Peekskill’s variable topography suits its evolving persona. Settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, it is reawakening like other Hudson River towns after decades of urban decline. Its 24,000 residents—including business owners, newly located artists, artisans, and other professionals—seem to relish the rarefied sensation of change within the context of solid, granite stability. And as a whole they’re feisty enough to fight for history, the environment, and people-friendly communities.
“More and more we see people coming to Peekskill to do work they’re passionate about,” says Mayor Mary Foster, in her spacious City Hall office on downtown Main Street and Nelson Avenue. The ebullient Pace University-trained CPA is in her second term. “Writers, chefs, web designers, music teachers, videographers—the list goes on and on. And the passion for their work goes back into the community. We’re bringing Peekskill back to life with our diversity. Over 30 languages are spoken here.
Nonostentation in Peekskill is key. “You don’t have to have million-dollar mansions to have a great neighborhood. What’s more important are things like landscaping, fencing, litter-free fences and fresh coats of paint,” says Foster.
Chris Marras is the economic development specialist hired by the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “My job is to help business retention and use the success of the arts community to get Peekskill on the public’s radar screen,” he says. “We’re working with city landlords to find artists for live/work lofts.” This is an expansion of the city’s successful 28-unit Peekskill Art Lofts, which provides affordable housing for professional artists. Another vital connection between the city, business, and artists will be huge murals, coordinated by the Peekskill Arts Council, painted between the arches on the new Route 9 overpass.
“The Collaborative Mural Project invites seniors to partake in making large works of lasting, public art, thanks to grants from the Andrus Foundation. We’ve already produced two, based on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Roses and Oleander that are already installed. The third here will be more abstract, based on the gridlike work of Sean Scully,” D’Amico says, indicating the work-in-process set up on a huge table in the center of the studio. “Each artist paints a square for a combination of designs that make up the whole.”
PAC member Sone Tower added her insight. “This is an art town, so people are always saying we need more art. And we have so many great ones, like Carla Rae Johnson, Wilfredo Morel, Susan Weinreich, Wendy Garber at the Flatiron Gallery, and so many others.” The Peekskill Arts Council will be hosting its 13th annual open studio tour on June 5 and 6, when the public can visit 32 artists in the spaces where they work, and a dozen special exhibitions will be displayed in galleries and museums across the city.
Visual art is not the only creative engine in town. In April, HBO was in town to film a remake of Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet. The crew temporarily transformed parts of the city into 1930s Los Angeles. Local residents, including City Historian John Curran, were hired as extras.