Originally Published in The Journal News (LoHud.com), Friday, May 24, 2019.
Let me start with a confession: I haven’t lived in the lower Hudson Valley for the past 10 years. But my parents still do. And every time I’m back to visit, I can’t get over the transformation in the river towns, particularly Peekskill, near where I grew up. It’s not just the new restaurants, cafes, apartments, galleries and shops. It’s the sense of community that this revival has birthed.
As a kid, trips to downtown Peekskill were few and far between. In that pre-digital time, we might visit Scott Camera, Jimmy’s Barber Shop or the bank. But most of the time, errands and nights out took us to the strip malls of nearby Mohegan Lake. There just wasn’t much in Peekskill to create a meaningful draw.
Strip malls, however, were never good substitutes for an actual downtown. Mostly designed around cars rather than people, you couldn’t ditch your wheels and walk. There were no places to bump into neighbors while taking in coffee or a meal. And almost all the food and retail options were generic national chains. Rents were too high to attract locally owned businesses that could create a sense of community and place.
I have heard, however, that it wasn’t always that way. My mother, who grew up nearby, recalls Thursday night trips to downtown Peekskill in the early 1960s. “Everyone would be out – there was everything you needed.” Photos from around that time show a range of bustling businesses: Academy Restaurant on Division, Weeks Jewelers on Main, Windsor Dress Shop on South Street, and many, many others. You can see streets packed with shoppers, particularly around the holidays.
But this started to change in the late 1960s, as the same trends that eviscerated the Rust Belt came to Peekskill’s industrial spine and longtime employers like Standard Brands downsized operations. The loss of jobs put Peekskill under strain. Local leaders responded by bulldozing hundreds of residential and commercial buildings. The idea was to root out blight. However by razing the building stock, it raised the startup costs for new businesses, making it harder for downtown to recover. The 1970s recession and the construction of strip malls to the city’s east only accelerated the demise. Consequently, by the 1980s and 1990s, when I was growing up, downtown Peekskill was a shadow of its former self.
So imagine my welcome surprise in recent years when each trip home heralded news of yet another new opening downtown. First it was the Peekskill Coffee House (est. 2003), then the Peekskill Brewery (2008), Birdsall House (2010), The Quiet Man (2011), RameNesque (2014), Taco Dive Bar (2015) and many others since. Although the seeds for this revival germinated in the 1990s when city leaders worked to redefine the city as an artist mecca, it’s now entrepreneurs making the city bloom.
I’ve seen the effects of this first-hand. When my sister married recently, instead of retreating home after the daytime festivities, we continued the party over drinks out front of The Quiet Man bar on Division near Main. Gathered on a warm September evening, the sun not yet fully set, it was a homecoming for many of us – my aunt from Seattle, cousins from Canada, myself from the city – which led to a string of serendipitous encounters as friends and neighbors passed by. Peekskill felt like a genuine community.
In these divided times, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. What if the answer to what separates us lies not in places like Washington or Albany, but in places like downtown Peekskill and our other river towns? What if part of the answer lies in those serendipitous encounters that over time contribute to a sense of familiarity and place?
If we can reclaim a greater sense of community, can we reclaim our ability to get along?
I don’t know if Peekskill’s planners and entrepreneurs thought such heady thoughts as they worked to bring about Peekskill’s revival, but I like to think that’s what they’re accomplishing. And I hope that that’s something we can all aim for as we consider the future of community life in the lower Hudson Valley and beyond.
The writer grew up near Peekskill.