A brief but scenic van ride from Poughkeepsie brought us to a nearly empty parking lot, the Hudson River to the east and a passing freight train to the west. A slight breeze, the sound of construction work, and the passing of trucks matched our first glimpses of the city of Newburgh. Rusted storage containers amidst piles of pipes and tires, a scene of mechanic rigidness set to the picturesque view of the river flowing into tree covered hills. Once a prosperous port town in the late 1800’s, Newburgh has seen transformation after transformation, taking a toll on both the landscape and its inhabitants. Our guide for the day, Richard, debriefed us in the parking lot on what was ahead, a complicated history riddled with misfortune but hope for the future. Taking shape as a significant shipping destination in the early 16th century, with a harbor at the widest part of the Hudson almost two miles in length, Newburgh became a hub for travelers and trade. Serving as the headquarters of the Continental Army in the American Revolution(1782), the city was more thoroughly established, both physically with government buildings as well as socioeconomically. As it became a popular destination and outlet just north of New York City, a surge of artists, immigrants, and wealthy prospecting homeowners flooded Newburgh in the early 19th century. Richard told use that famous architects and park designers, such as Frederick Law Olmsted the designer of Central Park, used Newburgh as a sort of ‘test’ city for their projects before completing their larger scale commissions in NYC or other major cities. This lead to Newburgh collecting the largest number of historic sites in the US spanning more than half the city, a rich history still visible today.
Prosperity and wealth were synonymous with the city until the mid 18th century when Newburgh began to see economic decline and the perils that follow. From 1940 to the present, Newburgh has been a center for crime, drugs, deteriorating homes, and a rising lower class.With more than half of the present population consisting of ethnic minorities, the class/race shift in the city has brought dramatic change. The building of the Newburgh Bridge eliminated the need to drive through the city’s main street, originally close to the waterfront, now demolished and moved west several blocks. Visitors from NYC and neighboring towns can take a train or drive, and park in the enormous parking lot we met in atop the reminisce of old Main Street, eat or shop at the few attractive destinations newly built near the water, then leave never having seen more than a sliver of city. Richard led us on a hike, and it was a hike with an incline of no less than that of a mountaineering expedition, up a poorly sidewalked and trash littered hill to the main intersections of the city. Murals covered ancient brick walls, wind chimes sung on the balconies of boarded apartments, and few walked the cigarette stained sidewalks.We passed the keynote shops of developed but economically stagnant cities; barber shops, convenience stores, the occasional bar or liquor store, and not much else. He brought us to a building, fenced-in and roofless, telling us amidst its deteriorating facade that it held value, perhaps not immediate value, but the architectural integrity of the building was attractive to new developers: something about a curved window frame with a rarity worth preserving.
This highlights another profound issue facing Newburgh today: gentrification or perhaps post-gentrification. With rising rent across the city, and the nation in general, Newburgh has had a 20% vacancy in housing and rising. More than 150 churches command the city’s real estate, paying no property tax, and occupying valuable space. With such prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries coupled with severe decline in the present, Newburgh is in a sort of flux. The remains of wealth spatter the city dominated by low-income minorities with new ‘urban pioneers’ starting to renovate and reimage the city as middle/upper class friendly. A strange and complicated melange of class, race, and wealth make Newburgh what it is; a hopeful city with an elegant but damaged past waiting to be reinvigorated.
After a twenty minute drive from Newburgh we finally arrived at Storm King Art Center located near the Hudson River in Orange County. Pulling up to the gates, an entrance fee of $8 for students and $10 for adults was covered by Vassar College’s environmental studies department. They provided us each with a map of the entire facility. At first glance it was obvious that there was absolutely no way we could make it through the entire park in the short hour and a half that we were allotted. There was simply too much to see. Once we got out of our Vassar van it was apparent that the scale of the art center is what would take so long to traverse through, not the number of sculptures. We decided to make a loop from the south parking lot through the meadows into the south fields and back to parking lot. We completely missedout on seeing the sculptures in the North Woods and the Museum Hill due to our time constraints.
My favorite sculptures through the meadows were The Arch, 1975 created by Alexander Calder and Iliad, 1974-76 created by Alexander Liberman. These are both huge metal sculptures surrounded by the contrasting green grass. Then we chose to make our way to the majestic Storm King Wavefield, 2007-08 created by Maya Lin. This is arguably the most monumental sculpture of the art center. It has been featured in a variety of movies and tv shows with my favorite being the Netflix original series Master of None. For this reason, people from around the world travel to this art center with a large number of New York City people taking day trips to this site. On the walk from the meadows to the south fields we walked along a grove of trees. Off of this path there were ponds with ducks and willows adding to the park feel of the art center. People meandered along the river banks taking in the beauty of the natural landscape and the sculptures. The Wavefield was the only interactive sculpture adding to its allure. You could run across them or just admire their beauty from afar.
Storm King felt like a mixture between a museum and park. It has more green space than sculptures and incorporates the landscape into the overall experience. The staff were very friendly and even gave us a ride back to our van from the south fields. To make the experience less lengthy bicycles are also available for rental near the entrance of the art center. Overall the only things that would make this art center better are more time and free admission. To learn more about Storm King Art Center go to http://stormking.org/.