|The New York
By Tina Traster
January 3, 2008 -- Meet the suburban pioneers - folks who've migrated to edgy, diverse towns in the Hudson
Valley where you can nab a house for less than $350,000. And like SoHo in its day, Beacon, Peekskill and Haverstraw are being populated by artists, writers, musicians, restaurateurs, gallery owners and other creative types - people willing to take a chance for a housing bargain and, in turn, fueling the revitalization of these riverfront areas.
Erin and Terry Serpico left Brooklyn three years ago for Beacon, a former factory town of 15,000 that's a 78-minute ride on Metro-North to Grand Central. Proximity to New York City was key for Terry, 42, an actor who has appeared in “Michael Clayton," “Army Wives" and “Rescue Me," because he needs to be available for casting calls and shoots.
Erin first heard the buzz about Beacon when the DIA Foundation opened a contemporary art museum there in 2003. The following year, when Erin was pregnant with their second child, the couple decided to ditch their 11/2-bedroom, third-floor walk-up rental in Park Slope and buy a house.
“We visited Beacon and saw a place we could relate to," says Erin, 39. “It was filled with gallery spaces and antique and vintage stores. It seemed like a community of ex-pats."
By “expats," Erin means relocated artists and actors from Brooklyn.
“We found the flavor of Brooklyn in Beacon," she says.
The Serpicos bought a three-bedroom, 1940s Saltbox with exposed beams and an unfinished basement on 0.15 acres for $254,000. The house was in fairly good condition except for “a few unfortunate wallpaper choices and some old paneling that we pulled out of the family room," Erin says.
But house ownership has come with headaches. The couple installed a wood-burning stove to offset the cost of fuel. They've had to replace radiators, realign piping and install a separate water heater for the second floor. An old dishwasher that came with the house conked out, and the couple discovered they had termites.
“I've always been a renter," says Erin. “There have definitely been a lot of unwelcome surprises."
The good news is that the Serpicos have found a community where they feel at home. The family likes the public-school system and participates in an organic farm co-op called Common Ground, where they volunteer time and take home fresh produce. And Erin says she's beginning to feel like a local.
“I was at the gym recently and a woman who'd moved up from the city assumed I was from around here. It's only been three years. Maybe I'm not as edgy as I used to be?" she says and laughs.
Tina Volz and Michael Bongar had been living in Park Slope when a health crisis four years ago prompted them to look elsewhere.
“I knew then that I needed to move to a place with land and a garden," Tina, 48, says.
So the couple, who run BongarBiz, a special-events and entertainment company (with clients including Cirque du Soleil and David Letterman), began looking.
With a modest budget and a desire to be near hiking trails like Breakneck Ridge and Dunderberg Mountain, they chose Peekskill, a historic river city nestled in the Hudson Highlands.
They were drawn to the old houses, the river's beauty and the emerging artist-driven community. (The town includes the 1,500-seat Paramount Center for the Arts and the Peekskill Coffee House, a bohemian hangout.)
“I used to think ‘How can anybody afford anything by the river?'" says Tina. “In Peekskill, you can."
The couple paid $270,000 for a three-story, three-bedroom Victorian on a quarter of an acre atop a hill overlooking the river.
“Our views are like a Hudson River School painting," Tina says.
And in spring, the garden blooms with wild azaleas and roses. The couple enjoys plucking peppers, carrots and tomatoes from their garden when they're not shopping at Peekskill's weekly farmer's market.
The house is also within walking distance of a Metro-North station (getting to the city in an hour by rail was a priority given their business).
Peekskill, a former manufacturing town, has a long and troubled history of social ills.
“There were neighborhood problems but no way to get anything done," Tina says.
So she led the effort to revive a dormant West Side Neighborhood Association and help law enforcement fight drug dealers and eliminate illegal housing. The association is now collaborating with developer Martin Ginsburg, the city waterfront's master developer.
“My life has really changed in the last four years," Tina says. “Where I live has become more meaningful to me."
“I always wanted a big, spacious Victorian home, the kind of house you see in the movies," says Giovanni Saravia. “But I never figured I'd be able to afford one."
Saravia, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, and his wife, Melissa Salmon Saravia, bought and restored a Victorian in Haverstraw. The Rockland County riverfront village is a 70-minute ride to Midtown via the Ossining-Haverstraw Ferry and Metro-North.
In 2001, Giovanni, then 26, went to Haverstraw to look at a 4,300-square-foot, four-bedroom 1854 Victorian, which is just a block from the Hudson River.
“I fell in love with it," he says. “I loved the fact that it had original moldings and fireplaces, but it needed a lot of work."
A risk taker, Giovanni brought Melissa to see the house. She had reservations about the Village of Haverstraw, where there is an obvious problem with drugs and poverty.
“I had to push her," Giovanni says, but the couple finally purchased the house - for $265,000.
In the past few years, Haverstraw has seen Martin Ginsburg's waterfront development, Harbors at Haverstraw, the River Stone Antiques & Design Center and some other downtown improvements - but the village still has a long way to go.
“If done right, Haverstraw is the next Nyack," says Giovanni, referring to the trendy Rockland village to its south. “But the community needs to work together to clean up the village to attract the kind of stores and restaurants that will appeal to the people who live in the waterfront condos."
Giovanni has spent six years renovating his castle on the Hudson. In addition to running an insurance company from home, he has branched out into kitchen-cabinetry design. He did most of the work on his house himself, restoring original moldings, cleaning up fireplaces, reviving old wood floors and building a kitchen. He's spent about $175,000 so far and says the house could easily sell for $625,000 today.
But he is not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I didn't buy this house to flip it and make money," Giovanni says. “I'm really attached to this house and want to raise a family here."
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