The city of Hudson, New York is undergoing a renaissance.
“It’s branded itself as being a cool place where people know there’s something interesting going on,” says Gary Schiro, Executive Director of the Hudson Opera House.
The city has undergone great economic and cultural changes from its unlikely founding as a whaling center located 125 miles from the sea, to its industrial boom following the opening of the Erie Canal, to its national notoriety in the 19th century for its Diamond Street red-light district. Despite these changes, its built fabric remains remarkably intact with 18th and 19th century houses that follow the city’s original grid plan, and a main artery – Warren Street – fronted with two and three story commercial buildings that create an intimate urban scale.
In the last several decades Hudson has emerged as a real destination with a distinct identity rooted in its architecture, its history, its people, and its location on the Hudson River. The illustrated whales on the street signs throughout the downtown are a nod to the city’s history. Warren Street is the place to go to have your vacuum repaired, rent a kayak, shop for antiques, visit an art gallery, eat dinner or grab an ice cream cone. Old industrial buildings north of Warren Street have been converted to music venues and theater spaces. The new waterfront park is the place to have a picnic, hear a concert, or take in the views that inspired the Hudson River School of painters.
Hudson has a real sense of place that makes it alive and authentic.
There is something deeply affecting about the idea of sense of place. In her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities(1961), urbanist Jane Jacobs explains how the vitality of a place evolves naturally over time and leaves room for the unexpected, a concept she refers to as “organized complexity.” But the downside of this evolution is that active public spaces – downtowns, neighborhood parks, and waterfronts – that have previously created community and helped to give people a sense of identity and purpose can be negatively transformed beyond recognition through inappropriate development and sprawl.
This has not happened in Hudson. The city has fought hard to both create and retain its sense of place, which includes its diversity. As the city experiences an influx of new residents that are attracted by its character, many efforts are being made to ensure that the families who have been living here for generations, as well as the newer immigrant communities, are not pushed out. Historically, the Greek Revival style Hudson Opera House, originally built as City Hall, was the central gathering place for the townspeople of Hudson and was used for lectures and performances, as well as boxing matches, poultry shows, and graduations. It fostered a sense of place and made people feel as though they truly belonged to a community. Today the Opera House is a multi-arts center that acts as a community bridge bringing together diverse people with diverse interests – with things such as after school programs for kids, Chinese music performances, Bangladeshi dances, ecology courses and more.
Residents of Hudson have also fought hard to retain the natural landscape surrounding the city, which is seen as a major contributor to its sense of place. Several years ago, residents banded together to defeat a proposed coal-powered cement plant with a 40-story smokestack that many argued would alter the city’s character by bringing more traffic and ruining the scenic vistas.
Jane Jacobs advised us that if we started to look and listen, we would find that a vibrant sense of place can and does exist in downtowns, farmlands, suburbs, waterfronts, and more. It’s there to revel in, cherish, protect and nourish and all that’s required to experience it is individual awareness, understanding, and appreciation.