Thursday, October 9, 2014

Robinson Street, look out

Robinson Street in Hudson
"I think Hudson is turning a corner," a friend said at a party. "The people moving in here are really beginning to make a difference."

"I think Robinson is our next up and coming street," said an acquaintance at a community event. "It's the next street in Hudson to be discovered."

It's great to see houses and streets being improved, but statements such as these do not sit well with me. They are directed at the surface of things, and ignore the cultural realities taking place, or that could be taking place, beneath the surface renovation of bricks and mortar.

There are essentially two ways by which a depressed neighborhood may be physically improved. The first is the way to which we have become accustomed: people with wealth acquired elsewhere move into a neighborhood and fix it up. Stockbrokers and lawyers who make their living in Manhattan buy fixer-uppers in depressed areas of Brooklyn and Harlem. Wealthy high-tech workers from Google and Yahoo buy condos and buildings in overlooked neighborhoods of San Francisco, twenty-five miles north of their work, and motivate their improvement. State government workers in Albany purchase and renovate inexpensive housing in Hudson, while continuing to commute to work in the state capital. Or as has become perhaps more common in Hudson, wealthy Manhattanites purchase and renovate second homes here, and turn them into vacation outposts while conducting the bulk of their lives elsewhere.

The second way a neighborhood is improved is when the people already there experience improved financial fortune, and in turn fix up their homes and business establishments. Of the two models, I believe this is the more genuine one, even if its physical results are indistinguishable (by some) from the first. The first model, which I call an objective model of urban improvement, is directed at the physical repair of a place, while the second, subjective model seeks to motivate the physical repair of a place as a byproduct of cultural repair.

Hudsonians who are satisfied with the first model are being very short sighted about our city, about the urban problem generally, and about the causes of and cures for America's cultural ills. They don't understand that, comparatively speaking, one isn't repairing much of significance if all he repairs is a building. They don't understand that the embedded problems of a culture are not being addressed when struggling people are forced out of a neighborhood and out of a city just so its buildings can be renovated. All this does is put Hudson on the winning side of a zero-sum game. But so what? these folks seem to think; that is a problem for Troy or Albany or Schenectady to figure out.

But I will admit that my friends are right about one thing: the people moving into Hudson are making a difference. They indeed are. 


  1. I received the following via e-mail. I'll respond separately below.

    For some reason the old time pols in hudson and the " new urbanists" hate the fact that young vibrant people willing to take a huge chance on hudson and robinson st are somehow bad.

    Hudson has one of the worst high schools in the state of new york. 781 out of 783. !!

    it has terrible drug problems and has to have a large police force to keep the flow of heroin and meth and crack -- and crime-- at bay.

    Young children are neglected by their parents to do drugs which are readily available. The hospital has to maintain a 34 bed abused child wing for local child victims.

    Somehow the bad old hudson at the very bottom of the qulaity of life scale is better ??? Than fixing up some houses on robinson st by some very brave pioneers

    The hudson for the poor is a terrible environment for a child to grow up in. Its more like calcutta than america

    Some people like to work to improve and upgrade what really is a deadly urban environment trapping the poor in a drug infested urban blackboard jungle

    We all like urban but lets get real here.

  2. You misread my argument. I did not say the "bad old Hudson" (your words) is better. I said it is better to have cultural improvement that leads to physical improvement, as opposed to relocating a troubled culture to somewhere else and then fix up the physical place they were forced out of.

  3. These comments are from Paula Capp via e-mail:


    I understand your post of today about the two kinds of renewal. Sometimes it drives me crazy when I read an article in a national magazine, written by one Warren Street newbie entrepreneur, touting all the great things going on in Hudson, all of which are by other newbie Warren Street entrepreneurs. It feels like a closed, bubble society inside of Hudson proper. A recent Times column by a woman who’s left Hudson because she couldn’t make friends received a good bit of backlash for that reason.

    I guess, though, it makes me feel bad to be considered one of the “wealthy Manhattanites” who own weekend houses “while conducting the bulk of their lives elsewhere.”

    I’m not wealthy. My entire disposable income and then some, money that I used to spend on vacations and events in the city, is now spent in Hudson. I pay two local residents to help maintain my house (the soot from the truck exhausts eats my house paint). And I pay more in taxes there than I can afford (and I don’t know how much longer I can do it). The downside of gentrification is real, but I wonder how well Hudson and Columbia County would be doing without the cash infusion from weekenders.

    And my house stood vacant for more than two years – no one in Hudson would buy it. So I didn’t take it out from under a local.

    As for me, I spend more days than just the weekends there, and since I work from home, I would actually work even more days in Hudson if it weren’t for the truck route, which runs right by my house and is deafening. It’s so distracting inside the house that I cannot do conference calls.
    That’s probably why no one would buy it!

    So, I don’t think it’s so black-and-white, either/or. I live among locals in Hudson. Hudson is where much of my real life happens. I got married in Hudson. And I live in a neighborhood as far from Warren Street as you can get and still be inside the city limits. And because of that, I know that a lot of local people would love to work in Hudson, but there aren’t the jobs. So they find what they can, where they can, and commute. There could be jobs here. But the city is either blind to what needs to be done, or so corrupt and inept that they CANNOT do what it takes to make Hudson attractive to industry and small business.

    Still, I understand what you mean, and by and large I know it’s true. I guess I just hate feeling like someone who is doing Hudson wrong, when I’m investing all I have in it.

    I do enjoy your column. Doesn’t seem like the city learns from it, though.

    1. Paula, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree it is not a black and white situation, which I did not mean to imply. The point of a model such as the one I put forth is to frame a conversation that otherwise lacks a useful shape.

      I hold no resentment against an outsider buying a house here. I am a newbie myself (although I rent). What I resent is when people take the one thing that has worked for them, or has worked for a couple properties or even a whole neighborhood, and project it into a philosophy of urban improvement. At times, for example, it feels like Hudson has been taken over by people who think that the good that historic preservation has done means it must be THE central strategy for making a city work. For these folks, nearly every conversation on the city begins with HP, and every other concern must answer to it. Such was the thinking behind the proposal advanced a couple years ago to turn Robinson Street into an historic district. Its proponents have one tool in their tool kit, and they relented only because of the backlash they unexpectedly encountered.

      The examples are numerous. Someone sees some galleries or restaurants doing well, and projects that into an assumption that we no longer need messier or more complex forms of business enterprise. Someone running a successful b&b magnifies his own success into a philosophy that the key to urban improvement is tourism. Etc., etc. Cities are far too complex to be considered in this manner. They are multi-variable, not single-variable organisms.

      As for your question of how well Hudson would be doing without the cash infusion from weekenders, I'd have to say pretty poorly under the status quo. But I do not accept the status quo. I’ve written about what went wrong in Hudson (see my post on foosball and others on economic development) and elsewhere in America: over the course of the twentieth century: we made it illegal for most people to be entrepreneurs in the venue most available to them: their homes. Decade later, we’re wondering why so many people are idle, depressed, and poor, why Mom and Pop have succumbed to Walmart, Amazon, and AIG, why twenty-somethings abandon small hometowns for a handful of big cities, and why so many cities and towns are unable to internally generate their own success. If it were legal for someone on Columbia Street to cut hair or sell rugs or make pizza in her home, in the same way it is legal for you to run your street-invisible business in your home, we’d be in a very different place. I’m not castigating you for this, but pointing out that the types of businesses the poor are most able to create or participate in have been put farther from their reach. And our discussions on the city so easily presume that this is simply the way things are...e.g., notice your comment about attracting industry and small businesses to Hudson. We have people already here who could start businesses if it wasn't illegal to do so. After many decades of such nonsense, we are paying dearly for it. It is The Great American Blindspot.

  4. My hardworking friends that have found their way through the mortgage maze to buy a house on Robinson Street have discovered a great block in downtown Hudson to live. That and simply that is what I meant when I spoke with you about Robinson Street. yeesh !

    1. Windle, I enjoyed meeting you and hope we will talk many more times. I am truly sorry you are upset by what I wrote. But I didn’t identify you in my post, nor did I make a judgment of your friend. You didn’t even mention to me that you knew someone who had bought a house on Robinson Street; you told me only that you viewed it as the city’s next street to be discovered.

      The reason I cited your statement and the other one from a friend is because they echo what I hear again and again in Hudson. Those uttering them are either unaware of or simply don’t care about their unavoidable implication: that the new arrivals to Hudson are the answer and the people more established here are the problem. And to claim that a street that is currently inhabited is being “discovered” smacks of an us and them worldview that reinforces this divide. It is the same brand of self-centrism that thinks Columbus discovered America. How can a place that has been there all along, that has been inhabited and used and enjoyed by people with a full right to it, be “discovered”? The truth is that notions of “discovery” can exist only in the minds of those making a baseline assumption is that there is an “us” that matters and a “them” that matters far less.

      If you simply made a poor choice of words, which we all do from time to time, I encourage you to continue participating in the discussion of solving the urban problem bottom-up. I want to know what you think we should do with the folks displaced by gentrification. (No, I’m not implying that your friend literally forced someone out of their house; I am simply asking what your plan is for the people on the losing side of gentrification.) What is your strategy for struggling cities and city neighborhoods that don’t have an influx of “discoverers”? What do you recommend for people and city neighborhoods that don’t fit within the art gallery/weekend tourism “bubble”? What is your plan for cities like Troy and Newburgh and Poughkeepsie that inherit a disproportion of the poor and marginalized? Because without such a plan, you’re simply putting Hudson on the winning side of a zero sum game in which improvement here is offset by increased social and economic injustice elsewhere.

      I doubt you will be happy with what I have written here in response to your comments. But I will not let go of the point that Hudson needs to get much more realistic and inclusive in its notions of neighborhood improvement. I am open to being corrected if I unfairly associate any one individual with the narrow-minded, elitist notion of urban improvement that is prevailing in Hudson. I am fighting mad about what is happening here and elsewhere, and it needs to change, for the good of everyone.

  5. It seems a shame that your argument is polarizing people, rather than generating a fruitful discussion. My wife and I are from Boston, not wealthy but renovating a house in the area that we intend to use as a vacation home for the next few years until we retire. We love the area and the town, and wish for the best future for Hudson and the communities here.

    Your article is a good thought-provoking start, but the discussion here isn't yet about how exactly to achieve "Subjective Urban Improvement". Let's assume that the best future will be achieved by both, but that right now we're getting too much of the Objective and not not enough of the Subjective. How, specifically and actively, do we shift that balance?

    E.g. if Hudson needs a better school system, a passive improvement will come as the tax base creeps upward. Sort of a trickle-down model, right? How do we do this more actively?

    I don't know the area well enough yet to offer ideas for an agenda, but I hope your points lead to that discussion. It would be nice if long term urban planning involved more than park and street layouts.

    Thanks for your column!

    1. Jeff, thank you for taking time to comment. Regarding examples of subjective urban improvement, I address some of that here and in several other posts on economic development. I didn’t necessarily use the term “subjective” to describe it, but it is the same model.

      I’m not sure if your reference to “park and street layouts” refers to a possible disproportion of recent posts by me on these two aspects of our city… if so, it is probably because I have tiptoed back into the messier parts of the conversation about Hudson after being stunned by the bad behaviors and nastiness I encountered four years ago (from several city aldermen, the Preservationista, et al) when I made my blogging foray. But as I said above to Windle, I am fighting mad about this stuff, and I know better now how to make my point than I did then. And I don’t believe I can be wrong in putting forth a practical philosophy of urban redevelopment whose central concern is including those now dwelling on the margins of society. So it probably is time to do more posts on the stuff that matters most to me, and that will upset those who think discussions of Hudson urbanism should begin with a celebration of the proportional achievements of the Federal style (about which I probably know more than they do), and centers on a vision comprised of art galleries and linen napkin restaurants.

      Regarding the school system, I think the stats show that Hudson’s per-student spending is quite high. So while more money from a wealthier tax base may help, I suspect the real problem lies elsewhere. My inclination would be to suspect contextual/peripheral factors, such as family and communal stability. I wonder if stats are available that compare the performance of student living in the City of Hudson to those living in other areas of the district.

      I hope I haven’t given your comments short shrift. My responses to the previous commenters cover some of the ground I otherwise would have covered in response to yours. Please stay involved in the conversation, as your nuanced view is welcome.

  6. Matthew,
    I am not upset by what you wrote and I don't care at all if you mention me by name or not.
    not only do I know one new Robinson Street resident I know five and all of them are hard working local ( except one NY transplant) people that are very happy to have found a house they can afford in downtown Hudson. Frankly I don't care where they came from and I don't buy into your us versus them way of thinking for a minute. That argument was beat to death by SLC. What I see is a happy inner-city block of all kinds of people getting along in a really great way.

  7. And by the way, there were 12 for sale signs on Robinson Street just 5 years ago.
    I don't think anyone is being "forced" out here.

  8. Thanks for expressing your thoughts in a dedicated manner and triggering some conversation. I'm a recent transplant to Hudson and I reset my life and "quit my day job" in the process. Hudson is a unique and beautiful city and also close to my wife's family. I live here north of
    columbia with 2 young daughters, work at the farmers market, as well as own a 3 family and am renovating a home for my family. I think on a basic level Hudson is uniquely appealing compared to many towns and it's rare to find homes within the $100,000 range in most anywhere in the northeast. That sensible price of a home has brought waves of transplants into hudson and priced out neighborhood by neighborhood.
    I'm left with a myriad of things to ponder as my oldest is nearing kindergarten age. But these are important things to ponder: livelihood, community, education, peer influence. It is what makes up our existence.
    I imagine hudson would have been a very different experience had I come here without children. With young kids I'm just busy and focused on securing a home for
    us that fits our growing wants/needs.
    I hope to stay in Hudson for years to come and I'm not naive to the local issues overall.