Kevin Burke, a writer and attorney, is a Newburgh native who, with his parents, founded the Downing Film Center at 19 Front Street in 2006. He currently serves as the theater’s President. Mr. Burke is a member of the New York State Bar and volunteers on the boards of the Hudson River Valley Greenway, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area Management Committee and Newburgh Preservation Association. He and his wife Anna Barranca-Burke, a development officer at Columbia University, split their time between Newburgh and her native Brooklyn.
How long has your family lived in Newburgh and what was it like growing up here?
My mother’s family has lived in Newburgh since beyond history’s count. Blanche Williams, my grandmother, descended from a long line of “Pochuckers,” including one who, during the Revolution, helped capture Major Andre, the British spy, near present-day Sleepy Hollow. It’s our family’s only claim to fame. Blanche grew up on Snake Hill alongside Crystal Lake; her father William Williams (nicknamed “Po”) was an iceman who signed his name with an “X.” My grandfather, Martin Kolassa, grew up on South Street, not far from St. Mary’s Church, and, except for two years in Europe during World War II, drove a truck delivering lady’s coats to New York City for a living. My mother, Sharon Kolassa, grew up at 212 Prospect Street and, after graduating from Newburgh Free Academy in 1964, returned to the area to teach in the public schools. She was the first in the family to receive a master’s degree. My father, Brian Burke, also a teacher, is a Pennsylvania native. He brought the family name to Newburgh when he married my mother in 1968. Here it remains.
While growing up in the “suburbs” of Newburgh (the Town of New Windsor), I have early memories of visiting my grandmother for overnights on Prospect Street, where I enjoyed listening to the cars rush by on Gidney at night, walking to the corner store on South for candy and taking in bagels and donuts from Favata’s on Broadway. Given the city’s steep decline in the late Sixties and Seventies, my family spent little time within its four corners except for those visits, attending Mass at St. Francis and occasionally shopping at Resnick’s off Liberty. Perhaps surprising to newcomers today, the Hudson River had little presence in my life back then; it was still a polluted mess and the waterfront and Downing Park had largely been ceded to gangs and drug-dealers. Nevertheless, I would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else in the world. Newburgh helped spark my love of history; I was only an hour from Times Square, the site of so many musical dreams; and for such a small city, Newburgh’s diversity—its global diversity: multilingual, gritty, real—impacted me in important ways. I was neither sheltered nor over-exposed and grew up with a deep appreciation (thanks to my parents and the public schools) of other people’s cultures, capacities and suffering. In my opinion, there is no better place to engage the human heart—its light and shadows—than Newburgh.
You left Newburgh to go away to school. Where did you go, what did you study and what made you decide to come back?
After graduating from NFA, I attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I received a B.A. in Afro-American Studies from the College in 1998; a J.D. from the Law School in 2003; and a master’s degree in History and a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 2004 and 2006, respectively. After living in New York City for a year, I moved back to Newburgh in 2005 to be closer to my family, write, take part in the city’s revival and invest in its future. When I shared the news with my committee’s administrator in Cambridge, she instantly understood. “It’s the Irish in you, Kevin” she said. A native of God’s country herself, she added, “we are a clannish people, and these are your people.” I can’t think of any better explanation than that.
I hear that a fellow Newburgher helped you meet your wife. How did that happen?
Anna and I worked on the same communications team for the President of Columbia University in 2007 and 2008. We were instant friends. When I left to head up internal communications for Pepsi in 2008, I hoped to recruit Anna, but as a native Brooklynite, she was reluctant to take on the daily commute to Westchester. Over the next several months, she and I lost touch only in the ways busy people do. I was successful at recruiting another member of our communications team to Newburgh, however: Yaakov Sullivan, now the master of 21 Overlook Place (what he calls “The Brambles”). In June 2008, Yaakov hosted a house-warming party to celebrate his move, and there Anna and I reconnected not as “strangers across a crowded room” but as soulmates with a shared past and future at last we could embrace. The following week we went on our first date (Macy’s in Herald Square). We were married at St. Mary’s Church in Newburgh on October 21, 2012.
You and your family are quite involved in Newburgh’s revitalization. Tell me about some of your family’s endeavors.
In July 2006, my parents, both retired teachers, and I launched the Downing Film Center, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit arts organization, located in the cozy basement of the Yellow Bird Building at 19 Front Street on the Newburgh waterfront (www.downingfilmcenter.com). Our size: 1 projector (now digital, thanks to generous support from our patrons), 1 screen, 1 concession stand, 60 seats. Our mission: to show world-quality independent, foreign and documentary films. Since opening, the Downing has screened an average of 50 first-run films and sold approximately 17,000 tickets a year. We also take great pride in partnering with local filmmakers and community groups to bring thought-provoking films to the area, often with panel discussions and guest speakers. As a credit to my parents, who animate the Downing with passion and a common touch, the Downing was voted “Best Theater in the Hudson Valley” for 2010 and 2011 by Metromix and in 2011 and 2012 by the readers of the Times Herald Record. Currently, we are showing “Argo” and “Chasing Ice.”
In addition, my father serves on the Newburgh Waterfront Committee, and my mother works as a literacy volunteer at the Newburgh Free Library. They are remarkable people, warm, gifted and wise, and I couldn’t be prouder to be their son.
What are some of the changes you have seen happen in Newburgh over the years? Is the revitalization of the City getting more momentum than in the past?
Without question, the most dramatic change has been the River itself. As I said, as a child, because of its pollution and abandonment, it had little presence in the city’s life. Now, following years of cleanup and redevelopment, it is a focal point for cultural and culinary activity, a gateway for newcomers, a commuter hub and the threshold between urban life and the majesty of the Hudson Highlands. I wish more denizens of the city took advantage of its beauty and more visitors used it as a jumping-off point for exploring the city. Unfortunately, parking is severely limited in summer and the costs of many of the restaurants are prohibitive. The waterfront’s true value, however, is found in its stunning vistas; thanks to Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, Pete Seeger, Maurice Hinchey and many others, they are timeless. And they are free.
Most days, I jog and walk the streets of Newburgh and am ever curious about its changes, large and small. Since returning, the most impactful within the city proper have been (in no particular order) the establishment of Café Macchiato on Liberty Street (an important catalyst for re-igniting this vital corridor), the expansion of SUNY Orange on Grand Street (cementing the idea of a public square), the growth of St. Luke’s Hospital and Mt. Saint Mary’s College along DuBois and Powell, the conversion of the Old Broadway School into the city court building, the re-anchoring of the Ritz Theater and opening of Safe Harbors on Broadway, the tireless efforts of Habitat to rehab crumbling homes and fill in sorely vacant lots, and the coalescing of an artists’ movement reshaping many of our forlorn structures into modern studio space, warehouses and labs. There’s no doubt the financial crisis of 2008 slowed Newburgh’s momentum. While tensions within the city persist, I am most heartened by this small but increasingly critical mass of newcomers. Newburgh has always been an enchanted place, and they have the perspective and willingness to see it.
Why do you think Newburgh is a unique city and why is it worth revitalizing?
Newburgh has the best, most inspiring views of the Hudson anywhere along the River. Indeed, there is nothing like standing on the lawn at Washington’s Headquarters or along Colden Street and absorbing the Highlands as they roll toward West Point at the River’s bend. Newburgh also has the second largest historic district in the state, within reach of many more people who dream of living in something old at a tiny fraction of the cost of Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights. It is 60 miles from Manhattan, accessible to Grand Central by ferry and train. You will not encounter a more diverse city in four square miles anywhere along the East Coast, and Newburgh is a place where anyone can have an immediate impact on improving life, house by house, block by block, street by street. There is so much need here, so much potential, so many interesting people to befriend and collaborate with—Newburgh is worth revitalizing for the same reason every treasured urban space is: it is a laboratory for democracy, its density and diversity energize and inspire, its historic architecture unites generations, and there is no better place to develop a “sense of place” or study, confront and celebrate humanity in all its forms.
What are your dreams for the City?
Unlike many who grew up in Newburgh, I do not dream of “going back” to the way it was as America’s City. As a child of the Eighties and Nineties, that was never my city. My dream for Newburgh is that it becomes a creative hub along the Hudson, a place where squeezed-out artists, writers, craftsmen and entrepreneurs make their homes and lives—with our precious, preserved architecture leading the way. My dream for Newburgh is that generations trapped in poverty’s grip break it, that diversity is seen as a strength by all who live here, and that the city is a city again with shared public spaces, a true transportation infrastructure, renovated Victorians and brick rowhouses, thriving schools, a community that knows and appreciates all its history, and a government that works with and for the people, that pulls for them, toward a common destiny. There is no reason to settle for less. Whatever that future, I hope the Downing Film Center is a part of it, and that when people visit Newburgh, they are just as likely to visit a revitalized Dutch Reformed Church, Downing Park or Washington Headquarters’ Tower of Victory as they are the sparkling waterfront.
What advice would you give someone considering moving to the City of Newburgh? Especially for those looking to restore a home.
I would definitely encourage them to do it but with open eyes. Too many, I’m afraid, relocate to Newburgh wearing emerald glasses (the views! the buildings! the low prices! the potential!) only to break their frames out of frustration, impatience and, in extreme cases, bitterness and despair. In many ways, “the Newburgh project” is a perpetual one, and so newcomers should be prepared for a longer haul. The key is to embrace the journey, savoring the moments of splendor, falling in with an eccentric but ceaselessly interesting and surprising crowd, discovering hidden gems, celebrating small victories and living a life that is defiantly, if not maddeningly, authentic. As I said, Newburgh is an enchanted place, and one must learn to listen for chords of beauty amidst all the noise; when you do, you will be hard-pressed to find a place so close to the great metropolis with a more intriguing energy and potential for impact and meaning.
Photo credit: Jean Kallina