Tale of two Catskills

I must’ve hit a nerve with my last column (“The new, new Catskills,” July 30). Since it ran, I’ve been having conversations about the future of the Catskills everywhere. Online. On the phone with my mom. At the grocery store. Over the bar at Union Grove Distillery, where I bartend on weekends.

Many readers — both longtime locals and newcomers alike — have written me to share in a general anxiety about the region’s prospects.

“Being a playground for rich people is not a cure-all to saving the Catskills. Only fundamental changes to our entire country can,” one friend wrote on my Facebook wall. True — but where do we start?


Everybody wants to talk about where we should be headed. Nobody has an answer.

“Seriously, I wish I knew. If I did I would’ve been shouting it from the rooftops years ago,” emailed another friend, a longtime professional observer of the local economic and political scene.

Over the whole conversation, there’s a long shadow cast by the local/transplant divide. More than one reader bemoaned the “reverse snobbery” of locals who resent weekenders and recent arrivals, even as we rely on the money they invest in our economy and our communities.

“We are lying if we don’t acknowledge that there really is a ‘chip’ on the shoulder of some here — and that’s an irony — as many from the ‘city and suburbs’ who are coming here were actually born here and left because there were NO opportunities,” wrote one hudsonvalleyone.com commenter. Ouch, and also, accurate. (Count me among the ones who left home for a decade or more — long enough to pick up a discernible patina of urbanification — before returning to the Catskills.)

It’s true. There is a certain native bitterness. As a local — even an imperfect one — watching wave after wave of newcomers work with naïve fervor at reinventing the same old wheel breeds a fatigued resentment that’s tough to shake. All too frequently, when dealing with “flatlanders,” we see not the people standing in front of us, but the phantoms of people we’ve met before. People who’ve insulted us. People who’ve unthinkingly trampled on something beautiful we once had, like a beloved swimming hole, or an old haunt.

Here are a few city people we’ve all met before:

  • The Guy Who Knows What Our Problem Is. The doctor is in, and boy does he have a prescription. Everything that’s wrong in this town could be fixed so easily if people would just listen to him. Why are we all so blind? The landscape is littered in all directions with the husks of ventures started and abandoned by guys just like him.
  • The Font of Breathtaking Condescension. These tend to travel in pairs, and to wear rubber boots that cost more than your average car payment. It’s so wonderful that they and their friends are here now; this area was so sad before they arrived. It is probably not their fault that Conde Nast only ever writes about the same three hipster restaurants, but one wonders.
  • The Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone Advocate. She just got here, but she’s developed a keen interest in preserving the landscape exactly how it’s been since her neighbor’s barn collapsed in 1982. Isn’t it great that we don’t have cell phone service? That’s what we’re all here to get away from, right? Theoretically, there is some form of economic activity she wouldn’t be opposed to. She just hasn’t met it yet.


Of course, this sort of thing cuts both ways. Here are some locals we’ve all met, too:

  • The I Got Mine, Jack Business Owner. There’s not a lot of pie to go around in this town, but this guy has his slice, and he knows everybody on the planning board. You may have come upstate full of libertarian fantasies about your property being your own; this guy will destroy them. Attempt to disturb the economic equilibrium in his vicinity — by, say, opening up a new business, or maybe just planting some petunias out front — and you’d best prepare for a long and expensive journey through the byzantine underworld of Catskills nepotism.
  • The Confederate Flag Enthusiast. Somehow the Confederate battle flag has taken on new life as a symbol of redneck pride far north of the Mason-Dixon line. There are a lot more of them around here than there were when I was little. News flash, pal: To most of the rest of the world, the rebel flag doesn’t mean “country,” it means “Thanks A Lot, Now I Have To Explain To My Kid Why People Are Nostalgic For Slavery.”
  • The Guy Who Doesn’t Think Much Of You And Wants To Watch You Squirm. There’s a particular brand of bone-dry Catskills humor, typically practiced on out-of-towners by gentlemen of a certain age, that involves saying something vaguely dumb with a perfect inscrutable poker face, then watching impassively as you make an idiot of yourself by responding in earnest. Having been burned by this one many times, I have to hand it to these guys: this is nothing short of an art form.

It’s easy to come away from an encounter with any one of these characters filled with indignation. Fact is, we’re all a bunch of deeply flawed creatures, ruralite and urbanite alike, blinkered and blinded by our biases. But our destinies are entwined; they always have been. So how do we live with each other?

Maybe we start by acknowledging that there’s no moral high ground in the endless sniper warfare between “locals” and “transplants.” Maybe we all work a little harder at pitching in for our whole community, even the parts of it that don’t look like us. Maybe — this might be too much to ask — we quit using “city” and “local” as socially-acceptable code words to talk around that great forbidden American topic, class.

In lieu of achieving world peace, or even Catskills peace, I’ve always wanted to write a local parody of “Oklahoma!” Clearly, the Farmer and the Cowman — er, the Local and the Transplant — should be friends. It’s like Aunt Eller says: I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com. Read her previous columns here

There are 8 comments

  1. Steven L Fornal

    You left out at least one local we’ve met again and again: The local with inherited acreage and a penchant for property rights that extend from HIS property to as far as HIS eye can see and HIS mind can remember the haunts of his youth. Your property rights, however don’t exist. He wants to use his land in whatever manner and store his impacts on your property thereby denying you the residential use of your residentially zoned property. Should you complain, you become one of “them” the NIMBYs or Citiots or worse…

    As for the newcomers, how about the Fairy Dust Junkies? You know, those artistes that are more spiritually evolved than locals? Those purified souls that believe they privilege us with their presence? The advanced consciousness they bring is a gift beyond price. Of course, you never see them at meetings or workshops or anywhere really where actual government business is carried out. But, come a public hearing where they see their interests at stake and they flock to the Town Hall to deliver factless opinions and admonishments clearly displaying their ignorance of the subject under discussion even as they ooze their superiority of intellect which demands low brow public officials accede to their solutions which are actually calls to NOT act. Then how is the problem under discussion remedied? Well, they’re not sure but they leave you with the advice to google solutions before exiting to posse up at the local artisan restaurant, brewery or art gallery to salute their contributions to the community.

    1. e.l. lefevre

      people whose sum total of civic engagement is to show up in self-righteous mode at a public hearing a project they feel impacts their property directly and spout incoherent falsehoods and urge the rest of us to “google it” if they need more info — hardly confined to fairy dust junkies! that’s pretty much every public meeting i’ve ever been to.

  2. Karl Marx, Jr

    Believe it. If you come from Brooklyn and buy shares in a strictly local bank, invest in commercial housing assessed at cost to build and then depreciated annually and you ate a town employee on the board of assessment review nobody will know it understand it recognize it all but too late as real property owners.

  3. Marvin prince

    I live down the block from one of those confederate flag flying anti Semitic, I hate black bigots. This lowlife talks Jews right in front of Jews as proudly as she flys her flag. Your typical poor white trash punching bag at the hands of the ex husband. Pistol packing chip tooth fat belly bleach blond pig. I use to pay her the hillbilly tax, but now I wouldn’t give her the time of day. I go to liberal towns like Hudson as to not spread any commerce in her town where I happen to live. The only way to get even with these homegrown slobs is to make sure they never see a dime of hard earned city money. Fuck them in the wallet where it hurts the most. That’s the only thing they understand. By the way, the fool loves trump. What a surprise !

  4. ValleyGuy

    It is really presumptuous of you or anyone to accuse people who choose to move here as being ‘a playground for rich people’…seriously, your elitism is showing and it is very ugly. As a long-timer around here my family bought our home because in fact and reality as people who were working in the city Ulster County was the only place within reason we could AFFORD to buy a home. So we endured a long and
    tiring commute in order to afford a home, working 70 hour weeks and going back and forth to make ends meet. That’s a not a rich person’s problem, that’s a WORKING person’s problem.

    As a long-timer around here, I don’t know ANYONE who is anxious about the Catskills future, I only know people who own local businesses and work locally who are glad they can get food, jobs, and see their taxes stay flat, even revert slightly, because of more sound investment in the region.

    I’d also be seriously curious how many ‘concerned’ folks are the same people who came here from someplace else – my guess would be at least half of them.

    The ‘problem with the country’ is the divisiveness that folks like the author of this article ‘plant’ to stir up controversy.

    The truth, the fact, and the reality of COMMUNITIES is that they are living, breathing things that change, grow, and evolve. The are supposed to WELCOME people and INVITE new ideas. The reverse-elitism of this kind of complaining is nothing short of annoying.

    As a long-timer, I welcome my new neighbors, the new services they bring to my life, and the proof is in the new opportunities many of our towns and villages have that did not exist 10-years ago. Ask someone who’s gotten a job from these ‘rich’ folks and you’ll hear the real story – One of thanks.

    1. penelope the muse

      forgive me if i missed your point and the point of these columns, but perhaps those who are concerned would like to be able to make a living around here without having to endure a long and tiring commute and work 70 hours a week?

      not sure if you’re still having to do that commute but, you know, it kind of proves the point that this area doesn’t have a lot of economic opportunity for people who want to work in the community they live and be able to maintain a middle-class standard of living. not rich at all, or elitist, but common until probably around the year 2000 or so.

  5. penelope the muse

    the tensions will always be there. politics is mostly motivated reasoning- people start with an opinion, which generally bubbles up from the unconscious based on emotion, then find the arguments to support it. “ad hominem” is a fallacy of argument, but in view of this, it does make some sense. people really do tend to get their opinions from their identity. accepting this runs counter to the “age of reason” that provides the foundations for our country or any country that is supposed to seek consensus of an informed electorate to make the best decisions, but… well, maybe we were never that rational in the first place. i think there’s still a place for civic discourse. well articulated points of view can still emerge and sway public opinion to some degree, or at least make it harder for those using weak arguments to support their motivated reasoning to maintain their position. (their minds won’t be changed but their clear trouncing in the public square can make a difference.)

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