Ben Schulman is a writer and editor based in New York's Hudson River Valley. When not writing about cities, he works with Small Change, an equity crowdfunding platform dedicated to building better cities.
In Newburgh, New York, a new “Artist-in-Vacancy” program aims to show the community as charged—not afflicted—by its past.
Renewal schemes, brought on by familiar scourges of 20th-century urban life—deindustrialization, racial discord, and a sprawling push away from downtown—gashed a thousand tears in the fabric of Newburgh, New York.
This small, dense city of approximately 28,000—roughly 65 miles north of New York City—hugs the Hudson River against a backdrop of urban renewal scars and architectural might. Its eclectic collection of late 19th-century styles stand sentry, many rotting and atop crumbling streets.
Former city manager Joseph Mitchell, instituted in 1961 an early form of workfare that drew praise from Barry Goldwater. Dubbed “The Thirteen Points,” it dictated that welfare recipients meet certain requirements to receive their benefits. The jumbled, top-heavy policy exacerbated racial tensions and heightened a sense of civic dysfunction in what became known as “ The Battle of Newburgh.” Beginning in the late 1950s and extending well into the 1970s, the city demolished over 4,000 residential and commercial properties, severing its tie to the waterfront, and fissuring the city’s history and civic identity.
Newburgh is where Washington was stationed longer than anywhere else during the American Revolution, where the very idea of a republic was enshrined, and a coup to establish military rule over the nascent American nation was thwarted. It’s where Thomas Edison developed his second electrical substation—still in use today by Central Hudson Gas & Electric—laying the foundation for the electrification of the country. It’s where the designs of Andrew Jackson Downing (a Newburgh native) and Calvert Vaux, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Alexander Jackson Davis, among others, informed each other’s thoughts to create a vernacular of American design and landscape architecture. The city is also home to the second largest historic district in New York State, the largest is in Manhattan.
But few institutions exist that maintain, broadcast, and promote Newburgh’s historical narrative. Large expanses of rolling, lightly-manicured hills spill emptily down to the water from the faded grandeur of the intact city, which in the ensuing years has suffered from further disinvestment, governmental infighting and mismanagement, a drug and violence epidemic, and a water contamination crisis.
Lander Street was one of the sites of a 2010 FBI raid in which 78 gang members associated with the Bloods and Latin Kings street gangs were taken away in the pre-dawn hours. Though the block brims with kids, cars, music and conversation, a stillness pervades the neighborhood. Lander Street is also the recent site of one of two interventions this past September organized by the Newburgh Community Land Bank’s (NCLB) “Artist-in-Vacancy” program, an initiative to reorient the idea of vacancy by bringing in artists to create places of engagement.
“Artist-in-Vacancy” launched this past summer, one of NCLB’s numerous efforts to change the perception of Newburgh to a place of openness and becoming, charged—but not afflicted—by its past. It’s a thread woven throughout all of the land bank’s work, an agency first organized in 2012 as a direct result of the State of New York’s 2011 Land Bank Act.
“The land bank typically acts as the holding platform for liabilities—tax-delinquent, structurally unsound, or otherwise unwanted properties,” says Diana Mangaser, NCLB’s design director, and the main force behind the land bank’s creative initiatives. “These problem properties get filtered into the land bank and taken off the tax rolls,” she says. NCLB then works to prepare the properties for remediation, offering them through different programs to interested developers, homebuyers, or neighborhood residents in need of stable housing. Since its inception, the land bank, which works independently of the City of Newburgh, has acquired over 80 properties and sold over two-thirds in a small area with a vacancy rate of 10 percent, just north of the city’s main commercial thoroughfare.
For this fall’s installation on Lander Street, Mangaser invited landscape architects Colleen Tuite and Ian Quate, who collaborate under the moniker, GRNASFCK, to take over two vacant lots situated directly across the street from each other. With “Temporary Site,” the duo planted, quite literally, a conversation. On one site, thick, heavy stairs salvaged from a demolished neighborhood property were encased in scaffolding and placed in the middle of the lot, a vestigial staircase, untethered. Across the street, a large metal planter that occupies the same footprint of the home that formerly stood on the lot overflows with mustard plants. The sites play off of one another, inviting interaction and play with places that may have once seemed foreboding, and teeing up an expectancy of things to come. A staircase to nowhere, a field of mustard, a bet on a better tomorrow—a slight smile is inserted into what had previously been voided landscapes.
“There’s an inherent optimism to plants,” says Quate. “It brings out conversation. In a community like this, where Lander Street was gang-run, there’s a need to have more conversation.”
A few blocks away, at 39 Johnston St., Mangaser invited architect-turned-artist Laura Genes, to take over the interior of the former home of Jacob Ruben, a renowned photographer who cemented an idea of what Newburgh was through his early 20th-century postcard series. The lot at 39 Johnston is an active construction site, in the process of being converted into an affordable housing development by non-profit RUPCO. The project is part of a 15-property scattered-site development, initially facilitated by NCLB, that will produce 45 units of affordable housing in the surrounding neighborhood.
Genes used this moment of reconstruction as a way to tease out architectural artifacts and juxtapose old materials against new. During installation, she said she was thinking about the landscape architect Downing’s belief of “ornamentation for all” and how that dictum applies in our digital age, and beyond. The installation, “Beyond Utility,” consists of a model of a section of the building’s rooftop, adorned on one side with original slate shingles collected onsite. On the rooftop’s other side is slate of the same color and shape, but shingles of more recent vintage. Historic corbels, expressively cut, detailed and weathered as markers of artisanal handicraft were placed on pedestals against mirror models, but digitally-rendered. The lines between old and new, hand and digital, craft and trade, blur. Genes seems to be asking how Newburgh intends to use its past to perpetuate its development and its people forward, especially when the social structures baked into architectural forms have failed so many in the city’s past.
Though they were conceived of independently, both installations touch on themes of access to a forgotten past while creating physical spaces to question, occupy, and recover it. Architect Andrew Linn, of Becker Linn Design, who presented at Genes’s installation, wants to go further. He presented his plan to recreate in some form the lost Highland Garden, Downing’s Newburgh estate, once considered one of America’s most revered homes. By implying Highland Garden’s form and volume within a linear park connected to the city’s most well-tended and traveled landscape, Washington’s Headquarters, Linn sees potential to reinsert the native Downing as an essential figure in the city—and the country’s—past. To do so would awaken an awareness of Newburgh’s importance to itself and its paramount place in American history.
Linn believes it’s essential for Newburgh to foreground its past as developer interest in the city increases. Indeed, the pace of development is accelerating, with 30 rehab permits issued in 2014 and 293 issued last year, according to a local paper. Mangaser takes a more measured view of the pace of development in the city. “There’s not displacement here with the amount of vacancy,” she says. “Of course, we’re sensitive to the communities we work in, and we’re stringent about the openness of our process.” She adds, “The land bank is here to eliminate barriers to redevelopment and help alleviate the impression of negativity that surrounds Newburgh.”
These conversations being catalyzed by Mangaser and the land bank underscore the need to unlock Newburgh’s spent potential by making accessible its wealth of assets. In this way, the underutilized real estate under the land bank’s control is not just speculative material for redevelopment, but rather tools for the city to reclaim its identity through reconnection with its past.