Kingston: A City Remade by the Coronavirus

Kingston, a small city in upstate New York, became my home four and a half years ago. Seeking space, affordability, green, and quiet, my husband and I traded Brooklyn for this city of 23,000. Unwittingly, we joined a slow-drip migration north.

Since the arrival of coronavirus, though, what had been a steadily paced increase in newcomers has become a barrage, with our adopted hometown experiencing an unprecedented and not entirely welcome real estate boom.

I was newly pregnant with twins when we purchased our house on a tree-lined block of Kingston. We were drawn to the town’s smallness, walkability, its racial diversity (in the overwhelmingly white Hudson Valley, Kingston is nearly 70 percent white, the rest an amalgam of Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous American and other non-white groups), and its natural surroundings: mountains, farms, woodlands, and the majestic Hudson River. With my husband, a chef, newly employed by the Phoenicia Diner, a popular upstate restaurant, we finally had the push to leave the city, a move I’d been impatient to make for years.

The first day we drove upstate to house hunt, I fell for an 1850 Victorian that had been sitting on the market, uninhabited, for nearly a year and a half. I ignored the dust and the rotting back deck, focusing, instead, on the 13-foot ceilings, the light pouring in despite the wintry clouds, and the many built-in closets. We made an offer immediately, and went into contract for more than $20,000 below the asking price of $339,000.

It felt like a steal: a spacious three-bedroom house for less than I’d paid for my 300-square foot, walk-up studio in Prospect Heights just four years earlier. Our daze over the ease of our purchase and the skewed prism of New York City’s outrageous housing prices had kept us from our asking — or caring — much about our new block and its makeup. It wasn’t until we moved in that we discovered and began to make sense of the fact that we’d purchased a house on one of Kingston’s most expensive lily-white streets.

We weren’t alone, either in our eagerness or our blindness. In 2016, as for many years before, homes in Kingston were cheap by New York City standards. Many of us who moved up before the 2016 election worked independently and were in the midst of starting families, and had been priced out of Brooklyn, grown tired of the city’s relentless pace, or both.

We were freelance writers and textile artists, D.J.s and furniture makers, jewelers, photographers, acupuncturists and musicians. (We were nearly all white, too.) We’d entered adulthood via the gig economy. This left many of us financially unstable, but provided the professional flexibility to live beyond daily commuting distance of the city. We felt rich in community, if not in cash.

There was more to Kingston, too: a run-down but well utilized Y.M.C.A.; a charming public library situated in the midst of one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods; a strong, minority-led social justice community; and a historically underfunded but remarkably diverse public school system.

These were facets of the city that some newcomers felt compelled to recognize and participate in, while others avoided them wholesale. Many of our transplant peers, we soon learned, sent their children to private schools in neighboring towns, reasoning that they could afford it since they were saving so much on living expenses. The cultural and economic chasm was ever-present, though rarely explicitly acknowledged.

Then, coronavirus happened.

As the news of shutdown and the instantaneous sputtering of the economy pummeled us that anxiety-soaked weekend in mid-March, many of our neighbors were immediately faced with the possibility of losing not only their livelihoods, but their homes. Some fled early on, moving in with relatives elsewhere.

Some of our peers didn’t hit the rocks until recently; having now burned through their savings, many are faced with the uncertainty of when, or whether, their careers will once again be viable. My husband, who left the Phoenicia Diner in 2018, backed out of the lease on the space where he’d been planning to open a restaurant this summer. The trips I’d booked on contract for travel publications were canceled. We both filed for unemployment.

While we’ve watched the financial stability of our peers crumble, we have seen our little city become the receiving end of a startlingly rapid exodus of people looking to escape New York City. The effect is made clear by the numbers: this spring, Kingston had become one of the top 10 ZIP codes in the country for address changes and mail forwarding since the beginning of the shutdown.

Most of us who moved a few years ago voluntarily divorced ourselves from the city’s higher salaries in order to live a slower, more affordable life. But now, with so many white collar workers geographically liberated by telecommuting, their city paychecks — and with them, increased buying power — have become movable, too.

In many neighborhoods, prices on comparable listings have more than doubled since we moved four years ago. On our block, we’ve watched two dated homes, both with postage-stamp yards, list for half a million dollars and then go into bidding wars.

A 1,500-square-foot home a few blocks from ours listed in late June at $210,000; the first offer came in from someone who drove by and bid without setting foot in the house; three days later, the house went into contract for more than $30,000 over the asking price after an all-cash battle.

The data reflects what those of us who already lived here readily feel: in a single season, the human landscape of this place has become unrecognizable.

At the same time that Kingston real estate has become a shiny lure for moneyed city folk, the suffering of those most vulnerable has become less visible and more dire. As the county seat, Kingston is the rare town in Ulster County with walkable or bus access to grocery stores, legal services, and jobs. As such, it has long had a sizable population of renters, and many who were just making ends meet before have been pushed to the brink of desperation, and face losing their homes through eviction. Kingston is facing the potential loss of people who’ve kept our community vibrantly diverse, not to mention alive and functioning.

In April, I started working as a volunteer delivering emergency food relief to needy residents, and driving to their homes has revealed more of my own city to me: carefully hidden housing projects and apartment complexes, motels where people are seeking long-term refuge, and, more and more often, rental units right next door to speculatively priced homes.

It forces me to turn the lens on myself, as I sit on my rebuilt back deck, reaping the benefits of my own move only a few years ago: did we really care about the gentrifying forces we were a part of then, or have we been so buffered by our privilege that “caring” was merely a costume we donned for visits to one of the less affluent neighborhood’s playgrounds? What I know is that the way we’ve grown to care is by virtue of our daily proximity to, and interactions with, the many human beings among whom we live, work, and raise our children.

To willfully ignore the people who live on a city’s margins is one thing, but to be unable to see those people at all is entirely another. Will our new neighbors understand the widening gap they’re contributing to? Will they care?

Which raises the question: with our city still shuttered, and with the few spaces where we could actually encounter one another closed for the foreseeable future as we pass one another, masked and silent in the streets, how will we come into relationship with these newcomers, and they with us? How do we find cohesion when we’ve been turned inside out? What does it mean to be a city so quickly remade?