This is the second part of a 2-part series recounting travels back to my home state of New York, a complicated visit to Hudson.
I’m having an affair ….sort of, with a place – the Hudson Valley. And why not:
A couple of years ago, I traveled back home to Syracuse, and took the wonderful train up the Hudson River. I had done it before, but on this journey, in glorious mid-October, I got off the train. I spent a couple of nights in Poughkeepsie, using it as a base to explore West Point, Dia: Beacon, Hyde Park, the Catskills, as well as other cities and towns near the river. The visit was recounted in this space a few years ago:
And the place hooked me. Last fall, a trip back east was in the works, and we had been hearing a lot about the resurgence of the town of Hudson, and so, on our way back from Montreal to New York, we disembarked at the depot, and would spend another night on the Hudson River, eager to see this town’s renaissance.
A Town Reborn
Hudson is a small town that sits on the banks of its namesake river. Its history, to a point, has followed the familiar arc of other upstate cities and towns nearby- settlement, growth, periods of industrial based affluence , then a slow decline. A number of these Hudson Valley cities and towns followed this pattern, with the decay becoming particularly acute in 60’s and 70’s. And while many of these places have seen various levels of revival, nowhere is it more pronounced than in this little town. OK, if we could just find that model for the photo:
In the 80’s a few pioneers opened antique shops, capitalizing no doubt on the many older homes, with older furnishings, from the older population. It soon became known as a bit of destination for antiques, and this gradually spawned more antique shops. A 2 hour train ride from New York, word eventually got out, and the place began to become a popular weekend getaway for New Yorkers looking for chotkes. This spawned places to stay, more places to eat, and it even became a place of second homes. An influx of new people , new money, prompted nearly all the old dilapidated buildings along the main street; Warren, to be restored. I mean this is all good, right? Right?
We stayed in a restored 19th century house just off the main drag. It was sweet, and its yard brushed up against the romance of yesteryear , an old home preserved in suspended decay. The courtyard was lovely, embracing, as it were, some “shabby chic”:
As day broke, we took in Warren Street, and there was a bevy of amenities for the traveler; cafes, bookstores, antiques, all hosted in an impressive array of restored 18th and 19th century commercial buildings. The street was lovely.
As an architect, I routinely have a stake in areas, like Warren Street, that are revitalized. I have worked on projects that were part of such efforts, and I think there can be few things more satisfying than to be part of the re-birth of a neighborhood. Old buildings, as I discussed in my post on Syracuse, are treasures worth hanging on to.
We stopped at a cafe and had a coffee and a perfect almond croissant at a cafe that had been meticulously furnished with all manner of bric-a-brac , no doubt recovered from the area. It was a beautiful morning as we regarded the couple with the small dog steering clear of the workmen gutting a building across the street. Nothing out of place, everything perfect.
There was much to admire here . So why did it bother me so ?
When Worlds Collide
When you walked off the main street, things began to change dramatically. Yes, there were pockets of old homes that had been lovingly restored:
And still plenty too that sat empty:
Moving further away from the main street, one could see echoes of a distant commercial past in Hudson:
And a civic one as well:
But it wasn’t about these buildings that weren’t occupied. No, doubt, if the community’s revitalization continued, these buildings would be lovingly restored as well. No, it was about the people on the side-streets, and their buildings.
On main street, it’s all antiques, and croissants and lattes, daytrippers from New York, and well, people like us I guess, visitors from San Francisco. And on the side streets, it was the old locals, probably an even split of minority and white residents. There was incongruous high-rise public housing, and there were plenty of vacant lots. And here was where the government and social services buildings lived as well. So while lovely Warren Street represented 1813 meets 2013- a mashup conjured by artistically inclined mostly out-of-town transplants, the remainder of the town roughly covered the years in between, and didn’t seem to be quite enjoying the fruits of the restored main street, at least to the visitor. Two worlds, one block away, and for the most part, not co-mingling.
In 2010, the median household income in Hudson was $40,203, about a third less than the national figure. 21.8% of the population, and 39.3% of children under 18, live on incomes below the poverty level, which again exceed the national statistics (of 14.4% and 20.1%, respectively). 54.8% of the city’s adults haven’t attained an education beyond high school.
Gentrification is a tricky business. On the one hand, in terms of built form, there’s much to like in the restoration. And, for a town suffering from lack of employment and tax base, both can be impacted in a positive way (though it was not clear how many locals were employed by the antique shops). But sometimes, the speed and fury with which this occurs,( say thinking of parts of Brooklyn the last few years), can leave one wondering what has been wrought. The former residents are displaced and pushed to the side streets. A new world for those of us from the big cities is produced on a single street, where we can admire the power-washed rust-belt grit over almond croissants.
But the fact remained that this bothered me in a way that I hadn’t felt in Poughkeepsie of Syracuse. Maybe part of it was an issue of scale, the larger towns and cities were more complex organisms, with the change diluted over a larger area ? And the difference between the two worlds was less pronounced, less vivid. Or perhaps it was its New York roots here, nothing like the ferocity of down-state gentrification.
Bridging The Gap ?
A few years ago, local Hudson artist David Deutsch became concerned with the effects of gentrification on the town’s poorest residents. He reached out to Architect Teddy Cruz, a San Diego based Architect whose practice has been built around sensitively designed interventions into poorer neighborhoods. Together, they developed a plan , working with long time local residents, to stitch together the sides of this town through a series of fragmented interventions.
They proposed a series of pocket parks, lined with community based uses, such as community gardens, which would link Warren Street to adjacent streets:
In other areas, mixed-income housing was proposed with some shops and more community space below.
In short, the proposed development would act as fingers, with the energy of each of these very close yet distant realms reaching out to one another. A great idea- I liked the scale of it, fragmented, piecemeal. So much of redevelopment is done so large it overwhelms the community, just as fast-paced gentrification, like what has taken place in Brooklyn, or in parts of San Francisco, can overwhelm a community before they know what hit them.
The proposal above is from 2008, and it appears, parts of it at least, the parks, are moving forward. I really admire this effort, and despite spending all of one and half days in Hudson, felt that beyond Warren Street antique’s shop lay a strong community spirit that had the potential to bridge the gap, and make a more social link to two worlds.
The Reality of Antiques
In some ways I suppose, this is all a story of antiques; whether it be someone admiring a Stickley chair, or a brick warehouse, or swearing about 80-year-old wiring. I was thinking about this as we made our way to the river, and the train back to New York. There was some time to kill so I walked to the edge of the river, and saw some structures I wanted to look at up close. More Antiques.
Growing up in places like this, I find these areas now deeply ingrained in me. I am admittedly drawn to the poetics of old industrial structures, and to the momentary solitude I enjoy regarding these brooding figures, quiet and raw on this gray day. I realized I had my own competing views, loving professionally to be a part of re-invigorating old cities, and at the same time admiring , yes, the undisturbed grit of the antique. I wondered for example if those that used to sneak on the now restored Highline in Manhattan pined for the days before its refurbishment.
I remembered on my last visit, downriver in Poughkeepsie, where they had restored an old railroad bridge as a walking and biking trail high over the Hudson. It was marvelous re-birth that has become immensely popular. So, while there is poetry in the ruin, the unused antique, that is a moment for the solitary visitor. A new use is better, its for the community.
In the end , I think that the bridge, as well as the plans above, and the Creekwalk from the last post on Syracuse, show the role design can play in helping to shape the market forces that drive gentrification in older industrial communities, and show but one way that the community can benefit as a whole, literally building on the legacy of a place; in an inclusive way. Gentrification is tricky business, but I look forward to what develops in Hudson.
In the meantime, we could hear the train, with footstools alert and awaiting the next influx.