"Let's bike over that bridge and have lunch in Newburgh." That's what I told my wife. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Unless you know Newburgh, NY. I didn't.
My wife and I were on a weekend biking getaway and found ourselves in Beacon, NY. Beacon is a pretty but depressed place (though it's less depressing since Dia: Beacon opened in 2003). I figured Newburgh, on the other side of the river, must be the "nice part of town." Mostly I wanted to bike over the two-mile bridge that crosses the mighty Hudson.
The bridge is impressive. Over we went. And then we biked downhill and saw signs to a ferry. We were elated at the though of not having to bike back uphill. There are a few restaurants by the river, but they all looked new and touristy and none-too-inspired.
We can do better, we said. So we locked our bikes, crossed under a train track, and headed up a grassy slope looking for some hipster cafe or yuppie coffee-shop.
At this point, if you know Newburgh, you're laughing.
There are lots of "cute" towns on the Hudson. Newburgh isn't one of them.
We were greeting by old no-longer courthouse and rundown buildings. The black part of town, I thought. We made a right on Liberty Street looking for the business district of this very historic port city.
I don't mind run down and rough around the edges. In fact, I'm rather fond of it (for instance, two days earlier we had spent a very nice day in Peekskill, which you won't find in any guidebooks). But this quickly got grim. Very grim. I've rarely seen such grim. It was kind of like Baltimore's Eastern District, but the buildings and view in Newburgh are prettier.
Like most urban ghettos, Newburgh is heartbreaking. There used to be city here. And Newburgh, if you squint hard enough, is beautiful -- the view, the buildings, the history! But between the vacant lots and boarded up buildings live human beings with no jobs, little school, and no hope.
An entire class of people forgotten and abandoned by everything but lame social services and the criminal justice system. Is it a failure of capitalism? Maybe. But regardless of who is to blame, it makes me a bit ashamed to be American. Can we really not do better?
I was thinking all these heady thoughts and more but at some point I just had to ask, "What the hell are we doing here, and where are we going!?"
Now I've found that most people in the ghetto are incredibly nice, especially to a polite lost white boy. But I'm still not going to ask directions from just anybody lounging about. So I stopped when I saw a very old man painting his house.
"Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me where...," I was kind of at a loss for words here, "downtown is?"
The old man looked at me quizzically. I wondered if he could hear. I also realized how stupid my question was because I was literally in the down part of town. Newburgh is steep. We were standing at the bottom. And I'm asking which way is down. At this point words kind of failed me. What was I looking for? Luckily, the man figured me out, "You mean, where are the stores? The businesses?"
"Yes. Where can we eat lunch?"
"Broadway," he said, "a few blocks back that way. You can't miss it."
It was back in the direction we came from. So we went up a block (we try not to retrace our steps in any part of town) and headed back.
"He's not going to finish painting that house," my wife said glumly.
"He's not going to last that long."
Who can say? But Broadway indeed could not be missed. It's truly broad. And also sad. Nowhere non-ghetto to eat. Chinese take out. A very greasy dinner. Ninety-nine-cent pizza. There was a Mexican restaurant that seemed like the best option. But even that was a sad looking place with no customers.
There's a bit of immigrant influx in Newburgh. But not enough. I felt sorry for these guys standing on a corner waiting for a bus that runs once an hour (till 5pm). Can you imagine trudging across Mexico, risking your life to cross the border illegally, all while driven on by dreams of the promised land and a better life, and then ending up in Newburgh because rent is cheap?
What I can't get over, though, is all this good infrastructure abandoned. They built things to last back in the days. Train stations and ferry terminals and homes and streetcars. And rather than deal with problems, we just left them literally to rot as we built suburban roads and homes and malls and roads -- all with government money -- and left the city.
I mean, even a parking lot was abandoned! How do you abandon a parking lot? Never before have I felt wistful nostalgia for a parking lot, but there was a great big old sign advertising "safe overnight municipal parking" pointing to a block of chest-high weeds.
That grassy hill we climbed? Used to be beautiful buildings. Run down, but they could have been saved. Instead, in the 1970s, they torn them down for "renewal." But they ran out of money before they could actual "renew" anything.
Here's a "then" picture. I think of Water at 2nd, looking north.
For what it's worth, the homicide rate of Newburgh isn't that high. It's lower than Baltimore's and a fraction of where I policed. But it's still, I've since been told, the most dangerous city in New York State. I'm sure there are nice parts of Newburgh. But I didn't see them.
Then we worked our way over to Liberty Street on the south side of Broadway. It's considered the newly "gentrified" part of town. I put that in quotes because it means a few stores have opened. And that's better than nothing, I suppose.
At one, an old lady missing some teeth ran out of her store when she saw us reading a flier in her window about an "Art Bus." She told us about her wonderful cheesecakes. She didn't have any that day because, "Business hasn't been too good recently and I don't want things to sit around." But she made us promise to come back. I doubt I will. But you never know.
A list of art attractions that includes Razor Sharp Barber Shop does not inspire much confidence. And Hip-Hop Heaven was selling a bunch of white t-shirts. It was actually kind of funny to see "the uniform" on display. But I guess you gotta buy your white T's somewhere.
Ironically, we did end up having a very nice lunch in Newburgh. We ate at the Wherehouse and our glum spirits were lifted by Anita, the charming and ever-cheerful bartender.
"One problem," said Anita, "is that there are no art programs in school. Nothing to give kids the idea that there's something bigger in this world. And then the few programs they do have, basketball and such, are all in school. What kind of kid wants to spend all day in school and then stay in school?"
I wish I had the energy and willpower of others to make Newburgh a better place. But I don't. Like most people, I don't want my neighborhood to be a struggle or a place where I fear for my safety. Luckily, I have enough money to choose where I live. Not everybody is so blessed.
And then we left. We climbed back down the hill, got our bikes, and waiting for the ferry. About to take a picture of the boat I was told by the captain, "You can't take pictures of the vessel. Homeland security." Whatever. But he was nice enough about it and I was too tired to question the logic or the absurdity of a terrorist putting Newburgh on their to-do list. But the picture I didn't take of "the vessel" would have been better than this one I had already snapped.
In the background, you can see a bit of the bridge we biked over. Newburgh faded into the distance.
And the Hudson was beautiful as a storm passed nearby.
A beautiful rainbow appeared in the east.
And the captain saw no national security threat in me taking pictures of his cute dog.
And here, for the hell of it, are a few other shots from our bike ride. New York City to Newburgh. Four days. Six counties. And a train ride back. No speed records were set.
South Bear Mountain Pass.
New York City drinking water. Sure tastes good.