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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her previous columns here.