Growing up in the outskirts of the City of Newburgh has allowed me to observe the urban renewal that has occurred in my hometown. In particular, I have been able to witness the renewal of downtown Historic Liberty Street, at one time a nearly commercially vacant street, now bustling with numerous small businesses.
The city of Newburgh, located on the western side of the Hudson River 60 miles north of New York City, is home to about 30,000 people. Settled in the early 18th century and a brief home to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Newburgh grew into a bustling city during the 1950s. The city’s prosperous decades can be attributed to various industries, the remnants of which can be found throughout the city. As businesses began to move outside of the city’s limits and into shopping plazas in the town of Newburgh in the 1960s, the city’s economic decline led to increasing rates of poverty and crime.
While renewal efforts began in the early 1970s, major commercial results did not appear until the late 1990s when the Newburgh waterfront was revitalized into a street and sidewalk along the banks of the Hudson, now home to half a dozen or so upscale restaurants.
It was during this time, the early 2000s, where my personal memory kicks in. As a student in one of the few elementary schools within the city limits, I grew up surrounded by the urban reality of Newburgh. In 4th grade, my friends and I first learned what a ‘dime bag’ was after finding them lying around our school’s playground.
Although my father and his parents were born and raised in the city, I rarely found myself in downtown Newburgh during my childhood, with the exception of attending school or going to the public library. We had no reason to go; there were few restaurants that we frequented and hardly entertainment or activities. This trend continued throughout much of my adolescence and into my high school years. It is this urban fear and subsequent lack of consumer traffic that has prevented many investors and business owners from contributing to Newburgh’s economy.
However, this began to change in recent years. Historic Liberty Street, a downtown street that runs parallel to the river, and host to Washington’s State Headquarters Historic Site, draws a limited number of tourists and student groups regularly. In recent years, this historic street has become a shining example of urban renewal in Newburgh. “Liberty Street is becoming very well-known for its efforts in revitalization,” said Rick Milton, owner of Newburgh Based Mesh-Realty. The street, previously lacking commercial businesses, now hosts a variety, including restaurants, cafes, a florist, and more.
During my senior year of high-school, I had heard about a café that had opened in the city, but I hardly considered it and continued to foster my teenage caffeine addiction at a Starbucks in the more affluent Town of Newburgh. On a whim, two friends and I (bored of the typical suburban mall hang-out) decided to venture to this new café. We were incredibly surprised by its sidewalk seating, well-decorated interior, eclectic menu, and most importantly, location. In an area we thought we would have never otherwise set foot in, we found ourselves enjoying hibiscus iced teas and paninis.
My interest in urban renewal and gentrification in the City of Newburgh really took off, on that spring afternoon at Caffé Macchiato. While the location is still very gritty in comparison to the manicured waterfront, it has a historic, city-like feel. Various committees have been established in Newburgh to promote the preservation of the street as well as encourage and fiscally support small businesses trying to open. “A number of the storefronts that have been vacant for years are now occupied,” said Mr. Milton.
The addition of the Newburgh branch of Orange County Community College should bring an increase in foot traffic to the area in upcoming years. The opening of the OCC extension will hopefully add a youthful liveliness to the area, as well. Mr. Milton estimates that currently, there is a 60/40 ratio of city residents/visitors patronizing Liberty Street.
How have people heard about Liberty Street’s revival? The same way I did— through word of mouth. Visitors are beginning to visit Newburgh from other cities such as Beacon and Poughkeepsie, said Mr. Milton.
The renewal effort on Liberty Street is just getting started. Of all the small businesses opening on Liberty Street in the past few years, Mr. Milton can only recall one failing, a remarkable statistic in today’s economy. With the help of advisory boards, dedicated small business owners, and local residents seeking to patronize local establishments, Liberty Street’s future looks promising.
Alyssa Alfano grew up in Newburgh and attended high school in Poughkeepsie. She is an undergraduate at Seton Hall University.