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Why Poughkeepsie—Yes, Poughkeepsie—Is the City of the Future

I'm from a town called Poughkeepsie. That's Po-KIP-see, if you please; rhymes with tipsy and gypsy. Forgive me if I sound a bit defensive. Poughkeepsie, New York, you see, has a reputation for being a particularly awful little place.

It wasn't always so. Poughkeepsie was once a busy port on the Hudson River, and its residents made a good living shipping beer and factory goods downstream to Manhattan. But that was well over a century ago. When river shipping went out of style, so did Poughkeepsie, and its core decayed. Despite periodic attempts at revitalization -- a pedestrian mall, a waterfront makeover, outdoor murals -- the town settled into a stubborn slump, its center marked with empty-eyed brick buildings and quiet streets.

Poughkeepsie became a kind of inverse suburb, a place with all the disadvantages of both the city and the country. Crime was high, and there was nothing to do. Gene Hackman made the town a punch line with his "Pickin' your feet in Poughkeepsie" rant in The French Connection, and it was still a joke years later when Ally McBeal lawyer John Cage stopped his bouts of stuttering by yelling "Poughkeepsie!" In the movie Sex and the City, Charlotte was reported to have "Poughkeepsie'd in her pants."

Maybe you can see why we natives feel a little defensive.

Defensive or no, a lot of us quietly agree with the consensus. I know that as a teenager, I did: I thought Poughkeepsie was boring and ugly, with its gray skies, low hills, and flat, gray river. I left as soon as I could, heading to college in Oregon and then settling in the Southwest, where I fell for the sunshine and the topography. I returned to Poughkeepsie to visit friends and family, but never seriously considered a longer stay. As a fellow exile once told me, "It's not hard to do better than Poughkeepsie."

A few years ago, though, I interviewed the author and social critic James Kunstler about his novel World Made by Hand, his latest portrayal of a post-peak-oil future. Kunstler, famously crotchety, had plenty of pithy complaints about suburbs, Cheez Doodles, Walmart, and the American road trip. But when I mentioned my hometown, his mood shifted. "Oh!" he said, with what sounded almost like pleasant surprise.

I laughed, assuming sarcasm, but Kunstler was perfectly serious. In a hotter, drier, less climatically stable future, he said, medium-size towns like Poughkeepsie will be just right. "We'll see people moving to places that are scaled appropriately to our energy diet," he said -- communities small enough to walk across, but big enough to pool their resources for needed infrastructure. Poughkeepsie is also close to good farmland and freshwater, he pointed out, and the Hudson might be useful for carbon-free transport too. "Towns like Poughkeepsie are at their nadir now," he conceded, "but they have a lot of virtues that are going to become apparent in the years ahead."

Virtues? This was new. Kunstler was hinting that I should pack up and head home? In all my years of reporting on the many effects of climate change, I'd never foreseen a one-way ticket to my iconically undesirable native sod.

I had to admit, though, that Kunstler had a point. My current home on the edge of the Colorado Plateau is comfortably distant from the interstate, and beautiful in a stark, desert-like way. But as the climate changes, so might my notions of livability, even beauty. Peace and quiet is appealing when one has enough fuel to escape it; the desert is beautiful when one has plenty to drink.

Late last summer, I spent a few days visiting family in Poughkeepsie. It was humid and almost blindingly green, the trees hanging low over sidewalks. Main Street looked a little livelier, with a row of Mexican grocery stores on one block and an upscale bistro on the next. The abandoned railroad bridge across the Hudson, a skeletal silhouette all through my childhood, had recently been repaired and reopened as a footpath, and it was crowded with locals enjoying its dramatic river vantage.

I took my 4-year-old daughter to the edge of Wappinger Creek, which flows into the Hudson just south of Poughkeepsie. She waded happily into the shallow water, flinging sticks into the current.

She was beautiful. Poughkeepsie wasn't. But for the first time, I imagined that it might be.

image of Michelle Nijhuis
Michelle Nijhuis writes about science and the environment for National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other publications. Her work will appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, and she is a longtime contributing editor at High Count... READ MORE >
Michelle - As someone who grew up in the tiny town of Pawling, where Poughkeepsie used to be the nearest big town -- and who returned there to help care for elderly parents, I agree with Kunstler that Poughkeepsie is a city of the future. And as praiseworthy as it is to live off the grid, Colorado is far less sustainable, as you hint at -- it is a state that lives off its ever-depleting aquifers and is nearly completely auto-oriented, which contributes to global warming more than any other source. Poughkeepsie on the other hand has abundant water (which makes it so humid and green in the summer). If police didn't have to spend so much attention to roads and highways (as they do nearly everywhere in car-centric America), they could clean up crime in the city, which has all the potential for a pedestrian- and bike-friendly lifestyle, with everything you need close by, unlike rural or suburban Colorado (or anywhere else for that matter). The pedestrian bridge over the Hudson is a nice tourist attraction but it is a tragedy to me, as an advocate of mass transit, that so much rail infrastructure is being retired, rather than being upgraded to serve as an efficient alternative to individual motorized transport. Until each and every one of us commits to reducing their dependence on driving automobiles, and living in closer proximity to each other in liveable cities, we will never halt, much less reverse global warming and the destruction of open space. It is the main reason I chose recently to move myself and my elderly parents to Portland, Oregon - a highly sustainable city from the standpoint of water, bike-friendly and a usable mass transit system.