“It shows the past was real, as now
…. Photography is powerless as art, but potent as magic.”
— Clive James writing on Roland Barthes
The moment is here. Six people are gathered behind an Empire State Development podium lugged up the stairs of the cavernous four-story 40,000-square-foot building on Dederick Street in midtown Kingston, the future home of the nonprofit Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW). They are here to publicize the award last December of a $1.5-million Restore New York grant to CPW, which will contribute an additional ten-percent match to the state money.
Forty or so invited attendees are formed in a half-circle in front of the podium in the former cigar factory where close to a thousand workers once toiled making cigars from daylight to dusk. About half the audience at the occasion have their smartphones at the ready. Everybody’s a photographer these days.
The podium has been placed in an awkward spot in the middle of the space. Strong daylight emanates from the second floor of the 170-windowed G.W. Van Slyke & Horton Cigar Co plant. The sign attached to the podium bears the name of the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council, which along with the City of Kingston was credited with preparing the Center for Photography Restore NY application.
Diffused somewhat by the six plasticized double-glass windows in back of the notables, the light makes it difficult for the digital cameras to capture the faces of the six notables — Brian Wallis and Nadine Lemmon of the CPW flanking county legislative chair Tracey Bartels, county executive Jen Metzger, ESD president and CEO Hope Knight and Kingston mayor Steve Noble. The image, which used to be known colloquially as a grip-and-grin, appears on the CPW Instagram account numbered 121 3.
In the audience, Jim Bailey yells out that the strong backlight from the windows, which is making it impossible for the digital cameras to do justice to the ceremony behind the podium.
I’m your native son
Seconds later, a long southbound freight train begins to amble by, the outlines of the upper parts of its cars much softened by the windows. A barely perceptible glint of light marks the passing of each car. The once-ubiquitous clickety-clack of rails has been eliminated by the installation of quarter-mile-long welded rails.
The West Shore Line is about 120 feet from the windows. CMX train after CMX train passes daily up and down Kingston’s former umbilical cord.
“Good morning, America, how are you?” sings Willie Nelson in his classic 1984 version of the railroading hymn City of New Orleans. “Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son.”
Most of the larger restored structures in midtown Kingston are bunched like grapes along a single stem, the West Shore Line. Remnants of a short stretch of rail siding are still visible behind the cigar factory that will now house the photography center.
In today’s Ulster County service economy, knowledge workers easily outnumber those who make goods and those who move them. The rail yard across the road from the county human services offices on Ulster Avenue to the north of Kingston doesn’t see much action.
The last West Shore passenger train stopped passing through Kingston in 1958, a portent of the changing economy. As passenger traffic disappeared from the rails, however, freight traffic increased. In an average year now, we are told, U.S. freight railroads move around 1.6 billion tons, or 40 percent of all long-distance freight. And that proportion is predicted to increase. As on the West Shore Line, more freight trains, longer freight trains.
The six celebrants move to the front of a temporary wall in the middle of the room. Jim Bailey was right. Their faces photograph much better there.
Search for an identity
With the long decline of American manufacturing, in the latter part of the twentieth century Kingston lost its pride in an identity built around making things in large quantities. The depredations of urban renewal in the late 1960s were a severe blow to community self-esteem. The construction of the Hudson Valley Mall in 1981 marked an exodus of business from Kingston, with retail losing out to the ever-increasing number of big-box stores in the Town of Ulster. Many wholesale supply businesses, even today a bulwark of the Kingston economy, began relocating to more convenient locations elsewhere.
The crowning blow, of course, was the departure of IBM’s 7100 well-paying jobs in 1995. Like the rest of most of Ulster County, Kingston fell into a malaise that seemed to have no end. Young people left for greener pastures. Workers from the surrounding towns came to work in Kingston and hurried back to their homes. Expenditures by visitors were insufficient to pick up the slack. Real-estate values in Kingston were stagnant at best.
The 1872 city hall, reopened in 2000 after two decades of vacancy, became an extravagant symbol of the grandeur that once was Kingston, a not fully successful expiation of past sins — bringing back in ornate style an eroded measure of civic self-confidence. Government got to work restoring infrastructure, paving roads and planting trees.
About a decade ago, things slowly began to improve for Kingston. Some New York City refugees preferred the small-city vibe of Ulster County’s only city to a house in the country that would have cost them twice as much. Creators, techies and knowledge workers, increasingly more numerous in the Big Apple, found Kingston charming. They mixed with kindred spirits who had discovered an underappreciated community with a history so rich it didn’t want to let go of it. The city flung itself into the state greenway movement, creating a linear park that grows increasingly more impressive each year.
The few pioneer private developers who had invested in Kingston because they couldn’t believe the low prices of the real estate were joined by others who began to transform ramshackle old factories into lofts and artists’ studios. Kingston-based Rupco, whose mission has been “to create homes, support people and improve communities,” over time completed an impressive array of projects in all parts of the city.
These initiatives were all positive, but they were not yet enough. Kingston’s future hung in the balance.
Covid changes the economy
And then came the pandemic. It proved a game-changer.
Nationwide, over a million people died from Covid. According to one source, there have been 43,844 cases in Ulster County, and of those 423, or about one percent, resulted in death.
The flow of refugees out of New York City numbered 800,000 at the peak of the pandemic, according to change-of-address data provided by the U.S. Postal Service, while there were 500,000 in-migrants. Those leaving, mostly from Manhattan and Brooklyn, decided to move to all kinds of places. Even Ulster County. Some of them went back to New York City later, others didn’t.
The movement of people due to Covid was only a small part of the changes already taking place, which the pandemic only accelerated. One of the most significant in the economic sphere involved US work habits: a dramatic increase in the number of independent workers combined with a leap in job mobility. According to MBO Partners, which conducts an extensive national survey annually, the number of independents on payrolls increased from 7.3 million in 2019 to 16.9 million in 2022.
There’s little indication that this population — call them creators, entrepreneurs, gig workers, consultants, digital nomads, part-timers, temporary workers, freelancers, contract workers or whatever – is a temporary phenomenon likely to reverse in the post-pandemic world. It’s too convenient for employers and independent alike.
The real question is where all these people will choose to live.
Yes, Ulster County is a land of high taxes, expensive housing and distressing inequality. But most of its residents are aware that it has its virtues as well.
The form-based code
Yet to be adopted, the new Kingston zoning code emphasizes physical form rather than separation of uses as its organizing principle. Its draft proposes a T5-Flex category along much of the railroad corridor through Kingston. According to director of housing initiatives Bartek Starodaj, the zone has the highest development potential of any in the city and is the most flexible in terms of what can be permitted there. The proposed code has recently been adjusted to allow buildings of as high as six stories where such density is appropriate, a change praised by the county planning board.
Mayor Steve Noble thinks the new form-based code will encourage more and better development in the city. Would a surge of interest have occurred without it? “No, I doubt it,” said Noble. “It would just have been too difficult.”
The recent Restore New York grants to the Center for Photography at Woodstock in Kingston (it’ll be changing its name, it says) and the Barrel Factory Lofts, also in the neighborhood of rail corridor, have brought $2.35 million in state funding, with additional ten percent matches required from the project sponsors.
Barrel Factory Lofts, recipient of $840,000 of the state funding, consists of 2.35 acres on Cornell Street between Smith and Bruyn avenues. This project is mainly about creating additional housing in the midtown area.
A dozen affordable (affordable for whom?) apartments described as live-work spaces and some commercial space will be created at the 120-year-old barrel factory made justly famous by its association with notorious bootlegger Legs Diamond.
A new four-story building fronting both Cornell Street and Bruyn Avenue will house 100 apartments, ten of which will be affordable: 54 studios and 28 single-bedroom plus 18 two-bedroom apartments, as well as almost 3000 square feet of commercial space along Cornell Street.
Finally, the existing 21,240-square-foot former Fowler and Keith warehouse will get a new roof, siding and windows, according to MHV Development principal Dan Simone.
Located between the Shirt Factory and the Lace Mill and close to Cornell Creative, a four-story building such as that proposed by MHV Development would seem a good candidate for expansion to six stories should it meet other requirements of the new code.
Several other developments
And that may not be the end of Restore New York funding, whose seventh-round winners will be announced toward the end of this year. ArtPort Kingston, an art-oriented project coveting a corner of nearby Smith Avenue and Grand Street, received backing for its application from Kingston’s planning board this February, according to planning board chair Wayne Platte, and from the Common Council last month. The city government is also supporting developer Charles Blaichman’s music-oriented and events space proposed for the former St. Joseph’s School at the corner of Wall and Pearl streets in uptown Kingston.
Three recently completed midtown development projects include Scott Dutton’s Fuller building now used for commercial and office rentals, Rupco’s Energy Square rent-assisted housing complex, and WMC Health’s addition to the former Benedictine Hospital.
There are of course a diversity of active Kingston projects, some quite substantial, in the development pipeline both inside and outside the rail corridor. Many of these projects are being assisted by state financial support of various kinds.
Because elevated interest rates designed to lower the rate of inflation are likely to continue, the private-investment scene both nationally and locally is likely to be dampened for those private developers who have not yet secured financing. Who can predict the state of the economy a year from now?
Adding cultural vibrancy
The economic acceleration is tangible. So much is happening in Kingston that the odds of an abrupt downturn choking off development activity seem remote — at least for now.
Why the optimism? Economic development should be more than locations competing with each other through tax incentives and other inducements. As Jonathan Bowles and Winston Fisher of the Center for an Urban Future put it in a paper at a recent New York City conference, urban areas should “focus more on transit, open space, cultural vibrancy, housing, sanitation, and safety, which in today’s talent-driven economy are as vital to the city’s future economic competitiveness as any tax incentive or sectoral strategy.”
Kingston, aided by Restore New York funding, is focusing its economic development on these elements, with particular recent emphasis on housing and on cultural vibrancy. The Center for Photography at Woodstock plans not only to add a few jobs but also to make a significant contribution to Kingston’s already flourishing cultural scene. Barrel Street Lofts will create 112 units of housing. If approved for state funding in a very competitive environment, the more recent local Restore applicants would only add to that momentum.
Will this evolving identity be sufficient to attract to Ulster County the increasingly mobile independent workers of today’s talent-driven economy? Will Kingston achieve a critical mass of opportunity to thrive as a great place to live and work and as a cultural destination?
Or has it done so already?