By Michael Lebron
The controversy surrounding Seraphim’s mural arts program in Newburgh prompted an idea to pop into my head the other day.
Many people who come to Newburgh to fix up the city’s beautiful but distressed homes as homeowner-occupiers start out with a respect for the city’s rich architectural history. They think of themselves less as owners, more as custodians. As they dive into the restoration work, some wonder about the residents who once lived in these homes (if the walls could talk!). Unlike more famous Newburgh residents such as Downing, Olmstead or Vaux, most of these Newburghers are ordinary people who nevertheless contributed to Newburgh’s growth.
Interestingly, a few years back The Land Bank was tasked to demolish an Italianate row house at 290 Liberty Street. To commemorate the building, the Land Bank thoughtfully researched and wrote a biography about the building’s fascinating former owners and occupants. In a way, the poignant little biography belies the name of the Land Bank’s own arts program “Artist-In-Vacancy”. These buildings, regardless of current status, are not vacant: the souls and spirits of the lives once constructed there, constructed as much or more so than the buildings within which those lives resided, still inhabit them.
My wife and I set out to learn about our own building’s occupant history. We first went to the online Orange County Parcel Information, but once there found that the data doesn’t go very far back. So we called the city’s historian. Surprisingly, she said that the information is kept right in the city’s own library. You can go back at least to the 1920s.
There is a book by Howard Zinn called the “People’s History of the United States”. It tells “… America’s story in the words of America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers.” What would a People’s History of Newburgh look like?
Once it sunk in that you can do a search at the library of every building in Newburgh – building by building, block by block, including even the 1,320 “missing buildings” of Urban Renewal – an idea crossed my mind. What if everyone in Newburgh also used the library to investigate a hundred years of the occupant history of the buildings that they live in? Once the names of the building’s occupants are identified (many who will likely surprise us, hopefully for better over worse), could tools like Ancestry.com be used to provide us with a deeper understanding of these people? What if they were documented with photographs, illustrations, drawings and written stories in workshops such as Vince’s Community Photo Project, led not just by photographers, but also painters, sculptors and writers and gathered for displays in an exhibition? What if that exhibition took the form of temporary, 10-day pop-up “murals” in front of each building? Or, for those of us in the performing arts, what if these histories were dramatized and re-enacted in theatre, music or dance? What if it could then be turned into a coffee table book?
Such a project would be reminiscent of one by Newburgh’s very own Frederick Law Olmstead, when he wrote about his travels through the south in “A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States” that served as an inspiration to his later public works. Such a project would be meaningfully site-specific: it would not simply be iconographically illustrative. It would weave a fabric out of the real everyday people of Newburgh. It could give more depth and texture to our understanding of the city’s history.
With luck, it could help foster more of the mindful, intersectional conversations across Newburgh’s many diverse communities that are needed. Communities who may not communicate with each other as much as they might otherwise be inclined to, or – sadly – who may look at each other with suspicion or mistrust. Maybe some of the divisions can be vanquished by a visualization of a more common purpose.
This would necessarily be a complex undertaking that would require funding. But if the city won’t let Newburgh do its Illuminated Street Festival in September, as is rumored, this – or something like it – could be an attention-getting alternative that the business community might get behind. Who knows: maybe even Seraphim would get behind it. Developers willing to take buildings away from slumlords and make them genuinely habitable can’t be all bad: for now, they are solving a piece of the problem and could actually be our friends.
The writer created dozens of site specific art installations over a several decade career, some of which led to constitutional battles related to the 1st Amendment. One reached the Supreme Court, Lebron V Amtrak, Scalia, 8-1.