- Lauren Thomas
We weren't looking to live in Kingston when Lee Anne and I moved here in 2004. For almost 10 years, we had lived in the New Paltz/Rosendale/High Falls corridor, moving from rental to rental. When it finally came time to buy a house, we searched for a suitable dwelling in that area but couldn't find anything in our price range. So we started looking where the houses were less expensive. We landed in Kingston, in a 100-year-old brick house (covered in asphalt/asbestos siding) in a historically blue collar Polish neighborhood, a short walk to the Hudson River and the restaurants of the Rondout.
Not the actual Rondout mind you—which has some cachet, both cultural and monetary, associated with it—but across Route 9W from it, on a street that's one block long that looks down upon the apartments of the Kingston Housing Authority. When people ask me where I live in Kingston, I struggle to describe it, as it's not the Rondout and it's not Ponckhockhie, the neighborhood that stretches between the Rondout Creek estuary and the Hudson River, where Kingston Point Beach is. If you went to Smorgasburg, you were in Ponckhockhie.
When Lee Anne and I moved into our little house, it seemed like we would be the gentrifying edge on our block. (Re the no-name bit: we're trying to rebrand our no-name neighborhood as North Ponckhockie, or NoPo. Stay tuned for more info on the branded softball T-shirts and trucker hats.)
The people who lived on our block were mostly blue collar folks like my neighbor Tom (whom I've written about at length before), who worked as an exterminator. While we were hardly pioneers, we suspected that we were the foam darts of the creative class hitting the beach before the larger wave of middlebrow gentrification itself. (For the creative class is the bellwether of neighborhood change. When creatives arrive, developers often take it as a signal that an area is ripe for investment.)
This wave hit Kingston—my how you've changed in a dozen years, fair city ("Capital of Culture," page 30)—but it just hasn't reached our block. A couple people have died or moved out, or suffered foreclosures, and more working class people moved in. The techpreneurs and erstwhile Brooklynites have not flooded in. There are no upscale coffee shops or artisanal pickle retailers. A new bar did open recently, run by a retired police officer who lives next door. The bar's logo prominently features a policeman's tin star.
To be clear, I'm not knocking this place. The burgers are fine and they're not $14, like those at many places Uptown. If I want artisanal pickles, I can get them Uptown, which has become a hub of things of this nature; and I can drink well-curated wines at the cute wine bar that opened up a couple years ago in the Rondout. I don't necessarily need to live around the corner from a mustache wax emporium. But, like all homeowners, I would like to see the value of my house increase over time. A couple of relocating Google executives would be the just thing! (I made up a joke about my neighborhood. Did you know that Ponckhockie is a Native American word? It means: "land where the housing prices never rise.")
But a few words about this term, gentrification. Sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the term in 1964 to describe "working class quarters [that] have been invaded by the middle class." It's largely been abandoned by academics and policy wonks because it's an imprecise and politically loaded shorthand term that's not proven useful in conversations about community growth and change. A hilarious example of the quicksilver nature of the term, from a comment in an article about gentrification online: "White people leaving the city in the 1960s = racist 'white flight.' White people moving to the city in the 2000s = racist 'gentrification.' Oh, those whites. Always moving around and ruining everything."
And our block has been predominantly white for a long time, though methinks the race issue has very little to do with what's happening in NoPo. (See, it's catching on already.) As John Buntin pointed out in Slate in 2015, the more serious issue is the erosion of the middle and working classes, not displacement of black neighborhoods by white. "The problem isn't so much that gentrification hurts black neighborhoods; it's that it too often bypasses them. While critics of gentrification decry a process that is largely imaginary, they've missed a far more serious problem—the spread of extreme poverty."
And, if I'm being honest, what makes my block special is that it's affordable here. People who are not wealthy can buy a house in NoPo. (Sounds better every time!) That's why we didn't buy a farmhouse in the country and moved to Kingston—because our personal economics demanded it. But how long will this affordability last? What happens when there's nowhere left in Kingston to buy a low-cost home?
On February 8, Chronogram engaged in a community discussion at the Lace Mill, a long-vacant factory that was turned into an affordable housing complex for artists by the housing agency RUPCO in 2015. I spoke with O+ Festival cofounder Joe Concra and other community members about the concerns of those who aren't necessarily surfing the city's current wave of prosperity. Many in the room, who didn't live in subsidized housing, feared displacement in the coming years as the city continues to attract emigres from Brooklyn and elsewhere, themselves often displaced. We didn't untie any Gordian knots that afternoon, but we engaged in a discussion about a housing problem that's only going to get exacerbated in Kingston and in other Hudson Valley locales as our cities continue to grow. (An edited video of the Ferbuary 8 Lace Mill conversation can be viewed at Chronogram.com/lacemill.)
Of course, in terms of weighty political discussions, we undoubtedly have bigger fish to fry. As my friend Tracy, a recent Kingston transplant herself, wrote me in response to my invitation to the event: "Remember when gentrification was the pressing problem of the day, and not the fascist dismantling of our democracy?" Which is not to say that we can ignore any particular issue despite the fact of our ongoing struggle to cope with the policy directives of the erratic-plutocrat-in-chief. "Second-tier" concerns, like gentrification, green burial ("Bury Me Green," page 66), the silver tsunami ("Aging in Place: A Promise or a Prison?" page 20), or even understanding where our food comes from ("What Does This Place Taste Like" page 58), each still have their place in the hierarchy of societal needs. Just like the need for us to really examine how neighborhoods change and why some don't.
PS: The house next door to us is coming on the market this month. Don't you want to live in NoPo?