Secret sauce

sauceThe mid-Hudson region is a land of small towns. With just under 24,000 people, Kingston is the largest community by population in Ulster County. With 19,500, Saugerties is the most populous town. New Paltz has 14,000 people. All but a handful of the other local communities boast populations of fewer than 10,000.

Especially at this time of year, people on the streets of these small towns recognize others as their neighbors and often their acquaintances. They saw the same people on the same streets last winter, and they expect to see them there next winter as well.

Most stores are occupied by familiar specialty retail businesses that employ local people. Most communities boast of the number and diversity of their eating places. Boastful as they are about the qualities of their Main Streets, they know that there’s something beyond businesses that makes their community unique. They usually find it hard to put what that is into words.

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More often than not, the secret sauce of special character is in the eye of the beholder. The sense of place that’s at the heart of the Buy Local experience is a subjective thing. Everyone knows where and when to go for a particular product or service, and usually not only who is likely to be dealing with them but also what kind of mood that person is likely to be in. Locals are likely to know not only the name of the server in the restaurant they patronize but also every detail of that person’s personal life; the waitperson in turn knows the same about the customer. That’s how small towns are.

Exurban small towns like those throughout the mid-Hudson region are the same, only different. This area ain’t just the ’burbs, the green space safely distant from the biggest of all American cities.

I can still remember my own first visit to Woodstock, well before the hamlet got the sidewalks taken for granted today. I liked the village feeling and particularly the view of the mountains beyond. The stores were quaint.

But what really sold me on the place was the number of faces I recognized in the streets from Greenwich Village and the East Village. Didn’t I pass that tall person on St. Mark’s Place just last week? Isn’t that the guy from the bagel place on Second Avenue? Look, that’s the girl from the bookstore on Eighth Street! Hey, there’s my Village sandal-maker drinking a cup of coffee at an outdoor café.

I remember thinking to myself that I’d probably feel comfortable here. If these were the people who lived here, this place couldn’t be all that bad. The East Village could come to me while I was living in the country!

Only later did I find out there were no good jobs in Ulster County.

The mid-Hudson region still hosts a constant flow of visitors looking to get out of New York City or to buy a second home in the country. Though some of them eventually choose the Poconos, the Hamptons or the Jersey suburbs instead and others can’t bear to leave the big city, those that choose the Hudson Valley remain the mainstay of local immigration.

Many of these newcomers choose to settle a pre-prescribed distance from Times Square. Others fall in love with a particular property. But I would contend that people buy real estate or rent where they feel most comfortable. How else can you explain how people from particular urban communities — even particular zip codes — end up living in the same rural places? Check out how many people from the East Village end up like myself in Woodstock. How those from the East Side of Manhattan settle in Rhinebeck. Upper West Siders in New Paltz. Folks from Queens in Saugerties. Brooklyn is now moving to Kingston.

And that’s how community character evolves, the new mixing with the familiar, a mélange of constancy and perpetual change.

What makes your town a special place to shop? When we decided to focus the 2014 Looking Forward section on that question, we weren’t sure how local businesspeople would answer it. Now we know, and in reading this section you will, too.

We sent out reporters intimately familiar with five communities: Woodstock, Saugerties, Kingston, Rhinebeck and New Paltz. We encouraged them to go beyond municipal boundaries. They did. The reporter on Woodstock, Paul Smart, wrote about Phoenicia as well. The Saugerties reporter, Ashley Drewes, was interested in businesses outside the commercial core of the village. Kingston reporter and Ponckhockie resident Lynn Woods discussed businesses in all three city commercial neighborhoods: Uptown, Midtown and the Rondout. Jennifer Brizzi, who works in Rhinebeck, ventured in her story out to Red Hook and Rhinecliff. And reporter Mike Townshend went outside New Paltz to discuss local businesses in Gardiner, Highland and Rosendale as well.

First-time visitors may come to Woodstock for its artsy image, but they return for its shopping, reported Paul Smart. A surprising number of people return regularly, often for decades. And more off-the-beaten-path Phoenicia has become a cool, unique place on its own accord.

The diversity of the Saugerties shopping experience impressed Ashley Drewes. She also touted interaction “with the shop’s owners and staff, who are always ready to chat and catch up on local news and events.” The big payoff, she said, is “the wonderful people who call this part of the world home.” They don’t call the community Friendly Saugerties for nothing.

Kingston’s changing, said Lynn Woods, and for the better. There’s much more here. “It used to be just hot dogs and hair salons,” said activist Rebecca Martin with a tinge of exaggeration, “but over the last five years I’ve found things here I used to have to go to New York City for.” And Robert Tonner of Tonner Doll Company detected a more stable group of retailers coming in. “People come here for dinner,” he said, “then all of a sudden they find Kingston sort of interesting.” The Stockade district is particularly hot these days.

A mix of chi-chi and casual, fancy and down-to-earth? That’s Rhinebeck, according to Jennifer Brizzi. With its walkable charm, fun social events and diverse products and services, the compact business community is full of people who know their merchandise. “She knows her inventory,” longtime village resident Judy Scheyer said admiringly about Lila Page, owner of Winter Sun & Summer Moon, “has a passion for it, and it shows.”

The local college may fuel the New Paltz economy, reported Mike Townshend, but there’s a lot more. He quoted planning board and school board member Tim Rogers, “… It isn’t hard to think of several other unique advantages New Paltz offers.” New Paltz may be a hub for the surrounding towns, but the smaller commercial areas in the surrounding towns of Gardiner (cupcake festival), Highland (pizza, Walkway) and Rosendale (pickle and zombie fests) each have their distinctive character and specialty establishments.

 

In common usage, “secret sauces” are ingredients closely guarded by private companies from public disclosure for competitive advantage. Think Colonel Sanders, a Big Mac, Worcestershire sauce, Coca-Cola, Chartreuse liqueur and monosodium glutamate.

By contrast, our local communities hide their secret sauces in plain view. They claim not to know what their secret ingredients are, and many even say that they don’t have any. What’s special is obvious to everyone but the person who has to ask.

And so it is for local pride. Whatever it is, it is accumulated accretively over a long period of time. It’s an outcome that’s a product of community life that has to be experienced to be known. If you have to ask you’ll never know.

Visitors intuitively understand that. An old English proverb advises that the eyes are the window to the soul, meaning, I think, that what we experience through our eyes sticks with us. Stores, restaurants, real-estate offices, banks and village streets are the windows of community souls. What you see is what you get.

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