Poughkeepsie working on tattered image

Town seeks to correct decades of miscues in public policy

February 15, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEW SERVICE

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. - Although they may laugh along when outsiders poke fun at their hometown, people here feel a deep affection for this neighborly, unpretentious Hudson River city, once home to companies as prosaically American as Smith Brothers cough drops.

That's why John Chickery, whose family has operated an office furniture store on the city's ragtag Main Street for 22 years, was annoyed on a recent trip to Las Vegas to hear a stranger say: ``You made the big time. You've got a mass murderer.''

News had evidently traveled across the continent that eight prostitutes who had vanished over the last two years were found inside a ramshackle house less than two blocks from this area's premier institution, Vassar College. And that discovery came little more than a month after a verdict wrapped up another national story that clouded Poughkeepsie's image: the racially loaded defamation trial stemming from accusations in 1988 by a black girl, Tawana Brawley, that she had been kidnapped and raped by a gang of white men, charges that a grand jury had found to be completely fictitious.

``First we're a racist town; now we're a town of mass murder,'' is the way Chickery's capsulized this city's frustration.

Long tailspin

Still, people here are sensitive to the fact that the back-to-back episodes have exposed some of Poughkeepsie's less flattering sides, the effects of the tailspin that Poughkeepsie has been in since it began losing jobs and residents in the 1950s. This once-storied place to raise a family New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, the son of an IBM security guard, grew up here has grown accustomed to violent crime, drugs, prostitution and the kind of suspiciousness that sometimes manifests as racial friction.

Even the mayor of this city of 29,000, Colette Lafuente, acknowledges that Poughkeepsie can be seen as a poster child for all the government and commercial schemes of the 1960s and 1970s that produced unintended and often damaging consequences.

Travel through the city was made easier by the building of crisscrossing highways, but the roads chopped the city into quarters and wounded some vibrant neighborhoods. The highways also made it easier for manufacturers to locate outside town, where land was cheaper. And they made it possible to shop in massive malls rising along Route 9, killing thriving downtown department and apparel stores.

With powerful patrons like Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr., the city became one of the nation's largest per-capita recipients of federal aid. But the aid was a mixed blessing. Swaths of charming 19th century houses and commercial buildings were leveled by urban renewal, replaced in some cases by ugly parking lots and bland public housing, according to a study by Harvey Flad, a Vassar professor of geography.

Meanwhile, the state was releasing thousands of patients from psychiatric hospitals, like the Hudson River Psychiatric Center here. Scores wound up homeless in downtown.

Not one supermarket

As a result of this cascade of policy debacles, Poughkeepsie has a threadbare statistical profile that is best crystallized by one fact: This city midway between Manhattan and Albany does not have a single supermarket.

The population here has declined by almost a third from a 1950 high of 41,023. Of those remaining, three of every 10 never graduated high school. The average family makes $34,706 a year and in all Poughkeepsie, only 111 families earn more than $150,000 annually. Unemployment is about 6 percent in a city that once had giant plants for printing, farm equipment and machine parts. Over the years, the city's jobless rate has hovered close to twice that of surrounding Dutchess County, said Dr. Ann Davis, an economics professor at Poughkeepsie's Marist College.

The final blow came in the early 1990s when IBM, which had practically turned the Poughkeepsie area into a company town, furloughed 7,700 workers in its three Hudson Valley plants, leaving 13,800 workers still employed. Now, the city's largest employer is the Dutchess County government.

Few people here blame Poughkeepsie for this year's unwelcome events. When Tawana Brawley told her racially fraught story 10 years ago, she was living in Wappingers Falls, a village south of Poughkeepsie. Yet Stephen Pagones, the former prosecutor who accused Ms. Brawley and three of her advisers of defaming him, brought his suit at the Dutchess County Courthouse in the city's heart. And news conferences staged here by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Brawley's two other advisers who were defendants in the case drew attention to regional race relations.

The eight slain prostitutes were found in a house just across the city border in a township that is also called Poughkeepsie. Yet, because most of the prostitutes worked a seedy stretch of the city's Main Street, the incident highlighted the city's attraction for poor urban and rural women looking for fast money or drugs.

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