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'All-American City' Slid Into Drugs and Crime

March 11, 1990|JOEL STASHENKO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEWBURGH, N. Y. — Police lurking on Newburgh's East End watch three men selling crack cocaine in a couple of quick deals.

"There's no business like drug business!" one of the dealers sings out.

The cops move in and bust all three.

That is Newburgh in 1990, a city of 25,000 on the Hudson River. Just 50 miles north of New York City, its reputation, in relation to its size, is worse.

The Newburgh of Donald Presutti's youth was so safe, so prosperous, so clean that in 1952 Look magazine called it an "All-American city."

The Newburgh of Donald Presutti's adulthood, the one he administers as mayor, is an urban battleground. Residents are trying to reclaim their streets from the pushers, addicts and criminals who have made their city's name a dirty word in the Northeast.

"The fight for freedom on the American soil is being fought in Newburgh and on the streets of cities like Newburgh," Presutti says. "If we lose this war, society as we know it today will no longer exist. What you'll end up with is, possibly, what old Rome was like--with all the villas and cities walled and armed guards everywhere."

Presutti doesn't think he is overstating the dangers, and neither do other city and civic leaders. What has happened to Newburgh is happening all over America, just not to such an extraordinary degree, they say.

"Our commitment to the 'war on drugs' is so great that we have unarmed John Q. Citizens out on the street trying to intimidate drug users and dealers," Presutti says. "This is the first war, other than the Revolution and the Civil War, that's being fought on the street."

Slightly more than 9,000 crimes were reported to police in Newburgh in 1988, the last full year for which statistics were available. Newburgh's crime rate, 139.5 crimes per 1,000 population, was more than twice the statewide average and approached those of cities the FBI considers the most crime-ridden areas.

For a community in New York, however, the crime index that has always mattered most has been how it compared to New York City.

Newburgh has a higher murder rate than New York City and higher rates of rape, burglary, robbery, aggravated assault and theft, data from the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services show.

A special police team formed in 1985 was supposed to deal with burglary, robbery and prostitution in Newburgh. Now, 90% of its work is drug-related. Its members make eight to 10 felony drug arrests each week.

People who are old enough to remember agree that Newburgh began its slide in the 1960s, when manufacturers facing foreign competition began to scale back operations at aging local factories. Newburgh was once a thriving textile and garment center, once a busy bottler of beverages and maker of furniture.

The bottom fell out in the 1970s.

"I would say that Newburgh in a lot of ways epitomized the problems that the entire Northeast experienced," said Chris Dunleavy, executive director of the Orange County, N. Y., Chamber of Commerce. "The manufacturing base moved off to the South and offshore. Many workers who had moved in from the South, from Puerto Rico and Latin America --people who were basically unskilled--remained."

The median household income here is $10,923--the figure is $18,012 for the county as a whole. Unemployment here runs about 8%; the average rate for the state is 5%.

Newburgh, on the Hudson River, was once an ideal location from which factories could distribute their goods. The city also benefited from being at the juncture of two interstate highways, the north-south New York State Thruway and east-west Interstate 84.

Now, police say, the city is a crossroads of drug traffic among New York City, Upstate New York and New England. Authorities say that local dealers are connected with cocaine-distribution networks based as far away as Miami.

Many have set up business in Newburgh to escape the cutthroat life of trading in New York City. Police say that their customers range from Newburgh's own poor to affluent businessmen and college students.

People also come from as far away as Albany and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to buy cocaine in Newburgh, according Newburgh Police Capt. Santo Centamore said.

State Social Services Commissioner Cesar Perales said after a recent tour of Newburgh that the most blighted parts of the city resemble the notorious slums of New York City's South Bronx.

A group called the Newburgh Drug and Alcohol Task Force has tried for a year to mount a grass-roots campaign against drugs.

The members have staged rallies on Lander Street and at other drug haunts, picketing and chanting slogans in a program of demonstrations dubbed "One Block at a Time." The group has organized rallies at schools and lobbied state officials for special anti-drug aid.

Among the most visible of these activists are Joan Shapiro, a former mayor of Newburgh, and her husband, Jerry. During the mid-1980s, while she was mayor, she regularly cruised the streets at night in search of her cocaine-addicted son (who she said later went to a treatment center and has been "clean and serene" for more than three years).

In September, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo declared Newburgh the only area outside New York City to be included in an experimental state program of stepped-up drug-law enforcement, improved treatment methods and anti-drug information campaigns.

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