Lodger in Newburgh is hard to place in a tidy box. It is, in the broadest sense, a community incubator—a place where people come to break bread, learn crafts, hear music; a hub of collaboration where the Venn diagram of area creatives, farmers, and students overlaps.
For founder Leon Johnson, a papermaker and bookbinder by trade, art and food have always gone hand in hand. “It feels to me like there is a real synchronicity between the book and the plate,” he says. “They both seem to me to be a sort of a version of the hearth.” Perhaps, therein, we find our definition of Lodger: a communal hearth for Newburgh.
Before the pandemic, Johnson would host groups of eight for a workshop he calls Bread and Book. The groups, usually self-organized, would arrive on Sunday afternoons for a three-course, locally sourced, organic meal and a lesson in 16th-century bookbinding techniques. He describes the scene as “a sort of slightly drunken monastery,” adding with a chuckle, “you stumble out with a journal under your arm. It’s not bad.”
On Fridays and Saturday nights, he opened Lodger to the public as a restaurant (though he proudly says of the whole endeavor that it “feels like it's got nothing to do with the hospitality industry or restaurant industry, thank god.”) Other programming included a culinary immersion workshop for local students, internships, performances, readings, film screenings, and art shows.
All of that screeched to the halt when COVID hit. But Johnson wasted no time in turning the whole ship to meet the glaring demand for student lunches. “The Newburgh School District wasn't really fully prepared for the kids being sent home,” he says. Teaming up with Beacon-based food justice nonprofit Fareground, which provided upward of 80 percent of the food, Lodger became a place for assembling and delivering meals to area families. “We were doing 200 lunches a week,” he says of the initiative, which went on for 16 months. Add to that the 80 bagged dinners a week they were putting together for residents of the halfway house next door.
In an additional collaboration with Fareground and with Rexhill Studio in Beacon, Lodger opened an ongoing outdoor pantry site, stocking dry goods like pasta, stock, and canned veggies in addition to personal hygiene products. “Food has always felt like a line of resistance to me,” says Johnson, who was raised by a single mom in Cape Town in the ’70s. “Just my mother’s little kitchen as a line of defense against appaling conditions of apartheid in South Africa and my father, who was a thug.”
It’s no wonder Johnson’s endeavors have always found their way to food justice. In Detroit, where he was living with his partner before Newburgh, he founded an experimental school, Market Studio Kitchen, which Huff Post described as a place where “food, art, job training, culture, and pleasure intersect.” Sound familiar?
These days, in addition to the pantry, which is restocked three times a week, Lodger opens on Saturday nights for dinner service by reservation. The small storefront can seat 22, but in another few weeks the garden will be open, bringing the total capacity to 40. Since its inception, Lodger has paid all of its interns and staff $20 an hour, with a 20 percent tipping program.Premier Pastures, and Field and Larder. The 10 tagines Johnson uses for cooking, as well as the wine decanters and dinnerware, were all custom collaborations with the Newburgh Pottery.
Every Monday from 12 to 3pm, chef Yasuyo Hibino runs a pop-up called Hibino. “She cooks very beautiful, organic, pristine Japanese food,” Johnson says. “That has been a big success.” Once a month, Lodger has a Song and Supper event, which features local songwriters sharing works in progress. “They play songs, it’s sort of discursive, and we serve a relatively simple dinner,” Johnson says. And Bread and Book, of course, is available by inquiry.
Non-Colonialist Community Engagement
In addition to sharing three student interns from the Newburgh Free Academy with neighbor Thornwillow Press, Johnson is also working with the print shop and publishing house to create a paper making facility, which he hopes will come online in 2023. Johnson is enthralled by the legacy of papermaking and book printing in the region, from Dard Hunter’s famous Gomez Mill House, seven miles away in Marlboro, to the ivy-covered gravestone of renowned American type designer Frederic Goudy he accidentally uncovered with his son in the Newburgh cemetery.
“I think it is super important if you claim a place in a community to know what the hell you are looking to synchronize with,” Johnson says. “I'm not convinced that the people moving in and buying property are either interested or sensitive to the ley lines here.”
Johnson’s move to Newburgh was in large part inspired by his time in Detroit and the parallels he saw. “My mother described different things that present challenges as problems worth having,” he says. “And I liked what I sensed in Newburgh in terms of joining a community. I felt there was some synchronicity between the idea of renewal that I witnessed unfolding in Detroit and the supposed renewal unfolding in Newburgh and, inherent in that, some challenges. Like how not to be just another colonialist. If you've got things that are problems you believe are worth having—like feeding people or engaging people in learning trajectories that empower youth—you have to be paying attention to the degree that you recognize that those possibilities exist and there is a way to meet them in an appropriate and enriching way.”
For Johnson, and for Lodger, the model of productive and nonintrusive community engagement begins with listening, with receptivity, and with “learning how to participate as opposed to planning on participating.” His idea of involvement was never as simple as buying a building and starting a business. In fact, he doesn’t own the space at 188 Liberty Street.
“We’re lodgers, we just rent. We contribute to the pack space in other ways than landowning,” Johnson says. “We have a cooperative relationship with farmers and growers and neighbors and colleagues. That’s why I love the sense of community here. It's taken four years, in a way, to arrive at a place that feels right and worthwhile.”