Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Letter from Havana

Havana: one of the world's great cities on the brink of a fraught transition 

With negotiations under way to restore US ties, the Cuban capital’s days as a kind of open-air museum where time stood still are numbered. As the country opens up to the outside world, its people look likely to push for faster change

Michael Deibert in Havana

Wednesday 17 June 2015 

The Guardian

(Read original article here)

To visit Havana in the late spring, before the torpid humidity and showers of summer, is a glorious thing. Strolling through the streets of La Habana Vieja, its derelict and weather-worn facades still elegant, one encounters the grandeur of squares such as the Plaza de la Catedral, its church built in 1727, where leisurely cats and songbirds find refuge from the exhaust fumes that plague so much of the city.

As they have for decades, at dusk fishermen cast their lines and nets off the Malecón and into the splashing Caribbean, the sun descending as a fiery globe into the sea before them. In Vedado, once a glittering nightlife destination for the 1950s jet set, the old houses and green parks manage to catch some afternoon coolness as they slouch down towards the bay.

The last few years have one been ones of rapid change in Havana, one of the world’s great iconic cities for well over a hundred years and a traditional weathervane of the fortunes of the country as a whole. The days where it served as a kind of an open-air museum where time stood still appear to be drawing to a close, with the opening of a long-closed system generating an inevitable tension and dynamism.

Ruled by the Communist dictatorship of the Castro brothers since 1959 (and by the US-backed capitalist dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista for seven years before that), last December US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro announced that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the US had placed on Cuba would be relaxed, and that full diplomatic relations would be restored. Confirmation that embassies are to reopen in Washington DC and Havana is expected in early July, according to the latest reports. Many in Cuba and abroad hope that the US embargo on the country – a blunt and ineffective tool that collectively punishes Cubans as a whole rather than their government – will soon end as well.

Such rapid geopolitical shifts mirror the changes taking place within Cuba itself. Beginning in 2008, two years after Raúl took the helm from his brother Fidel, Cubans have been allowed to own cellphones and DVDs, and in 2010 the Cuban government began permitting foreign investors to lease government land and allowed individual Cubans greater control over the island’s agricultural and farming sectors. A 2012 law eliminated the onerous exit permit that, for 50 years, Cubans had been required to possess in order to travel abroad, and Cubans can now get online at a handful of cyber cafes around the island – although the price (around US$5 an hour) remains prohibitively expensive in a nation where many people make only $30 a month.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.

Festooned with its ceaseless homages to the dead, Havana can still feel more like a necrocracy than a living dictatorship. There is the inevitable mustachioed and solemn José Martí, slain by the Spanish in Dos Ríos in 1895. The bewhiskered Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary commander whose plane disappeared while flying from Camagüey to Havana in 1959. And there is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentina-born revolutionary who served as Fidel Castro’s right-hand man perhaps as much as Raúl did and who – when the revolutionary government seized power – oversaw the execution of dozens of prisoners at La Cabaña fortress above Havana, most with only summary trials. Che went on to support the quixotic ambitions of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in eastern Congo before turning his attentions to Bolivia, where he was captured and killed in October 1967.

I opted to spend a morning in a less ideological city of the dead, the Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón, situated in Veadado and spanning many city blocks (the cemetery even maintains little street signs in case the departed should become confused and lose their way). Within the cemetery one can visit the final repose of the Swiss-Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, the photographer Alberto Korda and former senator Eduardo Chibás, who committed a spectacular on-air suicide on Cuban radio in 1951. Scattered throughout the cemetery, too, are graves of a number of members of the Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban initiatory society that may seem to have echoes of the Freemasons, but which has its roots in pre-colonial Nigeria and Cameroon.

An area with a particularly strong Abakuá tradition is Regla, just across the bay. Taking the short ferry ride across from the city proper offers one of the best views of La Habana Vieja. Alighting from the ferry, we were greeted by an Afro-Cuban woman chanting at the water’s edge and employing various accoutrements in what appeared to be a ritual for Yemayá, the chief orisha of Santería (as Cuba’s syncretic Afro-Cuban religion is called) and goddess of the waters and seas.

The orisha spirits kept popping up during my visit. The following evening at a “party for Yemayá” in the Playa neighbourhood just west of Vedado, a local friend and I drove through the dusk-hued streets in a shared public taxi before arriving at a street of modest low-rise concrete block buildings. The 
party was already in progress: mangoes, rum and a fully-decorated birthday cake proclaiming 

“Felicidades Yemayá!” were laid before the altar. 

The people – lovely and welcoming, though threadbare – were drinking rum, wolfing down food, dancing to reggaeton and sitting out on the uncovered roof as the cool night breeze blew in under a blanket of Caribbean stars. The host’s daughter, in her early 20s and conversant in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Italian, wondered if the changes that were coming to Cuba might mean some respite from a life that, for her parents, had seemed to be one of unrelenting grind and struggle.

Walking through Vedado later that night, I was reminded of the great Cuban novelist Heberto Padilla, who had written in his post-revolutionary book En mi jardín pastan los héroes (translated into English as Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden) that “at night the neighbourhood recovered its old majesty. Darkness hid the cracks and grime, and from a distance it took on again its old splendour.”

Padilla was part of a landscape of writers that suffered terribly after the revolution, though rage at his ideological deviation was not further inflamed by his being gay, as was the case with authors such as Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera. (Padilla had also written that “a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice … [but also] repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads.”).

In the sexual sense, times have markedly changed in Cuba, with Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, running the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual and advocating on behalf of LGBT rights. Gay couples, though not exactly flamboyant, certainly do not have to cower as they did in earlier times. A less appetising side to the country’s more permissive sexual atmosphere – prostitution – remains a fact of life in Havana and a draw for a certain kind of male (and to a lesser degree, female) tourist here, as it has since the early 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union sent the country’s economy into a tailspin.

But Cuba, even its increasingly cosmopolitan capital, remains an authoritarian state. The last time Cubans were freely able to chose who represents them was when they voted for Carlos Prío Socarrás for president in 1948, a presidency cut short by Batista’s 1952 coup. And it is highly doubtful that current visitors – sitting in the back of the spotlessly maintained American cars which tour the city, or smoking cigars at the Hotel National or the Hotel Habana Libre – know the names of, say, Wilmar Villar Mendoza, a dissident designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, who died on hunger strike in January 2012. In January, Cuba released 53 political prisoners – but human rights groups here say that other political prisoners remain in jail.

A contrasting city

At the time of the 1959 revolution, Havana ranked as one of the world’s great and dynamic cities. The country’s literacy rate was 76%, the fourth highest in Latin America. Cuba was 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita, and it boasted one of the largest middle classes in the entire region. Hard as it may be to believe today, the country ranked fifth in the hemisphere in terms of income.

But there were also yawning inequalities, between both city and country and black and white. By the mid-1950s, Batista – once a democratically elected president – had emerged into an odious and fully formed dictator who showed little interest in addressing the poverty from which he himself had come (in his case in Holguín province). The place was ripe for revolt, and so it came. But, hobbled both by the nature of Cuban communism and thuggish, cloddish US attempts at intervention and destabilisation, so too a gradual diminution of Havana’s glory took place over the ensuing decades.
As a Cuban-American friend noted upon his first visit, the buildings and vistas of Havana are so overwhelming in their magnificence – and their dilapidation and the poverty surrounding them so apparent – it sometimes seems like a visitor has wandered into the ruins of a once-great civilisation, like the Aztecs or the Mayans, now being squatted by a banana republic.

The grandiose seat of government, El Capitolio, was completed in 1929 during the dictatorship of independence-era general Gerardo Machado. The nearby Gran Teatro de La Habana is even older, having opened in 1838 while Cuba was still under Spanish colonial rule and with its present home having been finished in 1915 during the presidency of Mario García Menocal. Many of the landmark hotels in Havana likewise opened during the reigns of either Machado (the Hotel Nacional) or Batista (the Habana Libre), an irony that seems lost both on many visitors as well as the regime.

Taking a shared public taxi out to the suburb of Alamar, faded imperial grandeur slaps one in the face in the form of both the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (better known as El Morro and named after the Biblical magi) and the aforementioned La Cabaña, both haughtily guarding the city as they did in the days of slavery and plunder.

With the sparkling Caribbean on one side, the cab veers inland and eventually the housing project of Alamar, built in the early 1970s to house workers (and, often, Russian advisers), rears up into view. A visitor steps out to be surrounded by multistorey tenements that would be recognisable to anyone familiar with Latin American urban planning. For all the revolution’s desire to construct a “new man”, the appearance of Alamar is rather similar to low-income housing elsewhere in the world.
I’ve come here to visit a friend, part of a poetry and art collective that has appeared throughout the US and in Latin America. We talk in an apartment that is nearly devoid of furniture, as his small children play outside and neighbours amble by.

“Yes, people can talk now, but nothing changes,” he says. He’s happy about Cuba’s increased access and connectedness to the rest of the world, but also says that exorbitant internet costs have made him “a guerilla” with his time, preparing his emails and internet searches days in advance before hopping on and trying to frantically get everything done before his time (and money) run out.

After sipping some very sweet, very strong coffee, we walk through the entire complex, several miles of similar characterless high-rises, the monotony of which is broken up by unexpected delights such as stumbling across a quintet playing the lilting son music of Cuba’s countryside simply for their own edification in the shadow of one of the towering buildings. Eventually, we walk the whole way down to the glittering sea, so clear you can see right to the bottom.

“It’s so peaceful here,” my friend says. “I like to come down here and meditate.”

As we turn around and face the land, he points out Cojimar, the fishing village that longtime Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway memorialised in his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea. In keeping with the absolute absence of anti-Americanism I have come across in Cuba, Hemingway remains a venerated figure on the island, with the country’s largest marina named after him and his home in San Francisco de Paula, just outside of Havana, a national museum.

As my friend is evidence of, many Cubans cherish and welcome the intellectual interaction of the island with the rest of the world. They hope it will only increase in the coming years.

Stale politics

It is hard to visit Havana today and not feel like the country is entering a potentially fraught period of transition. The levers of power in Cuba are still held largely by men who are immensely old. Fidel Castro – whose occasional essays in the state newspaper Granma get stranger every time they appear – is 88 and infirm, while Raúl Castro is 83.

Cuba’s vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is a youthful 54 – but the political trajectory of all but the Castros themselves in Cuba has often been uncertain. One need only look at the fates of Ricardo Alarcón – once a rising star in the Communist Party who found himself demoted and disgraced in 2013, or Arnaldo Ochoa – a widely popular general and hero of Cuba’s war in Angola who perished in front of a firing squad in 1989, for evidence of that.

The more the country opens up to the outside world – as Raúl Casto seems to know it must do in order to survive – and the more access Cubans have to information, the more they (particularly the young) are likely to push for change. The current, curious sense of idleness in Cuba’s political scene – dominated still by revolutionary slogans painted on public walls and propaganda broadcasts from another age – rings more hollow when one realises that there are many countries with good health and education systems that don’t feel the need to deny people the vote in order to achieve them.

Towards the end of my visit, I was pondering these questions as I sat writing under the shade of a tree in Havana’s Parque Central, just in front of the magnificent Gran Teatro de le Habana. Then I heard the shouts: “Libertad! Viva los derechos humanos!” (“Freedom! Long live human rights!”)

I looked up and saw a slight young man with spiky hair. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old. He was shouting these words with his fist raised. A crowd formed, watching mutely and doing nothing. Within a few minutes the police arrived. They handcuffed him, threw him in a car, and hustled him away.

In from the cold: the implications of the US's thawing on Cuba

In from the cold: the implications of the US's thawing on Cuba

Michael Deibert | 12/06/2015 9:00 am

Foreign Direct Investment

The relaxing of travel and commercial restrictions between Cuba and the US announced in 2014 has already seen a glut of international companies visiting the island, enthused by the potential of the country. But is the 'new' Cuba all it appears to be? Michael Deibert investigates.

(Read the original article here)

On a recent flight to the Cuban capital of Havana via Grand Cayman, your correspondent observed a plane full of Americans who could not wait to travel to a land that had for years been forbidden to them. High school children, college students, music promoters, entrepreneurs and Cuban émigrés all hummed with excitement as the clouds parted to reveal the blue-green waters of the Caribbean and the island’s tapering coastline below.

Alighting from José Martí International Airport, visitors are greeted with a billboard featuring the face of Mr Martí (Cuba’s independence hero) paired with that of long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro, while the face of deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is paired with Latin American liberation icon Simón Bolívar.
And despite the revolutionary slogans that still adorn many walls and signposts in Cuba, and despite five decades of economic mismanagement and absent democracy, Havana remains one of the world’s most beautiful cities, even in its current dilapidated state.

All change

Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which began 56 years of Communist dictatorship that continues to this day, Cuba’s adversarial relationship with the US has been one of the touchstones of regional geopolitics. As guerillas from groups such as the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional from El Salvador travelled to Havana to train, the US poured money into right-wing governments – many with questionable human rights records – to stave off Communist expansion in the region.

However, with Fidel Castro having effectively ceded power to his more pragmatic – though no less authoritarian – brother Raúl in 2006 (Raúl became president in 2008 after having exercised 'acting' decision-making in the previous two years), the changes in Cuba have been rapid and startling.

Since 2008, ordinary Cubans have been allowed to possess mobile phones and DVD players, possessions that had previously been tightly controlled by the government. Beginning in 2010, the Cuban government started to allow foreign investors to lease government land for up to 99 years and granted individual Cubans more control over the island's agricultural and farming sectors, something that had previously been in the hands of the government. In 2012, a new law eliminated the exit permit that for 50 years Cubans had been required to possess in order to travel abroad. Cuba's October 2014 Law on Foreign Investment allows 100% ownership in certain sectors by foreign investors, a radical departure  from previous practice, as well as providing significant tax incentives and increased guarantees. Some 3000 restaurants and 8000 rental rooms are now in private hands.

Contributing heavily to the sense of rapid change, in December 2014, after nearly two years of negotiations, US president Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously declared that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the US had placed on dealing with Cuba would be relaxed, and that soon the countries would resume full diplomatic relations with embassies in Washington and Havana (both countries had previously been represented by Interest Sections, which operated below the level of embassies).

In January, Cuba released 53 political prisoners, though the country's human rights groups say other political prisoners remain in jail. At the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, Mr Obama met Mr Castro, the first time leaders of the two countries had met face to face in five decades.

Gaining a foothold

In response to these developments, in recent months companies such as Pernod Ricard, Carrefour, Total, Alstom and Orange (all from France), as well as Mazda, Mitsubishi Sumitomo and Toyota (all from Japan) have been visiting Cuba in an aggressive push to get a foothold in its potentially huge market.

“Clearly the potential to work soon with the US market is what it is motivating the flow of foreign companies visiting Cuba and trying to find opportunities there,” says Tom Herzfeld of Herzfeld Advisors, a company the specialises in Caribbean Basin investments. “[And] Raúl Castro knows that the support from Venezuela and Russia – mainly when oil prices are the lowest they have been in decades – [only offers] breathing space and he needs to take Cuba from practically zero economic growth to a level assuring stability and sustainability.”

Despite this rapid pace of change, however, and despite how ineffective US policy towards Cuba has proved in dislodging the Castro regime, there are members of the politically powerful Cuban exile community in South Florida, just a few kilometres across the straits from Havana, who remain unimpressed and unconvinced that the new policy of engagement with the US is sincere.

“The Castros need confrontation with the US,” says Armando Valladares, as he sits in his West Miami office. Mr Valladares spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for, among other offences, refusing to put an 'I’m with Fidel' sign on his desk at the Cuban ministry of communications in 1960. Upon his release in 1982, he became a US ambassador to the UN.

Mr Valladares says he believes there is “a double standard” in the world’s approach to Cuba, given that other dictatorships in Latin America’s history, such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, were met with economic sanctions and official censure.

Finding a balance

What is beyond dispute is that Raúl Castro is walking a very fine line, attempting to open up Cuba just enough to give its people some level of comfort that has previously eluded them, while at the same time maintaining tight control of the political system (Cubans have not directly elected a president since 1948). Many observers believe that the Cuban government is looking towards China and, especially, Vietnam as potential models.

Everywhere in Havana today, from the relatively posh neighbourhood of Miaramar with its newly opened eateries and embassies, to the more gritty suburb of Regla, with its famous shrine dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Regla, a Catholic icon closely identified with the Santeria Orisha of Yemayá, there is a hunger for change and a hope for the future. Despite a steady diet of government-controlled news that highlights violence and upheaval elsewhere in Latin America in contrast to the calm island on which they live, Cubans, particularly the younger generation, through the use of flash drives and increasingly frequently interactions with foreigners, have more and more of a knowledge of the outside world. And they are increasingly demanding the right to be able to engage with it.

Hungry for economic change, it would not seem long before Cuba’s citizens begin to press for increased political freedoms, as well. How Cuba’s leaders chose to reconcile these two tensions will define the life of this extraordinary country for years to come.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero

Photo © Michael Deibert

Taken during a visit to El Salvador in August 2008 on what would have been his 81st birthday, San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero. Murdered by the enemies of justice on 24 March 1980, beatified on 23 May 2015.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

Resurrecting Newburgh

Wednesday 8 April 2015 12.03 BST

Resurrecting Newburgh

The once-grand American city that had its heart torn out 

Sixty miles north of Manhattan, Newburgh is one of the most architecturally significant of US cities. But its proud history has been undermined by organised crime, drugs and decay – and its struggle to recover is a test-case for the nation

Michael Deibert in Newburgh 

(Please read the original article here)

The snow falling on Newburgh’s Washington Square glows under the moonlight. It was here, located on a steep rise overlooking the water now pooling between slabs of ice on the Hudson River, that George Washington and the Continental Army weathered the last years of their rebellion against British rule, and where, in April 1783, Washington declared a cessation of hostilities, formally ending the American Revolution and effectively declaring the birth of the United States. In the meditative quiet, from the opposite bank the looming mass of Mount Beacon is visible. Through the drifts of snow, the old row of houses surrounding the square – many in various stages of restoration – hold on as ships in a storm.

“To step out my door and see nothing that was built in the last 100 years is something very special,” says David Ludwig, a native of Utah who moved to this city of 30,000 four years ago and opened up a cafe, Martha (named after Washington’s wife). “The way this built environment fits with nature is perfect. There are mountains on the horizon, and it’s beautifully planned and preserved. But it’s sad for the people what has happened to this place.”

A few blocks away, on Benkard Avenue, drug dealers are doing a brisk business selling their product. On Lander Street, with block after block of derelict houses, prostitutes are dressed suggestively, despite the extreme chill. Signs stuck to telephone polls advertise a $3,500 reward for those supplying information about the culprits for dog drownings in the Hudson (Newburgh has an active – and illegal – dog-fighting subculture, mostly centred around pit bulls). On Broadway, which boasts one of the most sweeping views of one of the country’s most scenic rivers, a plaque nailed to a wooden door pays tribute to “Fallen Soldiers and Soldierettes”, listing dozens of names with the warning: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Good or Bad, or on the Left or the Right side of THE GAME.”

Welcome to Newburgh, New York, a city 60 miles north of Manhattan nestled into largely suburban and rural Orange Country, which nevertheless feels as if it could be its larger southern neighbour’s sixth borough. Once one of the grandest cities in the entire north-east, the story of Newburgh’s decline and the fight to resurrect it is the story of the struggle of many cities in the United States, a story that says much about how the nation views its urban centres, and the problems and challenges that go with them.

It is the story of a city whose success rose on the shoulders of working-class Americans who then watched as the livelihoods they depended on disappeared under the seemingly placid gaze of the federal government. It’s the story of how into that void organised crime of various stripes could undermine the fabric of civic life. And it’s the story of a place whose buildings speak not only of a faded grandeur, but also of the frayed social contract of the United States, a contract on life support but not yet fully dead.

An old city by US standards, Newburgh was founded in 1709 by several dozen German Lutheran immigrants (many of the graves in the old city cemetery date back to the 1700s). For decades, it was the key link between the state capital of Albany and New York City, the linchpin of the thriving Hudson River maritime trade to such a degree that deep-sea whaling boats would often dock in its port.

It is no exaggeration to say that Newburgh is one of the most architecturally significant cities in the country. Though important buildings, such as the city’s magnificent Dutch Reformed Church, were being built as early as 1835, it was during the second half of the 19th century that the city’s promise fully bloomed, and it now represents a virtual open-air museum of important architecture from the era. Newburgh native Andrew Jackson Downing and the Anglo-Americans Calvert Vaux (co-creator of New York’s Central Park) and Frederick Clarke Withers all built luxurious, ornate mansions to rival anything seen elsewhere in the country.

With the great houses came an economic boom connected to the rise of local industry, with the city being viewed as so important that it birthed one of the nation’s first professional fire departments and where, on Montgomery Street, Thomas Edison built one of the world’s first central electric stations, making Newburgh, in 1884, one of the first electrified cities on the globe. In July 1893, the 116 room Palatine Hotel, renowned for its opulence, opened its doors, and Newburgh became famous as a home-away-from-home for New York City’s financial and cultural elite.

After the second world war, many factories – whose work had been artificially revived by a war-era boom – closed or relocated, particularly to the southern states, where white workers often received preferential treatment. The completion of the New York State throughway in the 1950s and later the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, took travellers around the city instead of through it, and its waterfront area, historically a somewhat raffish place, became badly decayed. The once-vibrant Broadway shopping district saw its customers flock to new suburban malls, leaving downtown economic activity a shadow of what it once was.

In 1961 Newburgh’s city council appointed as city manager Joseph Mitchell, a man of broad self-belief and intemperate speech who railed against those on public assistance as “moral chiselers and loafers”, “freeloaders”, and “spoiled children”, with particular focus given to “migrant” (ie African-American) arrivals from the south. Requiring those on public assistance to wait in queues at the local police office to collect their benefits, Mitchell also floated ideas such as the forcible removal of illegitimate children – born to mothers on the welfare roll – to foster homes.

Mitchell’s proposals made headlines, but they were largely divorced from reality. In 1960, the city spent only $205 on relief for newly arrived migrants, an amount for which Newburgh was reimbursed by the state, and with only 5% of the city’s assistance dollars going to what is commonly known as “home relief” (funds for the unemployed rather than the elderly and disabled). African-Americans also only accounted for less than half of the city’s welfare rolls.

Mitchell would eventually leave Newburgh, but the city’s image of dysfunction and racial animosity was one that would endure. Up until the late 1960s, when it was bulldozed, Newburgh hosted one of the most famous brothels in the state – Big Nell’s – popular with politicians and judges. Local police were famous for shaking down drug dealers for bribes, and by the early 1970s many Newburgh police officers, including the chief of police, were arrested for their part in the robbery of a local branch of the Sears department store. The city had been for decades – and to some degree remains – one of the bastions of the Colombo crime family, one of the five original families that make up the New York mafia.

In a half-mad lunge towards urban renewal, between 1971 and 1973, the city knocked down nearly 1,300 buildings, mostly along its waterfront, and for years huge sections of Newburgh were reduced to rubble, as if a war or a natural disaster had passed through. Even the once-grand Palatine Hotel was demolished, a sad shell of what it had been.

“People literally watched their homes and businesses get torn down with wrecking balls,” says Newburgh’s current mayor, Judy Kennedy, who arrived in the city in 2006 from Idaho, part of a wave of newcomers who say they are fighting to save the city from years of neglect. “They tore the heart out of the city and went on their way.”

What was left was a highly depressed city, with many middle and upper class familys fleeing and the remaining residents struggling in an atmosphere of diminished employment, and an ever-spiralling tax burden. Successive economic crises, including the 2008 recession, which affected Newburgh brutally, would eventually lead to more than 600 abandoned buildings, many of them ostensibly owned by large lenders such as Bank of America and Citibank after they foreclosed on the owners’ mortgages, now still sitting empty or used as bases for the city’s thriving drug trade.

On one recent freezing night, three people died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty boiler. The building’s registered owner had been dead for months. Over decades, the city has also become the centre of gravity for various social service industries: hundreds of ex-prisoners and current and former addicts in one stage or another of the criminal justice system are warehoused there by the state in dozens of halfway houses and single-room occupancy hotels, creating a kind of state-sponsored Skid Row.

Occasionally there have been attempts to revive the city’s historical and architectural heritage, such as when the then-First Lady Hillary Clinton appeared at the Dutch Reformed Church in 1998 as part of the Save America’s Treasures tour to announce a grant to help restore the structure. But the atmosphere has remained one of a place that time and opportunity had passed by. A few years after Clinton’s visit, the church’s ceiling collapsed down on to its pews. The Save America’s Treasures banner still hangs from its front columns.

Particularly hard hit by these changes was Newburgh’s African-American community, which had ballooned after the second world war as migrants from the south – particularly North Carolina – arrived for low-wage, low-skill factory jobs that were simultaneously being sent either to the southern states or abroad. As low-wage jobs dried up young African-Americans found themselves ever more tempted by the lure of drugs and crime as a way to salve the desperate need for a livelihood in a city that offered none. In the 1980s, crack hit the city’s streets as “a monster like none other”, in the words of one local resident, and a generational cycle of disenfranchisement and despair – in a city that had long boasted a vibrant black middle class – grew worse still.

“It’s highly impoverished, and we just don’t have jobs around here, there are no jobs, there is inter-generational depression,” says Corey J Allen, a 37-year-old African-American who has lived in the city his entire life and formed an organisation with a group of friends called Financing Your Freedom, which aims to teach financial literacy to the city’s at-risk communities. “You’re dealing with people who subconsciously think they’re not supposed to have any money. And that’s a hell of a mentality to get past.”

Others in the community concur about how great the struggle for creating a societal and economic context for young African-Americans to thrive in the city has become.

“The hard part about sustaining something is if you’ve never had it,” says John Borden, the 52-year-old pastor of Newburgh’s Holy Trinity Church of Unity. Before being called to the cloth, Borden grew up around his father’s illegal windowless juke joint on the city’s South Street, a place where gunplay was not an infrequent occurrence. He has lost a brother, a son and a nephew to violence.

“The violence is real, and anywhere you go where there is poverty you’ll find gangs, because there’s someone there who’s not being educated that feels the need to exert physical power,” says Borden. “But ask the same person to read a book and they can’t do it.”

Adding to the city’s problems, as Borden alludes to, is the extraordinarily rich and varied tapestry of street gangs that continue to operate within its confines, their existence made easier given the narrow, hemmed-in geography of the streets and enduring despite a 2011 federal raid that arrested 20 gang leaders.

The city’s various blocks are spheres of influence – marked by plentiful graffiti – for groups such as the mainly Mexican La Eme (also known as the Mexican mafia), the Benkard Barrio Kings, the mostly Puerto Rican Latin Kings, and various subsets of the New York Bloods and the Crips, which are chiefly African-American in makeup.

With a current staff of 72 active police officers in a city that, up until recently ranked as the state’s murder capital on a per capita basis, policing in Newburgh is far from the suburban idyll of some other upstate towns.

“This is a very hard place to work,” says Daniel Cameron, Newburgh’s acting police chief and an 18-year veteran of the city’s police force. “There is very little [in terms of] assets, so everything from the car that you’re driving to the vest that you’re wearing is difficult to get. And it’s been that way my whole time here. We have done the best we can do in terms of efficiency, but as we continue to lose resources we still get the job done. But lacking resources, we’re just keeping up, and I’d like to be ahead of it.”

After two successive years of dropping violent crime, last year Newburgh saw only one recorded homicide. However, shooting incidents went up dramatically, with 44 bullet to body shootings reported in 2014. Some attribute the lack of deaths to a facility developed by local Saint Luke’s Hospital after years of dealing with emergency shooting cases. Police also recovered 70 handguns last year, many of them traceable to states with lax gun laws in the south.

Speaking to the Newburgh police, one gets a sense of the desperate patchwork of aid that is necessary to fill the holes in its budget, a situation common to many struggling police departments across the country. A Community Oriented Policing Services (Cops) grant from the US Department of Justice enabled the hiring of four officers here. A Gun Involved Violence Elimination (Give) fund from the state helps to target gun violence there. County money totalling $32,000 was awarded to help facilitate off-duty officers coming in to walk foot patrols around the city to improve police-community relations. An additional hurdle is that, after serving a few years in Newburgh – the city that has paid to train them – police become highly marketable for their varied and challenging experience and, in the words of Chief Cameron, “they go to higher-paying jobs where they’re doing a quarter of the work, they’re a lot safer and they’re making twice as much money”.

As Newburgh struggled in recent decades the group perhaps more than any other that kept it chugging along with any degree of efficiency has been the the Latino community, which historically had been Puerto Rican but today is mostly made up of Mexicans from the state of Puebla, and to a lesser degree Peruvians and Hondurans. This demographic has blossomed to make up an estimated 50% of Newburgh’s population, with the small local shops lining the otherwise largely derelict Broadway credited for, in the words of one local attorney, “keeping the lights turned on”. Money transfer services specialising in Latin America and taxi companies with names like Azteca abound, as do solidarity groups such as Latinos Unidos and Hermanos Unidos.

“Latinos have almost been the invisible ghosts that have kept the community and the city going without any recognition and accessibility to benefits and infrastructure,” says Karen Mejia, from El Salvador, who became Newburgh’s first Latina city council member in 2014. “What’s been lacking in the past has been common ground for people to come together, but now the common ground is how do we put this city back together?”

Along with the Latino community, Newburgh has seen three waves of mostly white would-be gentrifiers in recent years. In the early 1980s the city began drawing gay couples away from New York, attracted by the opportunity to make a home in one of Newburgh’s grand old mansions for a virtual song. In the early 1990s there was a still-ongoing attempt to revive Newburgh’s scenic waterfront in the form of a handful of restaurants. The newest wave consists again mainly of people priced out by New York City’s spiralling rents, but this time with a more artistic bent.

“People are coming in with a new vision, new energy, some money to do the job, and I see businesses being supported in a way they haven’t been before,” says Mayor Kennedy. “You’re talking about turning a big ship, not a little boat, but we’re making that turn.”

As signs of progress, Kennedy points to such developments as a proposed shrimp farm at the former site of a mattress factory, and a local land bank, an idea first floated in similarly deprived cities such as Camden, New Jersey and Flint, Michigan. The bank is a body which can perform asbestos and lead abatement on abandoned properties after which individuals can buy them at a reduced cost, thus taking the burden of state and other taxes off the back of the city.

As much as new blood is needed, as always gentrification has its less appetising side. Like white New York transplants moving into mansions surrounded by desperately deprived neighbours, while the needle marking the city’s great problems barely moves. It is striking how almost entirely white the events and mixers of Newburgh’s new residents are, a phenomenon not lost on longer-term locals.

Michael Gabor, who arrived in the city with the first wave of New York transplants in the 1980s and has seen it through various periods of hope and decline, runs an art supply store with his partner Gerardo Castro, a few steps away from Washington’s headquarters. The building the store is housed in (where he also lives) is old, reminiscent of something out of an Edward Gorey drawing. A visitor is first greeted in the lower hallway by a series of vintage Underwood & Underwood stereoscopic prints, and then ascends to the second level to be greeted by an enormous Deardorff camera ... A pet tarantula lives up stairs.

“What happens with these waves of people that come is they have this naive sense that if they tout this place, their investment will hold its value,” says Gabor. “But there’s not a critical mass of people doing that, and they don’t know that.”

Which is not to say that the new white arrivals are all mere exploiters. On a recent snowy night, about 100 people filed into the main building of Atlas Industries, a high-end furniture maker that relocated from Brooklyn to Newburgh several years ago. They were there to watch the 1917 Russian film The Dying Swan, the penultimate work of director Yevgeni Bauer, with musical accompaniment provided by a string trio playing Rachmaninoff’s Trio Elégiaque No 1 in G minor. The effect – the black and white film with the mournful music, as the snow fell on the old streets outside – was lovely.

“It’s such a small community here that we have access to interesting spaces that you can rent or people can lend to you where you can create something magical,” says the cafe owner David Ludwig, whose cultural group, Queen of the Hudson, co-sponsored the event.

On one of my last days in Newburgh I stepped inside the old, abandoned Dutch Reformed Church. Built in 1835 by AJ Davis, one of the first internationally prominent American architects, the church was modelled on a Greek temple and, rising majestically from a bluff above the Hudson River, served as a beacon for travellers when the great river was the mode of choice for traversing the state. The church served as an integral meeting point for Newburgh’s community until 1967, when the congregation moved, as with so many of Newburgh’s people and capital, out to the suburbs, leaving the structure to gradually decay into deliquescence amid the city’s freezing winters and blazing summers.

I was let into the church by Stuart Sachs, the 51-year-old owner of a furniture and architectural manufacturing firm and a visiting professor at New York’s Pratt Institute. We passed the thin metal fence that surrounds the building, still grand though dilapidated from the outside, and then unlocked the chained bolt affixed to the front door.

Once inside, we saw the destruction. Its altar gone, the church’s pews were full of rubble from the 2012 collapse of its ceiling, a gaping area where it had caved in, exposing wooden roof beams above us. The smell of mildew and dust mingled and, on the stage where the altar once stood, were the mummified remains of a cat.

But, as with much in Newburgh, there was more to the scene than met the eye. Much of the stage itself had been repaired by a grant from the National Monuments Fund that hired 12 students from a local high school, who in the process of restoring it learned carpentry. A soon-to-be-incorporated conservancy is in the process of trying to get two already-extant reconstruction grants transferred to the new land bank so they can attempt to repair the damaged roof.

“This is a crime against history,” said Sachs, as he surveyed the church in its current state. “This should not have happened, and the fact that I watched it happen is just painful.”

A few days earlier I had dined with Michael Gabor and Gerardo Castro in their old home on Grand Street, a meal of fish and beans and rice fortifying us and banishing the chill.

“We have so many microcosms here,” Gabor said as we pushed our plates away. “We’re urban, we’re post-industrial, we’re on a river, we have our own airport, we have our own water supply. We’re the ideal of what a city could be. So what happens here is important because this exhibits the success – or not – of our democracy.”
Michael Deibert’s most recent book is In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and The Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Historic Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, New York

Photo © Michael Deibert

The Historic Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh (built 1835) whose ceiling collapsed down onto the pews in 2012 after years of neglect. There are people here trying to right this crime against history, but every year the church's restoration is delayed the costs and degradation mount.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Los Zetas graffiti in Newburgh, New York

Photo  © Michael Deibert

How is this for a good morning? Los Zetas graffiti on Ann Street a few blocks away from my apartment in Newburgh, New York, referencing the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz and former Zetas chief Miguel "Z40" Treviño Morales.