Living Streets: The Pandemic Exposes Hudson's Deep Divisions | Hudson | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Living Streets: The Pandemic Exposes Hudson's Deep Divisions

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Last Updated: 09/14/2020 6:30 pm
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The scene outside of the new Warren Street shop, Bontleng, nextdoor to Nina Z. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • The scene outside of the new Warren Street shop, Bontleng, nextdoor to Nina Z.

I kept my distance from the other reporters at the March 16 press conference at City Hall in Hudson. The three of us nervously adjusted our cameras and tested pens for ink, not touching the walls, not touching anything.

There were no masks. No one knew about the masks yet—no one knew much of anything—but the virus didn't wait for us to play catch-up. A New Rochelle man with severe symptoms was hospitalized less than two weeks before, and there were now more than 1,300 confirmed cases in the state.

Mayor Kamal Johnson, only three months on the job, stepped to the podium, wearing all black. He glanced at his prepared remarks, then began. "Due to both nationwide and local limitations on medical supplies and the limited availability of life-saving medical equipment..." Johnson declared a State of Emergency. Hudson had shut down.

The Not-So-Great Divide

There is a divide in Hudson, one that runs through politics, economics, and the map of the city itself. On one side are locals—those that were born here, or at least in the county—and transplants, who generally hail from New York City. Locals tend to be less affluent, and many of them are Black, while transplants tend to be affluent and white.

Just 20 years ago, it was cheap to live in Hudson. The average rent was $390, according to the census. As the city attracted more and more wealthy transplants, prices rose, and by 2018, rents had nearly tripled. Hudson now faces a housing crisis, and the locals are the ones feeling the squeeze.

Map illustration by Kaitlin Van Pelt.

One of the groups helping out residents in need during the spring shutdown was the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition, originally formed to empower residents of the two communities' public housing projects. But the group's goals changed when the pandemic hit, according to Quintin Cross, an organizer for the group.

"We spent a lot of time going door to door handing out pamphlets on where they should go to get help on rental assistance...we were giving out thousands of dollars' worth of supplies in both Hudson and Catskill," Cross says, most of which were basic necessities: "laundry detergent and pregnancy tests and all types of razors, and shaving cream and soap and household needs."

None of this need is visible as I walk down Hudson's Warren Street the first Saturday in August. The city is busy, busier even than normal. Chic couples amble down toward the Hudson River, letting their gazes wander from storefront to storefront. Hip-hop thumps from Moto Coffee/Machine as one of the proprietors exits the shop to chat with a man leaning on a classic motorcycle.

In late spring, three Hudson citizens—Peter Spear of Future Hudson and Tambra Dillon and Sage Carter of Hudson Hall—started formulating a plan to make the city safer when the state re-opened. The basic concept of Shared Streets was to allow pedestrian traffic on Warren Street so people could socially distance when out and about. Vehicular traffic would be limited to 5mph, and Warren Street's shops and restaurants, many of which are too small for social distancing, would be permitted to expand their interiors into parking spaces, giving shoppers the relative safety of open air.

The concept is based on the European concept of woonerf——Dutch for "living street." It has been adopted by several American cities while reopening during the pandemic. The city adopted the plan after a trial weekend in late June, and by August 3, 19 businesses had spread out to parking spaces and 13 others had applied, according to Spear.

Bontleng owner Tshidi Matale. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • Bontleng owner Tshidi Matale.

Verdigris Tea and Chocolate, located on lower Warren Street, had reconfigured its interior for the pandemic. A series of counters now forms a U-shaped barrier separating customers from employees. Owner Kim Bach says the business invested in a lot of Plexiglas.

Though Verdigris never closed, revenue dropped about 40 percent when the shop only offered curbside pick-up during shutdown, Bach says. The store is now doing better but is still down 15 percent when compared to the same time last year. Though the store hadn't expanded outside, Bach says she fully supported Shared Streets, and the store probably benefited from increased foot traffic.

Feeling the Impact

Several businesses have closed in Hudson since the pandemic hit, including the toy store Bee's Knees, the Italian restaurant Vico, and Willa's Bakery. The city has suffered financially as well, as revenues from parking, building permits, and the city's lodging tax all plummeted, according to the Hudson Treasurer's Office. The city's sales tax revenues were also down.

Hudson City Treasurer Heather Campbell created projections in May about how the pandemic could impact the city's finances, estimating the drop in non-property tax revenues could be 21 percent in a "low-impact" scenario, and 29 percent in a "high-impact" scenario.

The high-impact scenario predicts these revenues will improve by the end of the year, but remain 10 percent below December 2019's revenue, while the low-impact scenario assumes December's revenues will be in line with pre-pandemic predictions, according to Campbell—essentially assuming a complete return to normalcy by then.

I ask Campbell how important attracting out-of-town visitors to local businesses was for an economic recovery. "I think it's a key component of the economy," she says. "Obviously, it's what keeps the businesses in business for the most part."

Though there are no figures for the impact tourism has on Hudson's economy, Columbia County depends more on tourism than any other county in the Hudson Valley, according to a 2018 study by Tourism Economics. More than 11 percent of the county's jobs are sustained by visitors.

Lil Debs Oasis’s pop-up behind Rivertown Lodge. Lil Debs Oasis donates 69 cents from every to promote racial justice. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • Lil Debs Oasis’s pop-up behind Rivertown Lodge. Lil Debs Oasis donates 69 cents from every to promote racial justice.

Hudson seems to be attracting more visitors this summer than in years past. "From Fourth of July on, every weekend has been really full of people visiting, which is what is Hudson is all about...but it's kind of shocking that there's so many," Verdigris owner Kim Bach says. On weekends as of late, "it's all New Yorkers or people taking Northeast summer vacations—instead of getting on an airplane, they're all getting in RVs and cars and doing shorter trips."

Susan Decker, the owner of Blue Star Farms, one of about 500 agricultural operations in Columbia County, says her sales at the Hudson Farmers' Market had actually been better than usual, even in May, when the virus was killing up to 200 people a day in the state.

The increase in sales was from New York City residents staying in their second homes during the pandemic, Decker says, a sentiment that was echoed by other vendors at the farmers' market.

At Back Bar, a hip pub and eatery that has moved most of its operation outdoors for the pandemic, General Manager Alex Glen says he noticed the change in early July. "There's a lot more—I don't even want to say they're transient anymore, because a lot of their secondary or tertiary homes are now in Hudson, or within 20 miles of Hudson—but it seems as though a lot of people from the Tri-State Area have moved up here permanently."

Mayor Kamal Johnson said Shared Streets has gotten "mixed reviews," with some businesses taking issue because their customers were unable to drive up directly to their storefronts and park.

Bob Lucke runs Cascades, a locals' lunch spot on Warren Street. Some residents had been concerned about pedestrians walking in the street, Lucke says, but he thinks the initiative had been "working out pretty well."

PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
Scenes from Hudson’s Waterfront Wednesdays, featuring sailing trips on the Schooner Appolonia. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • Scenes from Hudson’s Waterfront Wednesdays, featuring sailing trips on the Schooner Appolonia.

With its established local customer base, Cascades was not as affected as other businesses this spring, Lucke says, and the eatery was beginning to recover to baseline. But many business owners fear the fall and winter, with the potential for a second wave of infections and the inability to spread their businesses outside.

Cascades normally had a dozen interior tables but was limited to four or five because of social distancing rules. "I think it's going to be problematic for many places," Lucke says.

Domestic Disturbance

Hudson's July 21st Common Council meeting had less decorum than usual. "Lotta F-bombs today," quips Common Council President Thomas DePietro after the fourth or fifth one dropped.

The council had just voted down a resolution supporting a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement for a 77-unit affordable housing project. The four council members who voted against the PILOT said they needed more details or were afraid of getting such an important and permanent project wrong.

A month later, the proposal is dead. The developer pulled it just before the August 18 Common Council meeting, saying it could not attract sufficient support from the council.

A background issue during the PILOT negotiations was the identity of the developer: the Galvan Foundation, a nonprofit that directly or indirectly owns about 80 tax parcels in the city, making it by far the largest private property owner in the city of 6,000.

Galvan itself is often accused by city residents of being a main driver of the city's affordable housing crisis, and of "warehousing" properties instead of renting them out, squeezing the housing market. "Working with the Galvan Foundation is a little controversial in this city," Mayor Johnson says. "They have their pros and cons, so whenever their name is at the table, of course it's going to be met with skepticism. For me, I'm just focused on getting housing, getting the best possible project that we can."

Bob Lucke, owner of Cascades a long-time favorite restaurant of locals. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • Bob Lucke, owner of Cascades a long-time favorite restaurant of locals.

Dan Kent, Galvan's vice president of initiatives, says the proposal was intended to lessen the number of residents who are rent burdened, as well as economic disparity in the city. The project would have included three kinds of apartments with income limits equating to between $20,000 and $110,000 a household, according to the Galvan Foundation.

Joan Hunt, the project director at Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, a nonprofit that works with the city's youth, says a lack of affordable housing in the city is a constant theme. "There's rarely a day that goes by that people don't reach out to us asking if I know of any affordable apartments in the community," Hunt says.

Though there are both public housing and several complexes that accept Section 8 vouchers in the city, there are still not enough of these apartments to fill Hudson's need.

There are 75 individuals or families waiting for apartments in public housing to open up, and 90 individuals or families waiting for Section 8 apartments in the city, according to Hudson Housing Authority Administrative Assistant Tricia Mayo. Thirty-seven-year-old Quintin Cross of the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition, a fifth-generation Hudson resident, says the city has changed dramatically since his youth.

Most locals are either squashed into rentals in the city's northwest corner or live in public or subsidized housing, he says, and many others have been forced out.

Many who are being pushed out are not impoverished, but working-class families, Cross says, and most had deep, historical ties to the city. Concerns about Galvan were "absolutely legitimate," according to Cross, who says many of their tenants had negative experiences. However, he supported the project, saying it was the only option on the table, and that people born in Hudson were "becoming extinct in this city."

Kim Bach, owner of Verdigris Tea and Chocolate. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • Kim Bach, owner of Verdigris Tea and Chocolate.

In reaction to the proposal being yanked, Cross says the council needs an alternate plan. "The council has to come forward with a plan for affordable housing," Cross says. "Since this was not a plan that they agreed with—which is their right—they should immediately move forward with a different plan."

Galvan and the city modified the PILOT proposal in the eight months before it was yanked, reacting to concerns the deal would not generate enough tax revenue, especially as the city faced shortfalls because of the pandemic. Galvan agreed to substantially increase the payments, and to enter a new PILOT when the first expired to assuage fears the foundation would take the property off the tax rolls.

However, the proposal is now dead, and there is not another large affordable housing project on the horizon.

Many Hudson locals have already been forced out. One who's moved out of the city is Melissa Madison. The 37-year-old waitress was born in downtown Hudson, and last lived in Greenport, a suburb surrounding the city. When she and her partner split, she was unable to find housing in her price range in Hudson or Greenport and had to move her family across the river to Catskill.

The children were able to attend Hudson schools for a year after they moved, but then had to switch schools, Madison says, which was fraught, since there is a harsh rivalry between the youth in the two communities.

Most people she knew in Hudson had moved. She recently switched jobs to a La Mision Restaurante in Hudson and said she has yet to wait on anyone she knew. Madison also brought up Shared Streets, which she said she discovered while driving. "Well, that ain't for the damn people of Hudson," she recalls exclaiming when she saw it. "That's for people from the city. Who eats at those restaurants? Not the people from Hudson."

The Makeup of the City

Mayor Johnson's gaze flitted over his city as we sat a picnic table in Seventh Street Park at the top of Warren Street. A bald man with a weathered face was laid out on a park bench, snoozing in the mid-day heat. A woman missing one foot scooted her wheelchair along with the other. The pandemic could play a huge role in deciding who lives in Hudson in the future, he says.

Quintin Cross in front of Bliss Towers, one of the only afforable housing developments in Hudson. - PHOTO BY ANGELINA DREEM
  • Photo by Angelina Dreem
  • Quintin Cross in front of Bliss Towers, one of the only afforable housing developments in Hudson.

Some Hudson residents feared eviction after the end of the state's moratorium on July 31, and Johnson says there would not be many options if this happens. "That's going to cause a lot of isolation in our city, because there's nowhere for them to go," he says.

I asked how the pandemic divided the city, and how it brought it together. The division came from identity, Johnson said—of what Hudson was and who represented it. "There's a side who are like, 'Y'know, don't worry about them, worry about us, we're the makeup of the city,' and there's another side that says—'Why are you worried about them, when you should worry about us? We're the makeup of the city.'"

But the city has also come together, Johnson said. The city's youth center delivered hundreds of meals a day to families out of work, and many people with higher incomes also helped out, donating money and volunteering.

The divisions in the city—between rich and poor, between locals and transplants—are always just below the surface. But if Hudson does not find a way to create affordability in the city, the issue will be moot: One side will no longer exist.

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