As Covid restrictions negate the advantages of city life, erstwhile Hudson Valley residents return

Stephan Hengst (center) during a training session at his office in New Paltz. Jamie Corts is to his left and Jesse Chason is to his right. (Photo by Will Dendis)

There is a legend regarding the village of New Paltz and the sleepy Wallkill river: spend three nights by a north-flowing river and you are destined to return. It is reputed to be native in origin, but even if that is apocryphal, the pattern of eternal return has been played out so often by locals and by SUNY grads, it has become a resonant modern myth for the entirety of the Mid-Hudson valley and Catskills, never more active than at this moment.

Much of the story has to do with the MHV’s paradoxical proximity to New York City and opportunity. It is close enough to be an idyllic place to escape to, close enough that our own cultural engine hums with urban influx and influence, but just too far to be convenient for any but the most economically untethered, who are more likely to live and play here than do their business in any locally engaged way. An ordinary commuter from here spends nearly a quarter of the day in transit, too heavy a life toll for most. That final, forbidding remove—30 miles of it or so—may be the buffer that has allowed the region to maintain its strange character and its precarious cultural balances.

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The upriver pressure is now the greatest it has been since 9/11, with many experts predicting that the Covid era will signal a far more lasting and significant change in the distribution of bodies and the movement of properties here than did the attacks of 20 years ago. Local social media is ablaze with the implications, dire prophecy, us vs. them lines drawn.

Here we look at the unique case of three returning natives, dual citizens of sorts who made a life and an identity elsewhere and are now in various states of return, perhaps driven here by urban hellscapes and the loss of sustaining work, perhaps pulled back by the place and the past. The question for them, as for us all, has never been why live here but how to make it work here. The traumatic Covid era is one in which societal and personal transformations intertwine. It is a time of reinvention.

 

Origins

Nicholas Pattison

Nick Pattison with wife Katherine Ambia and daughter Luna Pattison. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

Founder and creative director of Volume (www.volumenyc.com), a brand and web agency

I was born in Woodstock in 1980. I attended Woodstock Day School, Woodstock Elementary, and Onteora. I still look back on it fondly, the tight-knit community of warm, connected parents who seemed to all know each other. The kids I met in Woodstock have been my closest friends throughout my life. Artistic from an early age and encouraged that way, I attended Kathy Anderson’s School for Young Artists and then eventually the Woodstock School of Art as well. (Since I have been back in Woodstock, I am now reconnected with Kathy, and have been working with her to come up with solutions for her business to thrive amidst Covid). I now look back and see these early experiences in the artistically-inclined Hudson Valley as the springboard for my current career as a designer.

Once high school ended, I ended up going to Macalester in Minnesota for one year. Ultimately, Minnesota wasn’t for me and my love for the Hudson Valley pulled me back, and I transferred to Bard. I spent all of my college years up here too, I just couldn’t shake it.

 

Stephan Hengst

Stephan Hengst. (Photo by Will Dendis)

Licensed Real Estate Salesperson, Clements, Brooks & Safier Team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Hudson Valley Properties

My parents first moved to the Hudson Valley when they emigrated to the US when I was just a little kid. I spent a lot of time in Tarrytown, and then Fishkill. I learned to love the Hudson Valley at a very early age. Then my parents moved to the Washington DC area for a while. I decided I wanted to attend the Culinary Institute of America so I came to the CIA when I was 18. I got my associate’s and bachelor’s there and grew to love the region.

After graduating, I moved away and then in 2005 I moved back to take a job as the director of communications for the college. For 11 years, I worked at the and lived in Poughkeepsie. In 2005 I met my husband who was also a student at the CIA. Sixteen years later he and I are married. we run a website called BIG GAY HUDSON VALLEY. For twelve years we’ve been producing events for the LGBTQ community in the region.

 

Joel Feinberg

Joel Feinberg at his New Paltz home. (Photo by Will Dendis)


Chief Executive Officer, de Wolfe Music USA Inc.

I went to music school, SUNY Purchase, where I studied performance, guitar, education, all that stuff. But I knew it wasn’t for me to be just a performer, so I left and finished a degree in my hometown of New Paltz in communications. I was feeling insurmountable pressure to know exactly what I was going to do with all this stuff when I graduated. Classical guitar was a dead end for me. I moved to New York City and found my way through a mish mosh of jobs in television—it was about leaving, letting go, and exploring, all of that good stuff. It was a beginning of a balancing act that I now see has never stopped, and has now continued to work through Covid, propelling me to a much better situation than most.

 

 

Departures

Nicholas Pattison

I moved to NYC to go to Pratt to get my master’s degree. I found myself in the city for the next 15 years. I started my career at Pentagram design, the largest and most prominent design agency in the world, working for one of my design heroes, Paula Scher. A few years later, I then was lucky enough to be able to go work for my other true design hero Milton Glaser, designer of I Love NY, the Brooklyn Brewery identity, the creator of New York Magazine, and many more iconic works.

I worked for Milton for five years on a tight knit team of only three designers. Milton was a Woodstocker the majority of his life as well, shuttling back and forth from Manhattan for decades, and he is the designer behind a number of iconic Woodstock identities, from the Bear Cafe logo to Bob Dylan’s album cover artwork. His typical pattern was to leave Manhattan Thursday and return to the city Sunday—pretty much the life I would hope for should we eventually decide to split time. A year or so into me being there I actually started driving Milton and his wife up here since my parents were still here too, and we both lived and worked in the city, but kept a foothold in Woodstock on the weekends.

In 2011 I left Milton’s to focus more on digital work with websites and apps. I became the creative director of a startup incubator, overseeing the brand building and digital design for over 30 startups. I also built two startups of my own, both ecommerce platforms. My primary career for the last decade, however, has been my own design consultancy focused on branding and web design. My clients include The Brooklyn Brewery, Peloton, Asana, and Zogsports—to name a few—and Woodstock brands Bread Alone and Fruition have remained clients to this day.

 

Stephan Hengst

The whole time that I was working at the CIA my husband had a job working in Manhattan. He commuted every day for nine years, back and forth on the train. We really realized it wasn’t a sustainable life for us. He wasn’t here and I I didn’t get to see him a lot. So we moved to Philadelphia and then to New York City.

In the city, I was the director of marketing for Rosa Mexicano restaurants. We were still very connected to the Hudson Valley. We kept producing events in the Hudson Valley, the place that we always loved. We appreciate the community here, the arts and culture, just the beauty of the area. We always knew we wanted to come back. But obviously conditions with the pandemic created a very different situation for so many people and we ended up coming back a lot earlier than we thought we would.

 

Joel Feinberg

I went to New York in the nineties to test my legs and make my way in the real world, to stumble along. Music would never die for me, so I immediately started in with bands and artists, and then someone said, hey why don’t you do this to make some money during the day, and that was a sales gig, for Internet recruiting, the beginning of the dotcom explosion in the Clinton years. There was money everywhere, and I ended up making a lot of it really fast, faster than I should’ve, all while playing in bands. Blew it all on gear and living the life.

But then I started realizing I had a plan. I was building a longer term plan than everyone else and I didn’t even realize it. I wanted everything. I knew you can’t have everything. You’re either going to be a performer or you’re going to make money. I couldn’t let go of either. I’ve always been an active martial artist. That was a guidance and a grounding force for me to build time and space to come up with ideas. I learned how to think and develop myself through physical activity, in a spiritual and practical way. So I was playing music, making a shit ton of money and practicing martial arts as if I was going to be opening a school someday.

9/11 changed all that. I lost everything. I lost people that, as a recruiter, I had convinced to work in those buildings, people who would have been better served by other jobs. It was an incredible challenge, but like Covid, it was evolutionary, knowing that I am going to learn something through the sacrifice and pain. I took a year off and trained martial arts non-stop, 12:00 to 8:00 every day. You know those martial arts schools, there is always some whacko living there. That was me.

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So many Covid similarities then. Everyone is trying to go backwards into this old world that doesn’t exist. Same thing after 9/11. I got back into sales. I did well because I am good at it but I was hanging out with frat boys, people with no identity, no will to look in the mirror at the painful parts of themselves. I worked two years in a boiler room with assholes, selling shit that wasn’t even legal. No Internet. The only mental retreat I had was Microsoft Paint. They forgot to uninstall that. They loved me and I hated them. I got good at caring about people I couldn’t stand.

In 2004, I started at De Wolfe Music. Founded in 1909 in the silent film era, De Wolfe is one of the first companies to publish music for the sole purpose of licensing it, reusing it. De Wolfe is a pillar of what is now known as production music, library music, sync. All of it originated with British composer and conductor Meyer De Wolfe and a few others. The difference with De Wolfe is that we’re still here, we’re modern, still growing and evolving.

I worked for the company that ran my way, learned the ins and outs of the industry. I composed music through films through it. I ran for the family that ran the portion of De Wolfe in the United States, a sub-publisher for 50 years. Their daddy had given it to them—handed them this music company, and they were not musical people. And here I was, ready to eat nails. I was biding my time and developing myself, and they quit without telling anyone, ten years later.

 

 

 

Returns

Nicholas Pattison

When Covid hit, we moved up here immediately in mid-March, thinking it would be for a couple of weeks. I had five t-shirts and two pairs of shorts. Now we have committed to being up here for at least one year. I have been fortunate to have my childhood home still here and Woodstock to immediately retreat to, and fortunate with how the timing of this lined up with my work life. Just as March came and Covid hit NYC in a big way, I had finished a number of big jobs, so money was less of an issue than if Covid happened even months earlier. Most importantly, I was just about to pivot my design business to be a larger operation, and needed to strategize how I was going to bring the business to market. Coming up here amidst a pandemic amidst these health concerns, as well as the changing landscape of my business, gave me the opportunity to have space to shift gears.

When we got up here, my wife had to begin work immediately, and was full-time right away five days a week. This left me to take care of our four-year-old daughter every day. Since I had some time on my hands and needed to back away from work, I was able to do this fairly effortlessly. I was excited to do it too—we were finally back in Woodstock where I had grown up, and I could show my daughter what it was like to live in the country.

Woodstock was once a true community. Our parents moved here in the sixties when they were in their 20s and 30s with the intention of settling here with friends and living here permanently. There were shared values socially and politically. They were all hippies, artists, musicians. The new crowd is mostly just city people who aren’t here for community, but just to temporarily escape. And it has a “finance guy” vibe. I doubt many of them know each other.

Over the years I’ve been wondering what might bring a generation of young people back here. My friends and I have often talked about it, but always arrived at: “Yeah, but what would we all do?” Now that Covid hit, people are buying more permanent property, and can work remotely, I wonder if there might be enough people here to restart what I parents did, just in a different way. Perhaps the silver lining to all of this (if there even is one) is that this is one of the few ways Hudson Valley could truly revive itself. The changing landscape of Kingston is also attractive. Even if lots of young people aren’t all moving to Woodstock, it seems to be happening in Kingston.

I’ve seen lots of young people my age are slowly moving back here and starting new, hip businesses. It’s good to know people in their 30s see opportunity here and are trying to make it happen. Woodstock has miraculously managed to keep its “vibe.”

 

Stephan Hengst

I was furloughed from my job as director of marketing for Rosa Mexicano in March and then in April my job vanished as with a lot of restaurant jobs. We had bought a home here in 2018 when we moved back to NYC and we Airbnb’d it two weekends a month and that paid for it. Oddly enough we had planned a major bathroom renovation in March and April of this year, long before we knew the pandemic was coming. So it was open. We left our apartment in Harlem and came up here.

I found myself going, “what do I do next?” In years of producing events for BGHV and partnering with organizations like Ulster County Tourism, Dutchess County Tourism, we always have people ask us for real estate referrals. They want to know what community we lived in and what communities we would recommend and what we liked about living here. They would say, “it looks like the queer life that you live in the Hudson Valley is a great one. I can’t wait to move there. Can you help me?”

So I took the opportunity while on unemployment to go to real estate school. I took all the 75 hours of classes I needed for NYS. Spent a few months studying and getting ready for the exams and once the exams were opened again post-lock down in July, I took my test, passed it on the first try, got my license and three weeks later now I’m officially signed as a real estate agent here.

I sold my first house three weeks ago. As a 43-year-old who has worked in communications my whole life, the pandemic caused me to take a step back and say, what transferable skills can I take from my previous career in marketing and communications and public relations and how can I apply that to helping people buy homes and sell homes in a place that I love and understand?

Everyone’s trying to get into a space where there’s a little more room and they don’t feel like they’re in a literal Petri dish. Everyone deserves a place to live and everyone needs a safe community that speaks to them, in which they feel comfortable. I was glad that I was able to identify the transferable skills and pivot very quickly.

New York City is a very strong culturally vibrant place. It will recover but it’s going to recover in a different way. 2020 has taught many individuals, many businesses, and many communities how to be nimble, the key to success right now. I’m thankful that I’m living in a community that gives me that opportunity and hopefully I’ll be able to take that and be successful with it.

 

Joel Feinberg

Covid gave me two things on my journey, very spiritual and very practical, fundamentals of the universe: time and space. There are people who have had these Covid tools before Covid, and they’re all flourishing. The ones who are corporate, who are trying to fit square pegs in round hole, they‘re dropping like flies.

Through decisive action, I’m where I want to be. I closed my office in New York on March 2. I’ve got the business here now and we don’t pay overhead. Without bills, who cares if we have a bad week? We’re already about 2021, 2022 man. We’re doing great. Never looking back. It’s a spiritual thing. I’m taking meetings at Kenneth Wilson Park [in Mount Tremper]. I do business in the woods, as long as I’ve got a signal and I’ve got Microsoft Teams. I was tripping out on spider webs for a while, and it led to a great business idea, it was like “Holy sh*t, I have to call Fat Beats [a record company] and talk about this new deal that a spider web showed me.”

I started a program called Fight for Music. It’s an organization I created with the rapper Chip Fu from Fu Schnickens. We’re educating African-American kids in disadvantaged schools in the music industry, the psychological things, the tricks, the business side, and we’re giving them all the hookups. Chip works is the creative side. We’ve got all kinds of people coming in to teach; [composer/producer] David Baron, people from NBC.

We’re taking it across the country. Phase one, we teach them the industry and how to dress up their tracks. Phase two, we license it. I’ve already got all the green lights from Hollywood, interest from Netflix and LeBron James’ school. Every penny we get goes back to those schools to buy instruments, but computers, and get moving.

And then the kids that stay and develop the program at their schools, we’re going to hire them for real in the music industry, and they’re off and running, never having to worry about getting the hookup that the white kids get. One of our pilot schools is in Poughkeepsie. Helping these kids is all about the big plan.

I’m watching New York die. There’s no personality. It is a conglomerate of conveniences. New Paltz, for me, is the giver of everything, and the taker of everything I thought I needed but don’t. To me it is the most beautiful jagged edge. I’m proud of where I am because I suffered to get here.

 

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