Meet a Newburgher: Genie Abrams


Meet Genie, raised in Newburgh till the age of 13 when her family moved away to Albany. Read about her memories of the busy waterfront and what it was like to be a child to run and play in the streets of Newburgh. Forty years later she moved back to the City of Newburgh, surprised to see its current condition but she does not regret her decision. Fellow Newburghers who have moved away, it’s ok to come home! Thank you for participating Genie.

What was Newburgh like growing up as a child? What was your community like?
I had the run of the whole city. My family lived on Farrington Street – at first, in No. 53 near Dubois, and later, in No. 12, near Liberty. My brother Dave and sister Val and I would play with our pals in the Liberty Street Playground, right across the street from our house. Val would swing on the swings all day or make pot-holders or lanyards with her friends; Dave would play basketball at the area near Liberty Street, and I was the tetherball champion of the world. It was a wonderful time to be young: lovely, peaceful, fun, filled with good friends and good neighbors, lots of laughs and listening late at night to the grownups talking among themselves.

What was the waterfront like before urban renewal?
Crowded! There were two ferries going back and forth to Beacon all day, a passenger railroad station, a bus station, and a lot of thriving shops and bars down there. People would get on the Dayliner boat in New York City and sail up the Hudson to shop at Schoonmaker’s Department Store on Water Street. People fished and crabbed off the docks.

When you were 13 you moved away to Albany. What kind of things did you remember hearing about Newburgh while you were away?
My dad was city manager here from 1958 to 1960, and I vividly remember him getting phone calls from his old friends and city council members, who were complaining about how “unfair” the NBC White Paper, “The Battle of Newburgh,” had been, and how it had been a “hatchet job” on the city, and how it made it look like everyone was on “welfare” and how that was causing our businesses to move away. My family was in Albany by that time, but people were calling him asking if the city should sue NBC or demand a “retraction” or boycott the network. I remember him saying, “It was a documentary, not a travelogue!” He thought it was a fair representation of how his successor, Joseph McDowell Mitchell, was trying to criminalize and scapegoat the poor, and how the residents had given in to fear.

What career did you pursue after high school?

Journalism. I always loved to write, and it seemed like the easiest thing. So I went to the Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism. All my classmates from Newburgh graduated from NFA in 1967, but I graduated from Albany High in 1966 because Newburgh’s school system at that time was so much better than Albany’s, that I skipped 9 up there after I finished 8th grade at North Junior High School. So I was 20 when I graduated from S.U. and 21 when I got my master’s in journalism (again from Syracuse) in 1971.

You had not seen Newburgh in many years when you decided to return. What was it like seeing Newburgh for the first time as an adult?
I wasn’t sure it was Newburgh at all. I got off the Thruway at Exit 17 and drove down Broadway, and said to myself, “What’s this? Where’s Newburgh?” It had … disappeared, and this run-down, empty, dirty city had taken its place! I really was hit with three feelings: shock, sorrow and outrage. Who had done this, and why? The worst part came when my daughter, Rachel, who was going to spend just one summer here before going away to college in New York City in 2002, tried to get a summer job and there were none. I said, “Don’t worry, honey: We’ll join the Jewish Community Center and see if they need a lifeguard at the pool, or counselors for their summer camp.” I found them in the phone book and asked how much it cost to join. The person who answered said, “To join what?” I said, “The JCC.” She said, “Well, we have dance classes, trips to New York City … it all depends on what you want to do.” I was quite puzzled but I said, “Well, we want to swim this summer.” She said they had no pool. I said, “What do you mean, you have no pool? You have a beautiful pool! You leave the locker room, and there it is!” She asked how long I’d been gone. The punchline, of course, was that the City of Newburgh had no JCC any more; all the Jewish families had moved away, and the JCC was out in the town. And, by the way: It has no pool.

What effects do you think urban sprawl had on Newburgh?
Here, it was more like “urban shrink!” Our city’s so-called “leaders” tore the city down with no apparent plans to rebuild it. That mismanaged “urban renewal,” plus the flight to the suburbs by the downtown businesses, plus the replacement of the ferries with I-84 (which has no exit in the city), plus the disappearance of Stewart Air Force Base with all its customers for our businesses, combined to create the Perfect Storm of Disaster for Newburgh.

Why did you decide to come back to Newburgh after many years? Do you regret it?
My fiancé, Tim Riss, was living in Long Island and I was living near Albany with Rachel. Tim and I were looking for a house we could buy that was sort of “half way in between” our two homes. He actually suggested it. He said, “How about your old hometown of Newburgh?” Instantly, I knew that that’s what I had to do: I had to come home. I’ve never regretted it for a moment.

You wrote a novel, Louey Levy’s Greatest Catch. What is it about?
It’s the tale of a tomboyish 11-year-old girl coming of age in the late 1950s and early 60s — a time when abortion was illegal. Her father, a widower, is the city manager of a little city in upstate New York called Newburgh, and he is the only person in town who doesn’t know that the woman he’s hired to cook, clean, and take care of his kids is the town abortionist. It’s fiction … made up entirely from memory. I’m proud to say the first edition sold out, and a second is in the works.

What are your feelings about Newburgh today? What are some things you enjoy about your community?
The people! Newburgh has more characters per capita than any city in the U.S., including Brooklyn. There are 30,000 people in this town, and every one of them has a story. It’s a city filled with writers, rappers, dancers, artists and poets. And then, of course, it has the Hudson River, amazing architecture, Downing Park, Washington’s Headquarters, the Crawford House, great restaurants, world-class hiking nearby, the Commodore chocolate shop … I could go on all day. But the main thing is the people.

Newburgh has the layout of a great walkable city. You are known as the “eccentric walker”. What is it like to walk all over Newburgh?

It’s great! The people are the best, and the riverfront offers astonishingly gorgeous views down to Bannerman’s Island and beyond. There is a lovely hike I do quite often, up Snake Hill. To get there, I go past Crystal Lake, which is off of Temple Avenue. A lot a people don’t even know that lake is there. I always carry my binoculars with me and do birdwatching, too. Once I ran into a wildlife guy from DEC in New Paltz there; he was walking around with a tranquilizer gun, looking for a bear that had been reported to be hanging around the lake. It’s beautiful and peaceful in there – except for the guys in camouflage, running through the woods playing paintball – and, of course, the occasional bear. There’s also an old Jewish cemetery, owned by Temple Beth Jacob, between the lake and Snake Hill. It’s one of my favorite places to walk.

What advice would you give others considering moving to Newburgh, especially to those that grew up in the City and left but are considering moving back home?

Come home! And, excuse the mess: We’re under construction.

17 Comment

  • A wonderful account. I had to leave my native Newburgh at age 14 when my dad was transferred to Delaware in 1949. I left Newburgh, but Newburgh has never left me.

  • I love that last “we’re under construction.” Genie…and, of course, I have to agree with you about ‘the characters of Newburgh..”

  • May be you remember my or have heard of my step Grandfather, James Murray who used to be the Town Clerk in the 60s. I have written to the present Town Clerk who said that James is well remembered and a picture of him is still in the official buildings. I was so proud of him in my youth. So proud of my Irish immigrant family. I am in Iowa now. Have raised 2 children because my mom decided to move here because my step Dad is from here. Have a beautiful home and a wonderful husband but miss my home town with all my heart. I would be so much more a part of the community there than here! Here we have Bohemian which I have really tried to become a part of. I grew up in diversity so I manage. My Dad Robert Fowler died in Newburgh a couple years ago and he was known as a local artist. Hopefully, the church still has his paintings. All I want to know is if you remember or have known Jim Murray.

  • Great piece. And I thank my NFA classmate (1960), Len Eckhaus, of Las Vegas, for sending it to me. I grew up in Newburgh when it was a beautiful town with a proud, historic past. My dad was born (1900) and died (1985) there, and I guess not too many Americans can say that about any town. His father was one of the founders of Congregation Sons of Israel, the Orthodox synagogue on William Street (where my father was born). I was bar mitzvah’d at the Conservative synagogue, Cong, Agudas Achim, the same congregation where Al Jolson’s father had been a cantor back at the turn of the 20th century. (Yes, The Jazz Singer was Jolson’s biography.) Dad was in business for many years as owner of the finest ladies’ shoe store in the mid-Hudson Valley, Sam’s Slipper Shoppe. It was first at 44 Water Street, when that downtown area was a thriving business district. So-called “urban renewal” destroyed that area. They indiscriminately tore down some historic buildings, including the magnificent Highland-Quassaick Bank. Dad was one of the last merchants to leave Water Street, getting peanuts for condemnation of his two adjoining properties, and watching that area lie fallow for the rest of his life. He stayed in business by renting a new store on upper Broadway, near Lake Street, in a building owned by Travers dress shop, before retiring around 1969. . . . Newburgh was a great town to grow up in, and we had a lot of pride in NFA. But the town fathers ruined it by having little foresight. I remember, when I was in elementary school, when it was a textile center, with Stroock’s, and a factory on Robinson Avenue called Sweet-Orr, which eventually moved down to West Virginia. DuPont and IBM were discouraged from moving their plants into Newburgh, so they went elsewhere, upriver, to rival communities that, as a result, passed us by. We never really used our beautiful waterfront as it could have been. (My mother always thought it could have been a fabulous setting for a summer theater along the style of the Jones Beach Marine Theatre.) . . . Today, Newburgh is notorious for being the 9th most crime-ridden city in America. . . . It’s going to take a whole new generation (perhaps Genie’s kids) to make Newburgh (where Washington turned down the crown, and awarded the first Purple Heart) bloom again. Atta girl, Genie!

    – Peter A. Berkowsky, Col, USAFR (ret)

  • I adored her book and fell in love with Louey!! I wish she would write a sequel about her!!

  • Are you still living in newburgh today if so what advise would you give to someone who wants to come hone but there is no jobs? I still need to work not of age to retire need your in put

  • Kimberly, Thanks for commenting! Please tell me: What church did your dad belong to? i’d be happy to go and see if his paintings are still there!

  • Bob, your comment reminded me of a line from “Louey Levy’s Greatest Catch”:
    Newburgh stays in your heart — like shrapnel.

  • Thanks, Hannah, and THANKS for all your good work restoring our neighborhood! i’ll see you around the bluff!

  • ARLENE, you are so sweet! i actually began to write a sequel, “Louey Levy’s Perfect Pitch,” about her college years. i finished ONE chapter but have been stuck there. i know i could do it if it weren’t for a few “life situations” going on right now: my PR job, my being a docent at the Gomez Mill House museum, and the fact that my husband Tim, a Methodist pastor, is being moved in June from his current church in Hicksville, Long Island (yes, we see each other from Thursday night to mid-Saturday each week) to Poughkeepsie … which, luckily, is just 20 miles from Newburgh, across the river. WHAT a pain in the neck moving is!
    Arlene, are you by any chance related to Justin Butwell, who was a very good athlete and a counselor at the YMCA’s Camp Orange, i believe, in the 1950s?

  • Peter:
    1. Thank you for your service to the U.S.
    2. i am so impressed and happy to “meet” someone whose grandfather founded Congregation Sons of Israel! i think i have many, many times, including in my novel “Louey Levy’s Greatest Catch,” referred to that one as the “Conservative” shul here in the ‘burgh, so thank you for setting me straight. Today on William Street, that grand building still survives. There’s a sign plastered over its front doors: “Iglesia de Dios” or something like that, but etched in stone above that you can still see in Yiddish: B’Nai Israel b’Newboig.” I shall always remember our dad taking us kids on Sundays to Ettie’s Kosher Delicatessen, across the street from it. The Ettie’s building is now a … well, i don’t know how to describe it. (“Crack house” might come closest.)
    3. Agudas Achim, where you celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah: That was on Grand Street, am i correct? If you didn’t know this already, Agudas Achim and Sons of Israel merged in, i believe it was, the 1980s, to become Agudas Israel, which is in a beautiful building at 290 North St., now shared by my own Temple Beth Jacob (“TBJ”). TBJ was around when you were here, and you may remember its being on South Street. That building is also a church today, as TBJ moved to the corner of Gidney and Fullerton Aves. in 1958. And it was just last year that TBJ moved in with Agudas Israel on North St. The plan is for the JCC to move to that building, too.
    4. Man, you really brought back memories mentioning Sam’s Slipper Shoppe! Do you remember Lampack’s, where i got my first bike? Or “Broadway Sam Levinson”‘s dry goods store? Cowan’s Jewelers? Etc.? There were a W-H-O-L-E B-U-N-C-H of Jewish businesses on Broadway in those days. Amazing!
    5. And finally, i too have hopes that part of our waterfront can be turned into a summer theater venue. Across the river and down about 10 miles, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has a fabulous place overlooking the river at Cold Spring that has drawn raves nationwide.

  • PAMELA: Come back and create some jobs! Do you have a high school or college diploma? Do you have a car so you can live here and commute to a job nearby? What are you experienced in? Do you have computer skills? Driving skills? Cooking skills? Sewing skills? Make a list of your own strong points and then read our local papers, the Times Herald-Record, the Mid-Hudson Times and the New Windsor Sentinel, look closely at their classified ads sections, and check out online classifieds, too. See if any jobs that are available would be a good fit for you.
    Better yet, buy one of those new 3-D printers, take a course in how to use it, and start building your own stuff to sell. That way, the whole world can be your market, even while you’re living here.
    Good luck!

  • Nice article Genie—-almost makes me want to move to Newburgh!—–Marc (yer bro)

  • Genie –

    A few more reflections on your writing and your response to mine.

    1. William Street was the early center of Jewish life at the turn of the 20th century. It was like Manhattan’s lower east side. Kosher butchers, dry goods, everything. My father was born on that street, back when the street traffic was all horse-drawn carriages. He went to Washington Street elementary school, and eventually to NFA, which was then on South Street, overlooking the river. I still have his diploma (1918) in a big frame. His father owned the buildings at 78-80 William Street. Each building had a storefront (in one of which was my grandfather Herman’s “Family Shoe Store”), and 2 upstairs apartments. My father eventually opened his own store on Water Street, around 1927, and then my grandfather closed his store and went to work for my father. When my grandfather died in 1943, my grandmother moved up to Geneva to live with my Aunt Mildred, who ran a business school there. My father kept the William Street properties and rented them out. My mother used to plead with him to sell them, but he enjoyed holding onto the place where he was born and grew up. He took a lot of flak when he rented to minorities. He was a very devoted landlord, and took good care of his tenants. Often he would answer a call in the middle of the night to rush right over to help out. Ettie Goodman had her kosher deli across the street. When she lost her lease, she moved across the street and rented one of my father’s storefronts. I remember when her newly renovated restaurant opened. Ettie eventually married Joe Siegel, who had earlier had a deli on Broadway where we used to buy lox, whitefish and Swiss cheese.

    2. I remember when the JCC first opened. We lived only a block away, in the beautiful brick house my father built around 1932 at the corner of City Terrace North and Castle Avenue. In those days, across Castle Avenue was the the big, wooded Chadwick Estate, and we lived right across from the “carriage” entrance, which led to the stables. We never went trespassing there; they had a big, mean dog named Lovie who guarded the place. The JCC, on Powell Avenue, was bounded by a wooded lot on the north that eventually was developed into Carobene Court, which was the first apartment complex in the neighborhood. To the south was the beautiful sprawling campus of Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, which drew girls from all over the Western Hemisphere. A lot of the nuns used to shop in my father’s store. I remember when the pool was built at the JCC, and when the “new” building was opened, with the beautiful gymnasium. The property was purchased from the Ramsdell Estate, which was the family that owned the Newburgh-Beacon Ferry. Before the bridge, that’s how cars crossed the Hudson for the continuation of Route 52 east toward Danbury, and how commuters on foot got to the NY Central RR station to go to NYC. The trains then were drawn by steam locomotives, and they had to stop in Harmon to change to electric engines before proceeding on to Grand Central Station. The JCC was the pride of the Jewish community, and signaled the fact that the center of Jewish life in Newburgh had moved away from William Street to the north end. That was where we all hung out. The Mount was always trying to buy the property. After they bought Carobene Court for use as additional dormitories, they really put the pressure on. Eventually, as the Jewish community dwindled, the JCC finally gave in and sold out.

    3. You mentioned Snake Hill, south of town, overlooking Route 32 from Vail’s Gate. A high school classmate if mine, Lonny Bokar, lived in the house atop that mountain, which his father built when he bought the entire mountain. What a magnificent view of the Hudson Valley from up there. Stewart Airport had its approach lights stretched across that hill, so Lonny’s father renamed it Menorah Hill. Lonny used to drive to school in a vintage (1943?) Willys army jeep which he painted with a battleship gray interior, chartreuse exterior and bright red hubs. His friends used to “steal” it during lunchtime, jump start it, and drive around the neighborhood.

    4. I went to North Junior, too. It was an easy walk for me, right over the hiss past the water tank. Highland Ice Cream had a plant right across Robinson Avenue, and we used to go to their little shop for cones. (The big milk distributor was Crowley’s, one of the biggest in the state; their plant was on South Robinson Avenue near the bridge to New Windsor, and they delivered milk to our door every morning.) The principal at NJHS was a mean old disciplinarian named David B. (we called him “Butch”) McKeever. He scared the dickens out of us. I guess Johnny Suydam, who used to be a gym teacher, was the principal when you were there. The phys ed department was run by George Balcanoff, who was also the high school varsity baseball coach. Balcanoff, a keen baseball man, had played shortstop on the University of Alabama baseball team when the student manager was a fellow named Mel Allen, who went on to become the radio & TV Voice of the New York Yankees in their golden years from 1939 to 1964. Was rolypoly Bill Zahn still the music director when you were there, or had the baton passed to his assistant, Anton Aquino? We used to say that our music department had everything, from A to Z. Incidentally, you mentioned in response to one of your readers an artist named Robert Fowler. The principal at NFA when I was there was Robert D. Fowler, a kindly gentleman we all liked and respected. His sister, Mrs. Delarede, was an English teacher at NJHS.

    I only get up to Newburgh once a year now, to visit the cemetery on Erie Avenue in New Windsor. I’d love to stop and chat some time.

  • MARC, Not sure you and Susan could meet our extremely high standards for residency, but you are always welcome to visit! What are you two crazy kids doing this summer? Right after Tim gets settled in his new digs in Poughkeepsie (he’s being transfered from Hicksville, did you know?) would be a perfect time. Check your busy social calendar and schedule a mid-week or weekend trip. Love you and miss you!

  • PETER, thanks for the memories! “Mr. Zahn” was indeed my music teacher, and his daughter Lisa Zahn is now my friend. She’s music director at Grace United Methodist Church, which i attend occasionally when my husband is home on a Sunday (this happens maybe twice a year, when he’s “off” from his pastoring-job in Long Island). i only recently — a year or two ago — met Lisa, and was delighted to find out that she was Mr. Zahn’s daughter. She is a fabulous musician, singer and pianist herself and does a great job leading the choirs and congregation at that lovely church on upper Broadway.
    Boy, do i ever remember “Deadarm Dick” McKeever! He was a WWII vet, as i recall, and would swing his “dead arm” around a few times like a softball pitcher and then bop you over the head with it, sending you screaming and whimpering down the hall, more from fear than from pain (don’t ask me how i know). His brother was our sweet family doctor, whose office was on the corner of Chambers and Farrington streets.
    Your friend “Lonny” Bockar’s name was pronounced “Lawny” by his family; his little sister Susan was my good pal and classmate at Grand St. School. Lawny (real name: Lawrence) became a doctor, and Susan and their other sister, RoAnne, both married doctors! All three are alive and well. Susan is a terrific artist who lives in Lexington, Ky., on a “farm” with horses, a lake, etc. Except as of just recently, i believe she moved to or is in the process of moving to a place near Taos, New Mexico.
    Peter, i think you may be 2 years older than i am; the same age as my brother Dave Abrams. Did you know him? Good basketball player! He knew Balcanoff very well and played for George Handler at the JCC. Dave is now a lawyer in Miami, Fla.
    Where are you located these days, Peter? You must come to the ‘burgh for a visit soon! Tim and i would love to host you and any family members and/or friends you might want to bring along. Please do get in touch, at

  • Dear Genie..As a young boy(early 1960’s) I would visit my grandmother in Walkil?Platikil.On a few occasions
    we would drive into the city of Newburg.Going to the city was a big deal.I remember going to a store called
    Sam’s Slipper Shop.I guess it no longer exists…but do you remember this store?