It’s a safe guess there’ve been more than a few bar-side conversations in downtown Manhattan nightclubs that went something like this:
“You’re from Kingston? That’s weird, you don’t sound Jamaican.”
It’s a frustrating reoccurrence for Kingston, New York, natives, to say the least. But likely nonetheless. For despite its being one of America’s oldest and, at one time, largest and most important cities, the 359-year-old municipality remains far less known than its similarly named Caribbean cousin. In point of fact, many who live just beyond Kingston’s surrounding 100-mile radius seem to have never even heard of the town. Which is certainly perplexing, given that the city is home to 25,000 inhabitants, is the seat of 1,160-square-mile Ulster County, and was for generations a center of industry and shipping in the Northeast. It seems the decline of Kingston’s once prominent profile began in the 1980s, when, as in innumerable other US cities, the majority of its manufacturers headed elsewhere; doomsayers assumed the coffin lid was closed when the nearby IBM plant moved its 5,000 workers south in 1995. But, as savvier individuals will tell you, in crisis lies opportunity. And, thanks to its affordable housing and the vast crop of raw space available within its former factories, over the last decade Kingston has become a magnet for families and artists fleeing downstate congestion, gentrification, and soaring rents and real estate prices.
“When your economy takes a downturn, you don’t just throw up your hands, you figure out what you have to promote and you focus on that,” says City of Kingston Mayor James Sottile. “So [city leaders] are working to promote tourism, and so much of that has been helped by the great arts community we have here, which I’m personally very proud of. And also by the fact that Kingston is so rich in history.”
A Tale of Three Cities
Yes, history. Much of it. Kingston was the first capital of New York State, having been founded by the Dutch in 1651, who called the outpost Esopus, after one of the local Indian tribes. In 1777 the growing village was recast as the site of the new state’s government when Albany, the intended center of leadership, was under threat of attack by the British. In a cruel twist of irony, the Redcoats invaded Kingston that same year and burned many of its buildings, although today dozens of the town’s early stone houses—including the 1676 Senate House, which was the original functioning capitol building and now has a nearby museum—continue to serve as businesses and homes. (The intersection of John and Crown Streets in the city’s Uptown district is said to be the only spot in the entire US on which all four original stone buildings still stand.) Besides being an active participant in the American Revolution and a major river port during the 19th-century canal and steamboat era, the burg supplied most of the bluestone and cement that built New York City.
Kingston has three diverse business districts—Uptown, Midtown, and the Rondout—making it feel like three cities in one, each with its own distinctive vibe. Tying them all together to work as one, in terms of marketing, is Nancy Donskoj, who manages the Business Alliance of Kingston’s Main Street Program. “Kingston is one of only 26 cities in the US to implement its own Main Street Program, which is a concept that came into being when people realized that their downtowns were struggling economically because businesses had relocated to outlying malls and big-box stores,” she explains. “The Main Street Program’s job is to present Kingston as a whole to tourists and potential residents.” Under the alliance’s banner Donskoj oversees individual business associations for each of the three sections; runs the volunteer-based organization’s own website, as well as its culturally themed Kingston Happenings site; and arranges citywide events like the recent Kingston Clean Sweep beautification program.
Safe in the Stockade
With the eight-block area known as the Stockade at its heart, Uptown is the oldest of Kingston’s three districts. It has the city’s highest concentration of historic stone buildings and a skyline dominated by the steeple of the Old Dutch Church (built in 1852 and, legend has it, home to a hobgoblin), whose surrounding cemetery contains the grave of the state’s first governor, George Clinton. The neighborhood is defined by the quaint covered sidewalks that line its streets, which are dotted with art galleries, coffeehouses, music and book vendors, and unique shops like quirky gift emporium Bop to Tottom and haberdashery and blues CD outlet Blue-Byrd’s. Foodies get their fill at the seasonal farmers market (Saturdays from May through November), as well as at the quarter’s many restaurants and Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, which opened in 2004.
“We chose Uptown as our location because we loved the look of the area and the fact that it’s within 20 minutes of our customers in Rhinebeck, Stone Ridge, New Paltz, and Woodstock,” says Fleisher’s Jessica Applestone, who co-owns the business with her husband Joshua Applestone. “It’s right off the Thruway and close to routes 28 and 209.” Such has been Fleisher’s success that the Applestones have acquired space in the building next door, where they plan to expand their thriving eight-week butchery training program and open a luncheonette serving dishes made with their locally sourced meats.