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The Originals: Peekskill 

Like the Hudson Valley? That's great, but Peekskill got there first.

That's not just true geographically, although the city does stand as a literal gateway to the Hudson Valley. Standing on the shores of Peekskill Bay, looking north where the Hudson River swings hard and narrows into the fjordly Hudson Highlands, feels like the beginning of a grand adventure.

The current valleywide cultural renaissance began here as well. Twenty-five years ago the city was facing the same problems that many other river towns and cities were struggling with: A hollowed out downtown and a depressed real estate market as the industries that had sustained the town—which in this case included the chemical company that invented Crayola crayons and the quarries that mined granite for the cathedral church of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights—moved on. So the city took a look at its building stock: Large, roomy lofts, just like the ones that artists were being priced out of down in SoHo. One robust economic incentive package later, the first great migration of New York City artists to the Hudson Valley was underway.

click to enlarge A vintage postcard sign celebrating the city's Depew Park. - PAMELA PASCO
  • Pamela Pasco
  • A vintage postcard sign celebrating the city's Depew Park.

What they found when they came was room to grow and prosper, something the cloistered neighborhoods and unrelenting grind of New York City could never give them, but also the familiar diversity and whirlwinds of energy that brought them to the city in the first place. That's what drew Marc and Livia Straus to open the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill in 2004, as a way of sharing their world class art collection with the world and to capitalize on the city's momentum. "We wanted a place that was multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and that could really benefit from an influx of tourism," said Livia. "Great restaurants, great vibe, great sculpture park on the riverfront." Many of those sculptures were originally created for the Peekskill Project, an irregularly scheduled event in which the entire city is transformed into an open air museum featuring new works created by local, national, and international artists.

Even when the Peekskill Project isn't exhibiting, there's few spots in the Hudson Valley as extraordinary as the riverfront, with its train station, playground, small beach, and that aforementioned breathtaking view. Also: Tacos. The Taco Dive Bar overlooks the riverfront and knows that the only way to improve on scenery like that is to add guacamole.

Peekskill today has all the accoutrements you'd expect from a thriving Hudson Valley river town: Farmer's markets, festivals (The Hudson Valley Exposition takes place down at the riverfront on August 6th this year,) and so much local craft beer that it's surprising it doesn't come out of the water fountains. Some of that beer is as local as you can get: The award winning Peekskill Brewery serves an ever rotating selection of beers made right in house at its tasting room and dining room. And if you've sampled a few too many, a shuttle bus run by Go Peekskill zips around the city on Saturdays, hitting all the hot spots (as well as the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of the city, in case you've really had too many.)

click to enlarge The Peekskill Coffeehouse - PAMELA PASCO
  • Pamela Pasco
  • The Peekskill Coffeehouse

The historic Paramount Theater, after a few setbacks and temporary closings, is once again up and running, featuring August concerts from WAR, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Rusted Root, and comedian Dave Attell. For a more intimate setting, 12 Grapes wine bar offers live music from local and nationally touring acts to go with a nice glass of syrah and some crispy skinned chicken over mushroom risotto. For those seeking a pick-me-up instead of a wind-me-down, Bean Runner Cafe and the Peekskill Coffee House, both within steps of the Paramount, offer enough excellent coffee to fuel further explorations while being inviting enough to also be a perfect place to while away the hours. If you need something to read while you sip your latte, head over to the Bruised Apple for used books and records first. Be careful though; Time seems to vanish in the blink of an eye while you're combing through their endless aisles. Suddenly it's six hours later, you've amassed a stack that's taller than you are, and they closed twenty minutes ago.

click to enlarge The Peekskill Coffee House is known as "Peekskill's living room." - PAMELA ASHLEY PASCO
  • Pamela Ashley Pasco
  • The Peekskill Coffee House is known as "Peekskill's living room."

Yet even as new restaurants and galleries continue to bloom downtown, the city has maintained the diversity that drew the first wave of artists and entrepreneurs to the city in the early 90's. Take pizza, always a reliable indicator as to a city's cultural health. You could go to Gleason's, named after former Peekskill resident Jackie Gleason, and enjoy a pie on a house made sourdough crust, topped with things like octopus, roasted garlic creme fraiche, or sausage made in town by the Birdsall House, a gastropub owned by the same people. Wash it down with one of their inventive cocktails like Honey Badger Don't Care (Appleton Reserve Rum, Applejack brandy, hot honey syrup, passionfruit juice, lime juice) and feel good about the fact that you're living your best life.

click to enlarge Gleason's signature sourdough pizza's have gained the restaurant a local following - PAMELA PASCO
  • Pamela Pasco
  • Gleason's signature sourdough pizza's have gained the restaurant a local following

But you can still also hit up a bevy of corner pizza joints for a classic foldable slice of pepperoni and and a bottle of Sunkist while the Mets game plays on the TV over a poster of Marlon Brando and a gaggle of teens argue about Pokemon. There's still a bodega on every other block for when you find yourself out of AA batteries and brown sugar. And as the majority of the Hudson Valley remains stubbornly racially homogenous, Peekskill still features a blend of cultures that's positively Queens-esque.

It's an important point to consider, as other flourishing towns upriver are beginning to grapple with the problem of gentrification, where long time residents worry about being priced out of town and can't find a sandwich that costs less than $10. As before, the road ahead may run through Peekskill, still welcoming all who come, still ripe with possibility, still one step ahead of everyone else.

Speaking of...

  • A profile of the other Westchester city: Peekskill.

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