Port Jervis, N.Y.: A 19th-Century Industrial Hub Blessed With Natural Beauty
Catherine Skidmore, a registered nurse, was raised in New Jersey, vacationed as a child in Pennsylvania and lived for 10 years in Manhattan. Eventually she moved near Phoenix, but when family ties called her home, she bought a house near the intersection of all three of her formative states, in the historic river city of Port Jervis, N.Y.
Ms. Skidmore, 45, chose “P.J.,” she said, using a common nickname for this community of 8,800, because it is just over the bridge from Matamoras, Pa., where her mother and aunt live. She found a 1,500-square-foot Victorian on Erie Street that dates to the turn of the 20th century and has a rocking-chair porch and a nice backyard. The price was $156,000.
Museum of History
Erie Railroad Roundhouse
Fox N Hare Brewing Co.
Port Jervis station
Her house is close to the Delaware River, where she likes to tube. “And the downtown revitalization is terrific,” she said.
After decades of drubbings from an assortment of socioeconomic ills — the evaporation of industries and jobs; a misguided urban renewal program that razed dozens of historic buildings; the flight of businesses and consumers to lower-tax Pennsylvania; and the tyranny of the great recession — Port Jervis is finding its feet.
“The market is off the charts,” said Paul Hamilton, the owner of Orange West Realty, which is based in the city. “When we list, we’ll have an accepted offer in a week or two. That’s not just with me, but everybody.”
Port Jervis began as a 19th-century railway-and-canal hub, but, blessed with natural beauty, it is recasting itself as a destination for lovers of the outdoors. “The goal,” states the draft of a new comprehensive municipal plan submitted for public comment this week, “is to have a thriving historic downtown within a walkable, livable city that benefits from the combined aspects of the commercial and the natural world to the benefit of all.”
Crime and drugs have plagued the city in recent decades, but are receding to the extent that the municipal plan addresses the problem of overcoming the perception of these conditions, as much as their reality. Violent crimes and serious property crimes declined 24 percent during 2017 and 2018.
Residents give much of the credit for improvements to Kelly Decker, 51, a sixth-generation citizen, middle-school history teacher and retired police officer who became the mayor six years ago when Port Jervis was on the verge of bankruptcy. (Less than 1 percent fund balance was left in the general account.)
Mr. Decker — who, not coincidentally, shares a name with the 1793 Fort Decker, the oldest building in Port Jervis and home of the Minisink Valley Historical Society — recalled the place of his youth “as a booming town” that could boom once again with the help of fresh development strategies.
On his watch, hip businesses like the Fox N Hare Brewing Co. have come to the spruced-up Front Street, with its pedestrian promenade. A six-story boutique hotel with a rooftop bar is planned to break ground nearby next month. Forty-eight miles of hiking and biking trails were added to the 2,000-acre watershed area and Elks-Brox Memorial Park to the north, and the East Coast’s largest pump track opened for bicyclists in May at the 40-acre Riverside Park on the Delaware.
Last summer, Orange County Community College opened the satellite Sarfatti Education Center, offering classes in a renovated building on Pike Street. Long-term efforts are underway to build a white-water kayak park on the Delaware and a railroad museum at the Erie Turntable, a still-operating vestige of Port Jervis’s industrial past.
When Mr. Decker became mayor, 82 percent of the city’s population rented their homes, usually in single-family houses that had been subdivided. The City Council rewrote the code to stipulate that any multifamily buildings vacant for more than 180 days revert automatically to single-family status, reducing the neglect created by absentee landlords. The percentage of renters has dropped to 63, Mr. Decker said. His goal is 30 percent.
Their ranks will soon include Corey R. Taylor, a self-described aspiring writer of psychological thrillers. Mr. Taylor, 31, was raised in Cuddebackville, N.Y., a hamlet in the neighboring town of Deerpark. He recently signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment in a renovated circa-1900 two-family residence on Owen Street, for $1,200 a month.
Mr. Taylor described Port Jervis as “a typical small town, where everybody knows everybody’s business,” yet always offers support at critical moments, particularly tragic ones. “When somebody is going through the worst time of their life and sees the whole town show up for them, it gives them hope,” he said.
Some longtime residents who cherish the values Mr. Taylor described insist that bringing in outsiders is not the solution to an economic slump. Several members of a private Facebook group recently voiced concern about urbanites disrupting the intimacy and tranquillity of their way of life.
Their objections are not being heeded.
“We definitely see a younger group of people that I’ve never seen before, and I grew up in Port Jervis,” said Paula J. Meloi, a local real estate agent, referring to newcomers, including those snapping up weekend homes. “We are probably the best buy in Orange County, even though we’re a little farther out.”
What You’ll Find
Port Jervis is about 70 miles northwest of New York City and 60 miles east of Scranton, Pa. Its 2.5 square miles are bordered to the south by the convergence of the Delaware and Neversink Rivers and turn hilly to the north and east.
Residents have access to multiple parks, playgrounds and even a public beach. The 34-acre Laurel Grove Cemetery, which officially dates to 1856, has walking paths that are part of the Delaware River Heritage Trail. At the tip is the Tri-States Monument, marking the spot where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet.
As of 2015, Port Jervis had 3,984 total housing units, 60 percent of which were built before 1940 and 75 percent before 1960.
“It’s an older city with older homes,” Ms. Meloi said, noting that Victorians are common and fly off the market if they have fireplaces, stained glass and fine woodwork.
Neighborhoods include the West End (once called Germantown), a residential stretch along the Delaware, where Ms. Skidmore lives. Southwest of the train tracks is the Acre, which was known as Bully’s Acre in the 19th century when it was predominantly Irish. Low-priced rentals here are popular with residents who work at Kolmar Laboratories, which manufactures beauty products.
Port Jervis has a 1903 Carnegie library with a permanent exhibition devoted to the writer Stephen Crane, who lived in the town as a child and returned in later years to visit relatives. There is also a weekly farmers’ market from June through October; an annual Fireman’s Day Parade that marked its 169th edition on July 13; and what is claimed to be the largest soapbox derby in the world.
What You’ll Pay
As of July 21, the median sales price of a single-family home was $109,000, a year-over-year increase of 28 percent and a two-year increase of 63 percent, said Mr. Hamilton, of Orange West Realty. Outside investors flipping properties, he said, have contributed to the sharply rising number of sales: 103 single-family houses changed hands from late July 2018 to late July 2019, compared with 87 during the prior 12 months, and 77 the year before that.
The 65 listings drawn from multiple sources on Redfin’s website, as of July 22, included, on the high end, an 1880 four-unit building a block from East Main Street, priced at $324,000, with taxes of $12,081. On the low end was a 1920 house with three bedrooms at the edge of Elks-Brox Memorial Park, priced at $93,500, with taxes of $2,500.
Riverside Creamery, a white-clapboard house with pink shutters at 5 Water Street, is the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. The shop, which offers deep-fried ice cream among its five menu pages of treats, opened in 1999 on the site of a long-vacant 1950s ice-cream parlor. The original interiors were recreated, down to the original soda fountain.
Some patrons remain from that bygone decade, while others are day tourists dropping by for a sugar jolt after kayaking or biking. In the picnic area along the river, a sign on the wrought-iron fence says, “The Fence It’s Old! Please Do Not Throw Rocks!! Rocks Don’t Grow Naturally.”
The Port Jervis City School District extends to the town of Deerpark and two towns in Sullivan County in New York, and includes about 2,500 students in two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. The 2017-18 student population was 69 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic or Latino, 8 percent black or African-American and 2 percent Asian.
Mike Rydell, the superintendent since last July, has increased after-school and summer programs to “engage students and enrich learning,” he said. A former science teacher, he has also led the integration of hands-on STEAM projects into traditional English and math curriculums.
Anna S. Kuhl Elementary School enrolls about 900 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. On 2017-18 state tests, 35 percent were proficient in English versus 46 percent statewide; 44 percent were proficient in math versus 48 percent statewide.
Hamilton-Bicentennial Elementary School, in Cuddebackville, enrolls about 400 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. On 2017-18 state tests, 47 percent were proficient in English versus 46 percent statewide; 43 percent were proficient in math versus 48 percent statewide.
Port Jervis Middle School enrolls about 400 students in seventh and eighth grades. On 2017-18 state tests, 31 percent were proficient in English versus 44 percent statewide; 23 percent were proficient in math versus 37 percent statewide. Mr. Rydell has formed a facilities review committee with the aim of upgrading or replacing the aging building, a longtime community goal.
Port Jervis High School enrolls about 750 students in ninth through 12th grade. The average 2018 SAT scores were 538 in reading and writing and 515 in math, versus 534 in both subjects statewide.
Interstate 84, just south of the city, is the main route to New York City. Driving time to Midtown Manhattan is between 90 minutes and two hours, depending on traffic. Metro-North’s Port Jervis Line originates downtown and runs eastbound trains 12 times a day on weekdays. Travel time to Pennsylvania Station, with a transfer at Secaucus Junction, in New Jersey, averages 146 minutes and costs $23.25 each way. Stewart International Airport, in New Windsor, N.Y., is 45 minutes by car northwest.
Named in 1827 for John B. Jervis, the chief engineer of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, a waterway used for shipping Pennsylvania coal to New York City, Port Jervis was incorporated as a village in 1853 within the town of Deerpark and became an independent city in 1907.
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Published at Wed, 24 Jul 2019 09:01:38 +0000