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.