‘It’s a mesmerizing occupation, this assembling and reassembling of ghosts. I never tire of it. You can preserve a parking lot in its magical/sinister era (when it required a “gold coin” to get out!) from its future incarnation when grass from the old farmland days will once again burst through its cracked and empty acreage. You can bring back the dead, hear their voices, reassess their place in your overall design, and even find new jobs for them.’
— Gail Godwin, “Ulster County Ghosts,”
from Kingston: The IBM Years, 2014.
‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on.’
— Governor Mario Cuomo’s advice
to Ulster County, as told to Len Cane, circa 1994.
There are many different ways of seeing the same event, said architect Frances Halsband, who has been a part-time resident of Woodstock ever since she was a child. Halsband and her friend Gail Godwin, wrote a chapter in Kingston: The IBM Years, published this past spring. They take the long view. In an ever-changing and oft-repeating universe, past incarnations are often destined in the fullness of time to be repeated, though in a different form.
Ulster County history, Halsband told a small audience at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock this past Saturday afternoon, is not just the Stockade and the stone houses and the Erie Canal. Equally transformative events changed the shape of the county’s psychological landscape in the twentieth century, she said. One of them was most certainly the period from 1955 to 1994 when IBM operated its plant in the Town of Ulster.
“For lovers of traditional history, no ‘great men’ were involved and no wars were fought,” wrote Ward L.E. Mintz, exhibition director of the show at the Friends of Historic Kingston accompanying the book’s publication. “But there were extraordinary technical and engineering achievements made possible by talented men and women and inspired leadership. Indeed, Kingston’s IBM years are likely to have been the most important period in the city’s industrial history since the D&H Canal’s opening.”
Not everyone sees the IBM years as an extended episode in a distinguished centuries-long regional history.
Speaking the day before at the weekly Friday lecture about the IBM years at the Friends of Historic Kingston, Len Cane, executive director of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce from 1969 to 2003, recalled the meeting at which he introduced developer Alan Ginsberg, who had bought the plant from IBM at a price Cane reported as $3.5 million, to the chamber at an event at the Holiday Inn. The members listened as enthusiastically as they could, hoping that Ginsberg would be the magician who could fill the plant once again and re-employ its skilled workforce. According to Cane, the event went well until a questioner asked what the Westchester-based developer thought Ulster County might be lacking in attracting development. In his response, Ginsberg touted New York City culture. “There is no culture in Ulster County,” he proclaimed.
Cane winced even 20 years later as he recalled that response. “Alan could at least have said,” Cane complained to the Friends of Historic Kingston audience, “that the culture is different.”
Ginsberg still owns the plant. “Alan was a pistol, to say the least,” Cane said. “I happen to like him.”
The economic effects of IBM’s departure from Kingston were enormous. One longtime car dealer recently estimated to an interviewer for the book project that he had lost 30 percent of his business. Cane said that was not unusual. The strong and long-lasting effect of the pullout surprised even Cane. “It was one heck of a shot to take,” he said.
Ever the optimist about the business climate, Cane praised the community’s resilience. “I thought we did pretty well,” he said. “IBMs don’t grow on trees. We bounded back pretty well.” Cane recalled governor Mario Cuomo’s advice to a shaken business community: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on.”
In November 1994, Cuomo was defeated in his bid for a fourth term by state senator George Pataki by three percentage points.
Cane had nothing but positive things to say about IBM’s community participation. It wasn’t just the money. “The human resources were at least as important as the money.”
“We needed them,” Cane said. “They were very generous, and the checks came on time. They did volunteer work. They put themselves in the community, they performed. They were the best community neighbors you could have.”
In Woodstock, town supervisors Vern May and Val Cadden, from IBM families, drew on a constituency that went beyond the town’s conservative elites and improved the quality of local public administration. Also at the Golden Notebook, retired IBMer Jerry Washington extolled the “exciting people” he met in his 35 years at IBM. He said he “never had a bad day” in his IBM life. But he did concede that though he worked there so long “the kids didn’t know what I did.”
That aligns with Frances Halsband’s memories of IBMers. “They were very friendly,” she said. “They just didn’t tell us what they were doing.”
The psychological effect of losing IBM was profound in Ulster County. Cane said people trying to place where he was from would often say, “You have an IBM plant, don’t you?” Even the considerable number of people who didn’t like IBM didn’t like it when the corporation left.
“Business people make business decisions,” Cane said. He mentioned present IBM job losses and rumored closures in Dutchess County.
In a thoughtful coda to her contribution to Kingston: The IBM Years, novelist Godwin ended with a concrete question more essential than economic. “It is not always that you finish a project and realize it has left you with an even more beguiling question than the unknowns that made you want to take on your project in the first place,” she wrote. “My question lies in Frances’ eerie drawing of the ‘ghost’ plant superimposed against the land around it like a giant animal settling into the landscape. What happens to such a place and its people when the giant creature gets up, shakes itself off, and goes away?”
Giant creatures have weaknesses as well as strengths, archeologists who have examined their former habitats tell us. Their departures from a landscape result in opportunities as well as problems.
It is rare that one giant creature simply replaces another. Rather, creatures of a different scale with different imperatives learn to flourish in an altered landscape.
What happens to the empty parking lots? Perhaps toxic wastes are discovered under them. Perhaps the parking lots are torn up and crops planted there. Or perhaps the lots are re-paved, new painted lines are drawn on top of the asphalt, but no cars ever return to park.
What happens to the people? The cyclical view of history doesn’t promise answers, only patterns. Twenty years later, Ulster County is still puzzling over the consequences of IBM’s departure.
There are four remaining Friday-at-noon IBM Conversations at the Friends of Historic Kingston gallery on Wall Street. This Friday, August 8, Bob Winrow will talk about family experiences at IBM. Gay Tavares will talk about the IBM Club and Rec Center on August 15. Jerry Washington will talk about IBM’s SAGE project on August 22. In the final event in the series on August 29, Don Moyer will talk about life after IBM.
For those interested in longer time cycles, the British took over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam by force on August 18, 1664. Ulster County official historian Anne Gordon is scheduled to discuss the turbulent effect in Ulster County of that transition on August 15, three days before the 350th anniversary of the event. The talk, part of the Kingston’s Buried Treasures series, will take place at 5:30 p.m. on that day in the Vanderlyn Gallery at the Senate House Museum at 296 Fair Street in Kingston.