Changes in New Paltz

Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, the acclaimed SUNY professor, author and social justice advocate and I used to count black people in New Paltz at a time when there were few. Often we were in town and never saw one person of color for days at a time. 

We especially counted African-American students at school events, the spring concert and the high school musical. After she died in 2009, I kept up the tradition until there were so many people to count, I lost track.

I wanted to ask the newcomers how life was for them here. Did they experience any racism? With only one exception, I wound up talking mostly to people from the black community I already knew who have lived here for some time. 


I met the one recent arrival at a wine tasting. Her long grey dreadlocks and beautiful dress stood out. Here is what she said, “This is the most racist community. I have to leave. Micro-aggressions happen daily. The shopkeepers treat me differently. I hate it here.” That’s one opinion. 

He was sitting on a stoop on Main Street. He looked down on his luck, enough to be one of the people who ask for money at the exit from Top’s Plaza. I assumed he found his way here from Brooklyn or one of the poorer sections of Poughkeepsie or Newburgh. Assuming “makes an ass out of you and me,” a friend once told me. I was wrong about all my postulates. He said, “I arrived here as a foster child in 1972. I have lived in New Paltz ever since. Great town! No racism here! In all those years I have only been called a name once by a drunken kid coming out of a bar.”

These two encounters turned out to be fortuitous. Different opinions about the same subject were all that was the same.

“The population hasn’t changed at all. No black people here. I want to move to Kingston.”

“Yes. I agree. I see so much ethnic diversity, I want to ask people how they got here!”

“The schools are not doing enough.”

“The schools are making a great effort to address the needs of brown and black students”

What began as an article about population change in New Paltz regarding racial diversity, turned out to be another subject altogether. How do we form our points of view? Each person has their own perceptions filtered through the prism of their beliefs and experiences. Where do we get our beliefs? From reality? From wanting to be right? From other people’s opinions? This is not a comfortable question for me to ask. I write an “opinion” column. “Opinion” is how my column is listed on the New Paltz Times website. 

I decided to pick another subject for inquiry just to see if the same phenomena occurred. I chose traffic and tourism. 

“We can deal with the traffic. Tourism is great for us, and New Paltz was just voted the Best Small Town in America. I am so proud.”

“I hate it here now. I can’t get into the Bistro for breakfast anymore. I want to move to Rosendale.”

The most philosophical answer came from a man who looked like he just left the Woodstock Festival but, of course, much older.

“Traffic! Yeah man! It’s a pain! But ya know what hell equals? No change. Think about it.”

I did. When I arrived here in 1966, the entire town consisted of one block which began at the traffic light intersecting with Route 32 North, up the hill, past Campus Casuals and Manny’s, ending at P&G’s. Nostalgia aside, there are good changes as well as problems and inconveniences. We argue. There is more to disagree about. It is difficult to admit there are problems here. There are racial issues that need to be addressed. We have had serious drug-related troubles with our children. We are far from perfect. 

Nevertheless, we have more choices now — the Denizen Theater and the Roost Art Gallery. We don’t have to go to Marshall’s to shop. We can buy clothes at Peter Harris in our mini-mall. There are medical buildings, great restaurants, masseuses galore, along with the lines and traffic. 

Over the 53 years I have lived here, change was often greeted with resistance. Some of my compatriots will remember our first heartbreaking battle to keep franchise businesses out of our community beginning with Jack-In-The-Box, a precursor to a McDonald’s style fast-food establishment. Nevertheless, there is “no change” that is wonderful.

Students, like I once was, want to stay here, become part of the community and start families. The natural world is still intact. The beauty all around, astounding. 

What is the same for me? I love this place. Someone once asked me why I have lived here for 53 years, in the same small town. Did I not have a spirit of adventure? It’s been an adventure. It has not been the same “small town,” but an ever-changing reflection, good and bad, of the larger society. Nevertheless, it is my opinion, through the prism of my beliefs and because of the people who live here, this is a special place. 

It’s home. 

There are 2 comments

  1. Darren B.

    Not really that different. Slightly bigger 1950 maybe? Typical small New York college town. The small mountains are nice but no comparison to Colorado.

    Born and raised New Paltz, Lived worked in Manhattan and well traveled sales USA New Paltz is a very small town and will never be Poughkeepsie, Kingston Or Newburgh which are also very small cities compared to other places.

    Their is a small college, and 1 main small main st, some nice small mountains, certainly no 3000ft cliffs, defiantly not 1/2 dome at Yosmetti, for its proximity to NYC, New Paltz has some limited value. Beyond that it is a nice NY small college town. Thats it….

    New Paltz has some traffic but nothing compared to N.Y.C. Once and a while during a regional or local public event ,autumn foliage, some traffic may pass through, thats about it. Most of the time roads wide open because it remains a tiny village.

    in the 1980’s Marriott wanted to build a hotel at Minnewaska and it was stopped. Many environmentalist and far left socialist liberals stopped it. As a child i skied at ski minni, and enjoyed Minnewaska Hotel, which is now gone, so in many ways new paltz has lost population and businesses.

  2. Richard Heyl de Ortiz

    I’ve not been here as long as Susan, but close to it. I am a native born here in 1967, a graduate of New Paltz schools (Susan’s husband Sam was one of my teachers!) who left for awhile then returned twenty years ago. During the time I was away, first in New York City and then Philadelphia, I came to really appreciate New Paltz. A moment of realization came several years ago in Philadelphia when I was having lunch with two friends my age who, like me, are gay. One grew up in Arlington, Virginia. The other in King of Prussia, a Philadelphia suburb. Both talked about the horror of being a gay kid. RUNNING home from school to avoid getting beat up. Getting beat up. Living in fear most days at school. My childhood as a gay kid here in New Paltz was not perfect. There were a few tormentors, but in that conversation, I came to realize that what I endured was so much less than my two friends did.

    Unfortunately, like a microcosm of the world we live in at the moment, race has reared its head and is now an issue in our high school. My black son, who is 25, as a teen spoke about his relief when SUNY students returned to town in late August. Why? Because, as a young black man, he did not “stand out like a sore thumb” so much.

    New Paltz is not perfect. We are different in some ways than we were when I was a kid. We have work to do, but the essence remains. I have not regretted my decision to return even once. This is a special place.

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