This is the coastal town that they forgot to close down… come Armageddon, come!
I grew up in a small village on the Hudson about 130 miles north of New York City called Catskill. Its economic history goes back a long way, to the purchase of its lands from the native Americans in 1638. Through the following centuries it had its share of good fortune — Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, was married there and Alexander Hamilton tried his first case as a young lawyer in the building I knew as the local Masonic Temple. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting, lived in a mansion on Spring Street where, a century in the future, my aunt Rose would purchase what may have been his dilapidated studio on a parcel of land adjoining her house and blithely tear it down to make room for her garden.
Like many very old towns and villages, Catskill has weathered booms and busts of changing tastes and economies. For a long time it was a dairy farming community that supplemented its income with tourist trade from around the region drawn to the haunting hills and low mountains of which Washington Irving wrote. Over time, the nation’s economy reached into the area in the form of inexpensive commodities conveyed on vast new highways. It became cheaper to eat food produced outside the area and tourists could bypass the town entirely on the way to larger, more luxurious accommodations in more distant places. The slow depletion of the town’s vitality was underway and by the time I showed up it had surely seen better days.
Still, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, it was a functioning community. There were some local industries — the cement plants of neighboring Cementon (I kid you not) and a few resorts (including my grandmother’s boarding house) that could count on a regular clientele — providing enough income to make Main Street, where I lived, a busy center of commerce. All of one’s needs were met by two grocery stores, a department store, two butcher shops, a green grocer, barbers and beauticians, men’s and women’s clothing shops, furniture and hardware stores and a community theater (quaintly called The Community) which had been a vaudeville house but now showed just movies. Saturday afternoons, when people from the greater area came into town to do their shopping, were quite busy. In the summer, very busy. But that’s all over now.
Irving Academy, my grade school, now a senior citizen’s center.
I remember talking once with the town president as part of an assignment I was doing for high school on the local economy and his very dour prognosis of what was in store for the town. He was trying to attract new industries to the area, to make up for losses in farming and tourism but the demographics were going south: the best and the brightest kids moved away after high school to pursue opportunities elsewhere, and there was a problem with entrenched segregation among the small minority population which made the town anathema to progressive industries. A true negative feedback loop that guaranteed declining fortunes.
An economy of poverty began to form. On visits home from college in the 1980s I noticed stores beginning to close. A few large discount supermarkets opened near by offering their volume discounts and the dwindling local trade migrated there. Then Walmart arrived; the purveyor of cheap Chinese goods sold to poor people at the prices they can afford saw its opportunity and pounced. The result was the death of Main Street. By the turn of the century, the street that I had grown up on was a ghost town of shuttered businesses and listless youths loitering after dark to sell each other drugs. It’s a story that has played itself out in countless communities in our “globalized economy” and will play out in countless more.
A boat launch on the Catskill Creek where I almost drowned at age 12, near planned luxury condos for weekending Manhattanites.
Lately, as happens so often in depressed communities, some artsy types have swooped in and bought up inexpensive storefronts and homes hoping to turn the dying town into a new Woodstock or New Hope — an art and antique center that will draw well-heeled weekenders from New York and Boston. I have mixed feelings. Places like Woodstock are not real communities, they are shopping theme parks for the rich. Luxury condos are being built in Catskill within sight of a housing project where many poor people live. As a Manhattanite I am used to that kind of rude contrast, but I never expected to see it in my home town. I resent that the only choice available seems to be Walmart discount poverty rubbing up against superficial wealth. In a global economy where it’s cheaper to build industry in China than in your own back yard the viability of small middle class communities seems ever more untenable.
I suppose as an evacuee I really have no right to complain about what the people of Catskill do. Like so many of my classmates, I spent my youth resenting the provincial constraints of my hometown and couldn’t wait to get the hell away to the big city once I had the chance. But would it be too self-indulgent to be nostalgic for what was? The world is changing very fast and I fear that the benefits we gain from new technology and the unfettered flow of capital around the world come with a very steep price tag. Will the country itself come to the realization too late, as I did, that you don’t really know what you had until it’s gone?