endless sprawl.”
Near Kenduskeag Stream downtown, office buildings and some retail businesses have gained a toehold, if not a foothold.
In the next year, the community will dedicate a new state courthouse on Exchange Street. It’s being constructed on the last vacant downtown urban renewal plot.
But even the new buildings can shed light on what’s past for the city.
Gleason, for one, said he at first was appalled by the look of one of the sleek glass-covered office buildings constructed during urban renewal downtown. “I was appalled that they were putting a modern building in that historic block. And, fortunately for Bangor, that building has an almost totally glass front that reflects the architecture around it. And so it’s not quite the eyesore it might have been.”
Next: Two success stories, and completion. Read Parts 1 and 2 of On the Threshold: The Story of Bangor’s Urban Renewal at bangordailynews.com.