Sitting at a table in the People’s Café on Broadway for the first time last week, I was thinking about miracles. I’d discovered that morning they were happening on a daily basis around the corner on St. James Street. Or that’s what it felt like as Christine Hein showed me around People’s Place that’s been the center of the universe for the many thousands of people every year in Ulster County who count on it for their survival.
People’s Place (peoplesplace.org) occupies a big building on the corner across from Keegan Ale brewery and restaurant. Every inch of 17 St. James Street is occupied with the purpose of making sure that no one in Ulster County goes without food, clothing and essentials — including a sense of dignity, well-being and belonging as well as toothpaste, shampoo, and a haircut.
Empowerment workshops and wellness programs, the community breakfast-and-lunch café that opened in 2019, the largest food pantry in Ulster County that’s been open for decades ,… they’re all free if you need them. Make a donation if you can. The thrift store is a fundraiser. People’s Place is a 401c3 nonprofit that runs on donations, far-reaching support, hundreds of volunteers, and a staff of eleven people. Christine Hein is the executive director, but clearly doesn’t do what she does for the title. She grew up in Kingston, and People’s Place has been in her family for as long as she can remember.
Christine weaves me through the morning bustle. We pass her mom, Rita Schabot, a longtime volunteer who’s washing down a countertop in the thrift store. In the donation room, everything that comes in gets inspected and cleaned before going out again into the world. The food-pantry shelves are stacked with supplies. Care packages, food baskets, school lunches, toys at Christmas. It doesn’t seem possible that it all gets done.
A free-produce table is already set up in the parking lot. Dozens of volunteers are busy getting ready for the doors to open at 10 a.m.
People come inside. A little girl and her mother. A man in a wheelchair. An elderly couple. A young guy with a skateboard. More keep showing up. There’s laughter, joking, a sense of ease, and that unmistakable feeling of joy that comes from being a part of something good, something you can count on far larger than yourself but still your own place as much as anyone else’s.
The big picture window in the People’s Café looks out on the I-587 roundabout where cars pinwheel out in all directions. I sit down and start on an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee. A man sits down at the table next to me with his egg sandwich. He’s got dreads. I’ve got a ponytail. We’ve both got grey hair, time to talk, and nowhere more important to go. His name is Kevin. He’s a walker like I am. We swap stories.
And then I go outside to the parking lot to count the murals.
Including “Fishbone” by Eugene Stetz, Jr. on the street-side exterior wall of the People’s Place building, there are ten murals in easy view that consecrate the space like a blessing, all courtesy of the 0+ Festival Murals Program (opositivefestival.org/mural-program).
“Pretty Nose” by artist Lmnopi on the side of the Keegan Ales building was painted in 2014, and is based on a nineteenth-century photo taken at Fort Keogh, Montana of a Native America woman of the same name. In bold, bright colors, “Lifted” by Lindsey Wolkowicz is a story of feminine power and depicts a collective of women and girls as change makers in communities climbing up and out from under suppression.
Walk to 65 St. James Street on the corner of Clinton Avenue to the home of the Good Works Institute (goodworkinstitute.org). You’ll see the whole building covered by a 0+ mural of the same name. From the outside, you can’t tell what good works are going on inside. It’s people once again pulling together to build community and make the world a better place.
Running from Broadway west to Green Street, St. James Street holds its share of Kingston’s architectural gems and historical highlights dating back to the Revolutionary War. The Keegan Ales building was once a foundry supplying the Union Army during the Civil War. According to Edwin Ford’s book Street Whys, St. James was probably named for the Court of St. James in London, the royal palace of the British monarchy and the centerpiece of diplomatic relations, where all ambassadors to the United Kingdom are formally received. In Kingston today, where community is vital to this city and everybody counts, St. James is a place of the people.