Twelve years ago I was participating in a community clean-up of a vacant lot in downtown Newburgh when someone found a deer leg. The rest of the deer was nowhere to be found.
The cleanup ended for the day shortly after that, on account of temporary demoralization.
That lot has since been transformed into a lush and sustainable urban park, complete with sculptures that double as public cell phone charging stations and massive, stately photographic portraits of Newburgh residents peering down from the wall of the once-and-future Ritz Theater. If you're looking for one thing to symbolize the positive changes happening in Newburgh today, stand on the corner of Broadway (the widest main street in America) and Liberty Street (one of the hottest blocks in the Hudson Valley right now).
When Bryan Quinn, the owner of the environmental design firm One Nature and chief designer of the park, was working on the project, locals would often stop and ask him and his crew what was going on. He would reply that they were building a park. The response was almost always the same.
It's an appropriate question. For decades, the message that the rest of the state had for the citizens of Newburgh, as its downtown crumbled, its infrastructure collapsed, and the city was hailed as "the Murder Capital of New York," was: You're on your own. Now new projects and new developments are making their way across the city.
To be clear, Newburgh still does have very real and very pressing issues. The city may have beautiful housing stock, but many of the elegant old houses, the ones that haven't been outright condemned, are in disrepair and kept that way by landlords taking advantage of people in dire economic straits. And while the city's notorious (though falling) crime rate is mostly a result of inter-gang violence confined to a few hot spots, that's cold comfort to the countless mothers and fathers whose children have had their lives cut short on the city's bluestone sidewalks, Newburgh's future generations lost to the streets.
In a city in which tomorrow has seemed bleak for so long, the overdue influx of money and attention is welcome. But for many long-term residents, the question remains: Is Newburgh finally being lifted up? Or taken for a ride?
The Original Bright SpotThe fall of Newburgh is a well-known cautionary tale, familiar to anyone who's studied urban planning. A dynamic, thriving city, the first city with an electric grid in America, Newburgh was knocked down by the one-two punch of an interstate highway (I-84, which bypassed the city) and urban renewal, which gutted much of downtown. But when Newburgh realized that outside help wasn't coming, it rolled up its sleeves and got to work.
Houses of worship, parents, community activists, and social service nonprofits worked together to keep those hotspots of crime from spreading to the rest of Newburgh. The city's waterfront was developed into a miniature village of eateries and spas, but with a towering hill separating the waterfront from the rest of the city, the economic effects of the development stayed on the waterfront. It's a lovely place to spend an evening, but both geographically and culturally, it's never felt like Newburgh.
The city's fits and starts of renewal struggled to take hold until about 10 years ago, when a few things happened in close conjunction to one another. The Newburgh Community Land Bank formed and started getting abandoned properties fixed up and back on the tax rolls. The Newburgh chapter of Habitat For Humanity, which was formed by three long-time Newburgh residents sitting around a kitchen table in 1999, evolved into a robust nonprofit that's since completed over 100 projects in the city. Safe Harbors of the Hudson took over a dilapidated single-room-occupancy hotel and turned it into safe and affordable housing for those who would otherwise be preyed on by Newburgh's more unscrupulous landlords, and opened up a gallery and performance space as well. Around the corner on Liberty Street, the Wherehouse bar and restaurant opened, booking bands in the back. One block south, Newburgh Art Supply opened to cater to the artists who had begun arriving, attracted by cheap rents and ample space. The Newburgh Brewing Company started churning out award-winning beers in a former paper box factory, acting both geographically and culturally as a bridge between the waterfront scene and the city itself. Suddenly, people who didn't live in Newburgh were coming downtown for a night out. Suddenly, Liberty Street was the place to be.
With the benefit of hindsight, Liberty Street was always the ideal place for Newburgh's renaissance to begin. It's a narrow, charming street dotted with small storefronts for blocks, many of which were empty. They didn't stay empty for long.
Opportunity Knocks"I have no interest in running a restaurant in Newburgh," says Leon Johnson. It's a pretty surprising thing to hear from someone who appears to be running a restaurant in Newburgh. But Lodger, located on the first floor of 188 Liberty Street in a former undertaker's office, is, upon further inspection, operating in a strange, liminal space between a restaurant and something with a proximity to food that seeks to address a variety of social problems. The name itself, Lodger, also cheekily refers to a state of in-betweenness: Johnson moved here a few years ago and isn't ruling out moving on in the near future. Even the space, an 1830s building that was raised in the 1880s when the streets were redone to fix drainage issues, has a transitory nature to it, as the filled-in fireplaces and closets hover just above one's head. Johnson refers to the night-time atmosphere of the space as having a "Harry Potter Platform 9¾" vibe to it.
Lodger does, in fact, serve food, although until outdoor dining returns and the pandemic ends, that means limited takeout on Fridays and a $45 prix fixe on Saturdays. But if you do grab a table on Saturdays, you're doing it in view of the food pantry next to the front door Johnson fills six times a day. When COVID struck, Johnson started cooking hundreds of school lunches every week until the school district could get back up to speed. He and his students (he takes on three at a time from the Newburgh Free Academy) also cook for the residents at the Exodus House behind their building, a nonprofit that houses people recently released from prison after long-term incarceration and who are slowly making their way back into society. "We give away more food than we sell," says Johnson.
We're interrupted by hammering next door, where the former headquarters of the local NAACP chapter has been recently bought by an investment company and is being renovated. We talk about the rumors of investment companies from New York City who are planning on buying hundreds of Newburgh properties over the next 12 months. (I reach out to one such company, who touts Newburgh on their website as being "an ideal location for new investments," the next day for confirmation, and am ignored.) Johnson notes that in the past few months, more than half of the diners at Lodger are people who had just moved to Newburgh from New York City.
"I came here from Detroit," says Johnson. "I know what this means. The same dialogues are happening."
If Newburgh's revival is still years behind the booms that other cities in the Hudson Valley have gone through, that lag time has given the city a chance to learn from other's mistakes. Namely, the point at which improvement goes through the looking glass and comes out the other side as gentrification, displacing the long-term residents who made the revival possible in the first place. Some of those mistakes have benefitted the city directly, as the owners of many of Liberty Street's eateries are in Newburgh because Beacon, just across the river, has become unaffordable. But as Newburgh welcomes developers who are finally showing interest in the city, it's also making sure not to be too welcoming.
"We have a lot of interest from developers to do something here, and we need to make sure that it can happen in a way that's not to the exclusion of people who currently live in the city," said Austin DuBois, who is the head of the city's Industrial Development Agency and also serves on Newburgh's new Strategic Economic Development Advisory Committee. "A lot of places can pave over a farm or sell out to a developer. And while we want to welcome and accommodate development, we want to be responsible and make sure it helps the people who already live here."
Back at Lodger, I ask Johnson what newcomers to the city can do to make sure they're on the side of positive, as opposed to negative, change. "I'm not convinced that's a binary question," he says. "I don't think I'm on the right side, and I don't think I'm on whatever the wrong side is. But I would situate my answer around: What is the nature of your contribution? What are you contributing to besides the tax base?"
Real City, Real City IssuesLike a lot of people who move to the Hudson Valley, Sisha Ortuzar was looking to get out of New York City. But unlike a lot of those people, the former chef who cofounded the 'Witchcraft series of restaurants with Tom Colicchio wasn't looking for something cute. "The reason Newburgh appealed to me is the same reason that some people don't like it," says Ortuzar, who moved here five years ago. "It's a real city with city issues. It's not a quaint little upstate town. It's a beautiful place with a nice mix of old buildings and great architecture, but it's also a real place where people are trying to make a go at it."
We're sitting in a common room of the latest outpost of the local coworking mini-chain Beahive in the Wireworks building, a refurbished and redeveloped spring factory that Ortuzar, along with Poughkeepsie developers AE Baxter and the design studio Mapos, have spent the past few years working on. The building, which also features apartments, artists' studios, and an eventual retail space, opened just a few weeks ago. COVID may have slowed the project down, but many Newburgh development projects were able to get back up and running—with the proper precautions—rather quickly, since projects that had affordable housing components were allowed to get back to work sooner.
The Wireworks project keeps coming up when I ask people in Newburgh about what they consider an example of "good development." Certainly the architectural details, the refinished wood tables made out of the tops of sewing machine tables that were found on site, the brick walls, the soaring ceilings, and the way the late-afternoon light makes the building seem to glow from the inside, has something to do with it. But Ortuzar takes his role as a citizen of Newburgh seriously. "I'm glad that I live here," he says. "This is my community, so I'm not going to just develop for others. It's for us who live here."
For the city's revival to stick, it needs more larger-scale projects like Wireworks, ones that will provide jobs and/or more affordable housing. That's finally happening, says Joe Czajka, vice president of Pattern for Progress, a public policy think tank based in Newburgh. The Newburgh Food and Farm initiative received a $100,000 grant to build and maintain community gardens. Atlas Industries completed an eight-year project to transform a 55,000-square-foot warehouse located just across the street from Wireworks into Atlas Studios, and were hosting markets and readings before COVID struck. Thornwillow Press is building a makers' village. Graft Cider is opening up a new cider tasting room, and Spirits Lab is operating a distillery on Ann Street in the ADS Warehouse space.
"I'm not into the idea of a place where you have to drive around just to live on a daily basis, so for me, Newburgh has everything," says Gita Nandan, an architect who opened the ADS space with her husband, the sculptor Jens Veneman. They came to Newburgh from Brooklyn two years ago to find studio space for Veneman and promptly fell in love with the city. They also fell in love with the grey, T-shaped warehouse space on Ann Street, but knew that if they bought such a centrally located space, they'd have to use it as a means to contribute to the community.
Nandan shows me the parts of the building that are still in development: where the artists' studios will be, the garden, the outside wall that will be turned into a movie screen. The courtyard already became an outdoor community hub last summer with such events as an art show honoring the 150th anniversary of Frederick Douglass coming to Newburgh to give a speech celebrating the 15th Amendment, and the couple is hoping to add pop-up retail and other outdoor, COVID-safe events this summer as well. "I like the way that people are being active and involved," she says. "There are great people here."
The New NarrativeCzajka and Dubois both say that the city is in a good position to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever, especially considering the increasing exodus of people leaving New York City after COVID, the city's continued focus on making sure that new development has an affordable housing component, and the relief money coming to municipalities as part of the just passed $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. "It's what our elected officials are supposed to do: represent the communities that are in distress, and get federal aid back to those communities," says Czajka. "I think that's very positive momentum."
Dubois points to the just-completed $1.25 million deal to convert three historic side-by-side buildings—a YMCA, a Masonic Lodge, and an American Legion hall—into a hotel, spa, and restaurant by the Sullivan County based Foster Supply Hospitality. It's not just the size of the development that excites Dubois. "It's from a Hudson Valley native,who really cares about being a good neighbor, working with the city, employing its residents and providing opportunities," says Dubois. "It's a unicorn of a development."
The project, says Foster Supply Hospitality founder Sims Foster, whose family has lived in Sullivan County for over 100 years, won't alter the historic architecture of the buildings. What it will change is the city's story. "When we're open, we will bring over 25,000 people a year to the city of Newburgh," Foster tells me. "We will give them a positive experience about Newburgh. And then those 25,000 people will go back to their proverbial water coolers and say 'Hey I had a great weekend in Newburgh.' There's been a negative narrative about Newburgh for a long time. When you change that negative narrative into a positive narrative, like a hotel can do if they do it right, it can really help expedite a lot of good things for the people that live in that city."
One doesn't need to wait for these new projects to open to come and see the real Newburgh, and there's plenty of reasons to visit even if you're already familiar with Liberty Street. Newburgh's ample bounty of taco stands is well known, but there's also the clumps of Caribbean, Central American, and South American eateries that continue to pop up throughout the city like wildflowers. There's its wild and wide-open views of the river and the Hudson Highlands, offering the ability to be in an urban environment that never lets one forget that you're also in a changing natural landscape, with fog rolling in and clouds ascending the summits. And of course, there are the people of Newburgh itself, who have held the city together for decades. None of what is happening today would have been possible without them.
"The people here are struggling, but there are people who live here with really good ideas and a strong entrepreneurial spirit who want to improve their community," says Czajka. "There needs to be programs, incentives, and technical assistance on how to create pathways to economic opportunity to eliminate generational poverty. And it can be done."
This is Newburgh today, not in need of a single savior, but of anyone willing to dream big and fight hard. It's worth remembering that the seeds of Newburgh's regrowth were planted on Liberty Street over 200 years ago, at George Washington's headquarters, now standing as a park that overlooks the valley. This is where Washington received what is now known as the Newburgh Letter, asking him to rule the new country as a king, and Washington said that America would have no king. Newburgh, and America, would be governed by the strength and the will and the vision of its people alone. It would rise and fall as one.