They stand, our elected officials, in the middle of the streets in the heart of their communities. There’s an eerie silence in the air. You can hear the songbirds twittering on semi-deserted roadways usually filled with the sounds of passing traffic. Not today.
Deep in our souls, we all recognize that things will never be quite the same. But how will they be different after the pandemic subsides? We don’t know.
Last fall, Ulster Publishing journalists interviewed more than 60 local people, including a dozen holders of political office, about whether the sense of community in our region was stronger or weaker than it was ten years ago. When we could, we wrote down the reasons for their opinions verbatim.
Among the interviewees were two mayors, Steve Noble of the City of Kingston and Tim Rogers of the Village of New Paltz, plus New Paltz vice-mayor KT Tobin. The town supervisors we talked with were Shannon Harris of Esopus (answering with councilman Jared Geuss), Jeanne Walsh of Rosendale, Bill McKenna of Woodstock, Neil Bettez of New Paltz, Bob Stanley of Shandaken and Fred Costello of Saugerties. Among others, we interviewed Gardiner councilperson Laura Walls, Kingston Common Council president and SUNY professor Rennie Scott-Childress, and Woodstock councilman Richard Heppner, who’s also that town’s historian.
The responses were thoughtful and interesting. The answers from this subset of the folks we interviewed were quite varied, reflecting the fact that the communities these public officials serve are themselves quite varied. People in Shandaken may not always be concerned with the same issues that people in New Paltz think are important.
It’s about six months later now, and the playing field has irrevocably changed – at least temporarily. Face-to-face meetings of more than two persons are in many places a thing of the past – suspended by the need to protect public health. There’s fear on the streets. People are constantly reminding each other to keep their social distance.
Virtual meetings are a wonderful resource, but the kind of nuance they offer for their participants is different from what people in small towns are used to. Some folks worry that the change will favor hierarchy over the kind of plain-spoken egalitarianism the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville identified as quintessentially American in the 1830s.
Mew communications methods don’t irrevocably alter national character, however. People used to squabbling about the details of the police overtime budget aren’t likely to be intimidated by having to do so on Zoom rather than in person. Our sense of community is stronger than that.
The bonds that connect Americans to each other are vital to the character of our society. We are seeing now in the heroic work of people in the healthcare industry and in the service of other first responders the willingness of Americans to help each other out in times of great need even at perilous risk to their own lives.
We are hopeful that what we are learning from the Covid 19 experience is the strength and importance of our local roots. No matter how well-intentioned it intends to be, anything that disconnects us from one another and potentially involves the weakening of our social bonds must be looked at with skepticism.
What we found in the interviews with the local political leaders we conducted closely fit the classic American pattern. These are people with their ears to the ground. They learn from their constituents daily. Isn’t that two-way communication the heart of what the sense of shared community is all about?
We live in a resilient region. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Or weaker.
— Geddy Sveikauskas
Councilman, Town of Esopus
and Shannon Harris
Supervisor, Town of Esopus
Geuss: I would say stronger, as shown through numerous points of our outreach through our comprehensive plan and all our community updating that we have been doing. The town has primarily run on a 60-person volunteer [system] throughout different boards and committees, and we haven’t dropped necessarily in that. We seem to be getting stronger, with more community involvement. More people are taking ownership of their block as well as their Main Street as well as their town as a whole, so at this point, when a lot of [growing] organizations are having the issue of recruitment and help, we seem to be getting people on a weekly basis show up and want to give as little or as much as they can to the town.
Harris: I would agree with that, but I have no basis to judge what happened ten years ago, except that ten years ago Jared and I, in our positions (she’s a Democrat, he a Republican), probably wouldn’t be on a call together with you.
Geuss: That’s right.
Harris: We, in the past ten years, I feel that we’re ahead of the curve in terms of other communities even in being truly a bipartisan, working-together type of government that looks beyond the politics that typically divide people. We focus more on the community at its core, inclusive of all residents from all persuasions, and the fact that I think, when I’m asked questions, I often want Jared’s insight and his different perspectives to challenge and play devil’s advocate or improve whatever it is that we’re doing.
Us coming on the call together, even, is a step ahead of the curve from other communities, and we feel that throughout the town in the level of new volunteers that are coming in to help the town through its projects and volunteer on various initiatives.
Mayor, City of Kingston
I think the sense of community has grown tremendously in the last ten years. My perception is that people are more connected and engaged. There is a strong sense of community activism and more people have a voice now, which is essential to building community. We are growing, but Kingston is still small enough that each person can make a difference.
We may not always share the same beliefs or ideology, but our neighbors are passionate about preserving what makes Kingston special. I have worked hard over the last few years to make our community a welcoming and inclusive home, and I hope and believe it’s felt by all.
Mayor, Village of New Paltz
New Paltz has always had a strong sense of community. Having grown up here in the Seventies and Eighties, I was able to experience that community as a young person. I remember my mom and her friends launching a New Paltz soccer league for kids of all ages from our basement.
And now, having the perspective and privilege of serving as mayor and living here as an adult and a parent, I am aware of how socially responsible and conscious we are as neighbors. Together we focus on social justice, immigration issues, health and wellness, open-space protection, the importance of local food, civil engagement, environmental issues, our self-inflicted climate crisis, and how to look out for each other generally — especially those in need.
We all don’t see eye to eye on every issue, and there are plenty of things we need to keep working on, but people here are quick to recognize that we have something unique and valuable in New Paltz, and together, we are committed to keep trying.
Supervisor, Town of Rosendale
It is stronger now because there is more of a sense of cooperation, getting along and pride in our community. The Town of Rosendale has made a number of improvements in infrastructure which I believe brings a sense of pride to the residents and their community. We have a new town hall, pool, bathhouse, improved basketball and tennis courts, new pedestrian trails like the Rosendale trestle, James Street pedestrian walkway, Wallkill Valley rail-trail, Joppenburg trail and the Binnewater parking area to support those. Our water and sewer infrastructure is being upgraded to ensure safe drinking water and protection to the environment.
Deputy mayor, Village of New Paltz
Stronger. I moved to New Paltz 30 years ago to attend SUNY New Paltz, and throughout my time here I have witnessed many instances of our community coming together as one. Just in these past few years, we saw hundreds in our town rally together to demand ICE release neighbors who were taken from their homes. When the hurricanes hit in 2011-12, we jumped to respond and help provide what was needed near and far, holding dropoff centers and concerts to get the supplies and funds needed by our affected residents, farmers and first responders. And last year we rebuilt our central playground together.
These are just a few examples of New Paltz consistently demonstrating its people power and a strong sense of community over time.
Supervisor, Town of Woodstock
It’s an interesting question. Do I think people are still community-minded? Yes, I do. Ten years ago people had more time to spend with our community, to put in to work on ZBA or a planning board or coach Little League or join the fire department. It just seems like now you see more families with both parents having to be employed to make ends meet. It seems to take up more time.
At the same time, in Woodstock people are very clued into what’s going on, participating in it. In the last federal elections, people in town were involved, petitioning, going to other states, knocking on doors, working on campaigns. Folks are still community-minded, just focused in the bigger community.
That’s my feeling. I could be totally off base.
The fire department is also strapped for volunteers. People don’t have the time to commit.
Now it’s not just going to a planning board meeting, it’s eight or more hours of outside training, going to sexual harassment trainings. The process had gotten more complicated and more time-consuming. It’s the same up at the fire house. Twenty years ago when I first joined I spent 42 hours over 13 weeks and I was a fireman. That same training is close to 150 hours now. Who has time to do that?
If you want to be a paramedic, it’s even longer.
It’s more of a commitment to be involved.
Even a Little League coach you have to have more training, background checks. It’s not just going to the field on Saturday morning to hit some grounders to kids. If things were different in Washington, people in Woodstock’s attentions might be redirected locally.
Simplifying things would help, but I don’t see that happening. It’s such a litigious society.
But I love this job. I love our community. We have a great town. We have great people.
The town employees, almost to a person, are a great group of people to work with. They care about the community and make my job easy.
Supervisor, Town of New Paltz
I think it is stronger, although it doesn’t always feel like it. It seems as though people have become more united within different demographic groups in our community, but have become more fractured politically, with less tolerance for middle ground. However, I think these differences actually make us stronger. Just like in nature, where biodiversity leads to more resilient ecosystems, a diverse community is also stronger.
It’s a tricky one to unravel. In addition to the groups that always bring us together and help create a sense of community — religious groups, sports teams, fraternal organizations — there are new ones that bring us together, such as people working for racial equity and immigrant rights, who unite around opioid prevention, who are working against climate change, who care deeply about patriotism and the military, who are supporters of various political ideologies, who want recreational opportunities for their kids, and so on.
As more people enter our community and bring even more diversity, long-entrenched traditions and ideas bump up against new ones, and we can either choose to see that as an opportunity for positive change, or risk letting that kind of insular self-identification create further separation. Our community is full of passionate people with strong feelings, and that hasn’t changed. The town and village governments are working together amicably and efficiently, which is a relatively new development — but it’s not as though political rancor has disappeared.
Social media makes it ridiculously easy to create conflict, and I think we may have allowed that forum to take the place of coming together to solve problems face-to-face. Still, I’m amazed by the number of dedicated people who give their time to improving the community in myriad ways, and I think everyone can find an opportunity to serve in a way that is meaningful to them — which ultimately creates a stronger sense of community.
Supervisor, Town of Shandaken
In Shandaken, people don’t like to see a lot of quick change.
We’re attracting new people to the Catskills. The tourism dollars come, in large part, from New York City dwellers — many of them on the younger side — needing a break from a social-media-heavy world.
They want to get away from tech. They’re looking for an experience. They want to get out and enjoy nature, take a bike ride, go for a hike. They don’t need the campy stuff: the hula lessons and comedians, like in the Borscht-Belt days. They want to re-connect with nature.
My parents instilled in me the importance of the recreational areas. And growing up in this political system, and through planning seminars and such you learn you want to see the parks tied to your commercial centers. And we’ve done that.
Even in the [Shandaken hamlets], we were embattled before. People in Pine Hill complaining about money being spent in Phoenicia, or money being spent in Big Indian. But we work better together. Especially now with our scenic-byway status, it makes a stronger economy when we say we’ve got more assets as a whole. People from the northern and southern Catskills are on the buses to Albany with us, and together we have a stronger voice.
Supervisor, Town of Saugerties
Stronger. I think, in many ways, Saugerties has been for since its inception the site of economic challenges up and down, to the degree that IBM left, there was an acknowledgement that for us to continue to be successful we would have to be more self-resourcing.
I think that has happened. This is not just true for Saugerties, if you look at Ulster County as a whole, each community has reinvented themselves. We have looked into ourselves, discovered what sets us apart, and celebrated those things. We’re known for those celebrations — we do the car show, we do the garlic festival, we do all of those things that have redefined us as a destination.
We have reinforced ourselves as a good place to raise a family. Our volunteer ranks are relatively strong compared to other communities. While each organization, whether it be Kiwanis, Lions, volunteer fire agencies, they all have challenges with membership, but here they’re still productive and exist in a healthy way. The services of the VFW and the lions club are a perfect example of that.
There is a group of people from most any cause who will rally, whether it’s a neighbor facing a health challenge or raising money for a project to help the community, our community comes out and supports it. If you look at the individuals who do that, very often it’s a lot of the businesses who are local here and they step up in a big way over and over and over again.
You can’t help but develop a sense of pride about that. We have a lot to be proud of. I think our sense of community is much stronger and growing.
Laura F. Walls
Councilperson, Town of Gardiner
It depends. Assessing a town’s sense of community is an assessment of personal feelings. As a current member of the Gardiner town board, I feel a strong sense of community. I see the broad range of hopes and concerns individuals bring forth, as well as the efforts made by board members, town volunteers and staff and the many who serve the community at large to be responsive.
Service, and the sense of responsibility to others, is, in my opinion, fundamental to feeling, creating and fostering a sense of community. What is “sensed” is entirely personal and difficult to calculate. One feels what one is open to feel and experience.
Is there a stronger sense of community in Gardiner today versus ten years ago? It depends. I want that to be the case both personally for our residents and collectively as a municipal entity, but sensation knows no geographic or political boundary.
In my experience of service, my sensation of community ebbs and flows with discourse and action and outcomes. And I have learned that seeking to understand various points of view is as essential as understanding that rarely does a single course create an ideal outcome.
Creating or experiencing a sense of community requires opportunity to connect with the community. The goal of supporting and facilitating the effectiveness of municipal committees, boards and the like has been a challenge in many cases. We need to empower others to create a new model of designing service and input to inform and guide public officials who must make decisions that affect diverse community interests. The win-or-lose paradigm is ineffective.
Is the sense of community in Gardiner stronger or less strong now than it was ten years ago? I don’t know, but what I feel is that we can always do better.
Give what you can when you can. Understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And be kind.
Councilman, town historian, Woodstock
I would say there’s less sense of community in general, but for those committed to the town I think it’s even greater. I mean in terms of volunteering and things like that it’s gotten stronger. It’s probably because of the influx of people, through short-term rentals and such, that we realize that we need to come together more.
I think because of what goes on nationally, it commits us to making our home town more cohesive, stronger. There’s not much we can do nationally, but more we can have more of an effect here. Washington seems so out of kilter that we double down on our efforts to make our home towns better.
Fewer and fewer people know the town’s history. So many new people connect to the Woodstock Festival and the music, but I don’t think the people coming have sense of the history, the families, the industries, the roads, quarrying, glassmaking. Our history becomes surface to a lot of people. Takes away from the sense of community. I don’t know that people make the effort to explore it as they used to.
That frays at the sense of community, too. If you don’t have a sense of place, you are not quite as committed to it.
The book Small Town Talk, about the music scene in the 1960s and 1970s, has had an effect. I liked Barney [Hoskyns] and liked his book, but there’s more to our history than must a decade or two in the 20th century.
Kingston Common Council majority leader and professor of American history, SUNY New Paltz
Being a good politician I’ll say that it’s both stronger and less strong. I think there are a lot of issues that have brought folks out and the current mayor has done a lot to actually make a lot of this public discussion possible with public hearings and forums. Sometimes at these meetings people are contentious, they have different ideas about the way things should go. I think masks a readiness by more people to be involved in those discussions. I think ultimately those discussions will be a positive, particularly once we get beyond certain issues in the moment. What I would like us to do is to start looking much farther in the future and start developing some better ways of talking with each other.