Nostalgia is something that we all experience. These pleasant recollections accompanied by moving emotions may affect us at random times. This was the case for me when I visited a local ninth grade classroom during a creative writing lesson plan this week. Sometimes, the feeling is so perfect I get the sense that nostalgia seeks us out. Other times, we seek out nostalgia, which is the case for a new exhibit by the Newburgh Historical Society titled, “Growing Up In Newburgh,” opening on Sunday, June 7th, between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
A Bold Idea
“What’s that?” a young woman called out as I entered Mrs. McCartney’s classroom at the Newburgh Free Academy (N.F.A.). The lights were out, desks were arranged in a semicircle and the students were facing a film playing at the front of the room. On the screen were images from an older Newburgh. Students called out questions and were curious about what flashed before their eyes. Some images they recognized, some images seemed out of place, while others looked nothing like the Newburgh they’ve grown to know. “Was that house on Grand Street?” another student called out.
I was late. Of course, it was my first day back to school in quite some time and I was late. I had neither a good excuse nor a hall pass to present to Mrs. McCartney. “I’m only a visitor,” I thought to myself as I raced through the main entrance, “here to observe.”
Violet Hulse Fairbanks, skating at Downing Park, ca. winter of 1929-1930. Photo courtesy of Deborah Lanspery.
A week and a half earlier, Christine McCartney and I met at the historic Captain David Crawford House. She was very interested in using images from the Historical Society’s new exhibit in a lesson plan for her ninth grade students. Getting her the images was easy, but there was another layer to her request that I was happy to assist with. “Wouldn’t it be nice to allow the students to interview a person from these photographs,” she said, half serious.
Back in the classroom, I found an open desk among the nearly twenty seated students. I was overcome with nostalgia the second I sat down. It was cold to the touch indicating to me that I was the first to sit in it that day. It was just after 7:45 a.m.; first period. I placed my bag on the floor beside the desk, just as I used to, and pulled out my notebook and a pen. I was surrounded by inspirational posters. There was a familiar clock on the wall by the door. I hoped for the students’ sake that it didn’t run as slow as the one I grew up with. There was a blackboard on nearly every wall. The assignment and daily aim from the previous day was still chalked on the one at the far side of the room. “Get into groups of 3,” it demanded, ”What can we learn about the history of our school from primary source documents?” It was all too familiar.
The Forty Cent Rule
“Those buildings once sat on Water Street,” answered Mark Gamma, one of the two community members presenting their experience of growing up in Newburgh. Some of the buildings featured in the film were razed during the unsuccessful urban renewal projects in the 1970s.
Gamma is the owner of the Newburgh Actors Studio, since 2008. He served as a field producer for the controversial documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which premiered on HBO in 2014. Unhappy with how Newburgh was portrayed by the filmmakers, Gamma set out to make his own documentary, interviewing members of the community who could shine a light on a side of Newburgh he described as “a great city!” On the screen above our heads was a seventeen minute rough-cut of his film, “The Lost Cities.”
Newburgh basketball players Charlie Johnson, Alan Axelrod, Bill Neely, and Bobby Scott after a game. Photo courtesy of Alan Axelrod.
The second speaker was Alan Axelrod, a retired attorney who has lived in Newburgh most of his life. He joined Gamma in answering questions about the images from the film, pointing out buildings and some of the people he once knew.
Axelrod graduated in the Class of 1964. He humorously described himself as “a fat old bald guy, but I wasn’t then. Believe it or not, I did play basketball.” We all shared a laugh. He shared his fond memory of playing “ball” at N.F.A. The students were particularly interested in that story. One of the images that Axelrod allowed me to provide for the lesson plan was of him and fellow players, Charlie Johnson, Bill Neely, and Bobby Scott, taken in the winter of 1963 after a home game. Soon after, it was featured in the sports section of the Newburgh News. It’s been nearly 52 years since Axelrod posed for that photograph and the image still resonated with the students.
Axelrod went on to tell stories about growing up with the famed author, James Patterson. “We called him Jimmy then.” He mentioned that “everyone came to Newburgh to shop.” You could purchase anything in the shops along Broadway and Water Street. Axelrod and Gamma mentioned the great Newburgh roller rink, the Avalon. Then there was “Sam the Bookie” who posed as “Sam the Barber.”
The students seemed to enjoy listening to the two men describe their past. They engaged the speakers. Some raised their hands while others called out. I have to admit that I enjoyed every moment. Mrs. McCartney reminded her students to continue taking notes, “If I am writing, then you should be as well.” Although I was not her student, her words, like the classroom, were too familiar. I had to reminded myself, “she isn’t referring to you.”
Palatine Hotel opened it's door on July 6, 1893 and was claimed by its promoters as the most fabulous hostelry to hit the entire Hudson Valley.
One person interviewed in the film told the story of the luxurious Palatine Hotel that once stood on Grand Street. He held up a paper children’s menu. On the reverse side was a illustration of a clown that could easily be turned into a mask. Commotion started among the students as the camera revealed the low prices for full meals. “Sixty-five cents!” a student shouted in disbelief.
This reminded Axelrod of another memory. “Forty cents is something I think about. Lunch here at N.F.A was forty cents.” Sometimes he wouldn’t stay for lunch. He and his friends would venture out to Pete’s Hot Dogs. According to Axelrod, “a hot dog cost fifteen cents and it was ten cents for a flavored ice.” His friend, Bill Neely, always had a dollar and to his disbelief Axelrod witnessed him eat “six hot dogs and an ice” on more than one occasion.
“When my parents could scrounge up enough money for us,” referring to his brother, Carl, and himself, “we’d have forty cents to go to the movies.” It was an outing for the two young brothers. They promised their mother they would take the bus, but according to Axelrod, they usually didn’t. He had good reason not to. “It was twenty cents to watch a double-feature at any of the movie theaters” and it cost ten cents one way each on the bus. If they took the bus round trip, then there wouldn’t be any money left for admission. So they walked, saved money and had twenty cents more to spend at the concession stand. As an adult, Axelrod finally confessed to his mother. His conscience is now clear.
It was mostly positive memories, but many of us couldn’t help but to make a comparison of Newburgh, then and now. Newburgh is not the same city that Axelrod or Gamma experienced. The idea that reports about Newburgh are mostly negative is something Mark Gamma would agree with. “Most documentaries have been negative towards Newburgh,” he said to the class, “and that is why we made this documentary.”
Coldwell Lawn Mower Co. factory on Newburgh waterfront, which later becomes Regal Bag after 1947. Collection of Newburgh Historical Society, Newburgh, NY
When Alan Axelrod was growing up, “we all had jobs when we were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen.” There were a lot of factories in Newburgh, he said. He remembers working at a pocketbook factory on the other side of the city. His two sons worked at Regal Bag, another pocket book factory located on the waterfront. “The lack of jobs is why Newburgh is what it is today,” he claimed. “Now it’s more difficult for young people to find jobs during the summer.”
During a second session with a different group of nearly twenty students, Gamma was asked, “Why do you study Newburgh?” It was a bold question to ask considering Gamma gave his time to be there that morning and allow an early viewing of his film, but I thought it was fair. As Gamma pointed out to the previous group, there have been many reports about Newburgh with a negative lean and I imagine he gets this question a lot when he discusses his project.
He was quick to answer, “because it is one of the most beautiful and historic cities.” A city that he calls home.
Alan Axelrod, Christine McCartney, and Mark Gamma.
Judy Kennedy, the mayor of the City of Newburgh, is featured in Gamma’s film. Her interview looked as if it was done in a casual setting. She looked to be dressed plainly and her comments seemed candid and unrehearsed. One comment caught my attention and probably best explained the audacity by Mark Gamma in creating his film. It explained why Alan Axelrod took time out of his day to speak with the students. It explained what drove their teacher, Christine McCartney, to put together her lesson plan. Kennedy said, “I’ve never been in a city where the people were so passionate about their city.”
An important and near final question posed that day to Alan Axelrod was, “what has changed between then and now?” His answer was, “we are very similar.” He said he saw this in his grandchildren and students in the classroom. Some may hope that what Axelrod saw was the passion mentioned by Mayor Kennedy in Gamma’s film, one that may stem from the learned lesson of nostalgia.
Join members of the Newburgh Historical Society for the opening of a new exhibit,“Growing Up In Newburgh,” at the historic Captain David Crawford House on June 7th. A reception will take place between 1:00 p.m and 4:00 p.m. and all are invited to share in the nostalgia. This is a community exhibit featuring a variety of photographs showing families at Downing Park, during parades, socializing downtown and many others. All the images included have been donated by a supportive community and have never before been featured in a Newburgh Historical Society exhibit. Sixteen members of the community have contributed over 120 images captured from the late 19th century through the 20th century. One unique item provided is a 1960s film of a family ice skating on the frozen pond, known locally as the “Polly,” at Newburgh’s Downing Park. Refreshments will be provided. Admission is $5 per person. For more information please call (845) 561-2585 or visit our website at http://www.newburghhistoricalsociety.com/.
Top photo of Alan Axelrod, Mark Gamma, and Christine McCarthy addressing the students during a creative writing lesson plan about growning up in Newburgh.