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Field Notes: December 2010 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Field Notes: December 2010

Perspectives from around Habitat's world

Renewing Newburgh

A Habitat affiliate in New York’s Hudson Valley highlights its work with a well-received concert headlined by the legendary Pete Seeger.
By Shala Carlson

 

 

 

Habitat Greater Newburgh seeks to acquire abandoned, deteriorating properties like the ones above. The affiliate either demolishes them and builds new houses in their place or rehabilitates them, turning them into sturdy and affordable housing like the ones below. Photo by Hilary Duffy

 

 

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On a hot Saturday afternoon, the sun sparkles on the Hudson River. Across the ever-changing expanse of water and light, forested hills climb from the riverbank then roll up to the sparsely clouded sky. Here and there, rooftops and a tall steeple peek above the trees, creating the dim outline of a neighboring town.

Facing this view, quartered in a sturdy house of gray fieldstone, General George Washington rallied his troops during the last years of the American Revolutionary War. On this day in the summer of 2010, a different kind of national hero is here to inspire a different sort of troop. Folk icon and area resident Pete Seeger — along with a slate of performers that includes his grandson Tao and various musician friends of theirs — is headlining “If I Had a Hammer: Concert for a House,” an afternoon performance benefiting Habitat for Humanity Greater Newburgh.

From this spot, first settled in the 1700s, Washington and his men ultimately prevailed in their fight. Today, with all that history in between, the same sun shines on the idea that, with leadership and support, a modern-day infantry of a different order can advance the cause of affordable housing and community revitalization.

Nearly 1,300 Habitat supporters, volunteers and Seeger fans sit on the sloping lawn of Washington’s Headquarters, singing along to familiar favorites and celebrating all that Habitat Greater Newburgh has accomplished against significant odds. But the day is also a call to action, a reminder of just how much work remains to be done in this struggling but committed community.

In 1952, Look magazine named Newburgh, N.Y., an “all-American city.” Today, Newburgh is an all-too-American story — a factory town without factories, its staggering unemployment rate and high-school dropout rate jockeying for numerical primacy. The two census tracts that make up the city’s east end were ranked in the 2000 census as the fourth most distressed urban area in the United States. As businesses and residents have relocated elsewhere through the years, troubles have moved in. For a town whose population falls just under 30,000, this city 60 miles north of Manhattan must stubbornly weather a storm of surprising challenges: an active drug trade, the presence of national gangs, streets of boarded-up or burned-out buildings and houses.

From the midst of this blight, overcrowding and atrophy, Habitat Greater Newburgh has begun slowly and steadily reclaiming territory, using an approach that aims to lift up whole streets and sections of town. The affiliate began in 1999 by acquiring and renovating three houses. It has proceeded to do the same with dozens of decaying and abandoned structures, rehabilitating them when they are structurally sound and, when they are not salvageable, demolishing them and replacing them with new construction. Areas of activity are clustered together, as bright new Habitat rowhouses and single-family structures spark a sense of renewal, an undeniable feeling that — with enough financial and moral support — Newburgh can revitalize.

Outgoing executive director Deirdre Glenn grew up here. Her path wound through Pittsburgh and Dublin, Ireland, before eventually returning her to a very changed town. In 1999, coming home to stay, she no longer recognized the streets where she had ridden her bike as a young girl. “This neighborhood was so depressing and, at times, even frightening,” she recalls. “The house next door had so many people living in it, you didn’t know who they were. The house on the corner, the beautiful blue house on the corner, was abandoned, not properly boarded up. Kids were breaking in, doing drugs. Mattresses piled up all through the house and so on.”

Then, one morning, Glenn noticed a different kind of activity. “Early each Saturday morning, numbers of people arrived in the neighborhood and set to work on a few houses,” she says. Curious, she wandered over and discovered Habitat Greater Newburgh.“I got very involved as a volunteer. You couldn’t help but get involved. Because people were doing something, and it felt good to be doing something.” Two Habitat houses were built in short order, on opposite corners of the same block.

And then a minor miracle began to fill the spaces in between — young couples looking to own began buying houses on the block and redoing them, finding encouragement in the efforts of the Habitat volunteers. One couple, Glenn recalls, fell through the floor of the house they were considering buying. But just next door, Habitat volunteers were hard at work and seeing their successes convinced the couple to take a chance. House by house, things began to get better.

“Now we have this wonderful neighborhood,” Glenn says. “It’s been a total change.”

Habitat homeowner Pedro Cruz has seen the same kind of change over on Hasbrouck Street as well. He is one of two Habitat partner families on the street and says the difference is already beginning to show. The new Habitat construction has replaced a building that was falling apart, and the same seeds of change from Glenn’s neighborhood are taking root here. “The street is improving,” he says. “You see a lot of people now that are putting up siding, doing something to their houses. That’s one way to put a good neighborhood together.”

The change has been no less significant for his family. Cruz, his wife Juana and their five children lived in a small apartment until this past summer when their Habitat house was completed. In the apartment, Cruz’s three daughters and two sons — from 9 months to age 13 — would sleep together in one room. In the new house, there’s room to grow. “The girl in the middle, she was kinda scared in the beginning,” he says. “Now that she has her own room, she has a lot of space for herself, but it’s scary.”

When the family first moved in, before they had beds in place, Cruz would carefully tuck her in for the night in the middle of the room. “The next morning,” he laughs, “I would find her always in the corner. She’s got all kinds of space, but she was used to crowding into the room, and so she always likes to sleep in one corner. But she’s getting used to it.

“It’s a big change for us,” he adds. “But it’s something you have, and nobody is going to take it. There’s a joy in that, that you have in your heart.”

Cruz, who works at a local concrete plant, continues to regularly volunteer on Habitat projects and helped on the day of the Seeger concert. He volunteers, he says, because there aren’t enough words to say thank you for the house he helped build and the community he’s helping to change. “Too much has been done. It’s the least I can do.”

The Newburgh affiliate has plans to do even more, adding to its roster of 43 houses built or rehabilitated and the nearly $8.3 million they have added Habitat Greater Newburgh seeks to acquire abandoned, deteriorating properties like the ones below. The affiliate either demolishes them and builds new houses in their place or rehabilitates them, turning them into sturdy and affordable housing. to local tax rolls. The affiliate currently has 10 projects under way. Just on the same street as the Habitat office — a lovingly restored 1850s building itself — staffers point to at least three properties they would love to acquire: a burned-out shell of a house sitting next to a historic church, a dilapidated and abandoned wooden structure that’s collapsing in on itself, and a short run of rowhouses that are boarded up but still appear partially inhabited. And there are so many more in this historic town.

As Glenn retires and a new executive director takes the helm this year, Habitat Greater Newburgh enjoys a devoted volunteer base and steady partnerships with area churches, local unions, and regional and local development and government groups. A popular ReStore contributes significantly to the affiliate’s coffers. But it’s impossible to walk the streets here and not be struck by how much more there is to do. According to current city data, nearly 1,800 Newburgh families are eligible to apply for a Habitat house. As part of its answer to all of this, Habitat Greater Newburgh is participating in the initial phase of Habitat for Humanity International’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, an effort focused on improving housing conditions while partnering with other community organizations to provide services to enhance the quality of life across struggling neighborhoods.

Another part of Habitat Greater Newburgh’s answer is the Seeger-headlined Concert for a House. The show is a success, raising more than $30,000. But perhaps its biggest triumph is the attention and goodwill it generates in the community. Volunteers, partner families and local residents sit side by side, singing songs and enjoying what is fundamentally one extended family picnic. These city blocks have seen more than their fair share of abandonment, but not today. “Today,” one supporter tells Glenn, “Habitat repopulated downtown Newburgh.”

It’s a July holiday weekend so the day after the benefit concert, Glenn and her neighbors on Bay View Terrace host a porch party. A young boy navigates the sidewalk on a tricycle, his sister patiently pushing him along. People move from house to house, greeting friends like family and visitors like honored guests.

Tonight, the residents of this neighborhood that almost was no more will crowd together on brick steps and roomy verandas and the green lawns that stretch down toward the river and watch as fire lights the sky. It’s a fire that Habitat helps keep alive in this Hudson Valley town.

 

   


If I Had a Hammer Now in Paperback

New content added to stories of Habitat’s work

Habitat World first shared the news of author David Rubel’s compelling book If I Had a Hammer: Stories of Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity in our September 2009 issue.

Written with young readers in mind, the book shares inspiring stories of Habitat homeowners around the world as well as those of the volunteers who build alongside them.

This summer, Candlewick Press published a paperback edition of If I Had a Hammer, now available through booksellers and the online store of habitat.org. An additional chapter offers an account of the building of a neighborhood in Thailand during the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

The new stories join previous tales of Habitat’s work over a quarter-century, all illustrated with color photos and introduced by a foreword written by one of Habitat’s most devoted volunteers, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

More information
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Keep Habitat With You All Year


If you’ve enjoyed the range of photos in this special-year end issue of Habitat World, be sure to visit our online store and purchase an official 2011 Habitat for Humanity wall calendar.

Filled with photos and stories from around Habitat’s world, the calendar is a great reminder of the real change that your support makes possible, an excellent way to share with others what Habitat means to you — and one of many ways to show your support of Habitat all year long.

Each month includes a special link to online content where you can learn more about Habitat’s work — and what you can do to help build houses and hope every day

To order your calendar, visit the online store or call 800-422-5914 today.