Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Newburgh: A Tale of Two Cities

by Felicia Hodges

Mention Newburgh and chances are pretty good that peaceful, idyllic settings won’t come to mind. What most people envision when Newburgh comes up in conversation are crime, poverty and abandoned buildings – urban blight in all its glory. Because of the number of female-headed households, high unemployment rate, poverty and the percentage of adult residents without a high school diploma or GED, the city was listed as one of the state’s most stressed cities in the early 1980s where it remains to this day. And according to the U.S. Census, a little over 25 percent of Newburgh’s population lived below the federal poverty line in 2000. Like many inner-city areas, Newburgh has its tribulations. But it also has its triumphs.

Nestled at the northeastern tip of Orange County, the City of Newburgh only has 3.8 square miles of land but is home to New York State’s second largest historic district and even has two sites named to the National Register of Historic Places – the Dutch Reform Church and Washington’s Headquarters. Gorgeous views of the Hudson River? Newburgh’s got that. Stunning architecture complete with a bevy of Gothic, Greek and Colonial revival-style buildings that could rival many a Brooklyn neighborhood? Yep, it’s got that too. The beauty of the area and the fact that it is only 60 miles from New York City is a huge draw for folks who may work in NYC but want to live and play a little further north.

“If you look around, it’s gorgeous,” says Barbara Ballarini, who moved to Newburgh with her husband, Edwine Seymour and their then two-year-old daughter in 2005 to open Caffé Macchiato, a restaurant that sits directly across the street from Washington’s headquarters. “For us, it was the Hudson River, definitely. That and the idea that we’d be in front of one of the most historic areas in the city.”

“Having a brownstone in any of the five boroughs [of New York City] is virtually impossible” says 25-year-old Long Island native Cherry Vick who plans on re-locating with her fiancé after their wedding later this year. “So I started looking here.”

A self-proclaimed history buff who already commutes to in New York City for work, Vick says she began looking for information about areas to the north and was impressed by the photos of old buildings and historic properties in Newburgh that she was able to find online.

“What struck me was the architecture. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before Newburgh goes through the same restoration process as the boroughs in New York City,” she says.  To get others who may be looking for a great spot to put down roots and raise a family to see the city in a more positive light, Vick began a blog last year about Newburgh’s restoration and renovation efforts by individuals and groups like Habitat for Humanity.

Days of Old
Before Newburgh was even a city, it was declared to be “a pleasant place to build a town” by Henry Hudson when he made his expedition up the river in 1609. Still the first settlement wasn’t made until 100 years later by German Lutherans who named the area the Palatine Parish by Quassic. By the middle of the century, the area was comprised mostly of folks of English and Scottish descent who changed the name to Parish of Newburgh after a place in Scotland in 1752. Newburgh was the Continental Army’s headquarters from 1782 until the army was disbanded here near the end of 1783. Not only did General George Washington sleep here, he also received the letter suggesting he become king here as well. Legend has it that to honor his vehement refusal to become a monarch, the name of the street behind the headquarters was changed from Kings Highway to Liberty Street.

Originally the county seat of Ulster County, Newburgh became part of Orange County when county lines were redrawn in 1789. Eleven years later, it was incorporated as a village and was eventually chartered as a city in 1865.

Because of its location on the Hudson between Albany and New York City, Newburgh became a transportation hot spot during the industrial boom of the 1800s and underwent an economic peak when manufacturing industries moved in. But when those same businesses began to relocate to other places in the late 1900’s and transportation activity shifted from the river to the roads, it ushered in an economic decline the city is still trying to climb out of today.

“Right now, we’re still in transition,” says mayor Nicholas Valentine. “We haven’t made it yet to where we want to be.”

Still, change is on the horizon, he says, sparked in part by grass-root development efforts, people making investments in run-down buildings that dot the landscape in some neighborhoods, a new city courthouse that opened in June on Broadway, the upcoming opening of the new SUNY Orange campus, business booms in pockets of the city and the return of the forms of transportation that encourage people to leave their cars behind – including a city-wide trolley set to be up and running in about a year and a return to the waterway.

“The [Newburgh-Beacon] ferry has been huge,” Valentine says of the vessel that re-opened in 2005 and transports commuters to and from the Metro North train station on the other side of the Hudson in Beacon. He acknowledges that the lack of public transportation has been a problem for the city but one the city intends to tackle head-on. “You can’t do what we want to do without mass transit,” he adds.

Newburgh's Renaissances
Since the economic bust the city experienced near the turn of the last century, many attempts to restore Newburgh to its former glory have made. During the political turbulence that was the 1960s, the city set the wheels in motion for a new urban renewal plan that involved demolishing the waterfront area, which had been home to shopping, restaurants, theater and other entertainment when times were better. Historic buildings that many called home were also leveled and a promise of relocating the displaced to new housing projects the city planned to build was made. But the oil embargo and the oil crisis of 1973 happened and the federal and state dollars that were to help pay for the new housing structures were no longer available. The area remained empty until the late 1990’s when a new effort by the city to bring businesses – and tax revenue – back to the waterfront came to fruition. Today, the 35-acre property has been completely redesigned and is home to some of the city’s most unique restaurants and spas, a movie theater and shops. Just try to find a parking space anywhere near Torches restaurant – which is at one end of the waterfront space – or 26 Front Street – the spot for live music, dancing and great food at the other end – between 5pm and midnight on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night.

“But there’s more to Newburgh than just the waterfront,” says Caffé Macchiato’s Ballarini. “People tell us they are happy to rediscover Newburgh. Without the culture, there was no real reason to visit the area.”

It seems like every decade or so a push to revitalize the city is made, says Leetha Berchielli, who has owned Mrs. Max, a full-service dance store housed in the Lake Street Plaza for almost 28 years. “Every time it happens, the dips are a little smaller and the peaks are a little bigger. It’s exciting.”

Berchielli, who recently opened a second location with her daughter, Holly, on Liberty Street a few doors down from Caffé Macchiato says it’s good to see the business owners on the block push forward for a bit of change from the norm. “We all so strongly believe in Newburgh on this street,” she says. “We want it to be a good happy place for people.”

A City of Firsts
As quiet as it’s kept, Newburgh has had an impressive run of historic firsts. Did you know that the first Edison power plant in the country was built here, which enabled Newburgh to be the first city in the U.S. to be electrified? It was also one of the first cities to fluoridate its water supply and, according to the Newburgh Historical Society, was one of the first cities in the country to give “routine governmental authority” to a city manager in 1915. But much more of what happens on a day-to-day in the city isn’t always noted.

“I think Newburgh falls under the radar, but the reality is that it is a hotbed of arts and culture,” says Tricia Haggerty Wenz, executive director of Safe Harbors of the Hudson, a non-profit agency housed in the restored Hotel Newburgh with a mission of transforming lives and building better communities through housing and the arts. “For me, that’s one of the highlights.”

For the cultural buzz that hums within Newburgh, Haggerty Wenz credits the emerging art galleries, schools like the Newburgh Arts Academy, local businesses on Liberty Street and in other neighborhoods as well as lower Broadway’s new venue for live performances and local art – the Ritz Theater – which has hosted several sold-out concerts and cultural events in the last year.

“They create pockets of stability. There’s been a little more pride in the city. I’m starting to see more people stroll the streets than before,” she says.

Mayor Valentine agrees. “It seems that whenever we do something cultural, it takes off. [People] will come if you do it,” he says. “We need a lot more of that. We get set backs – like the economy – but they are small steps back, not big ones. There’s a lot of new activity still going on.”

Valentine also credits the renewed pride to the reality that Newburgh isn’t really one homogenous city, but a conglomeration of very different, very unique neighborhoods. As an example, he points out that the city’s East End is very urban while the West End is “almost suburban.” Neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Colonial Terraces are as different from other sections as they are from each other.

“We have a lot of neighborhoods that make Newburgh a special place. All the communities are unique and can’t really be lumped together, which is a good thing,” he says.
The Youth Gap
One of the biggest complaints from young people in the area is often that there isn’t much for them to do. With only three area movie theaters (two of which are not actually in the city itself), no skating rink or other place for teens to hang out, Newburgh’s youth sing the same tunes.

“There’s nothing geared towards folks mid-teen to 30 or so unless you have kids,” says Holly Berchielli, who runs the new Mrs. Max boutique on Liberty Street with her mother, Leetha. “I think that’s a big deal.”

To give the young people another venue, Holly says she’s pushing to host concerts at nearby Washington’s Headquarters this summer and will also begin re-publishing Outsider Magazine, a local music, art, tattoo, car and poetry publication that has been on a two-year hiatus.

“The city’s not involved with talking to the young people. I guess it’s up to us business owners to make that happen because how successful can a city be if in the middle no one is interested?”

It is a gap that Valentine fully acknowledges. “We don’t have some cultural things – like coffee shops, places to dance, book stores – that a city needs for young people. We once had three hotels and seven theaters. That did it. We need something like that again.”

Until then, Haggerty Wenz thinks the variety that is Newburgh will eventually characterize it more than the negative images and stereotypes will.

“I don’t think the crime and blight defines us. What defines us is the diversity,” she says. “I love this city.”

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