The Hudson River shines only a five minute walk away, and the mountains and forests surrounding the river are surreal. From the bustling and wide boulevards – some of the widest in the State – farmland can be seen in the distance. Old, colonial buildings dot the landscape, which served as the Headquarters of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Today, of course, these buildings have been electrified, and in fact, the city was one of the first American cities to be fully electrified, because it was home to an Edison power plant in 1883, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Newburgh. Railroads also connect the city with the region, and ferries do as well. Besides being a transportation hub, it is also an industrial center. It is, indeed, a picturesque vision of small town America, and of the utopian, quaint, community-minded, hard-working, family-oriented, and of course, patriotic towns that Washington himself would have dreamed of building. Essentially an instant city built by the ‘starchitects’ of the Gilded Age such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux, this city shines of Americana.
George Washington’s Headquarters during the American Revolution
Except for one fact: this is none other than Newburgh, New York. Many believe that the only industry remaining is selling drugs, and the only community-minded, hard-working, and family-oriented people that remain consider their gang as their community, their work, and their family. While these people are generalizing and exaggerating, this is nonetheless the most violent city in New York State.
More than 99 percent of communities in New York have a lower crime rate than Newburgh. In fact, thus far into 2014, it has been the 10th most violent city in the United States. Based on crime reports collected by the FBI from 17,000 local law enforcement agencies, only 5 percent of American cities with 25,000 or more people are more violent. In New York City, one’s chance at becoming a victim of a crime is 1 in 246; in Newburgh, this chance is increased to 1 in 54, with the population of each city factored into the results. And if property crime is included with violent crime, then one’s chance of being a victim is only 1 in 17. Indeed, even though Newburgh only has approximately 30,000 people, the number of murder, forcible rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault per 1,000 citizens are exponentially greater than in New York City, which is less than two hours away by car or commuter rail.
Yet you would be forgiven for forgetting or never knowing Newburgh. It seems as though everyone has left their small-town small-talk for their big-city auditoriums, where Americans have always thought there to be more crime than anything else. Newburgh’s own residents, who could fill up a small neighborhood in the Big Apple, have been doing just that. While inner-city crime has been dropping in the country – and especially in New York, the “safest big city in the country” according to Bloomberg – Newburgh has not joined the bandwagon. The city is shrinking, as everyone who can afford to leave one of the most violent, impoverished, and corrupt cities in the country, is getting the hell out of Dodge. But they had better leave with a car, because Newburgh is also one of the worst cities in America for public transportation in terms of job access, frequency, and coverage.
Unmarked Bus Stop on a Patch of Grass (You need to signal for the bus to stop)
The Newburgh metropolitan region, including Poughkeepsie and Middletown, is the 6th worst region in the United States for public transportation, and the worst in New York State. The percent of working-age residents near a transit stop is only 46 percent, compared to an average amongst the 100 largest cities in the U.S. of 69 percent. But this is not even close to the true horror of the city: the median wait time, in minutes, for any rush hour transit vehicle is 51 minutes. The average in the U.S. is 10 minutes. And only 8 percent of jobs are reachable within 90 minutes. 8 percent! The average is 30 percent. Finally, out of a combined ranking on coverage and job access, Newburgh is the absolute worst city in the United States. These statistics are from TIME Magazine and the Brookings Institution. They are very real and very present for the people who live in this place, where “gang members with national affiliations outnumber the city’s police by a ratio of three to one, not counting the hundreds of young people in homegrown groups” (NYT). This is not a new story for Newburgh, which began its decline following the deindustrialization, suburbanization, urban renewal efforts, and racial strife of the 1960s. Cheap labor overseas and cheaper transportation methods spelled economic havoc for Newburgh.
This is the only intersection that I found with bus shelters, and they are next to vacant lots… but there is artwork on the buildings!
Inside the Empty Bus… (comes every other hour, so no wonder few people wait around…)
This is also a familiar story for most American cities. But some bounce back, and others, akin to Newburgh, cannot compete with their global city brethren downstream. The first blow to Newburgh came with highways. Thought to improve economic development in inner cities by making it easier to commute, they actually made it easier to leave forever. A bridge built across the Hudson further north eliminated the need for ferry service between Newburgh and Beacon, an affluent town across the river, where the Metro-North Railroad stops. Newburgh became isolated, and suburbs continued to bring affluent, white residents out of the racially charged city. Jobs moved as well, and so did suburban strip malls, where most jobs are located that are not a few hours commute to Gotham. Trucks also took away most of the freight business on the river, making Newburgh irrelevant at the same time as deindustrialization was taking hold and jobs were moving elsewhere.
Suburbs in New Windsor (A nearby town in the Greater Newburgh Region)… Picture taken from a car, of course!
This isolation – this “lack of jobs and activities available to young people” – is a central part of the problem. Indeed, “the city has no supermarkets, one Boys and Girls Club that is closed on weekends and a virtually nonexistent bus system, leaving young people without cars too far from the only steady source of employment, at regional malls well outside of town” (NYT). The trolleys left the city, replaced by buses, which now do not run much at all. In fact, the only buses that come to the city are either for-profit, limited intercity services, or private operators under contract for routes to Wal-Mart and other nearby towns from Newburgh, which run very infrequently. Ulster County Area Transit, for instance, provides service to New Paltz, while Coach USA provides service to southbound towns, and Leprachaun Lines takes residents to their nearby strip malls.
However, there is some good news: ferry service across the river to Beacon and the nearest Metro-North station has resumed since the mid-2000s, under an MTA contract for NY Waterway. Still, in order to travel to New Windsor, a nearby town, the only public transit option listed on Google Maps is to walk for one hour. To walk! Even though buses do, in fact, go to New Windsor infrequently (and they do not reach the MTA Port Jervis Metro-North commuter rail station at Salisbury Mills), the data has not been synced with Google. Perhaps this metaphorically makes sense, because people are undoubtedly afraid of connecting Newburgh with their town, when in Newburgh, according to U.S. Senator Schumer, “there are reports of shootouts in the town streets, strings of robberies and gang assaults with machetes” (NYMag). Newburgh, it seems, is caught in a vicious cycle downward. Why would surrounding suburbs want to better connect themselves with “one of the most dangerous four-mile stretches in the northeastern United States”, if they do not need to do so?
Not much to do in this neighborhood…
Or in this one…
Port Jervis Line at Moodna Viaduct
This is a 20th century problem which needs 21st century solutions. While it is not a mega-city, it is not heavily affected by environmental degradation, and does not have a rapid urbanization problem, it has many familiar problems for Western cities. It lacks a basic sense of security, and it is shrinking, without an inclusive plan for the future. Transportation infrastructure is also an embarrassment. But Newburgh does have some assets: it is diverse, with many Hispanic immigrants arriving (to a city with few opportunities), and it also has historic, colonial architecture and design. Gentrification is occurring in small pockets where artists arrive in order to live cheaply and repair beautiful homes to their gilded glory. These are demographics that could help Newburgh, reversing its abandonment, improving the economy, and providing jobs and services, while maintaining affordable housing. There are pristine natural landscapes, there is history, and it is only a few hours from New York. But this is true for most cities and towns in Upstate New York. How can Newburgh stand apart? How can people actually move there, instead of visiting quickly?
The Dutch Reformed Church, a National Historic Landmark (Decaying by a parking lot)…
But beyond the cars, there’s a small garden in front of the closed-off church!
Renovated Victorian Home
If Newburgh is to be attractable, crime needs to go down. People need to know that they matter. More police are needed, more “windows on the street” are needed, and blighted and abandoned buildings could be razed and turned into urban farms or public parks. More lighting is needed, streets need to be repaved, and bicycle paths need to be added. This can be a great center for biking, with great adventures in nearby forests to be discovered. And anchor institutions need to return to the city. After-school programs, NGOs, and other grass-roots developments need to be founded. Newburgh needs to be put back on the map.
Once it gets on its feet, hopefully, the positive cycle upward will be unstoppable. But it needs a kick-start. It has an urban fabric, and it has plenty of cheap land and abandoned space to experiment, a lot of which has great views of the Hudson River. Broadway, the main boulevard, is one of the widest in the State, and it can be shrunk so that it is not an un-walkable, un-livable boulevard for cars to drive through towards the freeway and bridge, or to park in the hundreds of parking spaces. It can become a thriving destination in itself, with more trees and space for sidewalks and bike lanes. But in order to become a destination, there needs to be a diversified amount of opportunities, and not just nice streets. Newburgh needs to be better connected to its surrounding suburbs, which requires better access and mobility, and new suburban policies and plans.
So much space for cars (and trucks), so little space for people… on Broadway (Picture taken from a car, ironically and hypocritically…)
At a major intersection: a court house, a gas station (to the left), and trucks… no people! (Picture taken from a car, ironically and hypocritically…)
Broadway Bodegas (Picture taken from a car, ironically and hypocritically…)
This can begin at the Hudson, the birthplace of the city, which has ample land for a transportation hub. Old buildings were destroyed along the river during urban renewal processes, but never replaced due to a lack of funding. This land disconnects the urban fabric from the river and is now ready for development, and a new complex connecting the Beacon-Newburgh Ferry with Newburgh’s Broadway could be a catalyst for positive change. This intermodal transportation hub would have a ferry terminal, a bus terminal, ample bike racks and bike lane connections, as well as a shopping center, offices, a tourist center, a community center with art space, and affordable housing. It will be an environmentally-friendly building, and an icon to visit along the Hudson River; perhaps, the capital of Hudson Valley architecture, and an inclusive place to live, work, and play. Indeed, Newburgh has plenty of 18th, 19th, and 20th century architecture, but to become a 21st century city, it may also need state-of-the-art design for the hub. This would be a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, and secure atmosphere that Newburgh will need to create. But as always, it requires money. The hub will need to operate as a public-private partnership so as to collect its own revenue from real estate.
Vacant Land Along River & Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in Distance; Freight RR Below (Potential site for future hub?)
Placemaking Efforts on Broadway
I walked around the city, and also rode the buses. People were very pleasant, but they need more opportunities. Currently, Newburgh has a relatively new, state-of-the-art SUNY Orange community college campus at the end of Broadway, facing the Hudson. This is a great location in the heart of the city, anchoring the institution to the core. There are many programs that this school offers the community, especially with regard to youth development, such as pre-collegiate “tutoring, counseling, workforce preparation, mentoring, cultural enrichment and parental involvement activities” (SUNY).
SUNY Orange Newburgh Campus @ End of Broadway
(Empty!!!) Bike Racks at SUNY Orange Campus
Rain garden at SUNY Orange… without much of a garden… at all…
There’s also Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, which, since 1999, has “rehabilitated and newly constructed 67 homes in the City of Newburgh and served 76 families”. As a non-profit that relies on volunteers, donations, churches, other NGOs, and government grants, they are struggling with affordability. This is partly because renovated homes usually need lead removed, which is expensive. Local architects also are upset when historical buildings are not renovated with expensive historical items, such as $50K+ windows. Nonetheless, Habitat For Humanity also receives donations from redecorated, remodeled, or downsized homes and they use or sell this excess furniture, appliances, cabinets, and hardware. Moreover, the organization is a great place for youth to work and learn how to use their hands and improve their neighborhoods. This is a great example of current infill revitalization work going on in the city.
Habitat for Humanity Neighborhood!
Habitat for Humanity Construction Site (and urban farming action in foreground)
Newburgh needs to dream big to get back on the map. In the 21st century, hyper-capitalism has created hyper-competitive cities, shrinking space and time into hierarchical geopolitical arenas. Transportation built this city as a relevant hub along the Hudson River for boats and trains. Transportation also decimated the city when suburbanization took hold and highways and bridges brought people outside of the city on cars, representative of the powers, identities, and ideologies of the latter half of the 20th century. And now, transportation can also, once more, can help to develop the city and build communities. Not only physically, but also socially, economically, politically, and environmentally. There are many cheap fixes that can be done now such as biking connections, urban farming, and informal transit incentives. There are also long-term public-private partnerships to explore alongside real estate development for transit agencies.
In the end, transportation is a vehicle (pun intended) through which many, many aims can be accomplished. By bridging the (Hudson River) gap between Newburgh and affluent suburbs physically, transportation won’t just transport people, but transform them — and their communities — socially, economically, and politically. Newburgh will need to capitalize upon its assets and improve its transportation infrastructure in order to become relevant again, and in order to shine so much that Henry Hudson himself would enjoy rediscovering his Valley — but this time, not on a boat, but on a Metro-North train.
You should discover it as well. I strongly suggest visiting, volunteering, and living in Newburgh!
Zoom into the center and notice the Metro-North’s Hudson Line train (5 minutes from Beacon Station & MTA Ferry to Newburgh)… A scenic commute from the Big Apple to Newburgh
Rayn Riel is a student at Tufts University studying international urban development, his self-crafted major. Interested in transportation, he is the founder of Tufts’ only undergraduate urban development student organization and was an intern at the NYC Department of City Planning in Brooklyn in order to work on transportation accessibility and mobility in East New York. A writer on PlanYourCity, he has had planning work and research experience in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe.
(All photos are taken by Rayn)