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Forging Ahead: Newburgh, NY

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Street art by Will Teran on the corner of Washington and Liberty, across from Washington’s Headquarters. - PHOTO: JOHN GARAY
  • Photo: John Garay
  • Street art by Will Teran on the corner of Washington and Liberty, across from Washington’s Headquarters.

On May 15, 2018, the City of Newburgh was struck by a tornado. Two lives were lost to falling trees. In a bitterly ironic touch, the damage was worst on Liberty Street, the epicenter of the city's revitalization. Roofs were ripped from two restaurants, thousands lost power for days.

The next day, there was an epic picnic on Liberty Street. Rapper and poet Decora and then-owner of Caffe Macchiato Jodi Cummings organized, and soon all and sundry were munching on shrimp, oysters, and steaks that would otherwise have gone bad. Barbecues sizzled, music played, people laughed and cried and began cleaning up. Less than three weeks later, the city hosted its Newburgh Illuminated Festival, filling the streets with delectable food, art, performance, and joy.

"Twenty thousand people! Joyful faces everywhere, bands, fire dancers! We asked ourselves, how do we make it like this all the time?" says entrepreneur Michael Muyot, referencing the festival.

Pitch Party for Awesome Newburgh Foundation at the Thornwillow Institute. - PHOTO: JOHN GARAY
  • Photo: John Garay
  • Pitch Party for Awesome Newburgh Foundation at the Thornwillow Institute.

Shaking the Stigma

An ambitious goal for any community, but to know the story of Newburgh is to know that this little city is no stranger to the storm. "Newburgh!" said an old friend when I happened to mention this story. "You do know it's the worst city?"

A few fast facts turned her head around, but the stigma is real. Named an All-American City by Look magazine in 1952, Newburgh at midcentury was a wonder of industry and prosperity. That was before a city manager with policies so racist that the federal government overruled them, before urban "renewal" razed the waterfront shopping district, before industry left with a giant sucking sound to be replaced by faceless absentee landlords and crack cocaine. In 1979, Newburgh got another national spotlight—this time in Oui, as one of 10 "Towns Without Pity."

Carmela, Zach Jr., Giovanni, and Zachary Murry in front of the Dutch Reformed Church on Grand Street. - PHOTO: JOHN GARAY
  • Photo: John Garay
  • Carmela, Zach Jr., Giovanni, and Zachary Murry in front of the Dutch Reformed Church on Grand Street.

People fighting to rescue Newburgh in the late 20th century had a rough ride. Many never gave up. Her assets—the glorious Newburgh Bay, the largest contiguous historic district in the state, lovely Downing Park, Washington's Headquarters—have always inspired a love not easily foresworn, no matter the frustration and heartbreak. But it became increasingly clear that it was going to take more than a few angel investors or waterfront clubs to rescue the All-American City.

Opportunity Flowing

Justin Hastey and Rebecca Nissen at 2 Alice’s Coffee House - PHOTO: JOHN GARAY
  • Photo: John Garay
  • Justin Hastey and Rebecca Nissen at 2 Alice’s Coffee House

Now for the good news. Much, much more than that is going on.

"Sally's Fish Market is still thriving, 80-plus years old," says Allison Cappella. "Commodore Chocolatier is in their third generation; so is Pete's Hot Dogs. That's off the very top of my head. And there are a whole lot of cool things happening on the streets around them. We're changing neighborhoods one house at a time, getting them back on the tax rolls with Newburgh families living in them."

Cappella is the new executive director of the Newburgh Community Land Bank, a nonprofit founded in 2012 that buys derelict properties from the city and partners with Habitat for Humanity Newburgh and RUPCO to make them livable. Many are abused Victorian gems; if this work were easy, it would have long since been done. "We often need to do lead or asbestos abatement, which are factors that discourage speculators from buying these properties and sitting on them," Capella says. Once a space is safe, but before it's resold, it may become a venue in the NCLB's Artists in Vacancy program before the keys are handed over to new owners; the NCLB has the power to establish deed restrictions requiring renovation or owner occupancy. "A lot of conscious thought is going into preventing gentrification," says Cappella. "We want everybody welcomed and mixed together. The strongest community is a diverse community. The most amazing feeling is seeing kids who are used to survival mode react to having clean, safe rooms of their own."

Marcelis, Maiya, Doris, Micah and Courtland at Blacc Vanilla - PHOTO: JOHN GARAY
  • Photo: John Garay
  • Marcelis, Maiya, Doris, Micah and Courtland at Blacc Vanilla

Commercial properties are marketed by A River of Opportunities, a project of The Strategic Economic Consortium (T-SEC), which partners with the Orange County Incubator to bring employers to the area. Their latest success is on Upper Broadway, where fitness apparel manufacturer Zielwear will employ 25 locals.

"There are so many passionate people here," says Muyot. "It's a matter of building the channels for them." Leveraging his background in sustainability, Muyot is organizing a green tech conference to be held June 17 to 21 at SUNY Orange in conjunction with the East x Northeast International Film Festival put together by author, actor, and director Robert Fontaine Jr,. Muyot has also created 12550 The Zine, a glossy, ad-free publication showcasing Newburgh's progress. The first issue highlighted a diverse array of developments in the city's creative renaissance: a film production jobs bootcamp, a new skate park drawing shredders from across the Tri-State area, and a Great Gatsby Gala held in Downing Park.

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