Located 90 miles from New York, Kingston is an urban anomaly in a rural region better known for its gentrified villages and sublime countryside. Everyone’s heard of Woodstock and the Catskill Mountains, but few outside Ulster County know about the small, industrial city on the Hudson. It’s the county seat, predominately working class, with a population of roughly 23,000. Driving down Broadway, the city’s main drag, you perceive a patchwork of tight little neighborhoods edged by a sprawling conflagration of gas stations and fast-food and drugstore chains—and maybe not much more.
If Kingston doesn’t always deliver a good first impression, it’s partly the fault of geography. Its attractions are spread out, scattered among three districts: Uptown, the oldest section of the city, which encompasses a two-block shopping arcade; the Rondout, a hilly waterfront district along the Rondout Creek; and Midtown, which contains the city’s industry and connects Uptown and the Rondout via the long central corridor of Broadway. Its neighborhoods are Balkanized by ravines, an arterial highway, and a railroad track slicing through the middle of town. One has to live here a while to discover the full range of assets: its 18th-century stone houses; the outdoor dining options in a row of photogenic 19th-century buildings fronting the Rondout Creek; leafy streets lined with Victorian, Queen Anne, and 1920s neocolonial houses; museums devoted to trolleys, the maritime history of the Hudson River, the Colonial era, and local history; monumental brick industrial buildings converted to artists’ lofts and small enterprises; a lively, well-supplied farmer’s market; and a delightfully landscaped park on the Hudson. There’s even a beach.
The city’s urban amenities—its neighborhood delis, weekly pick-up of recyclables, hour-and-a-half access to New York, and proximity to surrounding communities—are major draws. As car dependency becomes less fashionable, real estate prices remain comparatively high in surrounding areas, and people rediscover the value of community, Kingston has grown in appeal. A wave of newcomers is helping transform the city.
Take jazz singer Rebecca Martin, who moved to Kingston with her husband, bassist Larry Grenadier, in 2002. She got involved in the community after becoming frustrated with what she saw as the city’s lack of vision. “The planning and zoning is way outdated; people are holding fast to ways that just don’t work anymore,” she says. Martin formed a citizens’ action group for her ward, which has since been expanded citywide. Among her many initiatives is the Victory Gardens project (see “Backyard Triumph” in the May issue of Chronogram), which has spearheaded the planting of gardens at the city’s public schools.
A Liveable City
Kevin McEvoy, who with his wife Barbara Epstein divides his time between New York and an 18th-century stone house in Kingston, is the treasurer of the Kingston Land Trust, which is working with the developer of a large tract of land along the waterfront to create a trail system that would link the city’s parks. McEvoy, a history buff, has hosted walking tours of the city and volunteered as a docent at the Persen House, an 18th-century partially restored house and museum at the corner of John and Crown Streets that’s open to visitors for free. He and Epstein don’t have a car, so they walk and rely on the city’s bus service to get around. “The A bus gives you a grand tour of Kingston,” he says. “It runs every hour.”
Jennifer Schwartz Berky lived in Rome, Jerusalem, Paris, and Washington, DC, before moving to Kingston after being hired as deputy director of the Ulster County Planning Board. Kingston is “as beautiful as anyplace I’ve lived,” Schwartz Berky says. “It’s deep with history. It’s full of amazing people. It has incredible potential and resources, extremely beautiful architecture, and an amazing landscape. It also has diversity. In [Washington’s] Dupont Circle, no one’s over 35 and everyone works for the government. You’re not likely to spend time with people outside your orbit. But here you’re dealing with an elderly neighbor, people different from you.”
Last fall, Schwartz Berky organized the Kingston Studio, a program in which students from Parsons the New School for Design worked with Kingston high school students to do an analysis of the Broadway corridor. The group also helped Kingston Cares, a federally funded youth program operated by Family of Woodstock, to put on a community forum about employment, beautification, and crime in Midtown, which was broadcast on the high school TV station. Schwartz Berky is now involved in helping Kingston Cares set up a junior common council whose elected members will sit in Common Council meetings at City Hall and present resolutions.
Like other cities that have lost their manufacturing base, Kingston has struggled to reinvent itself. The city has made some strides, but it needs to be more proactive, according to residents and business owners. Historic preservation guidelines are routinely ignored. The city lacks a comprehensive plan. It has a high quota of empty storefronts; new businesses come and go with alarming frequency. Many Kingstonians are taking action themselves, and a new initiative by the business community could be a sign that the city is about to turn the corner.