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Poughkeepsie working on tattered image; Town seeks to correct decades of miscues in public policy


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.

But Patricia Barone, mother of Gina Barone, one of the victims, does not blame the city's drug and prostitution problems for her daughter's death.

"It's unfortunate that Kendall Francois had to pick Poughkeepsie to live in," said Barone, referring to the linebacker-sized suspect in whose house the victims were found. "Poughkeepsie is a lovely little city really trying to pull itself up."

Poughkeepsie has never taken offense when outsiders ridiculed its small-town, inelegant name. The city, whose name derives from a Wappinger Indian mouthful that means "reed-covered lodge by the little water place," was settled in 1687 by two Dutchmen.

By the late 19th century, Poughkeepsie, with new railroad connections, was a bustling manufacturing city. Proud city fathers like Matthew Vassar, who made his fortune as a brewer here, enhanced the city with their generosity. Vassar founded a women's college intended to rival Harvard in 1861.

The prosperity lingered until mid-century, with employers like the Smith Brothers' plant, Schatz Federal Bearings, which made the ball bearings used in military gun turrets, and Western Printing and Lithography, which printed Golden Books for children.

But the decline of American manufacturing transformed Poughkeepsie just as it transformed other river cities like Beacon, Newburgh, and Kingston. Many white working-class people left the city, said Norman Fainstein, Vassar's dean of faculty and an urban sociologist. The long-rooted black community and the newer black migrants from the South generally stayed put. Today almost a third of the city's residents are black with a small but growing number of Mexican immigrants.

Tale of three cities

Though some Poughkeepsians believe the small scale of the city makes for cordial contacts across racial lines, Barbara Jeter Jackson, one of two blacks on the eight-member legislative Common Council, is disturbed that there are so few black workers on the city's work force.

Poughkeepsie's story today is practically a tale of three cities a partly industrial south side, a still genteel north side and a patchwork downtown that is graced with isolated jewels like the Roosevelt-era post office.

A visitor to a three-block pedestrian mall on Main Street can find an anachronistic gem like Mary H. Abdoo's bridal shop, where for 47 years customers from all over the Northeast have tried on wedding dresses amid rose plush drapery and wrought-iron seats. But the Main Street pedestrian mall, where traffic was blocked off on the misguided notion that it would make shopping more convenient, is now marked by empty storefronts.

Mayor Lafuente has made a revival of Poughkeepsie's largely abandoned waterfront, with parks, shops and restaurants, the centerpiece of her restoration plans. That will require a mix of government and private funds. She also wants to reopen the Main Street pedestrian mall to traffic. She pointed out dozens of tumbledown buildings slated for renovation, including a downtown row of 20 Queen Anne-style houses and nearby storefronts that will be restored, with government financing.

Like other Poughkeepsians, Police Chief Ronald Knapp appears defensive about the city's problems. The discovery of the slain prostitutes, he said, came after his department reduced the number of murders from six in 1996 to one in 1998, with officers beginning to focus on such matters as rowdy college parties.

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