There’s something a little off about some of the storefronts on Main Street in the town of Amsterdam in Upstate New York. There are mannequins dressed in the windows, but at a second glance, the store spaces behind them look eerily empty and dark. Another sign taped to the door of a retail space says something is “Coming Soon” – but there’s no indication as to what that might be. Wander off Main Street and you’ll begin to discover entire blocks of empty home, boarded up across the city, some ready to collapse. Just a few minute’s walk from the city hall, you find Amsterdam’s old industrial centre – but this could be Detroit – where former sprawling factories resemble post-apocalyptic skeletons of concrete, broken glass and rubble. Smack in the centre of New York State, this is the reality of a living ghost town…
My interest with Amsterdam, New York began when I stumbled upon an unusual Flickr account, which was seemingly dedicated to documenting the abandonment and struggle of a city that was once full of life and thriving industry. Most of the photographs date to 2014, but such widespread decay will be slow to repair.
In recent years, various mayors have called on building owners in the historical district to dress up their vacant store fronts so they don’t look empty (hence the ghost mannequins). Take a drive around the city and you will see some of the old architecture has been fixed up. Kirk Douglas’ childhood home at 99 Eagle Street was rescued in recent years and the historic Amsterdam Castle, also known as the Amsterdam Armory, was purchased by a family from Brooklyn and turned into a bed & breakfast. But many more buildings will, or already have, disappeared.
If you to have a look around yourself, you can see some of the empty shopfronts on Main Street here. Vacant shops aren’t tough to find around town (more here and here). Walk around the ghostly factories here and find streets with numerous abandoned houses over here around Jay Street and entire blocks in disrepair here.
I began reading some local blogs, learning from lifelong residents about the myriad of problems. Some despaired, some hopeful; they’ve watched their town decline over the decades and most have their own opinions about what went wrong and whether a better future lies ahead. Amsterdam is down to about half the population it had back in 1930, when it was a booming manufacturing town.
As early as 1912, Amsterdam boasted several national banks to cater to its thriving economy. Several business magnates had turned Amsterdam into one of the country’s leading carpet and knit goods manufacturers, employing over 5,000 people with an annual output of over $11 million. There were two silk mills making gloves with an output of $1,5 million and nine broom factories turning out more brooms that any other city in the world. Thirty knitting mills employed over 6,000 people, making $10 million annually. Amsterdam was also the largest manufacturer of mesh underwear in the world, had the largest pearl button factory in the world. It had a brickyard that produced 3 million bricks annually, a linseed oil mill, paper mills, needle manufacturers, two button machine factories, two electric light plants. There were 21 churches, 5 hotels, two daily papers, a library, several theatres and several fraternal organisations. Industrialists flocked here for a reason.
Ask the people of Amsterdam however, and few blame the closure of the carpet mills alone on the demise of this town. “It was the deliberate destruction of downtown Amsterdam by Urban Renewal,” says one resident. “In my opinion it was the Mall in the middle of our historical strip,” adds another. “We cannot forget the buildings that have decayed around us, the people who are out-of-towners that buy the buildings, fix them up and rent them out to people who are basic transients.”
The Flickr account that led me down this rabbit hole has a few things to say about Amsterdam too.
“Homes are being abandoned because the owners are unable to pay the extremely high taxes and fees… this building has been abandoned like many others in Amsterdam New York which has become a ghost town and has been deemed unsafe for newcomers.”
The Flickr account, managed by an anonymous user, has gone to great lengths to show Amsterdam’s urban decay as well as the rise in crime that has reportedly plagued the city in recent years, claiming that there are 54 registered sex offenders in Amsterdam, NY, “This is higher than the national average”.
The account also goes on to claim that there are 58 Superfund sites in the Greater Amsterdam New York area and 8 within the City of Amsterdam New York limits. (A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified as an imminent risk to human health and/or the environment). In fact, the creator of the account appears so hell-bent on airing out Amsterdam’s dirty laundry that you’re left wondering how accurate the claims are.
Another resident, spoke of Amsterdam in a more positive light. “Although the city lacks high profile cultural attractions and has its share of blighted streets, it sits in a beautiful pocket of the Valley … and has very little crime.”
The tag line of Amsterdam’s official website is: “Beautiful city. Wonderful people” and claims it have “several incentive programs that are designed to attract new businesses to the city as well as assist existing businesses with expansion or renovation of their current facilities”. Residents appear optimistic too.
“I love Amsterdam in spite of its plight,” says longtime resident Dan Weaver.
The city parks have started to be cleaned up and the officials launched a “Zombie Property Initiative”, encouraging residents to report vacant homes.
“Shuttleworth Park has been refurbished reminding us what it may have felt like when Dimaggio and the Yankees played an exhibition game here in the 40s, ” says Mr. Murphy, who bought an old Queen Anne Victorian home here in the early 2000s. “Downtown (what’s left of it) still has beautiful architecture waiting to be reclaimed, and there are many fine homes and historic architecture on Guy Park Avenue, Locust Avenue, and in the Vandyke Avenue area […] even the grungiest sections of town often have million dollar views of the [Mohawk] valley. “
At first glance, Amsterdam can certainly seem like a ghostly or depressing city. But if recent urban renewal efforts in places like Detroit are anything to go by, there could be a lot to be excited about here. The historic architecture, thankfully, remains to be preserved & revitalized for local citizens and tourists alike. The beautiful town hall on Church Street, for example, is the former mansion of Amsterdam’s carpet magnate and founding father Stephen Sanford.
If small Mom & Pop shops and antique stores are being pushed out of New York City due to rising rents, how nice it would be to see Amsterdam’s neglected buildings come alive again as an antiques town, with art galleries, bookstores, small boutiques, ice cream parlours and cozy but elegant hotels. Settled in 1710 by Dutch immigrants within the original, now defunct town of Caughnawaga (a state-recognized archeological Indian Village site), there’s an abundance of history in Amsterdam. If the ill-conceived urban development of the 1960s can be reversed to create more downtown-friendly traffic flow, there are several historical sites and homes to attract newcomers and tourism. Could Amsterdam be the springboard for an Upstate New York Renaissance?
“Amsterdam may indeed have a third act,” says Amsterdam-born resident, Mr. Murphy. “We certainly won’t approach the heyday of the carpet era, but slowly and surely folks like myself are reclaiming turn of the century estates for a fraction of what you’d pay in even the closest of capital district areas … For folks who’d prefer a more cordoned off, cul-de-sac neighborhood like many of Albany’s suburbs, Amsterdam may not appeal, but for a more historic, walkable city with a haunting industrial feel to it, Amsterdam does have potential.”
If you’re interested in taking a trip to Amsterdam, residents recommend visiting during the warmer months. Get a feel for the community at Amsterdam’s most popular restaurants Raindancer or catch a summer Bocce game at the Port Jackson Bocce club on the south side. Stay at the Amsterdam Castle B&B.