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.