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The Wall Street Journal Europe.

Cross Country: Newburgh's Newcomers
November 17, 2007

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

Newburgh, N.Y.—Can new immigrants save an old city?

It's a question a lot of mid-level cities ask themselves as they look to follow the path blazed by New York and Chicago, which revitalized themselves in recent decades. And, here, 70 miles north of New York City, on the west bank of the Hudson, we may have an answer.

Newburgh's arc is similar to other towns in upstate New York. It was once a majestic city with thriving commercial and manufacturing centers and boasting beautiful federal-style, Greek revival, and Victorian homes (it has one of the largest historic districts in the northeast) and breathtaking views of the Hudson River. But failed development efforts, destructive welfare policies and shifts in the economy left the city a shell of its former self.

In 2004, New York State took stock of Newburgh and labeled it one of the state's most "stressed" cities—a conclusion come to after finding a large number of vacant buildings and single-parent households, and that a staggering 38% of adults in the city don't have a high-school diploma and 39% are not in the workforce.

One neighborhood, nicknamed "Crackhead University," was the subject of a 2004 documentary by that name. Distributed by Russell Simmons's Hip Hop Channel, the film interviewed crack addicts, some doing drugs in front of buildings designed by famous architects such as Calvert Vaux.

This is the carnage wrought by events starting in the early 1960s. It was during that decade that the city's train station—a vital link to New York City—was closed. Thousands of welfare recipients were also dumped in the city from Westchester County—which is directly across the Hudson River—among other places. In 1961, Time Magazine dubbed Newburgh "Welfare City."

By the 1970s, simmering racial tensions boiled over into race riots and violent crime was spiraling out of control. Slum lords came to rule the city. And factory jobs disappeared.

The city seemed powerless even as these forces tore it apart. In the 1960s, City Manager Joseph Mitchell gained national fame by attempting to force welfare recipients to pick up their welfare checks at the police station. That and other efforts to curb public assistance failed, in part, because they were viewed to be motivated by racial animus.

Meanwhile, "urban renewal" projects had disastrous results. Federal and state funds were used to demolish hundreds of buildings, many along the river front, as part of an ambitions reconstruction project. But when it came to building anew, the money dried up and Newburgh was left with the wreckage of failed policies.

Now the city seems to be turning around. In the 1990s it began redeveloping its waterfront, and it had the good fortune to see a former Air Force base transformed into Stewart International Airport. A Rudy Giuliani-type policing approach of aggressively going after criminals has driven violent crime down 34% since 2002.

City Manager Jean-Ann McGrane and Mayor Nick Valentine are looking to build on these shifts in fortune by pushing property owners to either sell vacant buildings or fix them up.

Ms. McGrane has a simple way to do this. "We find out who owns the boarded-up building, who's responsible for its repair, and we institute aggressive code compliance, to encourage owners to fix it up or sell it," she said.

Mayor Valentine is just as blunt: "This may be borderline harassing, but these aren't good people. We need them to fix their buildings."

Their efforts are paying off—the number of derelict buildings has fallen to 165, from 265 in January 2006. And the city is also selling buildings it acquired through tax foreclosures. Today it owns 46, down from about 200 a few years ago. "We did 18 this year and will do 20 next year," says Ms. McGrane. "You can't get rid of them all at once because we need to do it the right way, with the right developer."

A strong indication that the city is on the right path is that it's now a magnet for new immigrants. One of whom is Barbara Ballarini. She's from Rome, Italy, and in March 2005 brought a little cafe culture to Newburgh by opening Caffe Macchiato on Liberty Street near a house once used as a headquarters by George Washington. Most of the newcomers, however, are either Hispanics who speak little English or more affluent migrants from New York City.

"New Yorkers don't have the fear factor," Mayor Valentine said. "They see that an area might be troubled, but that Newburgh is moving in the right direction, so they invest here" by buying $250,000 homes needing repair.

The mayor knows the effect immigrants can have on a city because he's the grandson of Italian immigrants. He owns a tailor shop in a formerly Italian neighborhood on Broadway, a wide street that serves as a spine for the city. His neighborhood is now filling with Latins.

"They remind me of my family, who came to Newburgh because others from their section of Italy had come," he told me. "They're looking for locations, for storefronts to open businesses—usually grass-roots enterprises like hairdressing, auto repair, landscaping, food shops, restaurants. They're very religious. My old church, Sacred Heart, just had their first Spanish mass—200 people came."

The city is also now working with new-urbanist developer Leyland Alliance to redevelop 30 acres cleared in the 1960s, but never rebuilt. It will include housing and shops, and encourage pedestrians to enjoy the city. Hundreds of people turned out to comment on Leyland's proposal, most in support.

Racial and class tensions remain, however. As I speak to Leyland architect Giovanni Palladino while standing on a knoll high above the Hudson River, a car pulls up and a woman inside says: "Go back where you came from." She didn't mean it this way, of course, but in a sense that's exactly what Newburgh is trying to do.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2007 The Wall Street Journal


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