Harry Matthews explains his route from Brooklyn
At an opening recently in Woodstock a friend of mine who had grown there turned to a friend of his who had asked me if I was a local. “No, he’s an import,” he said.
What he said is true. I have only lived here for seven years But after a lifetime of nomadic-gypsy ramblings and far-flung peregrinations all over the world, I was thinking that I had found my “forever” home, like a feral waiting to be adopted.
So the “import” comment hurt a bit. Not much, but enough to make me wonder how long it would take to feel like a non-invasive part of the landscape where I’ve made my home. I’ve fallen for the Catskills and the Hudson Valley like no other place I’ve lived. Pinpointing exactly why sometimes seems as futile as nailing jello to a tree. What is wonderful about any place is often intangible, making it hard to condense to a few rough words. I will try.
Not wanting to raise their family in the city yet unwilling to be no more than a two-hour drive away, my parents took a map, drew a 90 mile radius around Manhattan, and started looking for houses within that circle. The Hudson Valley was a contender, as was Connecticut. But they ended up buying a wonderfully rundown 250-year-old house on the banks of the Delaware River outside New Hope in Bucks County, PA.
It was a lovely place to grow up, and in some ways very similar to Woodstock: hippies, artists, rolling hills and woodlands to explore, and lots of transplants from New York, which made my parents feel at home. But I never really felt content there and got out as soon as I could, moving first to Philadelphia, then to Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Over my almost 20 years in Brooklyn I travelled often, spending close to five of those years back and forth to India, England, France and Spain. By the age of 40 I was tired and in need of a place to settle down.
Brooklyn had changed. Or maybe I had. I wanted grass under my feet, streams to swim in, mountains to gaze at (and occasionally climb), and wildlife around beyond pigeons and rats.
Conveniently around this time I got evicted so my loft could be converted into a high-priced luxury condo. I halfheartedly looked for another space, but prices had skyrocketed beyond my reach. So I put everything in storage and drove to the Adirondacks to stay in a cabin my great-grandparents had built there.
By September it was getting cold. Again it was time to move on. Since I had a brother living in the village of Catskill, I drove down. On the second day there I made an impulsive decision, renting a small house on Hutchin Hill Road in Shady owned by a friend of my brother. I knew no one. I had no job and little savings, but somehow I knew I had been drawn here for some reason. That was seven years ago.
Before moving here I had known little about the area. I had been passing through my whole life, driving up I-87 to our family’s cabin. I would often scoff as friends would point at Overlook and ask me if those were the Adirondacks. “No,” I would answer with arrogant dismissiveness. “The Adirondacks are real mountains, those are just hills.” I had no idea what I was talking about. Though geologists might have agreed with me, the Catskills are truly spectacular.
Why do we come to be here, whether for a weekend visit or the rest of our lives? What is it about these mountains, this river that continuously draws people in?
Since the time of the Hudson River School, the founding of Byrdcliffe and Maverick, the Millbrook LSD scene of Leary and Alpert, among others, our area has been a safe haven, attracting uniquely creative people from all over the world seeking fresh air, and space to be their own freaky selves. That’s why I came here.
The loss of manufacturing and the desolation of main streets at the hands of big-box stores had left many once-vibrant towns stark and empty of life and commerce. The new life being breathed into many places now is a homemade, unprocessed life.
Like Beacon and Kingston, Saugerties and Hudson, a revitalization is afoot that was hardly there when I arrived. (Not that I had anything to do with it, I just hide out in the woods.) Though gentrification has crept into some parts, it should not be confused with the homegrown inspiration at the core of this change.
Take, for example, the Masters On Main Street project begun by Fawn Potash and the Greene County Council on the Arts. They turned the many empty storefronts along Catskill’s Main Street into pop-up gallery spaces, showing the works of students in fine-arts master’s programs around the country. Soon people were parking their cars and walking the street, remembering what a great place Main Street could be. Now, five years on, every one of those empty storefronts is filled: a used bookstore, a couple of antiques shops, a new farm-to-table restaurant, a cafe, an artist making handmade books and another making handmade toys.
Lately I’ve read how one local town or another is being called the new “Williamsburg North” or “Greenpoint on the Hudson. Though these ridiculous namings seem nauseatingly distressing at first, there is something good in it. What I found in Williamsburg when I first moved there in 1988 was a forgotten immigrant neighborhood with cheap rents in big empty loft buildings, good Polish and Latino food, and close proximity to Manhattan. Though it was almost impossible to get a taxi to take you over the bridge, and harder to get friends to visit, the L train platform was always empty at rush hour and you could still see Shorty Jackson at Teddy’s. The neighborhood was rough, but we artists and musicians had a desire to create our own oasis out of what seemed a cultural desert.
That same energy I felt then seems to be happening here; artists, musicians, craft brewers, organic farmers, etc., doing their things and making this again a vibrantly creative place to be. From BSP and the O+ festival in Kingston, to the Hudson Valley Dance Festival in Catskill, and The Spiegeltent at Bard, the area is abounding with artistic happenings to be a part of. It seems like every new restaurant is now farm-to-table, and everyone wants to know where what they eat comes from. People want small-batch, organic, locavore, homemade and handmade things. Folks here are cooking, making, and growing all of them. And when you live in an area of such fertile soil and busy famers, it is nice to be able to tell visitors that it all comes from right up the road.
On our old farm outside of Palenville we have a cottage that we rent out via a home-sharing website, mostly to couples desperately needing an escape from the city. Invariably, when they get out of the car and smell the grass, the rich soil in the air, the flowers, hearing the creek out back and birds in the trees, the sense of relief on their faces is palpable. They want to know about farm markets, and I direct them to Jim and Irene at Story Farms for locally smoked trout, great veggies and maple syrup. They want delicious local food and I tell them of the fresh-baked wonders from the lovely women at Circle W in Palenville, or brunch at Miss Lucy’s or Duo. They ask about locals, and I let them know that they mostly don’t bite, that is, unless you ask them to. They ask for recommendations on the best swimming holes, hiking trails, music venues, art galleries, and without much thought I can steer them to amazing world-class places for each, all within a ten-to-30-minute drive. If I listed all the places I love in these categories, we’d be here all day.
All in all, home is what one makes of it, whether one is an import or a local. It’s possible that I wouldn’t appreciate the area with the same passion had I grown up here that I get from having discovered it for myself. (Take that, Henry Hudson!). I may never be considered a local in the place I have chosen as my home, and in the end that’s okay. I’ve never really been a local anywhere, and maybe I’ll never be one. I once asked Patty Harvey, the proprietor of the Circle W, how long I had to live here before I was considered a local? “You might be waiting a very long time,” she laughed.
That’s cool, I thought, because I’m not going anywhere. I’m already home.