Newburgh: Textures and Tension | Community Pages | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Newburgh: Textures and Tension 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:07 pm

Liberty Street, where George Washington received and disputed the letter offering him kingship in 1783, is reminiscent of Park Slope in the late-nineteen eighties, when young couples began to populate the area, indicating a major neighborhood shift. The street presents sprouts of renovation—an antique shop, boutiques, a café, a gallery—and rows of Victorian homes that house the antiques and ambitions of new couples. And despite its image as a poverty-stricken, gang-menaced, ne’er-do-well municipality, Newburgh is a pleasant and upcoming community, possessing a wide scope of historic buildings—the city’s large historic district, which spans 445 acres—and engaged residents who are working at the grassroots level to create a more livable city.

Newburgh’s woes are certainly front and center in the media. On May 13, 500 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers swooped down on the city in a raid designed to cripple the leadership of the Newburgh chapters of the Latin Kings and the Bloods, two gangs with nationwide influence. The operation resulted in 23 arrests and 78 indictments were handed down on gang members. The day before, the New York Times ran a 2,000-word story headlined “In Newburgh, Gangs and Violence Reign” that characterized the city as a place with “problems far out of proportion to its population of 29,000.”

Mayor Nick Valentine is pleased with outcome of the May 13 raids. “The upside of the prominent media coverage of the operation is that it showed the hit that the gangs took and warned people against setting up shop in Newburgh. Law enforcement wanted everyone to know they mean business.” Valentine, however, acknowledges that law enforcement is a small part of the answer, pointing to residents who’ve launched campaigns to reach out to disaffected youth as a potent catalyst for change. “We’re really put together a group of grassroots organizations that don’t want to see this happen again in Newburgh,” says Valentine. “These groups came from the neighborhoods, like Mothers and Others, many of whom have lost family members to gang violence. We want to talk to these kids and explain to them that it’s not wonderful to be a gang member. You’re going to end up either dead or in jail.”

Retail Renewal
Chris Hansen, a real estate agent who is also the lead singer of Perfect Thyroid, and his wife, Merle Becker, a documentary filmmaker—she made Saving Newburgh in 2004, about historic preservation and economic development—have been active in conversations with Newburgh officials regarding plans for the area. “The reality of it is that we live very close to Manhattan,” says Becker. “People are getting priced out of Brooklyn, out of New York. Things are starting to turn very quickly.”

We are meeting at Wherehouse, a café with a basement barbeque grill and vegan specials, bar with over 100 beers, and music venue in downtown Newburgh that opened when Dan Brown, a former bouncer at Studio 54, renovated the space from a beauty parlor and abandoned upholstery warehouse with a nod to the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. The tin ceiling in the front room remains. Tiles from the ceilings in the back room are embedded in the woodwork of the bar, surrounded by fixtures from an old school on Liberty Street in Newburgh, repainted and then scratched so that some of the original tin shows through.

“Someone had to take the plunge to bring people to Newburgh—there’s a bit of a stigma attached,” Brown says. Brown notes there has not been crime in the Wherehouse’s two years in business, nor at Café Macchiato, a café on the corner.

Down the street from Wherehouse is Newburgh Art Supply. Michael Gabor, who is featured in Becker’s documentary, owns it with his partner Gerardo Castro. They came up to Newburgh after Gabor moved out of New York’s photography district. The shop stocks a large selection of high-end, environmentally friendly, non-toxic art supplies.

Supporting Organizations
The local headquarters of Habitat for Humanity, which has been an active presence in the city for over 10 years, are in an antique iron factory. Habitat has rehabbed 40 buildings since it came to town. “There’s incredible art and architecture in Newburgh,” says Marci Gurton, the director of development. “But we need people to come here and work in it and live in it and love it. That’s what Habitat for Humanity does. We bring the working families that are what the community needs so that these buildings can really be preserved.”

Restore, a donation-based organization that provides affordable furniture and building fixtures, is a subsidiary of Habitat for Humanity and offers excellent furniture at low prices, including Danish modern and other mid-century pieces. (Just make sure to get there early on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the shop receives new deliveries.)

Safe Harbors is another Hudson Valley-based nonprofit active in downtown Newburgh. The former Hotel Newburgh on Brodway has been renovated and is now a 128-unit residence house for single adult living at or below the median household income. There are also 12 artist lofts.

Safe Harbors is affiliated with Ann Street Gallery, where artists—including residents of the housing units—can show work. The current show, “Sensing Space,” features several artists’ takes on landscape. The organization is responsible for the upcoming renovation of the Ritz Theater, located on Broadway, where performers such as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball would stop on weeknights of their tours and where, recently, musicians such as Pete Seeger and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic have played.

Some businesses that now dot the former livestock path of Broadway include an ice cream shack with a weatherworn sign, a Pentecostal Church, DMU Music, with an excellent collection of turntables, and Machu Picchu, a Peruvian restaurant with a reputation for roast chicken throughout the Hudson Valley. At night, sedans with spinners sometimes still line up to drag race. They may be the inspiration for Newburgh Free Academy graduate Rob Cohen’s car-fetishist film The Fast and the Furious, which he made after graduating from Harvard University.

Artistic Ambitions
On lower Broadway, you can find the Newburgh Actor’s Studio tucked behind a bar with a beer sign glowing in the window. The studio is advertised discreetly, on a printed piece of paper. Mark Gamma opened it in 2008 with Keaton Weiss after the two met on the set of a short film. The theater showcased 11 performances in 2009. On a recent Saturday morning, Weiss is helping an actor to determine his objectives in a scene from David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glenn Ross.” He began to teach at the theater after dropping out of the University of Massachusetts. He graduated from Newburgh Free Academy, which features an arts academy with programs in dance—one dance graduate went on to dance with Mark Morris Dance Company—and theater. It should be noted that the productions at Newburgh Free Academy’s arts academy are carefully directed, with sets designed by Centerline Studios, a local company that manufactures sets for other Broadway performances.

Also along (Newburgh’s) Broadway, there is Commodore Chocolatier, run by the Cortsones family, with an extensive assortment of dark, milk and white chocolates prepared in the store and Torino Bakery, with coffee and airy croissants. Veer off Broadway onto Dupont Avenue and find Taco Ticos, a taco shack that specializes in delicacies called meat pies—samosa-like pastries filled with beef, melting cheese and served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce. Continue along Broadway until you hit Route 300 and make a right to visit Yobo, where Newburgh residents have been enjoying sashimi and sake in Japanese tatami rooms since 1980.

If you come into Newburgh from the south, along the river, you’ll pass large propane bins before you start to notice the first warehouses on the outskirts of the historic district and a tall brick structure on the horizon, where the Downing Film Center is located. There, you can see independent releases, such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a recent Swedish film. Dick Polich purchased the building and named it the Yellow Bird Building after a Brancusi sculpture. “It’s a beautiful city,” says Polich. “There are a lot of problems but many people are proud of the architectural heritage.” After graduating from MIT with a master’s of fine arts in metallurgy, Polich worked in a high-tech foundry for six years before beginning his work with artists. He owns Polich Tallix, a metal foundry on Route 17K in Rock Tavern. The foundry of 100,000 square feet and forty foot ceilings employs 80 people working on commissions for names such as Jasper Johns, Rob Indiana, Nancy Grays, and Frank Stella.

Starting to Happen

During the 1960s, 2,000 waterfront structures were bulldozed by the city in the process of urban renewal, which included Lyndon Baines Johnson’s decision to partner with Firestone to foster suburban growth with the destruction of urban centers. Unfortunately, a large part of Newburgh’s history was lost, including A. J. Downing’s home. The Yellow Bird Building is one of the only surviving structures along the waterfront. Also remaining is a train station that was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects who designed Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. With assistance from the Newburgh Historical Society, Ray Yannone, a local architect, is renovating the structure, which will eventually hold a branch of Cosimo’s restaurant and a nonprofit playhouse. A stairway at the building’s side will lead to the waterfront and its string of upscale restaurants, including Torches. Yannone was also active in the design of Heritage Park on the accompanying hill, which was redesigned using original Calvert Vaux sketches. Vaux designed Central Park and came to Newburgh at the suggestion of A.J. Downing, an innovator in American architectural philosophy.

Development efforts in Newburgh focus on restoration, as well as on renovation. All buildings in the East End Historic District require review by the Architectural Review Committee, which ensures that the buildings of Newburgh will retain the historic integrity with specifications relating to decoration and construction. Says Giovanni Palladino, a Newburgh resident and architect active with the reconstruction efforts of Leyland Alliance,
“I think that we should honor and respect the past. Newburgh was a place of architectural experimentation and if we respect that as long as the scale is right. We don’t want a Frank Gehry in the city.”

It is an attitude that is shared by others in the community. The city’s new developments include a new city courthouse on Broadway in June 2009 in the former Broadway School and the addition of a three-story building with a library and art gallery to the SUNY-Orange building—it will open on Thanksgiving. The outer façade will be brick and cast stone in reference to the character of the neighborhood, while the inner side will mirror the contemporary modern structure in which classes are held currently. Another exciting development was the return of the YMCA to the city. They opened the doors to their new facility on Broadway in April.
Newbugh’s crumbling avenues are lined with Victorian, Gothic Revival and Federal-style buildings. The historic district is the second largest in New York State. Unfairly, though, it is often associated with a modernized version of Dickens’ London set to a soundtrack of hip hop. “We’re not as bad as the headlines make us out, and we can be better if we help ourselves,” says Mayor Valentine. “You can’t beat people over the head. It has to come from the grassroots level. And it’s starting to happen here in Newburgh.

Caffe Macchiato
City of Newburgh
Commodore’s Chocolatier
Downing Film Center
Greater Newburgh YMCA
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh
Newburgh Actor’s Studio
Newburgh Art Supply
Newburgh Historical Society
Newburgh Waterfront
Safe Harbors of the Hudson
SUNY Orange
Wherehouse (845) 561-7240

click to enlarge Mary Presutti, a long-time resident of Newburgh, chats with the Newburgh Art Supply Store Owner Michael Gabor. - JULIE PLATNER
  • Julie Platner
  • Mary Presutti, a long-time resident of Newburgh, chats with the Newburgh Art Supply Store Owner Michael Gabor.
click to enlarge Juanita Williams, a server, chats with the chef at the Wherehouse Cafe on Liberty Street. - JULIE PLATNER
  • Julie Platner
  • Juanita Williams, a server, chats with the chef at the Wherehouse Cafe on Liberty Street.
click to enlarge Tree-lined street in Newburgh. - JULIE PLATNER
  • Julie Platner
  • Tree-lined street in Newburgh.
click to enlarge On the deck at Cena 2000 on the waterfront on Front Street in Newburgh. - JULIE PLATNER
  • Julie Platner
  • On the deck at Cena 2000 on the waterfront on Front Street in Newburgh.
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