In December 2019, I entered my name in the lottery for an apartment in Energy Square, the five-story, environmentally sensitive, affordable housing project that Rupco (originally named the Rural Ulster Preservation Company) was building at 20 Cedar Street in the heart of Midtown Kingston, around the corner from UPAC.
There were 57 units available and hundreds of hopeful applicants. The drawing was January 3, 2020 at 9 a.m.
I was number 27. I had won the lottery! I didn’t know that a love affair with Kingston came with my lease.
I’d been living in Ulster County for more than a decade, but rarely came into the city. One reason I did was to visit an artist friend who lived in The Lace Mill, another Rupco project involving the historic preservation of a factory on Cornell Street. Her two-story apartment had a lofted bedroom overlooking a spacious living-work space, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick walls and a high-end-design vibe straight out of SoHo. The rent was less than a thousand dollars. A lot less. An owner of a Kingston eating place claimed recently in an article in HV1 that monthly rents for one-bedroom apartments in the Hudson Valley have gone up from $1299 to $2200 “in a short period.”
Although Energy Square was slated to start leasing in March 2020, construction delays put off the move-in until August. I picked a single-bedroom apartment where the sunrise flooded my living room with morning light.
When I moved in, I was surprised how quickly I felt part of a community, even though I didn’t know a soul in the building. The other lottery winners who live here came from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances. Rupco builds communities on a multicultural, mixed-income, mixed-age model consisting of families, artists, elderly, disabled and homeless people. This is not subsidized housing but rather tax-credit housing, so all applicants have to fall within certain income parameters to qualify and even get on the waitlist and, subsequently, into the lottery.
According to the Rupco website (rupco.org), rents for apartments — from studios to one-, two- and three-bedroom units — range from $441 to $1428 monthly, including heat, hot water and electricity. The African Americans (20 percent), Asian Americans (five percent %), multi-racial (five percent), Hispanic (four percent) and Caucasian (50 percent) who live in Energy Square all made it to the lottery. Equality brings with it an inherent decency that pervades the experience of living in a place where worth isn’t based on bank accounts or social status. The quality of life offered here respects everyone.
A placard in the lobby breaks down the demographics of the 79 people that moved in with me: 66 adults, 13 children under 18; 48 females, 31 males. The majority come from Ulster County, Kingston specifically, with a smattering from Westchester County, New York City, and Long Island. Of the 57 apartments (two studios, 44 one-bedrooms, six two-bedrooms, four three-bedrooms, and one apartment for the resident superintendent). Nine units are for the formerly homeless, adults and young adults. Everyone is getting a break on the rent.
My living-room window looks out over the rooftop patio, the outdoor open space for the community. Life goes on there — wedding receptions, birthday parties, yoga classes, coffee klatches. It’s the playground for the kids enrolled in the after-school programs at The Center for Creative Education on the ground floor. Most mornings around ten o’clock I can look down and see two crazy-happy dogs playing together. Both have tightly curled tails, a Japanese breed, Aikito, I think. What matters is that the owners have a patio where their animals can share their friendship.
Day and night, the freight trains roll by my window, some 50 cars long, always covered with graffiti. They move like kinetic art installations on the tracks that run along Railroad Avenue behind the building. Beyond, Kingston spreads out, calling to me. Out the door I go to walk about and listen to what the city has to say.
Midtown, where I do a lot of walking, doesn’t exist as a formally designated district, as I was told at the city hall when I tried to get a map that showed the boundary lines. Rather, it’s what people call the place you are when you’re not in the historic Stockade District or in the Rondout-West Strand District. Midtown is more of a treasure hunt than a focused destination. On and off Broadway, its gems are hidden in full view for you to find.
When I first moved into Midtown, Broadway was pitted with potholes, sidewalks were broken, and parking was at your own risk. The Broadway streetscape project changed all that. Today, the road is repaved and the corridor from the I-587 roundabout to Grand Street is transformed with plantings, benches and bike lanes. The sidewalks are pedestrian-friendly and really bright street lamps light the way for walking after dark.
One night around dusk, I headed south on Broadway and walked past Dimples Boutique (383 Broadway), which that had a dazzling Kelly-green marcel-waved wig in the window. Driving by, I never would have stopped, but on foot, I walked into the shop and met Devon Francis, the owner. She told me about her amazing wall of wigs where a silver- blond page-boy number was perfect for a teenager on my Christmas list. Devon’s fifteen-year-old daughter gave it the thumbs up.
The windows at Bella’s Gift Shop (670 Broadway) were already a favorite of mine. Bella’s is, mostly, a baby and children’s clothing and gift store …para todo tipo de ocasiones especiale … but for the holidays there are statues of the Virgin Mary and Nativity scenes. One was under a blizzard of sparkles lit up in an electrified snow globe lantern. The shop owner doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Spanish. We figure it out. I leave with the lantern.
Kids from Kingston High School pour into Joe Beez Deli (456 Broadway) after school, and one day I followed them inside to the “Home of Famous Sandwiches.” The Prodigy (grilled chicken, bacon, hot sauce, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese and blue cheese) is one of the hundred-plus items on a menu that papers the walls in big hand-letter signs. Other names are “The One Eye Willy” and “The Jimmy Buffet” and “The Hoolay Burger.” My Prodigy is off the grill in minutes, and I’m on way.
Around the corner at the end of Pine Grove Avenue, the Wiltwyck Rural Cemetery is a true wonder of the city — 55 acres of rolling hills and landscaped walkways that have been there since 1856. Peter Merritt was a soldier in the Civil War who, like so many others, is buried at Wiltwyck. A faded daguerrotype of him sits offhandedly on top of his gravestone, like he forgot to pack it before he left. Wilfred “Tex Larabey” Courtney is at Wiltwyck with an acoustic guitar carved on his gravestone. (You can listen to “Just Call Me Lonesome,” his 1968 country album, on YouTube.) William Gwynne, a mail clerk on the Titantic, is there, and so is Alton Brooks Parker, who ran for president against Teddy Roosevelt.
If you’re a sucker for libraries like I am, you probably already know the Kingston one (55 Franklin Avenue). Your return-book slip prints out how much you save by borrowing rather than buying your books. Maybe you’ve checked out the bright orange backpacks loaded with supplies to go out birding or nature walking or searching for rocks and mineral. They were new to me.
So was “Junie Harris Way.” The street signs renamed Furnace Street behind the library in honor of Junious “Junie” Harris, who lived there for 52 year. The librarian will print out his story.
The corner of Furnace and Henry streets isn’t a neighborhood distinguished by historic restorations, but the Henry Street Project is about to change that. The once-magnificent but long-abandoned Queen-Anne-style Burger-Matthews House is in the process of coming to new life as the “Future Home of Transart,” as a major African-American cultural center in the Hudson Valley. That will put another star in the constellation that’s the Midtown Arts District (MAD). Roughly bordered by Broadway, Cornell Street and Greenkill Avenue, MAD encompasses hundreds of creative venues and arts spaces, along with the hundreds of artists who live and work in the district.
The D.R.A.W. Studio of MAD is on the ground floor of Energy Square. So is the Center for Creative Education. Both have classes, workshops and studio spaces. Dancing, drumming, printmaking, painting, drawing … they’re all going on downstairs in my building. At the end of a walk, I’ll stop and watch the dancing and know someday I want to be in there doing it.
Australian Aborigines know the power in aimless walking. For centuries, the Walkabout has been a rite of passage for them. It’s a sacred ritual that sends out the members of their community to wander alone into the unknown and trust their feet on ground to find their connection to their place on the planet, to their spiritual roots, and maybe even their divine purpose.
The Australian Outback is a long way from Kingston, but I come back from my wanderings with my head screwed on straighter, my heart beating in rhythm with something much bigger than my own problems, and a feeling of coming home to myself and this wonderful city.