Before Chris and I exited the car in the McDonald’s parking lot in Newburgh, we prepared ourselves. We both left our wallets, making sure to conceal them in the car’s central console, “in case some opportunistic crackhead walks by,” as Chris said. Chris kept his ID, in case we had to deal with cops suspicious of two out-of-town white boys strolling around the ghetto. We had already dressed down; I wore a black hoodie, jeans and Timberlands, while Chris wore jeans and a sweatshirt. I was sure to lock the car as we started on our way.
“People always tell me there’s a certain way you’re supposed to walk in like, places like this,” I said. “I never really got how to do that.”
Chris, who grew up in the Bronx (well, Riverdale) explained.
“It’s just like, acting like you’re from the place, and not getting in people’s business.”
Our plan was to walk down Broadway into the depths of Newburgh, then hook left through its center, eventually doubling back on Liberty Street. Liberty Street is notorious in the Hudson Valley. It’s the sight of innumerable gang shootings, a de facto open-air drug market so bad that the Feds kept on being called in for raids. It was also a place of great destitution, where about 40% of families lived below the poverty line.
I knew people were gonna try to sell me drugs. Although I’m not a druggie or anything, I give off some sort of definitely-not-a-cop vibe that makes people on the street offer them to me all the time. I had once been strolling around outside Penn Station for a half hour while waiting for a bus, and had been approached three times. And that was New York City.
We took a deep breath and stepped onto Broadway.
When Security Guard Richard Jewell found three pipe bombs stashed in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, he alerted everyone he could and helped clear the area. A woman was killed, but he saved dozens of lives. A few days later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned that the FBI was treating him as a potential suspect.
To the Media, Jewell fit a profile. The profile was largely based on Jimmy Wade Pearson, a former Los Angeles Police Officer who planted a bomb during the 1984 Summer Olympics, then “discovered” the device. He was hailed as a hero before being arrested a few days later.
Richard Jewell was a 33 year-old, obese, failed law enforcement agent who was living with his mother at the time of the bombing. This locked down the profile for the media. In their eyes, it was just such a person who would want to be a Law Enforcement Hero.
The Media hounded him for months, posting up outside his house 24/7, rushing him while screaming accusatory questions each time he exited the apartment. It took the FBI taking the unusual step of writing a statement officially exonerating him for the media to leave him alone.
The press had fallen into what Media Ethics folks call “narrative fidelity.” That is, they had a pre-fabricated, stereotype-ridden narrative as to how a story would unfold based on former events. And it ruined Richard Jewell’s life.
I kicked at something on the sidewalk running along Powell Street.
“Is that a hypodermic needle?”
It was, though the actual needle had been broken off. I leaned in close for a photograph.
Broadway hadn’t been too bad. It was surprisingly multi-racial, and it the view of the Hudson was nice in the late-winter sunlight. We had headed North on Powell, which bordered Mount St. Mary College.
“I don’t really know much about Mount St. Mary,” I said. I never imagined it was a very good school, just being where it is.
“Wouldn’t it be funny of the needle was from Mount St. Mary’s?” I quipped
“Yeah, it was just some college kid with diabetes?”
We laughed at the joke as we swung a right. Our pace slowing a little, we walked down to the river a couple blocks, and were on Liberty.
Chris was whining about his shins.
“I just thought we were going to drive down to Liberty, get out, and walk up and down it.”
“You can’t walk past the same place twice on Liberty! People will assume you just bought drugs.”
And jump you, the implication went.
I had heard that one of the tips of Liberty Street was gentrifying. This tip seemed to be it. Lovely Victorians squatted in the sun on either side of the brick street. It was far nicer then Broadway, which, even in the sunlight, had been dingy and liberally littered with trash.
About three blocks south, the brick street started to get eaten up with sloppy asphalt repairs. The Victorians morphed into crumbling two-story apartments, many of them abandoned. There was trash everywhere. I started scanning the ground for additional needles to photograph.
The street was mostly deserted (“are there gonna be like, corner boys? Chris had asked). It was the middle of the day. We walked through a couple clots of black dudes, but they just ignored us. My whole time in Newburgh, I never got the “what the fuck are you doin here?” glare that I had gotten in the Bronx, Philly, Hartford, Brooklyn, New Haven…
It was obviously an impoverished area, but it wasn’t really bad or anything. I never felt threatened, or even unwelcomed.
Maybe it woulda been different at 3 AM on a Saturday night. I mean, it would be. But I’ve been in plenty of areas that were straight-up sketch in the middle of the day.
Chris and I were walking up Broadway when it finally happened: someone offered to sell me drugs.
“Yo,” the dude said.
“Yeah…yeah, we’re good.”
He seemed to be only selling pot. Smelled like good stuff, too.