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I mentioned to some of you that this would sometimes be a Catskills Blog. This week, it is a Catskills Blog.
I was one of the uber-fortunate pricks who spent 3 months of the pandemic hermetically sealed inside a Williamsburg high rise, and then promptly hightailed my ass up to the Catskill Mountains in June 2020. My friends at the Urban Cowboy Lodge were just opening for business in May 2020 and my lease was up in June, so as far as pandemic decisions go, spending a summer paying rent to live in a semi-open, newly renovated Alpine Lodge tucked into the mountains seemed like a no-brainer.
Subscriber Perk Alert! Subscribers of Down the Pipes have a standing invite to the Lodge, where I’ll buy you your first round or a S’Mores Kit. Ask for Lemon, even though she’s definitely too busy to be bothered.
Two years later, I’m still living 20 minutes down the road in a town called Fleischmanns (named after the Fleischmann’s Yeast and Gin dynasty). It was never a factory town despite the infuriatingly grammatically-incorrect town name, but it was where their fabulously wealthy family and friends spent summers in the mountains at the turn of the 20th century, a reprieve from the business, heat, and literal horseshit of New York City.
Fun facts about Fleischmanns? In the 1930’s and 40’s this place was a serious party town, the governor of NY kept a place, bunches of Broadway, Opera, and—later—Soap Opera stars probably had affairs up here, Bill Murray did a zombie movie in town a few years ago (not Zombieland, but The Dead Don’t Die), and the great-great-great-granddaughter of founder Charles Fleischmann is none other than Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes.
The nicest block in town is named Wagner Avenue after baseball legend Honus Wagner, who was rumored (but never confirmed) to be an early member of the Mountain Athletic Club Baseball Team, which you can still watch play old timey baseball in town every summer. The nearest “city” is Kingston, the first capital of New York. Another fun fact about Kingston? Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley owns the local soccer team, Kingston Stockade.
I’ve clearly picked up a lot of fun facts about the places up here…it’s an area saturated with stories dating back to the 1600s in some areas, earlier still in areas that were actively lived on by the Lenape before the Dutch, French, English, Irish, Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Italians, Russians, Chinese, and Polish immigrants found their way up the Hudson River from New York. It was where the 20th century “Great American Melting Pot” escaped the sweltering heat of NYC summer, often braving an all day, unpaved, and a/c-free carriage or car ride to find peace in the mountains.
And in a lot of ways, you can still see those original trails carved through these mountains today. Buddhists found spiritual space for temples and retreats, their statues and pagodas occasionally peek above the trees as you whip around mountain hairpins. We need not spend too much time on the Jewish contribution to the Catskills (and all of modern comedy, for that matter), Mrs. Maisel Season 2 details that nicely. But even today Fleischmanns is home to one of the largest Hasidic summer communities, truly a South Williamsburg of the Catskills between Passover and Rosh Hashana. The Urban Cowboy Lodge sits in a German/Austrian area of the Catskills called Big Indian (an alarming-sounding name obviously steeped in the violent racism of the past, but also an enduring monument to the power of forbidden love). That town is littered with Alpine-style chalets and gingerbread-looking houses, and a neighboring lodge still celebrates Oktoberfest with jubilant sincerity.
My friend Lockhart Steele founded Curbed.com and knows real estate better than anyone else I know. He always told me that the fundamental issue with upstate NY real estate is that there’s simply too much of it. 6,000+ square miles of pristine mountain land as far as the eye can see, a far cry from the 22 square miles of Manhattan or even the 1,500 sq mi of Long Island.
While that may mean that no single area will ever become “the TriBeCa of the CaTsKills” from a real estate returns perspective, it does offer an opportunity for tight knit communities to form around a shared identity, free to practice culture or religion in a way that was really always kind of foundational to the idea of America in the first place. A new age Zen Monastery down the block from a pre-colonial Dutch Protestant Church. A Ukrainian Catholic Church built entirely of wood just miles from a bluestone carved Shaolin Temple.
Just like New York City I guess, in a lot of ways. But with the advantage of endless, glorious, seemingly unlimited space, air, and nature. What if Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Jewish slums of the LES weren't forced to negotiate their sense of “home" with each other? If the cultures they brought from the “old country” had space to breathe and develop into something beautifully foreign but unmistakably American?
That's what I've found here in the Catskills. My curiosity to explore these cultures and crevasses is immense and insatiable, so I'll occasionally attempt to share some news and stories from this mountainside I call home.
But despite the rosy, Rockwell-tinted picture I’ve painted here, The Catskills have seen better days. Hurricane Irene just glanced New York City as a “dud" storm (and possibly led to our flat-footed reaction when Sandy rocked us a year later) but absolutely devastated entire towns when the riverbanks overflowed upstate. The amount of manual labor and farm work in these hills meant that a number of the year round residents became susceptible to opioid addiction. And because New York is best known for the city that bares its name, not the state, a lot of the federal funding NY gets is needed to serve the 8 million people in the city or 3 million on Long Island, not the few hundred thousand I now consider neighbors.
This week I set out to do something about that, attending my first “Meet the Candidates” event in Delhi, the county seat of Delaware County and one of the most rural, red districts in all of NY state. It was democrats only, and it was clear the Democratic Party of Delaware County isn’t used to having a lot of eager downstate voters up here trying to move the needle in a district so red and Trumpy, we typically don’t even run candidates on the democratic line.
But as a friend and political strategist in New York City told me, “politics is the art of the possible, not the probable.” It’s possible I’m not the only downstate liberal who moved to these parts and feels like my vote has extra weight at elevation. Voting in Brooklyn democratic primaries amongst several thousand other district residents feels different than going down to the one room fire house and seeing a single booth set up with a line of no more than 2 other voters. Knocking on doors for canvassing in the city feels like playing a dangerous game of crazy person roulette, up here it’s “getting to know your neighbors.”
It’s also possible that the voters in these mountains aren’t what you imagine when you think “red state” voters. Sure, they’re primarily white like most other red state voters, but they’re the kind of pissed off, New England flavor white folks that also find Bernie Sanders just as appealing as Trump and don’t necessarily buy the racist dog whistles that made Trump so popular elsewhere.
That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist here, it exists everywhere there’s ignorance, which is pretty much everywhere.
But racism doesn’t feel like the overarching thrust of the political right up here the way it does elsewhere in our national body politik, probably because it’s impossible to live in these mountains without seeing just how marvelous diversity can be. That I could stop for Pierogies, pretzels, and pilaf on a single stretch of country road is a real mindfuck of what this country was supposed to look like, and the fact that these communities are still poor, still forgotten, and yet still being represented by wealthy, small government Republicans who offer no solutions and no compromises to these communities…well that just makes me feel like maybe, in some areas of deep red, a blue wave is possible in this midterm.
Or maybe it’s just the natural arsenic in my well water making me hallucinate again.
Regardless, if you're one of the three Delaware county friends who reads this blog, I’ve already told you I’m coming over with petitions. If you’re not but want to support upstate candidates from the safety and comfort of your deep blue district, you should read up candidates like Eric Ball for State Senate and Nick Chase and Matthew Mackey for Assembly (they’re all great but Mackey is my favorite, xe’s running unopposed afaik due to redistricting, and could be the first non-binary member of the NY State Assembly if elected. Nick Chase would be the youngest).
We’ve spent a lot of the last few years locked in a national narrative that feels combative and zero sum, but on the most local, basic levels I’m finding real peace in my own community through this political process. If national politics are getting you bummed out, let me encourage you to figure out who your state and local representatives are (I didn’t know my own when I started this blog a week ago). Go donate/get involved with their campaigns. All politics are local, and the diversity of locales is always going to wind up being a strength, not a weakness.
And that, my friends, is how you blog without bringing up jackshit about the Oscars.
Until next week!
Wow, you can really write! (I mean that in the sincerest way). This was a fantastic read and you painted a beautiful and compelling image of the Catskills. I had spent much time up there when I was doing a lot of hiking and know the area well. And currently, as you mentioned the Mountain Athletic Club, my 19th century base ball team has played them up there. They are a bunch of good guys. And yes, I remember when Irene devastated that area. Bridges were wiped out and destruction from flooding was everywhere. It sounds like you are really at peace up there. Which makes me happy. I'm looking forward to reading more of these. Thanks for sharing James! Now my turn to share this with ML.