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 is crime, poverty, and abandoned buildings—urban blight in all its glory. Because of the number of female-headed households, a 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 distressed cities in the early 1980s which it remains to this day. And according to the US 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 the state’s second largest historic district and even has two sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places—the Dutch Reformed 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 is a huge draw for folks who may work in Manhattan but want to live and play a little further north.
“If you look around, it’s gorgeous,” says Barbara Ballarini, who moved to Newburgh in 2005 with her husband, Edwine Seymour, and the couple’s then two-year-old daughter to open Caffé Macchiato, a restaurant that sits directly across the street from Washington’s Headquarters on Liberty Street. “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.”
“Owning a brownstone in any of the five boroughs [of New York] is virtually impossible,” says 25-year-old Long Island native Cherry Vick, who plans on relocating with her fiancé after their wedding later this year. “So I started looking here.”
A self-proclaimed history buff who already commutes to New York 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,” 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 18th 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, 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 the boundary 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, Newburgh became a transportation hot spot during the industrial boom of the 1800s and enjoyed its economic peak when manufacturing industries moved in. But when those same businesses began to relocate out of state and country in the late 20th century 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, Valentine says, sparked by a number of factors: grassroots development efforts, people making investments in rundown buildings that dot the landscape in some neighborhoods, a new city courthouse that opened on Broadway in June, 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 the return of the Newburgh-Beacon ferry.
“The ferry has been huge,” Valentine says of the vessel that re-opened in 2005 and transports commuters daily to the Metro-North station 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.
Since the city’s economic bust, many attempts to restore Newburgh to its former glory have been 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 in better times. 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 crisis of 1973 happened and the federal and state dollars that were to fund the new housing structures were no longer available. The area remained empty until the late 1990s 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 upscale restaurants and spas, the Downing Film Center, and shops. Just try to find a parking space anywhere near Torches on the Hudson 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 weekend.
“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 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 US 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 basis 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 its restored lobby in the last year while funding for the renovation for the rest of the building is sought.
“They create pockets of stability. There’s been a little more pride in the city. I’m starting to see more people strolling 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 special 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,” Valentine 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 toward folks [who are in their] mid teens to 30 or so, unless you have kids,” says Holly Berchielli, who runs the new Mrs. Max boutique on Liberty Street with her mother. “I think that’s a big deal.”
To give the young people another venue, Berchielli 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,” says Berchielli. “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.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caffe Macchiato www.caffemacchiatonewburgh.com
Downing Film Center www.downingfilmcenter.com
City of Newburgh www.newburgh-ny.com
Newburgh Restoration www.newburghrestoration.blogspot.com
Newburgh Revealed www.newburghrevealed.org
Newburgh Waterfront www.newburghwaterfront.com
Safe Harbors of the Hudson www.safeharborsofthehudson.org
- Newburghâ€™s waterfront walkway with views of the river, Beacon and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, adjacent to the restaurants and shops on Front Street.
- The peopleâ€™s garden of Newburgh on Gidney avenue.
- James Johnsonâ€™s Freedom of Movement sculpture at 208 Broadway.
- The exterior of Caffe Macchiato on Liberty Street.
- The intersection of Liberty and Washington Streets south of Broadway.