Newburgh, N.Y.: Onetime Jewel of the Hudson River

Eight years before she moved up to Newburgh, Cher Vickers started a blog called Newburgh Restoration. Writing from the Bronx and then Amityville, N.Y., she sang the praises of this city of 28,000 in Orange County that not so long ago was called the “murder capital of New York.” Many of the posts featured luscious Victorian houses — some intact, others not so much — each a representative of the state’s largest historic district outside of New York City.

And all the while, Ms. Vickers, now 37, and her husband, Luis Salcedo, also 37, saved up to buy their own home.

When they finally relocated to Newburgh, they rented an apartment north of Downing Park, a 35-acre green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and named for Andrew Jackson Downing, the landscape designer who helped set the pattern for Newburgh’s exquisite architecture. That put the couple in a position, in May 2019, to bid on a property across the street, half an hour after it was posted on Zillow.

“It’s not the Second Empire 1890 house I wanted, but it’s the right house for us,” Ms. Vickers, the executive director of the City of Newburgh Industrial Development Agency, said of the circa-1950 Cape Cod with five bedrooms, for which the couple paid $270,000. “In the end, I viewed it as a blessing not to have to deal with lead paint and asbestos with a 1½-year-old.”

If ever there were a city with clarion potential, it is Newburgh. Disastrous urban renewal decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s wiped out more than a thousand of its buildings, and decades of mismanagement and neglect have left deep scars. But Newburgh doesn’t just have good bones — it is magnificent.

“On the surface of Newburgh is a level of grit, which in many ways is kind of endearing,” said Christopher Hanson, who has lived in the city since 2001 and owns a real estate agency on Liberty Street. “But under this layer of grit is undeniable greatness, a city that did not phone it in.”

Ten years ago, Mr. Hanson’s typical client was a Brooklynite with an attraction to Newburgh’s red-brick architecture and demographic diversity (the population is 50 percent Hispanic and 25 percent Black). Being 60 miles from New York City, at a fraction of the cost and surrounded by scenic beauty, also helped.

Now it is catching the eye of investors who have seen other battered Hudson River cities become playgrounds and sanctuaries for New Yorkers. If it could happen in Hudson, in Kingston and — just across the river — in Beacon, why not here?

People from the immediate area who have feared and shunned Newburgh are starting to look past the years of bad press — a reputation, residents say, that is a decade behind the reality. (There is still conspicuous drug dealing and gun violence, yes, but not enough to prevent you from going nonchalantly about your business, they say. Neighborhood Scout puts the current crime rate at 37 per 1,000 residents; in New York City, the average is 23.)

“One year ago,” Mr. Hanson recalled, “if someone came to me and said, ‘I want a single-family home in the city of Newburgh,’ my response was, ‘You have to be more specific. We can’t look at several hundred houses.’” Now the market has dwindled to a few dozen, he said, and the median sale price has shot up 27 percent.

Michele Basch, 68, who chairs Newburgh’s Architectural Review Commission, said the organization is swamped with applications to improve historic buildings. Young Covid-19 refugees who rented Airbnbs in Newburgh after the supply dried up in other cities now want to stay and are vying for property, she said.

Following the playbook of fancifying Hudson Valley destinations, a trio of landmarked downtown buildings — a Masonic lodge, American Legion hall and Y.M.C.A. — were sold in December for $1.25 million for conversion into a boutique hotel, spa and restaurant.

Boosters say that Newburgh’s need to build equity to attract bank money for revitalization overrides concerns at this stage about the negative effects of gentrification. Empty storefronts on Broadway testify not just to the economic ravages of Covid but to investors waiting for the market to rise before they make repairs. The businesses that will eventually fill those storefronts will bring much-needed jobs. That is the hope, anyway.

At the same time, the City Council and nonprofit organizations are addressing a lack of affordable housing. For 21 years, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh has rehabbed old houses and constructed new ones that are then sold to the low-income people who helped build them. The program has branched out from single houses to revitalizing larger areas and engaging residents through the founding of neighborhood associations. It has built more than 100 houses to date.

“We’re a real estate developer who never leaves,” said Matthew Arbolino, 36, the group’s executive director.

The city of Newburgh, which is in a town of the same name, occupies 4.8 square miles on the west side of the Hudson River, little more than an hour north of New York City. The once-dense waterfront was a target of urban renewal, and its dozens of grassy acres await redevelopment after a number of failed efforts. Several popular restaurants line the shore.

Up the bluff is Washington Heights and the jewel in Newburgh’s 445-acre East End Historic District: the headquarters George Washington occupied for more than a year while bringing the Revolutionary War to an end. The site, which includes an 18th-century Dutch house and a museum, is bordered by Liberty Street, a small business district with high-end boutiques and restaurants. Here are the beloved Liberty Street Bistro and its satellite bakery, Newburgh Flour Shop; an 18-month-old gift shop called Oliver & Chatfield; the Velocipede Museum, a showcase of vintage bicycles; and the Wherehouse, a restaurant and bar that Ms. Basch has run with her husband, Dan Brown, who is the chef, since 2009. Its punked-out interiors transport you to the East Village of yore.

Efrain Gordo Acosta, 29, opened the Fxded Barbershop at 126 Liberty Street in 2018. He said he pays $1,400 a month for the lease and commutes the few blocks by skateboard from his one-bedroom apartment on Lander Street, which he rents for about $1,000 a month. On the side, Mr. Acosta is developing a skateboard-affiliated lifestyle brand and teaching in the new barbering program at the high school. Despite having to shut down for a few months in the spring because of Covid, he said business is great: “Everyone is paying for haircuts.”

Newburgh’s most coveted streets, Grand and Montgomery, are northeast, forming with Liberty an extension of the historic district. The more prestigious houses are found along these stretches and express a range of 19th-century aesthetics, including Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Italianate, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne and Shingle Style.

Broadway, Newburgh’s aptly named main street, is 132 feet wide. The restored 1883 Ritz Theater building at 107 Broadway may be best known as the place where Lucille Ball made her stage debut in 1941. (“She wasn’t quite sure she was going to be a success, but it turned out that she and her husband scored a tremendous hit with Newburgh’s theater-goers,” a local reviewer wrote.)

The area around Downing Park is finding interest as buyers who may have wanted water views settle for looking at greenery. Here and to the west, properties move into the 20th century. They are American foursquares, craftsman bungalows and colonial revivals.

Mr. Hanson described the majority of 19th-century houses in Newburgh as remodeled “or re-muddled” properties with original details, but also “Home Depot-style” renovations that new buyers tend to undo. Houses that have been carefully restored and upgraded with modern comforts are “unicorns,” he said. He put the price of a brick Second Empire house in good condition at a minimum of $500,000, and easily $600,000 to $700,000.

An American foursquare starts in the $300,000s and pushes into the $400,000s, he said, “if it’s really great.”

Due west of Downing Park is Colonial Terraces, an enclave built in 1917 to house shipyard workers. The buildings are brick or clapboard, free-standing or semidetached, with enclosed front porches and picket fences. An 864-square-foot, two-bedroom brick house on Lily Street is currently on the market for $175,000, with taxes of $4,142.

According to, the median list price of a home in Newburgh in November was $275,000, a year-over-year increase of 14.6 percent; the median sale price was $247,500. The average rent as of Nov. 4 was $1,549 a month, according to the website RentCafé.

Discontinuous, dynamic and detailed, Newburgh changes from block to block. It is historically, economically and architecturally kaleidoscopic.

“Someone who recently moved here described Newburgh as ‘not arrived yet, but becoming,’” said Mr. Arbolino, of Habitat for Humanity. “I disagree. This is one of the most historic places in the Northeast. The road our office is on was formed by woolly mammoths.”

His point was that Newburgh is a community with established roots — “a real place where people raise families. Never lose sight of that.”

The Newburgh Enlarged City School District serves both the city and town of Newburgh, the town of New Windsor and a sliver of the town of Cornwall. Within the city of Newburgh are six elementary schools, one school serving kindergarten through eighth grade, one middle school and the district’s high school. The total district enrollment in the 2019-20 school year was 11,557, of whom 22 percent were Black or African-American, 55 percent Hispanic or Latino, 17 percent white, 4 percent Asian and 4 percent multiracial.

On 2018 state assessments, 31 percent of district students in third through eighth grade met standards in English, versus 45 percent statewide; 32 percent met standards in math, versus 47 percent statewide.

Newburgh Free Academy high school had a four-year graduation rate of 82 percent in 2018-19. Average SAT scores for the class of 2019 were 526 in reading and writing and 508 in math, versus 534 in both subjects statewide.

Newburgh is just east of the interchange between I-87 and I-84, and is vertically divided by Route 9W. Weekday ferry service is provided across the Hudson River to Beacon, where an hourly Metro-North train runs to New York City on the Hudson Line. (On weekends, you can take a bus.) The ride to Grand Central Terminal takes an hour and 39 minutes, and the fare is $14 to $29 each way, depending on the time. New York Stewart International Airport is about 15 minutes west.

“A pleasant place to build a town” was the remark written in the journal of Henry Hudson’s first mate after the explorer sailed upriver to Newburgh Bay in 1609. A century later, German Lutherans from the Rhine region known as the Palatinate settled the area. In 1752, Cadwallader Colden, the surveyor general of New York, renamed it Newburgh after an ancestral town in Scotland.

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