[This is the extended version of an essay that will be drastically reduced (1500 words?!?!) before it’s published in a new Vassar College faculty journal.  For a change there’s no mention of music, although readers might notice how this discussion adds context to my other posts on music and the Hudson Valley.]

In Urban Studies courses at Vassar College, we sometimes start the conversation at the semester’s beginning by asking students, “When you think about cities, what’s the city in your head?” Their answers reveal something about their backgrounds and travels but also the kinds of cognitive lens each student uses when examining other cities or generic features of the urban condition. Such mental filtering isn’t a problem per se, so long as students can identify and acknowledge the particular city that their imaginations default to.

Indeed, classes may spend some time deliberately filling students’ minds with other cities. Hence faculty may refer to the Chicago school of urban studies, the traditional model of American metropoles in which concentric zones of human settlement extend from central business districts on out to rural/suburban fringes; or the Los Angeles school of urban studies, a more polynucleated model of metropolitan form that coheres through fragmented solidarities, political manipulation, and global flows of people and capital. Courses in urban design may variously identify Rome, Paris, or NYC as “classic” examples of map-legible, pedestrian-friendly urbanism. We may ask students to choose their own “paradigm city” in order to call attention to other urban features or conditions, underscoring along the way in the biases of earlier urban paradigms, theories, and histories.

Our goal here isn’t to inculcate students in claims for the supremacy of any one city. Really, cities are too complex, multifaceted, and multiperspectival to grasp adequately from a single ideal-type example. Furthermore, urban studies as an intellectual enterprise isn’t bound together by any one master theory, the way we might think about the natural sciences, for instance, with their intellectual division of labor from molecular physics and chemistry on up to astronomy and the theory of relativism. (No doubt many natural scientists would question this simple picture.) Given urban studies’ multiple disciplines, sliding scales of analysis (from urban psychology to the dynamics of neighborhood and public space on up to geographical systems of urban settlement and economy), and different traditions of intervening into social life and physical environment, it’s an act of hubris to imagine, much less teach, a singular urban theory that can withstand internal contradiction and empirical scrutiny.

Instead, this pedagogy of urban theory (or urban theorizing, to be more precise) can help students think critically about the analytical foundations with which they grasp cities’ particularities (by comparison and contrast, normality and exception, ideal-typicality and mixed example, etc.) and reconcile their own, often contradictory knowledges of the city in general. Furthermore, being aware of and articulate about one’s paradigm city can pragmatically enable students’ own urban interventions, letting them absorb and communicate certain research question or reform agendas with reference to an illustrative place.

Along these lines, the Urban Studies Program at Vassar College has a long tradition of going to the source and engaging the outside world—to cite two values re-endorsed by the college recently—by studying our neighboring city of Poughkeepsie at first-hand. I’ve gone so far as to urge students to uphold a “Poughkeepsie school of urban studies,” which makes for good laughs when I first mention this (more about that later). However, I want students to appreciate that so many key forces shaping cities today can be observed converging in the city next door. By dissecting this empirical convergence into its component parts, they take away a skill for making sense of urban structure and urban life in many other places. So, how does it all come together in Poughkeepsie? Here I outline what I think are the most intellectually interesting dynamics and trends that Urban Studies students can see in Poughkeepsie. The photos (from Flickr) and videos (from A Digital Tour of Poughkeepsie, a Vassar College documentary that I produced a good six years ago) are inserted here largely to evoke and suggest the story I tell below.

a Poughkeepsie school of urban studies 1

photo by Joseph A © 2010


Incorporated in 1854, Poughkeepsie’s growth over three centuries illustrates a traditional scholarly wisdom about how urban geographies develop. The city rose to regional prominence as a small distribution and industrial satellite to the New York City metropolis, and as commercial center and county seat to a mostly rural Dutchess County. (Note that “city” isn’t just an analytical category but also an administrative designation by the state; many counties in New York don’t have cities.) The 1889 erection of the railroad bridge, the steady industrialization of the riverfront (led by Matthew Vassar and others) up through the WWII era, and the city’s 1983 connection to the Metro North commuter rail highlight the causal importance of natural geography and transportation infrastructure in drawing people and goods—the crucial elements for urban economies.

This growth came to a halt after WWII, when businesses and middle-class residents fled to surrounding suburbs (including Vassar College’s location, the Town of Poughkeepsie) and other states, leaving behind a disproportionately low-income and non-white populace. Consequently the city’s tax base deteriorated, reducing funds for social and police services at a time when residents needed them more. The 1970 establishment of the Spackenkill school district out of the city’s most affluent section left the Poughkeepsie school district with a less advantaged student body and declining trends for graduation and college acceptance. Today, in a city of 32,736 residents, 9.6 percent of the population is unemployed, while 22.5 percent don’t have a high school diploma — both statistics well outpacing the state and national figures.

Poughkeepsie’s experience was of course symptomatic of the U.S. urban crisis that swept through many cities across the country, particularly the Northeast and Midwest. For many scholars, its cycle of decline appeared to be set in motion by household and business responses to transportation advances, aging urban infrastructure, and suburban opportunities — all factors typically emphasized by urban planners and social scientists trained in the reigning “urban ecology” paradigm of the day. Significantly, beginning in the 1960s these academic constituencies started collaborating around a multidisciplinary banner of “urban studies” to analyze and propose interventions in the battlegrounds of the urban crisis. Our intellectual enterprise doesn’t stand apart from the history it records.

Can Poughkeepsie’s experience simply be understood by the “rational” individualism of households and businesses? In fact, the city provides ample evidence for the urban political economy paradigm’s rebuttal to urban ecology: the growth and decline of cities is driven by elite power, starting with the capitalist sector. Labor control was in the mind of the many businesses that fled Poughkeepsie lower-wage, non-union states in the West and South. Poughkeepsie’s fate has also been subject to the dictates of the county’s largest employer, technology manufacturer IBM. Its complaints about Main Street traffic prodded the city to build the arterials, while the concerns of its white-collar workforce were instrumental in establishing the Spackenkill school district. While the corporation rarely involves itself in electoral politics, Poughkeepsie leaders regularly tap its local executives for civic organizations and business groups, thereby reinforcing a “business first” agenda in the city’s governance.

Poughkeepsie’s elected officials and administrative agencies exercised their own undemocratic kind of power in their embrace of the prevailing “solution” to the urban crisis: the Urban Renewal policy of large-scale housing and infrastructural developments. From the late 50s on through the mid 70s, city government used federal, state funds, and private funds to build the modernist landscape still visible today: express arterials along Route 9 and the 44/55, vast parking lots around the Main Street corridor, low-income housing projects, the high-rise Rip Van Winkle apartment building on the city’s waterfront, a downtown convention center complex, and a four-block pedestrian mall closed off to auto traffic along downtown Main Street. Yet despite (arguably because of) these so-called improvements, Poughkeepsie lost housing units, businesses and residents during the Urban Renewal period.



While Poughkeepsie’s history provides fertile ground for academic inquiry, its future invites enthusiastic speculation. Here the most important fact is that the 2000 Census marked the city’s first population growth in fifty years, slowing down but remaining positive a decade later. At the same time, many residents still face serious hurdles in terms of unemployment, school quality, poverty and crime, raising the question: Is Poughkeepsie experiencing the “urban renaissance” enjoyed by cities like New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Portland and San Francisco? Or is it still mired in the legacy of the urban crisis? Perhaps both scenarios may be true—a situation that calls attention to new forces of urban growth and decline.

It’s instructive to adopt a medium-scale regional lens to make sense of the tides of metropolitan restructuring washing ashore in Poughkeepsie. Concurrent with New York City’s post-industrial transformation into a financial/creative capital, Manhattan’s accelerating economy has pushed population, employment, and rising property values outward — to the boroughs (particularly Brooklyn and Queens), northern New Jersey, Westchester County and southern Connecticutt. Poughkeepsie so far is not one of these new metropolitan hotspots, but some of its recent population growth can be ascribed to commuters moving further north for comparatively affordable costs of living, as suggested by the high occupancy rates of apartments and condos surrounding Poughkeepsie’s train stations.

a Poughkeepsie school of urban studies 2

renovated condominiums near train station. photo by Tarik Elseewi © 2011

A second source of population growth, possibly a larger one — we still need a definitive picture here — is transnational immigrants. Poughkeepsie has a long history of ethnic diversity, from Germans, Irish, and Italian immigrants arriving around the turn of the 20th century to the mid-century stream of West Indians, who have introduced cultural and linguistic diversity to Poughkeepsie’s black population. Since the late 1990s, the largest stream of transnational migration has come from Latin America. Many countries are represented, but it appears three states in Mexico (Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz) account for most of the current households speaking Spanish at home primarily. The Latin force for urban revitalization is undeniable in Poughkeepsie, as many Spanish-speaking restaurants, stores, and other businesses occupy Main Street storefronts that were vacant only a few years earlier.

To a large degree, these two flows of people follow familiar routes that correspond to traditional models of urban systems predicated on a conventional household calculus: the search for jobs, housing, better schools and other material factors related to the local standard of living. Under this model, both flows portend the radial expansion of cities hypothesized by the urban ecology paradigm: people move into cities and exert a centrifugal economic pressure that expands city structure (be it the regional tri-state NYC metropolis or the local scale of Poughkeepsie itself, although the city has much catching up to do in terms of population growth).

However, Poughkeepsie increasingly experiences a new urban pressure coming from the opposite direction, out of the county’s exurbs. Over the last decade, sleepy towns like LaGrange, Pleasant Valley and Hopewell Junction, which Poughkeepsie residents might recognize from the drive to the Taconic Parkway, have seen a visible spike in the construction of “McMansions” and other new housing. Almost certainly this exurban growth is caused by metropolitan commuters relocating for affordable housing close to interstates and parkways. It’s premature to anticipate a significant effect of this exurban in-fill development on Poughkeepsie’s population numbers or property values, although signs of indirect impact are evident—most notably, the steadily increasing ridership on the Metro North commuter rail that terminates at Poughkeepsie’s train station. At this stage, urban analysts are most interested in the direction of this population flow, which foreshadows Poughkeepsie’s adjustments to new exurban forms of urbanization.



Whatever their potential effects, these exurban impacts have been prefigured by a cultural revalorization of the region’s place meanings and physical amenities. Of late, the Mid-Hudson Valley (comprising Poughkeepsie’s Dutchess County as well as Columbia County, Greene County, Orange County, Putnam County and Ulster County) has been repeatedly “rediscovered” as a site for tourism, shopping, eating, gallery-hopping, buying vacation-homes, and enhancing personal quality of life. Neighboring riverfront cities Beacon and Hudson have been radically transformed by the appearance of the Dia: Beacon museum and a thriving antique-store district, respectively. Out-of-towners have especially made their mark on small towns where independently-owned restaurants and stores have flourished: Woodstock, Saugerties, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, and several others occasionally cited in media coverage and internet chatter about “the new Brooklyn.”

Since the 1970s, Poughkeepsie’s contribution to the region’s tourism sector has centered upon its riverfront gateway. In 2009, this amenity infrastructure was considerably upgraded with the opening of the Walkway over the Hudson, which turned the abandoned Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge into a pleasing pedestrian walkway for taking in views of the river and landscape (as well as large numbers of people enjoying public space—an uncommon sight in Poughkeepsie). Interestingly, the city’s government never took the original Walkway proposal very seriously until state, federal and private funding kicked in large sums for the bridge’s renovation. Now a New York State Park, the Walkway has garnered international coverage and drawn well over a million visitors since its opening.

How might cultural scholars understand the new role of region’s amenity infrastructure? Ultimately, its value is symbolic in essence, established by centuries of metropolitan gazes cast by NYC residents since at least the 18th century. Like other counties along the eastern riverfront, Dutchess County bears the original Albany Post Road through which colonial visitors journeyed north to Montreal. In the mid-19th century, painter Thomas Cole’s travels to the Catskills Mountains inspired the famed Hudson River School tradition of American landscape painting (and also established the village of Woodstock as an art colony). These precedents set a pattern by which the Mid-Hudson Valley became a go-to location, along with the Adirondack Mountains and other parts further upstate, for Americans to express end-of-frontier anxieties epitomized by new interests in health-restoring “recreation,” nature hiking, “fresh air” youth camps and adult-education chataquas.

The sublimity of its river and mountains notwithstanding, the Mid-Hudson Valley’s good fortune as an admired U.S. landscape reflects its proximity to New York City, America’s “first city” for culture, media and finance. This region has long exported place-images and place-myths that depict idyllic opposites to metropolitan beholders’ changing experiences: the concrete jungle, the urban rat-race, the pretense and deceits of metropolitan society (which now apparently includes Long Island’s Hamptons, the otherwise celebrated beachfront getaway for New Yorkers), a declining connection to nature and agriculture, and so on. It’s instructive to observe how Poughkeepsie has tapped into the expanding market for symbolic and experiential contrasts to metropolitan life.

A key context today for the region’s symbolic economy is the growth of professional, cultural, and media occupations in NYC, which has created a heavily overworked and less securely employed middle-to-upper class workforce. On the flipside, these workers often have considerable flexibility in the time and location for work and evidently a more voracious appetite for aesthetic and lifestyle inspirations, for reasons puzzled over by social forecasters, “creative class” researchers, urbanists and lifestyle coaches. From this nexus of work/life conditions comes the growing demand for experiencing new places, which the Mid-Hudson Valley customarily serves up via village Main Streets and rustic retreats. But separately, this economy has revived many neighborhoods and cities once thought lost to the urban crisis. These new urban hotspots are characteristically well suited for small-scale creative activities, bohemian nightlife and spacious apartments carved out of old factories and storefronts. Brooklyn is the emblem here, but even some still-struggling cities such as Baltimore have new wind in their sales thanks to their swelling hipster enclaves.

The cities of the Hudson River Valley have an abundance of this kind of distressed-brick real estate, and it remains to be explained why some have thrived and others idled. Beacon and Hudson now have thick traffic in visitors and shoppers; although a substantial benefit in jobs and public services has yet to materialize for their working-class residents, these cities have objectively stronger economies compared to ten or twenty years ago. Meanwhile, the city of Kingston appears to be in early stages of a modest arts-based revitalization, while the city of Newburgh remains mired in troubling levels of disinvestment and crime. In this uneven wave of urban restructuring, Poughkeepsie seems to be positioned somewhere in the middle: certainly doing better than before, but curiously stalled considering its enviable assets (the Walkway, entrepreneurial immigrant communities, neighboring institutions of higher education).

a Poughkeepsie school of urban studies 3

photo by dougtone © 2010

a Poughkeepsie school of urban studies 4

photo by brit_robin © 2010


In this context, Poughkeepsie and the region offer urban scholars a useful case to test competing macro/structure versus local/agency theories of urban revitalization. Local/agency theories give us cause to examine various local initiatives and trends that seek to expand Poughkeepsie’s modest turnaround into broader gains for the city’s population. And there are many such potentially transformative activities underway.

To begin, Poughkeepsie has a deep and sometimes overlooked history of protest and activism. The Civil Rights and Black Power era of the 1960s coincided with Poughkeepsie’s Urban Renewal policies, when many African-American residents were displaced from what one city plan called downtown’s “Negro ghetto.” Rebellion broke out in 1967 as black and (at least initially) white youth erupted into vandalism in a two-day melee resulting in over 30 arrests and at least five injuries. As seen in many American cities, civil rights activism in Poughkeepsie became institutionalized in human services and neighborhood centers. Today, several parks and institutions bear the names of African-American icons and leaders, while the local legacy of America’s “War on Poverty” is perhaps best embodied in the Family Partnership Center, which houses many human service agencies in a one-stop center located. Affordable housing is another arena that Poughkeepsie group (particularly the nonprofit Hudson River Housing) have tackled admirably, restoring single houses and apartment complexes that add back housing units lost to the urban crisis.

Environmentalist sentiment has a long record in the region, going back to the Hudson River School, but the local history of environmental advocacy generally starts with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Founded by folksinger Pete Seeger and other activists to publicize the threat of industrial pollution to the river, the group that maintains the sloop (now a mobile lab and classroom for river ecology) was based in Poughkeepsie until 2009, when it relocated to Beacon. In the wake of the Clearwater (no pun intended), a number of organizations and initiatives proliferated regionally to clean up the river and protect open space. Today, green sentiments echo throughout Poughkeepsie in community gardens that occasionally spring up here and there. The nonprofit Poughkeepsie Farm Project manages the city’s farmers market and operates a community supported agriculture, taking care to subsidize fresh produce for low-income residents. Most recently, a coalition of human service, sustainable agriculture, and educational institutions are coordinating the city’s community food assessment, documenting food insecurity and catalyzing community discussion about improvements in the city’s food system. (Disclosure: I oversee the household survey component of the community food assessment.)

Theories and practices of urban design can be explored in downtown’s Main Street. Having shed its moribund state during its final years as a pedestrian mall, the portion of Main Street in the city’s central business district now features higher vacancy rates, occupied storefronts, a few higher-end restaurants, and a handful of civic spaces open to public uses alongside several government and nonprofit establishments. A few blocks up, the “Middle Main” district (also the name of a neighborhood revitalization association) boasts a new chain grocery store, the city’s first in twenty years. Also significant is new residential construction on Main Street, another phenomenon not seen for many many years. the city’s historic Luckey Platt department store now contains six stories of residential apartments, while a former vacant lot that dominated a large stretch of Main Street for years now contains a new mixed-use storefront/residential complex.

photo by brianwbailey222 © 2010

These new Main Street developments illustrate several design principles associated with the so-called New Urbanism. They cluster near the residential streets to the north and south; mix residential, commercial, nightlife, government and nonprofit uses; inhabit an older stock of buildings and commercial alleys that could incubate the low-margin businesses typical of small-scale urban enterpreneurs; and give new shine to a mid-20th century urban architecture that survived Urban Renewal. The downtown’s conduciveness to pedestrian traffic is further served by ample municipal bus service and the proximity of the train station a half-mile down Main Street. Still, the signage that points visitors to and from the Walkway entrance one-third mile away have yet to divert a substantial tide of out-of-towners, leaving it up to a local clientele (mostly downtown residents, office workers, and clients of government/nonprofit service agencies) to sustain downtown’s commercial activity.

Local boosters and planners ponder why Main Street has yet to see subtantially higher levels of foot traffic, raising many issues of concern to urban studies. Some planners might argue there isn’t enough New Urbanism. Downtown Main Street can seem like an oasis in desert of Urban Renewal blight, cut off from residential blocks by sprawling parking lots and three-lane arterials. Architectural critics might argue that the city’s built environment has no coherence, having been too long subject to modernist ethos of demolish-and-rebuild to suit the latest design fad. Political scientists might propose the inefficacy of the city’s elected officials, whose adherence to traditional models of economic development (seeking federal money, luring big employers, giving low priority to social services) has blinded them to the opportunities for immigrant- and amenity-based models of urban revitalization.

photo by EMFPhoto © 2011

Other analysts might argue for macro/structural factors to explain Poughkeepsie’s apparently stalled redevelopment. Most obviously, the economic downturn has slowed any momentum previously attained toward new levels of revitalization. But beyond this, few economists would be surprised by the city’s failure to attract big employers in knowledge-based sectors given its poor schools and low rates of educational attainment, no matter how many tax-relieving federal enterprise zones the city receives. Cultural and media analysts might point to the durability of stigmas lingering over Poughkeepsie and other cities wracked by the post-WWII urban crisis. Two years before the U.S. Census marked the city’s population turnaround, a 1998 New York Times headline read, “Poughkeepsie, in a Long Tailspin, Now Copes With a Clouded Image.” Since then, little of the recent good news seems to pierce the dismal common wisdom about Poughkeepsie, at least for the native-born, educated cohorts most likely to seek new lives in scruffy urban settings. Perhaps this is why foreign immigrants should receive most credit for the city’s revitalization, since the exurbs have drawn middle- and upper-class migrants looking for someplace that’s generally not Poughkeepsie.



The story of Poughkeepsie today, then, is one of multiple factors and multiple scales of explanatory context — the city itself, the broader NYC metropolis, and the global flows of people and capital — converging on a city caught between decline and revitalization. Whatever disciplinary perspective or empirical hypothesis one adopts to understand the current moment, change is definitely afoot in Poughkeepsie. I don’t think it coincidental that the Urban Studies Program has doubled its number of majors and seen a handful of its graduates stay on to live and work in Poughkeepsie over the last decade. The period has marked a quickening in the pace of changes in Poughkeepsie that, understandably, many Vassar students and faculty are eager to participate in. In the Urban Studies program, it’s further exciting how these changes can provide the foundation for intellectual discovery. It really all comes together in Poughkeepsie, a city whose small size and accessible distances make it convenient for doing fieldwork and talking to locals.

Is Poughkeepsie history or current situation all that distinct from the experience of other cities? Probably not. Does Poughkeepsie exhaust all the global dimensions, empirical issues and political concerns that urban scholars should pursue. No way. But is it practically feasible, intellectually worthwhile and, yes, morally compelling for Vassar students to let Poughkeepsie’s agenda for urban revival and social justice shape “the city in their heads”? Absolutely.