Turn a corner in Kingston and you’ll find a surprise. For example, walking down Fair Street, I saw a campaign poster for Al Smith, Prohibition opponent, and 4-time governor of New York State. It was unusual because Mr. Smith died in 1944. Was this an omen? Will the Republican Party try to posthumously nominate Richard Nixon? The one thing to remember about surprises is that they come at you in two ways – good and bad.
My home region, the Hudson River Valley, was identified by National Geographic as one of the top 20 must-see places in the world, so I’ve started playing tourist in the area. With two weeks to go until Christmas, I headed up to Kingston in Ulster County, hoping to see festive street decorations, soak up a little history, and take advantage of unique shopping opportunities. I had stanzas of “Silver Bells” playing in my head.
KINGSTON: A RICH HISTORY IN THE HUDSON VALLEY
The city’s location at the intersection of the Hudson River and two creeks (the Esopus and the Rondout) made it attractive to Dutch settlers in the 1600’s and trade thrived, leading to the establishment of Kingston as New York’s first state capitol. The only folks who didn’t love it were the British who hated the locals for supporting George Washington and the revolutionaries, so they burned Kingston down in 1777. The city’s historic buildings are clustered in the Stockade District, an 8-block area in Uptown. Included is the Old Dutch Church, founded in 1659, and the Ulster County Courthouse, where abolitionist Sojourner Truth argued and won a case to free her son from slavery.
Unfortunately, on my Saturday afternoon visit, neither of the buildings was open. In fact, the streets were fairly deserted. It felt strange, considering Christmas was only two weeks away. I guess everyone had decamped for the local mall. I was disappointed that there wasn’t some festive bustle in the city’s hedgerows.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN KINGSTON
Kingston’s organized into three districts: Uptown, Midtown, and the waterfront Rondout. I wandered around each of them and saw many houses in significant disrepair. They were architecturally interesting, but it appeared that Kingston is still mired in the economic depression that struck when IBM bailed out in the 1990’s.
I popped in and out of a couple of boutiques and vintage shops, but the wares were worn and the shopkeepers were less than friendly. If you’re a music lover, though, you won’t be disappointed; Uptown features a large number of stores offering vinyl, instruments, and other related wares. Check out Blue-Byrd’s Haberdashery & Music for hats and CDs or Rhino Records offering music in different formats and a good selection of books. Here’s the weird thing, where there are music shops you’d expect to hear music, right? But there was nothing. Even a blues riff would have brightened the mood.
TIME TO EAT
When I start to get depressed, it’s time to begin eating. And, I’m happy to report, that Kingston soars when it comes to food. My first stop was the quirky Outdated: An Antique Café; it’s filled with junque for sale and battered kitchen tables with mismatched chairs. I had a warm slice of apple buckwheat cake with a piping hot cup of coffee in a chipped mug. Heaven. Other Zagat-rated restaurants in Uptown include the French bistro Le Canard Enchaine and Elephant for tapas.
There were a number of restaurants in the Rondout that smelled promising including Ship to Shore and Savona’s Trattoria. I opted for dinner at Armadillo Bar and Grill because they own the bragging rights for the best margarita in the Hudson Valley. It did not disappoint. Neither did the second one, the outstanding shrimp-stuffed jalapenos, and the friendly staff.
KINGSTON’S STREET ART
When I turned another corner and found a mural called “Pronkstilleven” by Gaia, my mood brightened and I traded the bleak image in my head of Kingston’s empty streets and storefronts with this vibrant takeaway. I don’t know what the future has in store for Kingston because I doubt there are enough refugees from Williamsburg to settle and restore another Hudson Valley town since they’re already well-established in neighboring Hudson and Beacon. If I go back, it will be to grab another meal, maybe after doing some hiking in the Catskill Mountains. By then, maybe someone will have figured out a way to turn on the music.