hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2018


Saving a shantytown?

In old fishing shacks, links to Hudson’s past and an unclear future


State officials have concluded that a group of 17 fishing shacks along the Hudson River are historically significant, but city officials in Hudson, N.Y., have yet to decide whether to preserve any of the structures as part of a proposal for a new waterfront park. Susan Sabino photos


Contributing writer


The future of an abandoned former fishing village on Hudson’s waterfront could be shaped in the coming months by a state decision on whether to support conversion of the area into a new city park.

But even if the state agrees to let city officials use downtown revitalization funds for preliminary work on the park project, the city has yet to decide whether to preserve or demolish the old fishing shanties that now occupy the property.

Some local people are hoping at least some of the structures will be saved, citing a previous state determination that the shanties have historical significance. But others see the rundown buildings as a blight on the city’s waterfront.

The collection of 17 fishing shacks, clustered on 2 acres along the Hudson River, is within walking distance of the restaurants and boutiques of Warren Street, the main thoroughfare of downtown Hudson. But its location at water level at the northwestern end of the city’s road network gives it a rural, isolated atmosphere.

The group of buildings, some of which are believed to date from the 19th century, is known locally by several names, including the Furgary Boat Club, the shacks, Shantytown and the North Dock Tin Boat Association.

The fishing village has a colorful history. The buildings date from an era when people regularly caught shad and sturgeon from the Hudson.

Although the fishing shanties were privately built and owned, the land under them belongs to the public. In 2012, the city forcibly evicted the last occupants of the shanties, which have been boarded up and vacant ever since.

The question now is what to do with the property.

“The Furgary shacks are not high on the radar as an issue, but people do have strong feelings about it,” said Carole Osterink, a former city alderwoman who writes a blog, “The Gossips of Rivertown” (gossipsofrivertown.blogspot.com), about news and events in Hudson.
“Some are passionate about preserving it, and others want it to be bulldozed over immediately,” Osterink said.


Link to an earlier era
Osterink has done her own historical research about the site and is involved in efforts to preserve the fishing village in some form.

The 17 shacks stand along two old roads on the North Bay of the Hudson River, just beyond the intersection of North Front and Dock streets. The buildings are just across a narrow inlet from railroad tracks that carry a daily fleet of high-speed Amtrak trains from New York City to Albany and beyond.

The land is now owned by the city. Time and neglect have taken their toll on the structures: Some are on the verge of collapsing, though many others appear to be in salvageable condition.

Around Hudson, some believe the shanties are important as a last vestige of a bygone way of life that was once prevalent along the river. Others see the structures as little more than a dangerous eyesore.

“The shacks are a strangely polarizing subject in Hudson,” said William Shannon, a writer and local native who writes a blog, “Hudson River Zeitgeist,” and is the author of a book of the same name.

Shannon wrote an article about the shacks that The New York Times published last year.
“It’s a very meaningful place with a lot of stories associated with it, but people perceive it in individual ways,” he said. “When you look at it today, you either see that or you don’t.”
Among those who’ve lived in and around Hudson for more than a few years, one factor in people’s attitudes toward the fishing shacks is what different factions of the community thought about the village when it was still active. Some people consider it a part of Hudson’s history that is best forgotten, while others have a more favorable opinion or even fond personal memories of times spent at the waterfront encampment.

There appears to be general agreement, however, that the site needs to be cleaned up from its current condition.

Last year, the city won a $10 million grant from the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, a signature program of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and city officials have since proposed earmarking $191,000 from that grant to prepare the Furgary site for conversion to a city park.

The city’s description says the proposed funding for the fishing village would support “site cleanup, remediation, design services and site prep” for the new park. But the document doesn’t specify whether any of the shacks would be preserved and, if so, which ones. That would be determined in the planning stages for the park.

The overall $10 million in state funding will support a variety of projects to encourage economic development, private investment, public services, community needs, and physical improvements to the downtown and waterfront area.

Officials of the state program have been reviewing the proposed projects and are expected to announce shortly which specific projects are approved for funding.


Fish market to ‘man caves’
Although the fishing village was once a center of activity, at least during the warmer months, the site today has the mysterious quality of a ruin.

Advocates who’ve researched the issue say the shacks were built individually over time, beginning around the 1880s. The exact ownership of the land was ambiguous, and the shacks were built without meeting the modern requirements for real-estate transactions. The individual buildings were either passed down through families or bought and sold.

The buildings are of varying styles and eras, but all were very basic, inexpensive structures. Most of the owners had modest incomes and built the shacks from salvaged material.

“They were constructed and maintained in very ingenuous ways,” Osterink said. “People used materials from a variety of sources. One, for example, was made with a tin ceiling from a building that was demolished in Hudson.”

Although the shacks are now boarded up, peering into the interior through openings reveals evidence of the hurried departure of the occupants, with random items strewn around. In one shack, a nude pinup still hangs on the wall.

The role and reputation of this miniature community evolved over the years. Although some people may have lived in the shacks at times, the buildings primarily functioned as part-time, seasonal getaways for fishing, hunting and other recreation – and especially, in earlier decades, for fishing or netting the shad, sturgeon and other species that were once prevalent in the Hudson.

For many residents, fishing was a recreational pastime, but for others it was a supplementary or seasonal source of income. In its heyday, before concerns about PCBs and other contaminants, the area was a de facto fish market, where people from Hudson and beyond would visit to buy the catch of the fishermen.

Varying sources paint differing pictures of life at the shacks over the years.
“Some people who lived and worked nearby would stay in them with their families during vacations, because it was all they could afford,” Osterink said.

Although women and children were present at times, however, the shacks also had a reputation as a place where men escaped to fish, hunt, drink and carouse. Some have described the shacks as the equivalent of “man caves.”

The location had an inherent funkiness that was intensified by its location, because much of the city’s raw sewage ended up in the bay there before a wastewater treatment facility was built nearby.

Some say the encampment’s reputation took a darker turn after the 1970s, when the activities of some occupants there went beyond harmless fun to more dubious pursuits such as hard drug use, and the atmosphere became unwelcoming to outsiders.

But Shannon, who’s 29 and is a student of maritime life and an active kayaker, said he and his friends felt comfortable visiting the village when he was a teenager. He recalls exploring the waters and the surrounding natural land there.

“I used to spend time there as a teenager, and people were still in the shacks,” he said. “I have a lot of good memories about it.”

Disputed territory
Various plans to reclaim the site have been considered since at least the 1990s, and it was included in a city plan as a public-access site to the river.

The property is just south of the Greenport Conservation District, a 625-acre tract of preserved open space along the Hudson River that is overseen by the Columbia Land Conservancy. The site of the fishing shacks has been eyed as one segment of what conservationists envision as a corridor that would connect the Greenport district to downtown Hudson.

About a decade ago, a group of occupants of the shacks went to court in an effort to gain legal ownership to the land under their structures, based on their long-term occupancy of the site. But the court ruled against them.

At about the same time, the city and state were working to decide the ownership of land in that vicinity; they concluded the site of the fishing shacks was owned by the state.

The city and state then arranged a land swap that transferred ownership of the site to the city.
Under the administration of Mayor William Hallenbeck Jr., who was in office from 2012-15, the city made plans to demolish the fishing shacks, citing them a legal liability. The city served eviction notices to the occupants in 2012.

A group of the shacks’ residents asked to meet with city officials, and they refused to leave. Tensions rose until the shanty dwellers wound up being evicted by city police in a 3 a.m. raid.
Since then, the site has fallen into limbo, and city officials and residents have debated whether the shacks had enough historical significance to merit some form of preservation.


Historically significant
Among the proponents of preservation was Timothy O’Connor, an art curator, who conducted extensive research into the site and unearthed maps from the 1880s showing the shacks were present even then.

“These have a great deal of significance,” O’Connor said. “They were important to Hudson’s history, and many of the shacks are a link to local raw materials.”

Osterink applied to the state Historic Preservation Office to determine whether the site would be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2015, as the shacks were slated for demolition, the state office issued a statement concluding that the fishing shacks met the threshold for designation as a historic site, although the designation would depend on completion of a formal application.

Although the city has not sought such a designation, the state agency’s determination prompted city officials to reconsider the demolition.

In 2015, Hallenbeck lost his re-election bid and was succeeded by a new mayor, Tiffany Martin Hamilton, who was more sympathetic to the idea of preserving at least some of the shacks. Her family had built one of them, and she had spent time there when she was growing up.
So a cleanup of the site was included in a package of projects the city might fund with its $10 million state grant.

(Hamilton stepped down at the end of last year and was succeeded by Mayor Rick Rector. Efforts to contact Rector for this story in late April were unsuccessful.)

Regardless of whether the state’s revitalization grant helps pay for work at the site, the city has no plan yet for determining which shacks, if any, would be demolished or saved and restored.
O’Connor has been working with Leo Bower, who was a longtime member of the fishing village, to promote a plan to retain and restore at least some of the shacks.

“I’d like to see them made into small museums to honor the area’s fishing heritage and the history of there,” O’Connor said.

He suggested it would also be possible to form a nonprofit organization to preserve and manage the site.

Whatever shape it may take in the future, Osterink said she believes some elements of the fishing village’s history should be preserved.

“It’s a rare surviving bit of traditional maritime life along the Hudson,” she said. “It would be great if we can somehow skip over its most recent past and honor that heritage in some way there.”