Meet a Newburgher: Bob Blake

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Meet new Newburgher Bob Blake. He is restoring his dream home on Chambers Street that took him over 4 years to purchase. Mr. Blake has some words of wisdom for those of you looking to purchase and restore your own Newburgh home, for everything from grants to finding the right realtor.  He is in Newburgh “for the long haul!” Thanks for participating Bob!

How did you find out about Newburgh and how long did it take you to make the move?
I’ve known Newburgh all my life. My family has owned a vacation home in Ulster Co. since 1950. I grew up in the Bronx and we often traveled through Newburgh. We shopped there, too, sometimes at Lloyd’s on 300. Near where Lloyd’s was (now Home Depot) is a Cape Cod house (currently empty). Back then, the people living there had a large garden and sold fresh produce. I know my dad bought a lawn mower at Sears there, when Sears was in the city proper. I remember in the late 1960s we got a new, larger refrigerator and we bought the cabinets for the new configuration at Warehouse Furniture, then way down on Broadway. We had a neighbor upstate who tended bar for years at Luigi’s Restaurant on Broadway. Another neighbor was big on auctions. He bought several loads from the auction of the contents of the Palatine Hotel. I have a chair and a mirror that he gave my family with a Palatine pedigree. He had a barn full of beds, bureaus, rolls of carpeting, etc., all from the Palatine. I’m not sure if I still have them, but he gave us some cutlery, too, marked “Palatine.” Not sure where they are or what happened to them. So, I’ve known Newburgh my entire life.

I had wanted to get an old house and price was a big consideration. Newburgh had really wonderful houses for extraordinarily low prices. I saw one on Courtney Avenue in a real estate booklet and I began to seriously think about it.  Taking an old, neglected house and fixing it up always appealed to me. Like Mary Hatch Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” an old vandalized empty house upsets me.  I wanted to fix those broken windows. Watching “This Old House” religiously also helped to light my fire.  I began to look in earnest in 2008. I saw on line the Newburgh Preservation Association and their Newburgh For Newcomers link. I called. I joined. I was given a grand tour. I was hooked.  It took me almost five years to get the house I wanted.  The house I eventually bought is the one I first fell strongly in love with back in December of 2008, only to have it sold back then before I could act on it. So, I began in October 2008 and closed on my house in March of 2013, four years and five months of hunting and a good many disappointments.  My house isn’t quite as grand as the old Granville house in Bedford Falls, but it works for me, broken windows and all.

What was the process like of finding and buying your home?
Finding a house that suited me was hard. Some of them were such wrecks. Others were virtually impossible to assess because the utilities were off and the owners were unwilling to have them put back on temporarily so that the systems could be checked out. I found many sellers totally uncooperative and not in the least motivated to make the sale. I almost bought a house on Courtney Avenue, but the sellers wanted the contract contingent upon their getting a grant for moving. So, after I paid to have the house inspected, I would then also incur mortgage application costs, etc. and were they not to get the grant, I’d be out in the cold. I requested that in the event of that happening, they would reimburse me for half of my expenses. They said no. I backed out. They did an about face. I told them, thanks, but no thanks. If they’d agreed to my perfectly reasonable request, I might be living on Courtney Avenue.  I looked seriously at three other properties, and perhaps a dozen others which weren’t suitable for me. I found to get a rehab loan makes the whole business extraordinarily complicated. Essentially, you cede control of the project to the lender. They tell you what they want done and how. You have to find contractors subject to their final approval. You lose control of what gets done and how it is done.  I raised the money to buy my house outright and so can now proceed to work on it as I choose and at my own pace. It wasn’t easy, but I managed it.  It saved me a lot of delay and frustration.

Where you able to receive any grants?
Yes. I qualified for the first time homebuyer grant from the College of Mount St. Mary, which is processed through Pathstone.  I’ve put the money to good use. That is a wonderful program and the college is to be commended for the positive contribution to bettering the area, which is limited to the census tract around the campus. There are many homes therein that need to be restored, so it is a fertile field for this program to sow the seeds to encourage repair and restoration. The grant is forgiven in increments over five years. Each year the amount forgiven is then additional income to you, so the overall cost of the grant to the grantee is hard to know, but when first buying a house, it is a huge boost to have the extra cash to apply to the myriad projects requiring attention.

Why did you make the decision to move to a city that is still undergoing revitalization?
Perhaps it’s that I like a challenge and I like to champion underdogs.  Newburgh gets such bad press and the positive things don’t seem to ever get reported.  I’ve lived in a neighborhood that changed for the worse. I hung on as long as I could. I see clear and tangible signs that Newburgh is improving and I like being on the side of the improvers. When I bought my house, I was renting in New Jersey, close to the city. After 18 years there, the neighborhood was changing for the worse. New tenants above me were incredibly noisy and inconsiderate. It wasn’t only their noise, frequent floods occurred, too. I knew I had to move and it seemed a good time to buy someplace closer to the home my family owns in Ulster Co. Rather than over two hours each way on weekends, it’s about a 35 minute trip now. I like a challenge and if there is a wave, perhaps now a strong ripple, of renewal and revitalization in Newburgh, it is a good thing to be here and help that wave gain strength and momentum. I’m in it for the long haul.

What makes your home special?
The house is substantial and solid. I liked its dignified lines. It was not built for people of modest means. The large rooms, the staircase and woodwork, the slate roof, none of this was inexpensive, even 123 years ago when it was built. I have a lot of heirlooms and I’m a bit of a packrat, so its spaciousness was a big draw. If I had to say what attracted me most, I’d have to say: (1) the tower; (2) the staircase; (3) the walk in cedar closet; and (4) the attic. I saw huge potential, which I hope to continue to unlock. Mine is half of a building, a two family side by side, which, I believe, is unique in the city. I’ve seen no other like it. I am blessed that the other half is owned by a couple who maintain their side beautifully. They were glad to have an owner occupant as their new neighbor. I hope to research the house, find out who owned it originally, perhaps find an old photograph of it, which I’m told may be in some city archive. I know from the Building Department’s records that it was an SRO in the 1990s. There is on file a letter of complaint that lists horrible conditions. That’s about as low as a house can descend.  I like to think that it knows it is now in the hands of someone who loves it and is taking care of it.

What have been some of the perks and challenges of living in Newburgh?
For the pros: It has convenient access to work via the ferry and Metro North, expensive, but convenient. I work in midtown near Grand Central, so that is very convenient. If you’re lucky enough to get a riverside window seat on the train when there’s daylight, it is a feast for the eyes.  It is also only about a 35 minute drive to the family home in Ulster County. The natural beauty of Newburgh is astounding. How often driving down Broadway or one of the other east/west arteries, when that vista of river and mountains beyond comes before me, well, it takes my breath away. The history, too, appeals to me. If it was good enough for George and Martha, it has to have a lot going for it. Shopping is easy.  You want for nothing.  My coming to Newburgh seemed blessed from above when IHOP opened shortly before I bought my house.  Adams Fairacre Farm is a fantastic resource for which I am very grateful.  For the Cons: There are challenges. I find some people on my block look at me with what appears to be open hostility.  Few are friendly, but those who are are really nice people.  Unruly, unsupervised children on the street are a problem, whether running their Hot Wheels over parked cars, or smashing a stick repeatedly into the wrought iron railing of my front porch, their activities go unaddressed, despite adults being right there, paying them no mind until I come out and tell them to stop.  I have an ongoing problem that people use my porch steps for their socializing, and some nights they sit there, talking loudly among themselves, shouting out to friends in cars driving by, well into the small hours of the morning. When I eventually repair my front porch (it’s on the short list), I’ll probably end up putting some sort of gate across the steps to prevent people from using it as their congregating spot. I wish it weren’t necessary.  Dogs barking incessantly, again in the small hours of the morning, is another difficulty.  I’m learning to tune them out.  It makes you regret when the air conditioner no longer is needed.  Sometimes people play their music loudly well past what would be an appropriate time and I always have litter to deal with, but some of this I expected and knew I would have to contend with.

What do you think the city needs to make a comeback?
I think it needs to attract more people willing to accept the challenges, farsighted enough to want to help improve the city.  I was told that I was certifiable for moving to Newburgh and people tried to discourage me. Others thought it was great to join the ranks of urban pioneers, but usually with a “better you than me” caveat. Owner occupancy of houses can only help. I believe too many houses are in the hands of real estate speculators who aren’t particular to whom they rent. What that results in is all too clearly illustrated in much of Newburgh. There are many good landlords, too, I don’t discount that, but I still think owner occupancy helps raise the standards.  Law enforcement needs to continue their efforts to stop the drug trade and lower crime.  Not allowing further division of existing housing stock or requiring a house be restored to its original one family condition helps as well.  I think the city officials are trying.  I think they’re on the right course in many respects.  The recent redoing of Chambers Street at its point of origin at Broadway is a huge improvement.  I can’t wait for South Street to get some attention, too!  It’s a bumpy ride down to the ferry, let me tell you.

What advice would you give someone wanting to buy and restore a home in Newburgh like you are doing?
Take your time. Get a good local realtor. I had several over the course of my hunt. I finally found one who was native to Newburgh. She told me which areas were not even to be considered.  That was helpful.  Don’t be discouraged. The right house for you is there. There are plenty of them, just know what you want and go for it.  Being willing to work on things yourself is a great asset, but not mandatory. Have a vision of what you want, what you’re willing to do and what you can afford.  I bet you’ll find a good fit in Newburgh. If you love history and architecture, appreciate a truly splendid natural setting and the thought of restoring an old house, putting in sweat equity, doesn’t daunt you, join the likes of Mary Hatch Bailey of Bedford Falls and me.  Get yourself an old house in Newburgh and get busy!

7 Comment

  • An extraordinarily complete and revealing precis of the journey to become a Newburgh home owner; no words, really, to thank Bob Blake for his perseverance and his enormous generosity in sharing the story of his journey. This interview should be a permanent sidebar to the NYT Newburgh story. Meanwhile, I am going to email it to everyone I know who is now, or about to, actively scouting Newburgh for a place to call home.

  • Your efforts and determination is inspiring what am I doing in miami?

  • What a great article!!! Wish more people had his perspective!!!

  • BOB, So glad you are here!! I have so enjoyed your company and our whispered plans for our Dream Home(s). It helps to have people so committed to the City as well.
    Cant wait to see the place!

  • Newburgh has a long history , so many things have happened there. So beautiful. .Hudson Valley–nothing like it. Lived there back in the late 80’s and early 90’s with my husband Andy who was the City Manager. Quite a few grants came through to help the city.
    I loved to drop the kids off to school every morning. The view of the River was breathtaking. I can still remember those mornings. It was a great experience, one that I will never forget

  • So glad to hear you made it here (finally!) and have the house you originally wanted. Make sure to take some time off and socialize, get your library card, and have a beer at the new brewery…you’ll need your fellow pioneers to cheer you on at times, and we will! Thank you for the candid and inspiring piece.

  • What a great read! Hearts off to both the interviewer (for such in depth questioning) and the interviewee, for your honesty and superb analysis. I hope to join you in the not too distant future!