About a mile from the Vassar campus, an abandoned underwear factory stands as the centerpiece of the planned rebirth of a Poughkeepsie neighborhood. And while doubters may contend it’s difficult, given the current economic climate, to breathe new life into blighted regions of our cities, Elizabeth Celaya ’02 welcomes the challenge.
As director of organizational development for the not-for-profit agency Hudson River Housing, Celaya and her colleagues have been accomplishing small miracles along a portion of Poughkeepsie’s Main Street for the past four years. The agency’s “Middle Main” project has transformed several neighborhoods, luring artists, chefs, environmental groups, and others into a once undesirable part of town. Celaya says the project has enjoyed a series of small successes. And while many of the agency’s goals have yet to be reached, city officials and the residents of the area have been encouraged by what they’ve seen so far.
“We started planning the project in 2008, and then the recession hit in 2009 and a lot of our funding dried up,” Celaya says. “A lot of people, even some inside the agency, said they doubted Middle Main was doable, but we ignored them and forged ahead. That was our motivation—so many people believing it couldn’t be done.”
The blueprint for Middle Main was, well, not much of a blueprint at all. It emerged over time, as Celaya and others gathered input at community forums, organized neighborhood cleanup campaigns, and investigated options for government funding. “It was a meandering, ‘learn-by-doing’ project. We never unveiled an artist’s rendering of what it would look like,” Celaya says. “As time went on, we began to see a coalition of artists, foodies, environmental groups, and local residents coming together. There was a merging of energy that was amazing.”
Celaya’s next challenge will be transforming the former Poughkeepsie underwear factory into living space on its top floor and restaurants, shops, and artists’ studios on the first and second floors. And in some ways, she notes, public funds are easier to secure for such multi-use ventures. “The county and city governments have been very supportive, and over the past few years, the state and federal governments have been looking more and more at funding multi-dimensional projects,” Celaya says.
Hudson River Housing is also receiving support from non-government sources, such as Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an environmental group founded by folk singer Pete Seeger, and from Celaya’s alma mater. “Clearwater gave us funds for a community garden and some ‘green’ building materials, and the support we’ve received from Vassar has been amazing,” she says. “Buildings and Grounds even sends over some shovels and rakes every time we have a community cleanup.”
Vassar students regularly enroll as interns at Hudson River Housing through the college’s Field Work Program, and professors often assign students to help the agency analyze and evaluate its work. During the current semester, Associate Professor of Geography Mary Ann Cunningham is having one of her classes assess the sustainability of Middle Main and other urban renewal projects, while sociology professor Leonard Nevarez is having a class conduct resident surveys in Middle Main neighborhoods.
Cunningham says the work her class is doing for Hudson River Housing is also benefiting the students themselves. “Getting students involved in locally relevant projects makes them take the work more seriously, because it’s real,” she says, “and it makes the project more important and, thus, more interesting. And, of course, I learn a lot about the area through these projects.”
Celaya was born in Poughkeepsie and grew up about 15 miles from the city. She began her college career at the University of Rochester before transferring to Vassar at the start of her junior year. She majored in Latin American Studies and did field work in Poughkeepsie at a women’s shelter. That experience convinced her she should stay in the Poughkeepsie area, and about a year after she graduated, she landed a job at Hudson River Housing.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, but I know now,” she says.
She expects the Middle Main project to keep her busy for years to come. “In some ways, we’ve accomplished a lot, and in other ways, we’re just getting started,” she says. “It’s a process that will take a decade or more, and it’s work I love doing.”