Have you ever heard telemarketers trying to deal with the word “Poughkeepsie?” Coming upon it in the midst of a chirpy spiel, it’s as if they’ve rushed headlong into a wall. While they ponder all those stupefying vowels, we’ve got time to consider how badly they’ll mangle it. POW-kip-see. POO-kip-see. PUFF-kip-see. Po-KEEP-see. People have been stumbling over Poughkeepsie for centuries. In his classic travelogue of the river, 19th-century historian Benson Lossing lists 40-some ways the burg was spelled, from the phonetic “Pakepsy” to the tongue-knotting “Pochkyphsingh.” All this bother arises from the Indian word from which the municipality derives its name: Uppuqui-ipis-ing. It means “reed-covered lodge by the little water place.” Though there are still some idyllic spots along the shoreline, most fell victim to Poughkeepsie’s emergence as a center of industry and shipping (including whaling, believe it or not) in the 19th century. State capital during the Revolution, site where New York’s statesmen ratified the U.S. Constitution, a favorite haunt of Franklin Roosevelt, and birthplace of the Smith Brothers cough drop, the city also has a rich history. Beginning in the 1960s, urban renewal did its best to obliterate this past.
Once thronged with shoppers, Poughkeepsie’s Main Street morphed into a ghost town. It took a compelling reason, such as a driver’s license-renewal notice, for anyone to venture downtown. Things have started to change in the last decade. Poughkeepsie may not hum the way it once did (what Valley city does?), but a vibe is now definitely palpable. Woe to those who write this little city off. That’s entertainment. Poughkeepsie has two first-rate museums. At the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, you’ll get a vicarious thrill as the youngsters slither through a giant heart and explore the depths of the Hudson in a virtual diving bell. Fortunately, there are dozens more exhibits where adults can join in the fun.
Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is an ideal venue to introduce children to art. There’s plenty to look at — from Egyptian antiquities to Picasso — but not so much as to be overwhelming. Adults will also be pleased. An entire room is devoted to the Hudson River School paintings including those by greats like Cole, Church and Gifford. Stay in town late and take in a show. Mark Twain, Martha Graham, and Frank Sinatra all trod the boards at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House. This month’s diverse offerings include Guinea’s Les Ballet Africains and the comedy troupe The Capitol Steps. At the Friday night film series, you not only get to see classic movies the old-fashioned way — on a big screen — but are treated to a musical aperitif from the theater’s Wurlitzer organ. If you run with the hip crowd (or want to), attend a show at The Chance, one of the Valley’s premier rock meccas since 1980. (The Police and Bon Jovi have graced its stage.) Dark Funeral, God Forbid, and Goatwhore are among the acts this month. I can’t speak for the music, but the names sure are inventive. House hunting. For the architecture buff, the city has an astounding array of buildings, ranging from a simple Dutch Colonial farmhouse to examples by masters of International Style. Even if you’re not an aficionado, you’ll enjoy a walk along Academy Street and Garfield Place, which parallel each other a few blocks south of Main Street. These thoroughfares are adorned with magnificent Victorian homes, each attempting to outdo its neighbor in opulence. Also stroll-worthy is the Vassar campus. Main Hall, with its enormous mansard roof, is one of the country’s best examples of the Second Empire style. Noyes Hall was designed by modernist great Eero Saarinen. Peek through a window into Noyes’ common area, which features one of the architect’s trademark “conversation pits” (those over the age of 40 will understand why students of yore dubbed it the “Jetsons lounge”). The college chapel contains stained glass by two American masters, Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge. Tiffany’s rose window is especially stunning. Selective shopping. While Main Street has a plethora of gorgeous Victorian storefronts, filling them is a work in progress. Presently, a handful of shops are worth tracking down. Several of these reflect the city’s large Mexican population. Gisselle Panadera crafts some of the most unusual-looking breads and pastries north of the border. One loaf is flat as a roof tile; another round as a ball. I can attest that the sweets are perfection, especially the flaky elephant ears. Las Piedras means “the stones,” as befits a store selling colorful jewelry, much of it crafted from… you guessed it. I also was taken with their hand-painted light-switch covers and small enamel boxes. If you need a new pair of cowboy boots (or a glittery sombrero), El Covarruvias carries an eye-popping variety of styles. I also had a blast browsing at the camouflage-colored outfits in M&M Army & Navy. For those who prefer solid colors, the store sells Levi’s at very reasonable prices. On the gallery scene, Cabaret Voltaire exhibits cutting-edge video and interactive art, while Albert Shahinian Fine Art specializes in works by the new breed of Hudson River School painters. Like their 19th-century forebears, these canvases have a vibrancy that lights up the room. And for such stellar quality, their prices are surprisingly affordable. Urban Experience sells all you need for a relaxing soak in the tub, from bubble bath to books. Bibliophiles should check out The Three Arts bookstore near Vassar. In addition to current titles, it carries many rare volumes on Valley history as well as historic prints. The big picture. Enlivening any expedition down Main Street are several brick walls which have been turned into diverting murals (thanks to the efforts of local artists). Franc Palaia’s “Olde Main Street” depicts historic Poughkeepsie emporia, from a carriage maker to a pizzeria. Margaret and Dick Crenson’s “Kipsy,” a sea serpent spotted by crew members of the Half Moon and Clearwater (so says the accompanying legend), is more than 100 feet long. Nearby is a fascinating, multi-panel tribute to Valley history. Sojourner Truth, Pete Seeger, and Eleanor Roosevelt share the “canvas.” Just off Main on Garden Street is a trompe l’oeil stunner portraying a number of three-story Victorian storefronts. It’s so realistic you’ll be tempted to turn the doorknobs. Also check out the WPA murals inside the post office and Poughkeepsie Journal buildings, which are across from each other on the corner of Market and Mansion streets. Food flights. Downtown Poughkeepsie sports a few high-style restaurants, such as the Artist’s Palate, with its SoHo feel and nouvelle tastes (it’s one of our 10 Best New Restaurants — see page 34). Mahoney’s Irish Pub boasts one of the most glamorous bars in the Valley and serves a mean shepherd’s pie, while Spanky’s is a mainstay for crawfish and other Cajun specialties. But among the real glories of the city’s food scene are its small eateries specializing in cuisines from around the globe. On the ambience scale they may not rate, but their food is delicious, the servings enormous, and the prices a steal. For a taste of the Caribbean, order the jerk chicken, pork, or goat at West Indies. (More adventurous eaters can opt for cow foot.)
Soul Dog has turned the traditional frankfurter on its ear by adorning its all-beef beauties with everything from guacamole to spicy peanut sauce. S&A Deli Café offers tasty falafel and other Middle Eastern delights. My favorite among the city’s many Mexican restaurants is Mole Mole, where the nacho platter is a mini Everest. The eatery has two downtown locations; from the one in the Mount Carmel section you can walk for dessert to Caffe Aurora. Its cannolis are peerless. With its interesting history, emerging arts scene, architectural gems and ethnic eats, Poughkeepsie makes for a worthwhile day trip — no matter how you pronounce it.