Tales of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s limousine making stops at the old Luckey Platt Department Store (now restored as retail space, artists’ lofts, and apartments) for sundries and Caffe Aurora (still there) for pastries, and of early 20th century New Yorkers making weekend pilgrimages up the Hudson, make this river city unique, as does its present-day reincarnation as a 21st-century destination paying homage to its past glory.
“You take a look at the Hudson River Valley, as far south as Rockland County, as far north as Columbia County, as far west as the mountains, and as far east as Pawling. We’re in the center; the center of the universe,” says Charles S. North, president and CEO of the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Poughkeepsie is rich in history and rich in culture.”
The city’s first-term Republican mayor, John C. Tkazyik (pronounced tie-zik), agrees with North. “It’s at a great place to be. Poughkeepsie is at a point where it’s taking off,” he says. But it took a while to get here.
From Boomtown to Ghost Town
Settled by the Dutch in 1659 and incorporated as a city in 1854, Poughkeepsie is in Dutchess County, on the eastern shore of the Hudson River about 75 miles north of New York, and has a population of about 30,000, according to the 2000 Census. The city covers about 5.7 square miles, and is surrounded by a town bearing the same name, which is of Iroquois origin. U-puku-ipi-sing, means “the reed-covered lodge by the little-water place.”
After the American Revolution, Poughkeepsie was briefly the second capitol of New York. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Clinton, among others, met at the courthouse on Market Street, in what is still the city’s downtown, to debate and ratify the US Constitution.
Poughkeepsie was an industrial hub, as represented by its city seal, which contains a beehive. It was a center for whale rendering, and during the 1800s shipping, hat factories, paper mills, and breweries flourished. (Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, owned and operated a brewery in the city.) It is also home to the longest continually operational theater in the state, the 1869 Bardavon Opera House.
A recent book, Main Street to Mainframes (2009, State University of New York Press), written by Vassar College professors Harvey K. Flad and Clyde Griffen, chronicles Poughkeepsie’s development “from an agricultural market town, to a small city with a diversified economy centered on Main Street, to an urban region dependent on the success of [IBM].” It examines the city’s revitalization efforts following an exodus of business in the 1970s, with the emergence of mega-malls in the town of Poughkeepsie, urban renewal, and conversion of the city’s Main Street into a pedestrian mall. This left downtown all but a ghost town populated largely by drug dealers and gang members.
The little town that couldn’t
Although it is clearly on the upswing, there is no denying that Poughkeepsie, the last stop on MetroNorth’s westernmost route out of New York City, has been plagued with big city problems. Drug traffic, gun violence, and poverty are among Poughkeepsie’s woes. Charlie North won’t deny it.
“Safety’s an issue, a big issue,” he says. “Being the last train stop brings in not only people that are great, but [also] people that are not so great, to transact [illegal] business here,” North says. “There’s no question that Poughkeepsie is a drug stop—we all know that—so we need to find a way to change that. We’re trying to bring in people to move into neighborhoods to push the criminals out.”
But it’s not just new residents Poughkeepsie wants and needs, it’s developers, urban pioneers, and tourists.
Tom Aposporos, the city’s Democratic mayor in the 1980s and now a Floridian, was brought back last year by Tkazyik for a short stint as acting development director. He was charged with overseeing the final restoration of the Luckey Platt Building and also the conversion of a former piano factory into condominiums opposite the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum.
Aposporos, who was born in 1952 and raised in an 1860s Colonial on Academy Street in one of Poughkeepsie’s historic districts, concurs that the city has long held a reputation as the little town that couldn’t. Like so many other small former industrial cities, Poughkeepsie had its heyday in the 1950s. It was plagued by urban sprawl and the development of shopping centers along Route 9 in the town, along with “a ridiculous governmental response to what was happening—well-intentioned, but poor.” Urban renewal, he says, resulted in the destruction of neighborhoods, instead of “simply saving the splendor of Poughkeepsie.”