On January 2, community members and local leaders gathered at the Poughkeepsie High School to witness a historic moment: the inauguration of Yvonne Flowers as the city’s first Black mayor. The event was filled with celebration.
At the start of the ceremony, Talent Davis—of the MASS Design Group—sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (also known as “The Black National Anthem,” written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900). As Flowers took the stage, her entrance was accompanied by “I See a Victory,” a song crafted for the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which portrays three Black women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. And surprising everyone was an unexpected visit from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who also made history as the first Black woman elected to her position. James stepped up to the stage to commend Flowers for “shattering a glass ceiling.”
Flowers, a lifelong Poughkeepsie resident and four-term Fifth Ward councilwoman, was a popular candidate in the recent mayoral election. She won every one of the city’s eight wards, with approximately 68 percent of the vote. Her inauguration is a particularly meaningful milestone for the community, given that about a third of the city’s 32,000 residents are Black, representing the largest concentration of Black and minority residents in Dutchess County.
“Being a Black mayor shows the kids in our Black and Brown communities that there’s so many different positions and different avenues that they can aspire to, regardless of their background,” says Flowers. “People were literally crying at the oath of office ceremony, because they thought they would never see this. It’s exciting right now. I feel like I have to make sure I work twice as hard because I don’t want to let the people down.”
Housing Affordability and Homelessness
One of Flowers’s major goals, along with improving the public safety and the economic development of Main Street, is to deal with Poughkeepsie’s housing affordability crisis. It’s a problem that Flowers understands well; she and her family lived in Poughkeepsie public housing for 15 years before her parents could afford a home of their own.
“People are hurting out here, trying to find affordable housing,” says Flowers. “Right now, a family is living in a hotel because they can’t afford rent. They had to leave their previous place because the landlord increased their rent by about five or six hundred dollars a month. We have a lot of people that are on fixed income, including Social Security, disability, and retirement, and they’re finding it very hard to find an apartment they can afford. That is a big crisis here in the City of Poughkeepsie.”
Housing affordability represents just one facet of the broader challenges confronting Poughkeepsie. The city, with a poverty rate of approximately 18 percent, is also dealing with the related issue of homelessness. A coalition of civic-minded locals—including sculptor Suprina Troche, Equitable Future Inc. CEO Brian Robinson, and Celebrating the African Spirit cofounder Carmen McGill—have united to address this concern. Operating under the name ¡PK Forward!, they have actively engaged in city and county meetings for the past two years, advocating for improvements in how Dutchess County handles homelessness.
They have rallied against the county’s proposals to establish a 120-bed transitional homeless shelter at 26 Oakley Street and a temporary emergency homeless shelter at the old Dutchess County Jail on North Hamilton Street. In March, the county reversed its decision to locate a shelter on Oakley due to cost, and building and zoning issues. However, in August, the county said it was applying for state funding of up to $15 million to move ahead with redevelopment of the location—despite opposition from the stakeholders committee, a group created by the legislature to represent the community during the facility’s development process.
¡PK Forward! argues that Poughkeepsie bears a disproportionate burden of the county’s unhoused. “The city already has 39.5 percent of the homeless beds in the county, but we’re only 10 percent of the population in the county,” says Troche. “Forcing the Fifth Ward to take on two homeless shelters is not conducive to the healing needed for this vulnerable population.”
The group has also raised concerns about the logic behind housing homeless individuals in a jail. “Why would you want to put people in a jail building when they haven’t committed any kind of crime?” questions McGill. “Why subject them to that environment? On top of that, they’re only allocating $750,000 to redesign the place, which isn’t enough. They gave $25 million to rehab the sports stadium, but they can’t put money toward people.” Robinson points out that 92 out of the 100 cells in the jail fail to meet the minimum standards set by New York State law, which requires a minimum of 80 square feet per room for housing the homeless.
Broadly, Robinson criticizes the county for not clearly communicating long-term goals to address homelessness. He also questions the criteria used to determine shelter locations, arguing that the county lacks clear data to support their choice of multiple sites in Poughkeepsie. “What is the unemployment rate, bond rating, and fiscal health of the city?” asks Robinson. “What is our crime rate, arrest rate, and gun violence rate? These types of public health concerns need to be considered in the evaluation methods, rather than having a predetermined answer and picking arbitrary criteria to fit that answer.” The group hopes that the county’s plans can shift toward more permanent housing solutions in thoroughly researched locations. They’ve also initiated a petition against the two shelters, with 600 signatures so far.
When asked for a statement on current plans for the sites, Dutchess County Executive Sue Serino offers: “Ten days into the New Year and my new administration, we are in the midst of the necessary conversations, fact-finding, and due diligence review on a variety of projects, including plans for the emergency housing facility, to determine what our next steps will be.”
In the midst of these challenges, there’s a growing recognition in Poughkeepsie that the city’s youth play a vital role in shaping its future, and various movements are working to foster positive change. In November, the US Department of Education awarded the Poughkeepsie City School District a $2.5 million grant as part of its Full-Service Community Schools program.
The money is going to be put toward the district’s five elementary schools for programs like “high-dosage” tutoring, afterschool enrichment, early childhood education, and interventions targeting chronic absenteeism and violence prevention. The Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet, a collective of city youth and officials tasked with guiding local policy, worked closely with the school district to support the grant application.
The Children’s Cabinet also played a crucial role in another development: securing grant funding from the Wallace Foundation for the creation of the Poughkeepsie Board of Artistic Youth (PK BAY). Comprising 12 teenagers from the city, each representing one of four youth nonprofits—the Art Effect, Family Services, Community Matters 2, and the Boys & Girls Club—PK BAY focuses on empowering young people to advocate for art, entrepreneurship, and youth voice to be valued in community leadership.
“What’s most exciting about the work we’re doing is that we’re creating a cradle-to-career support network for young people,” says Art Effect executive director Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt. “Poughkeepsie is small enough that if we make a plan to support all the young people in the city, we can do it.”
In January, PK BAY received proposals from 10 artists to help conceive a public art installation that enables youth and community participation. Once the students choose an artist to collaborate with, they’ll work together to plan the public art throughout winter and fabricate it in spring. The installation will be positioned within the Youth Arts Empowerment Zone, a multi-block area anchored by the Art Effect’s Trolley Barn Gallery on Main Street. “The vision is that, over time, the area around Main Street will be filled with art, transforming into a highly inspiring and uplifting area of the community,” Fenichel-Hewitt says. The art will focus on at least one of the following themes: unity and peace, anti-violence, Poughkeepsie history, or drug abuse prevention.
For the past few years, Dutchess County has been developing plans to construct a multi-use facility on the site of the former Poughkeepsie YMCA. The project, named the Youth Opportunity Union (YOU), aims to provide recreational, educational, and health opportunities for young people. The facility is planned to include a family pool, a gym, an early learning center, a fitness center, and a smart lab. But although the YOU has secured $25 million from the county, it still needs to raise $40 to $50 million before the project can come to fruition.
While the YOU remains a work in progress, residents can celebrate one county initiative that has been completed: the MJM Northside Line (named for former county executive Rep. Marc Molinaro). In December, this 1.2-mile urban rail trail officially opened for year-round use. It connects the Hudson Heritage Plaza in the town of Poughkeepsie to Parker Avenue in the city and has amenities like secure bike parking, bench seating, and bike-repair stations.
Seth McKee, executive director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, notes that the trail is “an important link for the city’s northside neighborhoods and communities of color, where many households face economic challenges and do not have access to a household vehicle.” Additional finishing touches, like signage and safety railings, are anticipated to be complete by spring, and future phases may extend the trail to Marist College.
With changes underway and more on the horizon, Mayor Flowers hopes the spirit of activism will help move things in the right direction. “I think what makes Poughkeepsie special is its people and the diversity of its people,” says Flowers. “I love the fact that so many people want to get involved and see Poughkeepsie thrive and flourish. We all see the challenges that are out here. Everyone’s trying to figure out, ‘What can I do to help?’”