Portrait of Poughkeepsie: an Investigative Look into the Middle Main Project and the Revitalization of Poughkeepsie’s Identity

The heart of Poughkeepsie, New York began with underwear.

An underwear factory, that is.

William S. Patten’s Poughkeepsie Live Oak Leather Manufactury –subsequently renamed the Dutchess Manufacturing Company — was first constructed in 1874, according to city historical records. As years passed, the Mill Street building served several purposes: leather manufactury; cooperage; and, finally, the Queen Undermuslin Company in 1899. In 1904, the company switched to an even larger structure on North Cherry Street to accommodate its burgeoning business growth.

Today, the three-story structure still stands strong on the century-old property, known as the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory. It is here where efforts have been put forth to rejuvenate the city’s identity, reclaim its emphasis on artistry and culture, and allow for Poughkeepsie’s reputation to perhaps change for the better.

It is from the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory that the Middle Main Project was conceptualized.

Hudson River Housing: Beginnings

The success of The Queen Undermuslin Company in the early twentieth century aided in establishing Poughkeepsie as a fundamental stop along the Hudson River. It was a company that operated almost entirely on electricity, a feat at the time; the undergarments produced annually were unprecedented in numbers and sold to adorn women and children both domestically and internationally.

And yet, by the 1980’s and much like the rest of the Main Street area of Poughkeepsie, the enormous structure lay vacant. To prevent the empty building from going to complete waste, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

1982, coincidentally, was also the year that Hudson River Housing was founded — a non-profit organization originally formed by Lucille Pattison to combat a growing issue of homelessness in Dutchess County. In the years since, Hudson River Housing has expanded its mission to include community development, and in 2008, the organization and the vetted potential of the Poughkeepsie Underwear factory united.

Underwear as an Anchor

Lindsay Duvall has been the Community Development Coordinator at Hudson River Housing for about a year and a half; one of a few new faces to help with “the project, which has been going on for nearly six years now,” she said.

“The Underwear factory is definitely the anchor to the neighborhood,” said Duvall, referring to the approximately 22,000 square foot structure. However, Hudson River Housing also owns many other properties within the area.

“We’re committed to improving this community in terms of providing affordable housing,” Duvall continued. The neighborhood surrounding the Underwear Factory that Hudson River Housing has invested in consists of single family houses and larger family complexes; the not-for-profit organization also operates a senior housing complex with over fifty units, Duvall said. River Haven Housing, a subset of Hudson River Housing, is yet another facet of the housing makeup of the area. It provides housing both transitional and developmental to at-risk or homeless youth aged 16–21 years.

While real estate unit is merely one part of the Middle Main Initiative, it is an instrumental part — one that is ever-evolving to stimulate an interest in affordable real estate and an “empowerment in the community,” said Duvall.

Consider the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory as the anchor of the Middle Main Initiative, then; it is not by a long shot the only building to be renovated as part of the ongoing community outreach program, but is essentially the guiding light behind which other projects are taken on. It’s the root of a community that is changing, but also staying the same.

A Neighborhood Just A Little Off Center

Chalk it up to my lack of knowledge about Poughkeepsie prior to attending Marist, but before investigating further into the Middle Main project, my main question was: why? Between the town of Poughkeepsie and the city of Poughkeepsie, this Hudson River train stop covers a vast amount of geographical area, with numerous neighborhoods. So, I inquired: why focus efforts and fundraising on one neighborhood?

Duvall replied instantly and with a concrete answer. “We were looking at the area of the city that needed the most help. This was that area,” she said.

Take a drive into Poughkeepsie to see the neighborhood; you’ll notice that the area that the Middle Main Initiative covers is quite literal to the project’s name — it is the stretch of Main Street wedged between the Route 44 and Route 55 arterials, spanning from Market Street to Pershing Avenue. All in all, it envelops approximately a five-block radius; relatively small in geographical coverage, although the scale in which this zone acts as a cultural hub for the community presents a magnitude that was not lost on Hudson River Housing.

As you pass through the neighborhood, you’ll notice a few things. For one, there’s a cultural juxtaposition that sets this neighborhood apart from the rest of Poughkeepsie. While the zone is predominantly Latin American in nature, it is also situated at point of where traditionally African American and European American localities converge.

If you need evidence of this, simply look at the slew of restaurants dotting the area, old and new. Grab a slice and listen to local music entertainment at My Place Pizza or sit down at Michel’s Coffee Shop, or stop at El Patron Mexican Cuisine. Gone are the chain restaurants of Route 9, replaced instead by small, family-owned restaurants unapologetically serving culturally authentic dishes to whoever gives them a chance.

Will much English be spoken, as you peruse the area? Maybe. Maybe not. My years of studying Italian did little to help me, for instance, when I paid a visit to Pancho Villa Deli Mexican Restaurant and Grocery. The owner, Ariel Cordova, Jr., — a large, animated man who maintains control of the kitchen with little to no English, was able to laugh with me through a brief introduction, enough to say that he was “proud of his good business”; once it became clear that a normal interview was relatively futile, however, I was instead treated to chicken flautas and a Modelo. Admittedly, this was not merely an investigation of the different restaurants that are filling up previously empty buildings on Main Street, but it should be noted: if language fails as a form of communication, good, authentic food can speak for itself.

Making Safety a Priority

That being said, the cultural diversity of the Middle Main area has presented itself as both a blessing and a curse, according to Duvall. This is especially evident in the neighborhood’s past issues with crime.

“It does bring its challenges when we can’t communicate with people who don’t speak the same languages that we do, or have distinctly different customs or backgrounds,” Duvall said, noting that this inability to communicate has been a large factor in violent crimes in the city. This, paired with decade’s worth of a neighborhood stricken by poverty and without any tangible solution, is something that the Middle Main Initiative continues to counter.

“The strategies we employ are ever-evolving, and focus on the needs of the neighborhood and people,” she said. “We feel that a bigger impact will be had on involving the residents in all of our efforts, really listening to what they need.”

The crime rate is still not what Poughkeepsie wants, although according to a 2015 Division of Criminal Justice Services report, there has been a ten percent decrease in violent crime in the past two years. It’s an obstacle, certainly: approximately 258 violent crimes this year does not match up with the goals of the “vibrant commercial corridor” in “working with the small business community,” according to Duvall, at least not if one is looking at blatant statistical data. Affordable housing and the opportunity for business has attracted many, but to continue this upwards trend, it has to become a safer neighborhood to move to.

The Middle Main Initiative has hatched a strategy to help combat crime, however. If the cultural explosion that is the neighborhood was ever considered a weakness, the organization would ensure that it became a strength. And it would task the residents and businesspeople making up the community to attain this.

“It’s definitely true that one of the strengths is the variety of the cultures and the food and music,” said Duvall. “Recently a group of residents formed a COP multicultural council.”

The COP (City of Poughkeepsie) multicultural council focuses on celebrating the different heritages and customs of the neighborhood, but also on finding ways for them to exist harmoniously in the overall identity of the community. Duvall’s excitement about these developments is palpable — it’s evidence that the initiative is resonating with many residents, after all. The council’s accomplishments not only show an invested interest in “helping the community” at the current moment, but “also in establishing strong leadership roles for the future,” according to council secretary — and resident — Omar Garibay.

The multicultural council’s events, both small and recurring or community-wide, have been notable successes thus far. They focus on “using the rich cultures to better the city on the whole,” said Duvall.

One particularly popular promotion from the council are the Monthly Movie Nights — always free of cost, and held at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center; another focal building in the Main Street area. Sometimes, these movie screenings have themes; “Remember the Titans” and “Akeelah and the Bee” were chosen in February as part of generating awareness for Black History Month. No matter the month, however, all movies have an inspirational undertone — the March selection was “Captain America” followed by April’s choice, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.” These movie nights are becoming increasingly popular, especially with the neighborhood youth, according to Duvall.

Another recurring event takes place biweekly and in different participating eateries on Main Street: a Language Exchange group. On a weeknight in early March, for instance, the group met right in the restaurant and grocery store where I enjoyed my flautas, ironically enough. Omar Garibay headed the exchange right in the seating area of Pancho Villa Deli Mexican Restaurant and Grocery

This is where the group meets to practice either Spanish or English — whichever language they wish to learn. It’s a no-pressure environment around delicious food and social conversation; plus, mutually beneficial to both the business that hosts the group get-together on a given week, and to the residents who immerse themselves in an entirely different culture and language.

Those who remain in Poughkeepsie over the summer months should also mark their calendars for the first-ever Multicultural Festival on June 13, said Duvall. Months of preparation have been underway for this enormous celebration, which will be in the form of a Middle Main block party. Businesses have been asked to provide food in abundance, and there will be dance performers, singers, and other entertainment surrounding the entire area. For Duvall, the multicultural council and the rest of the Middle Main staff, this event’s existence speaks wonders for the positive direction of the community.

“Everyone will be together on the same day, in the same place,” said Duvall. “It will be an amazing day.”

Some might say not to fight fire with fire — but attempting to thwart crime that’s so often contingent upon misunderstanding cultural differences, with events and resources that celebrate cultural differences — that’s Poughkeepsie, and that’s progress.

Testing the “Bubble”

Kali Vozeh is a senior at Marist College majoring in Studio Art. She parks at the Steel Plant and opens her trunk to gather her tools for the day — and, quite literally, begins filling the trunk with tools. Into the back go drills, saws, hammers, and plywood, along with a piping hot Giacomo’s pizza — one of the sponsors for her capping project this spring.

This is what Vozeh’s day would have consisted of — she and fellow Marist seniors in the Art Department, as part of their capping project “Steel Plant Creative,” were heading the cleanup of the entire first floor of the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory. As of March 30, they were spending the majority of their days refurbishing and aiding in the construction of the factory, a 7,500 square foot venture..

“We call ourselves the ‘tool chicks,’” said Vozeh jokingly. “We have been spending all day, every day at the Underwear Factory. But after it’s said and done, it will be transformed into the largest art gallery show that the Marist Art Department has ever seen.”

The Middle Main Initiative has previously collaborated with The City University of New York, Dutchess Community College, Bard College, Columbia University, Vassar College and Marist — a few graduates, like Emma Flynn, a 2012 Marist alumna, sought employment for the ongoing project. With the city’s hope to bring in artists and local artisans, partnering with Marist seemed to be a mutually beneficial move.

Just over a week into construction, however…

All plans were stopped; the partnership deal between the Underwear Factory and the Steel Plant students terminated. Why?

As it turns out, being on the National Register of Historic Places is a double-edged sword for the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory. The Middle Main Initiative speaks of revitalization, of allowing for new peoples and cultures to help push Poughkeepsie in a community-oriented direction — but the Underwear Factory structure must stay largely in its historical form.

“Must” may not be a firm enough word — the Middle Main Initiative is driven largely by public funding, community fundraising efforts and collaboration with local businesses willing to support the project — post-2008 recession, the funds have been slow but fairly steady, according to Duvall. But, one hit from a negative inspection of the Underwear Factory’s historic value and there could be irreparable damage.

“The logistics just weren’t feasible,” said Vozeh, as her capping class begins search elsewhere for a new space to open their gallery. “If we were to do even the slightest change to the overall structure, like paint the beams, we could end up costing the project over three million dollars in fines.”

“Or, even their place on the historic registry,” Vozeh continued. “Emma [Flynn], who was in the art department at Marist and works for Middle Main now, said it just wouldn't be a ‘fair partnership’.”

There were other logistical difficulties as well — ones that, as the art world begins to associate more frequently with the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, will need to be addressed. Despite the vast spread of the first floor of the factory, only twenty people would be allowed for entry at once — at a gallery opening for a class already over capacity with its twenty-four students.

The aged internal structure also prohibits exhibits to be constructed on site and with possible damage to the original foundation — art pieces needing to be hung up could not be bolted or screwed into the wall, explained Vozeh, but instead hung up in a non-damaging way. Her peers Kevin Cabello and Carly Stewart were in the process of creating separation walls for the gallery opening, but all structures are required to be constructed externally, made of certain material and only temporarily brought in to the site for easy removal after the show.

Because this was to be the first official gallery exhibition on the first floor of the Underwear Factory, all of these restraints came as relative surprise. Though there are no hard feelings about the failed collaboration, as an inspection for the factory draws near to the end of April and Steel Plant Creative is already “focused on finding a better fit” for their opening, according to Vozeh, it does pose a challenge for future art exhibitions in the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory.

“I think the best thing for them to do now is figure out what they need to do to maintain the factory’s historical value, so that when they do collaborate with artists, there aren’t any catastrophic mistakes made,” said Vozeh. “The space is beautiful, though.”

This also does not signal the last attempt to coax Marist students out of their often self-described “Marist Bubble;” after all, part of Poughkeepsie’s identity is the fact that surrounding the Middle Main area are three colleges –with the Culinary Institute of America also right down the street.

Having alumni within the organization for the initiative presents an unprecedented opportunity to try and meld the campuses with the rest of the city. Elizabeth Celaya, the Director of Organizational Development for Hudson River Housing, is a Vassar graduate of 2002; Emma Flynn, a Marist graduate of 2012; they have made strides towards reaching out to the local schools for help with anything from gardening tools from the Vassar groundskeepers to selling smaller student artwork in the Art Centro building as a fundraising tactic.

Duvall and Flynn have been collaborating on efforts to utilize student involvement and presence in the Middle Main neighborhood. One particular program, now introduced at Marist College, Vassar College and Dutchess Community College, is a group for civic engagement. Melissa Gaeke is the Director of the Marist College Center for Civic Engagement and said that her ultimate short-term goal is to forage connections with non-profit community partners in Poughkeepsie. Vassar, with an already established program, and DCC, where the program just began, have also made it a point to create opportunities for students to leave campus and see the area in ways that stimulate civic-mindedness.

Dr. Gaeke is a transplant of University of Southern California, and so all internship, volunteer and community-based learning opportunities at non-profits in Poughkeepsie are still brand new to her. That being said, she has already cited the “Middle Main project as having many civic engagement opportunities for students,” and campaign plans are now underway to best formulate partnership with the businesses and organizations even within the next six months.

For many students, the bubble just got a bit bigger.

Changing, but Maintaining

“Poughkeepsie’s changes are inevitable,” said Duvall.

Over the past six years, the changes have been gradual but indicative of a new general population. Beyond the vibrant cultures for inspiration, artists continue to move to the area from New York City simply because the rent is so much cheaper.

Because of the advantage in location and overall affordability, this influx of artists has created a “really thriving art community here, which brings so much life to the street,” said Duvall. Art Centro and the Mid-Hudson Heritage Centers are filled with local pieces, as well as businesses who decorate their establishments with artisan work from community members.

The emphasis on maintaining affordable housing while facilitating a growing commercial sector has also been attractive to alumni who remain in the area professionally, according to Emma Flynn. So much so, in fact, that Flynn has been toying with the idea of creating a “recent alumni network” for this particular community in order to help recent alumni find housing, meet up socially or discover ways to assist with the Middle Main project.

One question to be had concerning a neighborhood that continues to gain residents both younger and from all over is if there is any displacement within the community, especially in the low-income homes.

“Displacement is definitely a concern we have,” said Duvall. “We’re not interested in displacing local population.”

The strategies employed to prevent any displacement have been very psychological, actually — the Middle Main Initiative employees have taken great lengths to “ensure that residents feel they are part of the process,” said Duvall. It may mean that, occasionally, some initiative designs take longer, due to the free and encouraged opinions of the residents at monthly city meetings and panels. But allowing for such a consistent, public conversation about the neighborhood’s potential has helped locals old and new stick around, said Duvall. Middle Main also conducts an annual Stakeholder Survey, where volunteers go door-to-door and survey residents in order to gain insight into challenges and positive developments within the community.

Additionally, the Middle Main project has a firm stance on keeping housing affordable — no matter what.

“We want the community to be able to afford to remain in the neighborhood in the future, as opposed to a changed neighborhood that now charges higher,” said Duvall. “We’re changing, but maintaining accessibility.”

#Poughtential

The Middle Main project is more than just an initiative now — it’s a brand. And it’s a brand that speaks not to the nature of what has thus far been changed within the community, but what will continue to change.

The POK Pop-Up Shop, located in the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, is part of the way in which the Middle Main project plans to both spread awareness of Poughkeepsie, and raise funding for the community. Marist student Marisa Gilbert helped model the products — t-shirts, boxers, canvas tote bags and sweatshirts, all bearing the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory label, and “was surprised but pumped” to be one of the faces of the brand on Middle Main’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. The pop-up shop also sells locally-made products and artwork — its opening weeks have been incredibly successful and brought in huge numbers, according to Lindsay Duvall.

This pop-up shop is yet another tactic from Middle Main employees with inspiration from “Pop-Up City”, a blog that highlights “tactical urbanism” — trends and concepts, even if they’re experimental in nature, that help to bring an urban area back to life.

This is what the Middle Main Initiative prides itself on — the fact that, along the road, some rejuvenation tactics may be more successful than others. That employees, volunteers,

students, and residents alike are all experimenting, all dealing with a changing city neighborhood, and many strategies are experimental. There will be obstacles — whether in historical restoration or in funding, or else in crime or logistics. But there will also be triumphs — new businesses; residents learning new languages; youth programs instituted to learn about art and culture. One phrase that Lindsay Duvall used repeatedly to describe the Middle Main project was “ever-evolving”; the work is not done yet, and the goals are not all reached. And, yet, change is happening, and there is no stopping it.

In other words, it’s all about “Poughtential” — and for this, there is no limit.

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