In 1952, Look magazine named Newburgh, New York an “All American City.” In its heyday people from across the Hudson Valley flocked to this riverfront city to shop along Broadway, said to be the widest street in the state; to stroll the serpentine paths in Downing Park, designed by the landscape architects who created New York City’s Central Park; or to go down to the dock to catch a Day Liner steamboat for an afternoon on the Hudson River.
Newburgh could not have been mistaken for any other place.
But, like many other cities across the country, Newburgh experienced a perfect storm during the 1960s: industrial jobs were lost, people fled to the suburbs, and urban renewal efforts destroyed large tracts of older, pedestrian-friendly downtown buildings that helped give the city its sense of place.
Today determined individuals and organizations are banding together to bring back Newburgh, and they are using preservation as a tool to engage the citizenry and raise public consciousness to rebuild the city’s urban fabric and firmly re-root it in history. On Broadway, the restoration of the historic Ritz Theater is seen as a sign of hope for the city’s downtown. Tricia Haggerty-Wenz, Executive Director of Safe Harbors, a not-for-profit group that builds community through housing and the arts, is spearheading the efforts. When Haggerty-Wenz first saw the theater space and realized it was the last remaining historic theater in a city that once had five, she knew it had to be saved. She sees the theater as a beacon of hope: “When the theater comes back, the city will come back. It will be an element of pride for this community that is desperately needed.” Haggerty-Wenz and others believe that the 825-seat venue will be a catalyst for downtown business revival – people attending the theater will need places to eat, to shop, to explore, to gather with friends, and to relax. With the opening of the theater and the influx of dollars it will bring, a recent economic study predicts that it is “likely that additional arts-based enterprises will be interested in moving into the area.” The downtown will again be not only a destination but also an enjoyable experience.
The city’s historic architecture is also attracting new homeowners who are restoring properties. Piotr Zmuda and his wife moved their family from New York City, attracted by Newburgh’s history and excited by the possibility of what it can become. Zmuda believes that “Newburgh has a history that cannot be replaced or rebuilt and that’s a value in itself.” Others agree, and entrepreneurs have restored properties and opened businesses and restaurants along Liberty Street, in the area surrounding the historic Hasbrouck House where George Washington was headquartered during the Revolutionary War.
Preservation is not the magical restorative potion for Newburgh and other similar cities. But it is a tool to jump-start the process of urban revitalization.