Poughkeepsie has long suffered from image problems, ranging from laughable to serious issues. Besides its curious name––oddly pronounced “Po–KIP–see”––the small mid-Hudson city’s reputation suffered from its loss of an active river port, deindustrialization and decline of the central business district, as did other towns eviscerated by suburban sprawl. Extensive expressways and other urban renewal projects, which wreaked havoc between 1960 and 1975, may have worsened the situation. The city became a famous punch line, as when Gene Hackman ranted about “Pickin’ your feet in Poughkeepsie” in “The French Connection.”
Yet, in recent years, the city has experienced notable upbeat trends. Entrepreneurial immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and elsewhere have revived local commerce and occupied many vacant homes. In the 2009 book “From Main Street to Mainframe,” Harvey Flad and Clyde Griffen suggested, “Hudson Valley cities have seen their prospects surge and ebb, then begin to revive again, as they head into the twenty-first century.” Since moving here in 1985, I never thought that the railroad bridge, damaged by a fire in 1974, would spring back to life! Given such evidence of revitalization along Main Street, the Waterfront and historic districts, many residents and visitors now ask whether Poughkeepsie is experiencing “gentrification.”
The answer depends on how we define the term. Coined in 1964 by British urban planner Ruth Glass, gentrification initially referred to upgrading working-class neighborhoods by affluent residents (“gentry”) in South London. While retaining this core meaning, gentrification now often applies to revitalizing commercial districts and residential areas. In many U.S. “superstar” global cities––New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and others––racial, ethnic and cultural divides have worsened dramatically. To gauge whether Poughkeepsie is gentrifying, I suggest that we consider three main issues.
First, have governments and public-private partnerships significantly reinvested in the city? Yes, Poughkeepsie has several areas of transformation, backed by public funding, local philanthropy (notably the Dyson Foundation), community non-profits and neighborhood activists. Projects have redeveloped long dilapidated districts, including the waterfront, commercial or industrial sectors, and bridges or railroad corridors. The historic railroad bridge reopened as the “Walkway Over the Hudson” in 2011, the result of a collaboration between a non-profit “friends” organization and the State of New York. Hudson River Housing has provided affordable housing and business support in the Middle Main project and elsewhere. The goals of this NGO and the city government explicitly oppose social displacement and favor local upgrading by residents. There remain blighted areas in the city, but things generally have changed for the better.
Second, this improving context raises another critical issue: Is there evidence of real-estate appreciation that has displaced low-income residents? According to Poughkeepsie’s recent “Housing Needs Assessment,” prepared by the Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, the city now suffers from a housing crisis, which includes rising prices, aging housing and social displacement. Of course, housing shortages and excessive prices characterize much of America at this point. In Poughkeepsie, vacant housing has fallen from approximately 600 units in 2016 to 200 in 2021. Over half of all households in the city spend more than 30 percent of their total income on housing costs, which indicates they are “cost-burdened.” Among these households, 630 homeowners and 2,935 renters spend more than half their income on housing, which suggests that they are “severely cost-burdened.” A third of the city’s renters have to spend most of their income on housing. On the other hand, the city recently added 502 new housing units and another 1,443 are now in the pipeline for development; about a third of the total 1,945 are considered “affordable” housing units. These new units may alleviate local housing shortages.
Finally, a third consideration depends on the revival of the local economy, mainly by replacing lost industries with new businesses and start-up firms. While Poughkeepsie has seen long-term growth in the arts, medicine, technology, higher education and tourism––which have partially made up for the ongoing employment decline at the nearby IBM plant––the recent COVID-19 pandemic certainly curtailed this trend. As a result, wages in Poughkeepsie have stagnated in recent years, while housing prices and rents continue to climb. Indeed, a video released in 2018, “Think Dutchess, Poughkeepsie Go!” wishfully depicted the growth of a new “creative class” of young entrepreneurs to revive the city’s waterfronts, historic districts and commercial life. Despite significant economic diversification in recent decades, economic (re)development remains an important project for the city and town’s future.
On the other hand, even with the city’s growing demand and cost of housing, the commercial and residential vacancy rates have generally fallen without provoking massive displacement. The local economy has restructured with new sectors, although it certainly needs better-paying jobs. Providing more affordable housing and growing the economy remain essential, but the city neighborhoods have stayed relatively stable. The area of greatest need is the North Side, near the Walkway, which historically suffered from redlining, racial discrimination and a lack of urban services and recreational facilities. The city has endeavored to provide more community policing and youth services to provide alternatives to at-risk youth.
Overall, gentrification has not reached prohibitive proportions in Poughkeepsie, as attested by remaining commercial and residential vacancies. Clearly, our city does not suffer from the hyper-gentrification of Beacon or the continuing struggles with economic revitalization evident in Newburgh. Despite Poughkeepsie’s problems, the city seems to have reached a sweet spot where upgrading proceeds without widespread social displacement. I urge Vassar students to get involved locally through community-engaged learning (CEL), volunteer work and research projects to benefit the “Queen City” of the Hudson Valley.