A visit with Newburgh’s Councilman Torrance Harvey

Posted in On The Waterfront: newburgh News

 

Introduction

Torrance Harvey, councilman for the city of Newburgh, N.Y., is an affable gentleman with a demeanor that seems both surprised and sincere.

Surprised, because when you listen to him unpack his life story, you realize he has been favored by fortune and has been graced with many amazing opportunities.

Sincere, because fortune is astute, and she often arrives in recognition of earnest and hard work.

 

Councilman Harvey in City Council Chambers, 3rd floor, City Hall located at 83 Broadway, Newburgh, N.Y.

It confirms the old saw, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Torrance Harvey chose some interesting paths, and he has worked very hard.

We were expecting to learn a great deal about Councilman Harvey’s career as a school teacher.

And, yes, he certainly is an extremely dedicated teacher whom we can tell has a great love for the field of education, his students, and being an effective mentor.

What we were surprised to learn about were the rich and varied experiences Councilman Harvey had as a young man. In many ways these experiences shaped and influenced the Councilman’s desire to give back to the city of Newburgh, and to give back to his students, as well.

Torrance Harvey, before he was a councilman, before he was a teacher, a husband or a father, was a kid from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

He grew up as the youngest of eight children raised by hardworking parents who struggled to keep their heads above water in order to feed those eight mouths.

As the youngest of the family, the older sibs (who were quite a bit older owing to a large age gap) were quite an influence on Torrance and his twin (and older by minutes) brother Torrino.

As little boys, they were coming up during the heyday of Soul and R&B, with the following acts at the top of the charts:

  • Marvin Gaye
  • Smokey Robinson
  • Jackson Five
  • The Supremes

 

These acts ranked across the charts, both in the top 40 as well as the R&B charts. The artists appeared on countless television musical variety shows and television episodes influencing a young generation learning about culture from TV.

 

Soul Train was a popular Saturday a.m. American music-dance show hosted by creator Don Cornelius

 

The older sibs were no strangers to Soul Train and everything else going on: parties, club going, etc., is what they were up to, naturally, as youngsters in their teens .

And the youngest, the twins, took all this in, and were very influenced by the music and the dance moves they checked out their older sibs performing (Soul Train was a transformative show which exposed white America to black culture and music on a mass level not experienced previously. It grew to have a large crossover audience).

This influence, as Torrance tells it, was the beginning of the twins discovering a love of dance.

Fast forward to high school and hip hop in Poughkeepsie was taking place at the Armory in Poughkeepsie, and the Civic Center, where acts like Doug E Fresh and Run DMC appeared.

The power of dance and hip hop music began to  make an impression on Torrance and his brother, Torrino.

Influenced by other dancers in Poughkeepsie who were exploring popping, and break-dancing, the twins made a decision to discover more about the new dance form.

The two started to hit the projects in the ‘hood,’ where community centers featured talent shows.

Teens would demonstrate their dance moves, and Torrance and Torrino started to learn how to pop and lock.

Soon, the twins were fortunate to perform on the street in Manhattan and perform at the Paramount, and they began to generate interest in their talent.

Eventually, they connected with a management team out of Poughkeepsie ((Derek Wilson and Barbara Baker).

Because of this team, the twins soon got a gig on Club MTV when hostess Downtown Julie Brown was in the house.

Club MTV was like a contemporary version of Soul Train,  capturing the styles of dance that were becoming more and more popular in cities across the country as breakdancing really came into its own.

Club MTV gave them tremendous exposure both nationally and internationally, and the name of the act became the TNT Twinz.

 

Keep in mind, these two boys were all of sixteen years of age, high school sophomores!

The notion of studying for the PSAT’s was obviously out of mind.

So how did these two, with an act that was getting international acclaim, make the move to college?

By the time the two were seniors in high school, they were starring in equity production plays on Broadway, actually in a rap version of a Shakespeare play that launched the careers of many other black rappers and actors.

Torrance and Torrino Harvey aka The Twinz in a vintage photo from back in the day. Councilman Harvey now teaches and serves in Newburgh, N.Y.

Picture of the young twins from back in the day

The twins had now moved from their Poughkeepsie high school to a high school in Fishkill, John Jay, leaving the scuffles of inner city Poughkeepsie.

John Jay, the high school the twins moved to, was, as Torrance puts it, a bit like “Weird Science” with the equivalent of summer toga parties, amidst upper middle class kids from comfortable homes with backyard pools and a lifestyle different from that in Poughkeepsie. It was IBM land, a place where well compensated executives and their families were living the good life.

As affluent white kids became a new set of friends for the twins, they were confronted with questions like “where are you applying to college?” And, “how did you do on your PSAT’s?”

Both questions were foreign to the young men. But a providential meeting was soon to occur because of an unfortunate family development.

Newburgh's Councilman Torrance Harvey and brother Torrino in an early publicity shotSadly, for their family, and especially for the two-high school aged twins, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey’s marriage suddenly and unexpectedly broke up.

The twins, to be able to finish up the last six months of high school needed to stay at John Jay, but they had no place to live.

Torrance explained, “we lived out of our car, and for money we worked at the local Fishkill Holiday Inn.”

But this development would also prove to be providential.

One Sunday while working brunch, they had the occasion to wait on the Reverend Saul Williams, of. Newburgh, N.Y., who was investigating the Holiday Inn as a venue for his daughter’s upcoming wedding.

The boys and the Reverend struck up a conversation which soon had him peppering them with questions.

The Reverend then invited the twins to join him for church in Newburgh, where he was pastor at Baptist Temple, a church Reverend Williams founded.

He did not know of their MTV fame (nor did he know they were homeless) but his children knew the teens from Club MTV.

Newburgh's Councilman Torrance Harvey works the crowd at Newburgh Illuminated

Councilman Harvey at the Newburgh Illuminated Festival 2017

 

Torrance and Torrino went to church at Reverend Williams church and told the pastor what was going on in their lives. The Reverend arranged for them to move to Newburgh where gentlemen such as Deacon Larry Lindsey of the Baptist Temple,  and William Walker began to mentor the boys.

Of Deacon Larry Lindsey, Torrance said “Such an informed man you could ever meet. He worked on Wall Street, he had masters from NYU, he became my mentor!”

At some point after the twins had joined the church Deacon Lindsey and Reverend Williams put the them in a room and, Torrance recounted, said: “you have to go to college!

“They plied us with reading material (works by  Carter G. Woodson; EldridgeCleaver; Malcolm X) and told us ‘in a year from now, you will both be in college!” Torrance said, continuing:

“We looked at Fisk, but I asked the Pastor, ‘Can I get into Morehouse?’

Newburgh's Councilman Torrance Harvey with students fundraise for a trip to Ecuador

Councilman Harvey stands with students a fundraising booth at Newburgh Illuminated 2017. The students were fundraising for a trip to Ecuador which they have since completed. 

 

“His body language seemed to say no, but Pastor was a man of Christ, and he said ‘yes.’”

Torrance was intrigued by Morehouse. He filled out college inquiry cards and sent them to a few traditionally black colleges besides Fisk: Howard, Hampton, and Morehouse.

But it was Morehouse that really intrigued him, as he explains:

“What intrigued me about Morehouse most was it was all African American, all male, with a mission to educate and train African American men to become future leaders. I knew that Spike Lee went there, Martin Luther King, Samuel Jackson, Julian Bond, and so many other leaders.

“Honestly, I looked at the requirements and felt it was a far distant reality.”

In fact, one of the Reverend’s children was studying at Morehouse: Saul Stacey Williams.   

(Williams is a well-known: rapper, slam poet, actor, musical theater performer, songwriter and writer).

Torrance: “We went and stayed with Saul at Morehouse, but we got no sleep! It was eight of us talking, building…they asked us, ‘what’s stopping you? What’s standing between you and this goal? To which we answered: ‘We don’t have the grades! We don’t have the SATS!’”

But Torrance and Torrino thought about it and discovered they could enroll in a special program at Mt. St. Mary college which helped them overcome their issues and prepared them. Torrance as he relates this is quick to note the hand that Sister Ann Butler of The Mount had in helping he and his brother:

“Sister Ann Butler took us to England to study at Thames Valley University. I studied with the BBC and my brother studied with the Royal Shakespeare Company, ” he noted.

Ultimately, Morehouse did accept them, and they were able to graduate with undergraduate degrees, all the while still performing and with notable stars like Oprah Winfrey and Steevie Wonder.

A young Torrance Harvey in the Oprah Winfrey ABC Afternoon Special “Girlfriend,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award

A surprising journey, indeed.

Councilman Harvey did us the honor of answering several questions we asked him about what inspired him to seek office, what he hopes to accomplish as councilman, and several other very illuminating questions in our Q&A.

A former Newburgh Free Academy student, now a teacher in NYC, poses with former student John Muigai Dartomouth '07

Councilman Harvey stands with former student and now teacher in NYC School system, Kenneth Muigai Dartmouth ’07

Have a read:

  1. What led you to seek office?

    I decided to seek office after the shootings and teen murders that were happening regularly in Newburgh NY. I could NOT continue to stand-by and not do something beyond the school house where I’ve taught for almost twenty years.   I had also been teaching American History and Government along with Participation in Government classes and Global History and Geography as well for many years and said to myself it’s time to walk the walk instead of simply teaching the talk.

 

  1. What three goals define your mission as Councilman?

    The three goals that define my mission as City Councilman is to first make an impact on this great historical city that shall never be forgotten.  Secondly, to make every effort to stop the sectarian violence among our young people whose actions are speaking to sociological cries for help in the city of Newburgh…and most of the violence connects directly to poverty….and to lastly work collaboratively with the City Manager and our City Council in addressing the poverty issues that again connect directly to unemployment.  Our city is only roughly four square miles with 30,000 people living within our city limits.  But we have the highest murder rate per capita in the state of New York.  We are also ranked in the top ten murder capitals again per capita among cities throughout the United States of America.

 

  1. What do you love about Newburgh?

    First I love the people of Newburgh, New York.  There are some seriously genuine people with a tough sense of love and loyalty compared to any other place I’ve lived.  In addition, I love the great history of the city of Newburgh.  Home to the Delano family… Sarah Delano the mother of our 32nd President…home of the late Geraldine Ferrraro, and we can’t forget about the Alsdorf Family who were a prominent Black Family in Newburgh that were musicians.  They were here from the 1850s until about the 1950s.  One of the patriarchs of the family was an important figure in the underground railroad assisting runaway slaves here in Newburgh New York.  Lastly, we must not forget about great horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing.  He was born in Newburgh, NY in 1815; who was known worldwide for his work in the fields. So, Newburgh has a great texture or character to it past to present.

 

  1. Why are you uniquely qualified to lead Newburgh?

    I truly believe that I am uniquely qualified to lead our city for various reasons.  First, I’ve was born and raised in the inner city of Poughkeepsie, New York.  I’ve had various experiences living in the Charles Street Housing Projects to working in my father’s grocery stores to hitting rock bottom and being homeless for six months as a 19-year-old.  Then to go on to Mount Saint Mary College as a HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) to finishing my college degree at prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.  It was at Morehouse College that I was given the full vision and expectation to step out of my comfort zone and lead.  More importantly to step up out of comfort and convenience and serve others.  Many men are called to lead, but only a few are chosen to lead.  Henceforth, I truly believe I was called to the teaching profession to learn and completely comprehend the behaviors of others that came before me in a historical context as my spiritual and practical preparation to lead.  So, I truly believe in my heart of hearts that I have been chosen to lead this historical city.  My campaign slogan for my first city election in Newburgh was “Its Time”.

  1. Give us one example of a difference you want to see made in the life of a child?

    I would first like to see hope in the inner-city children within our community.  Hope that our students have an equal opportunity to learn and explore education at a high level.  But unfortunately, there are external elements that make learning for impoverished inner city students difficult at best.  Survival is first and foremost in our community.  Therefore, the ability to excel academically becomes an arduous task for many.  I simply want to influence our children that they can believe in achieving anything they so desire through the vehicle of higher education regardless of how high the cost is for a quality college education.

  1. What kind of businesses would you like to see bring jobs to Newburgh and what kind of training would you like our young people to have in prep for those jobs/industries?

    I personally would love to see heavy industry return to Newburgh.  Any type of industry that will bring meaningful employment for our city residents would be a dream come true. Meaningful employment with fair wages and salaries could totally change the character and pride of our great city.  Our residents deserve to become homeowners.  They deserve to be afforded the opportunities to build generational wealth and wellness.  Meaningful employment also means professional training to meet the needs and demand of a robust economy.  Our residents need great job training and transportation too.  It is a crying shame that we in the city of Newburgh have a rail track on this side of the Hudson river but don’t have the Metro North Commuter train on this side of the Hudson river specifically in Newburgh New York.

  1. What are you reading or have read in the recent past?  

    I am currently reading and editing my own book of poetry entitled “Ya Sankofa”.  It is a book that will be published by Dorrance Publishing company.  About a year ago I sent about fifty poems that have been written as far back as 1992; to the Library of Congress.  A couple publishing companies reached out to me to get my manuscript and loved my work and I signed a contract with the best offer.  Outside of that I just completed a re-read of the Autobiography of Frederick Douglas.  I also read the Black Russian…and I look forward to reading a few socio-political books as well.  Oh, and I can’t forget the reading of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years as a Slave for a second time since the Oscar winning film was produced a few years ago.

  1. Give us one example of leadership character that you think is essential to all people?

    I believe compassion for the suffering of others is a significant leadership quality that is essential to all people.  One must not be simply well educated, eloquent is speech and capable of intellectual discourse and debate…. but one must understand and have human compassion for the genuine well-being of others to lead effectively.

 

  1. Your favorite historical place, church, monument, building, tree whatever in Newburgh?  

    I have TWO favorite historic places in Newburgh; 109 Washington Street which is the AME Zion Church where the late Frederick Douglas preached…for obvious reasons and the Newburgh Waterfront as well.

 

  1. Your favorite hidden Newburgh place most people don’t know about?

    There is a nice large area behind the Regal Bag pocketbook factory that used to be closed off to that is now open.  It is a very large beautiful area that’s undeveloped at this point.  You can drive back there and almost be the water level of the Hudson River.  Mr. Kaplan also rents out artist space there as well.  He will be renovating that entire areas and it will have more specific use soon.

 

Thank you, Councilman Harvey, for sharing your stories and your vision.