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).