Reporter’s Notebook: Ideas from Other Places and Times

Just what is it that makes a place a community? What makes a rural area, a village, a town or a city a good place to live? What makes it more than a name on a map, more than the address where we end of each working day and depart from each morning?

In a sense, The Town of Philipstown and the Village of Cold Spring are both asking those questions right now as they labor with drafting new zoning and comprehensive plans respectively. The standard way to do that sort of planning is to look closely at what exists and ask “How can we fix what’s here? How can do better?” That approach deals with the here and now. What’s the best use of the riverfront? How can we improve Main Street? What do residents want? How can we help businesses thrive?

A very different approach to those same questions may be to not to look at the “here and now” at all. Instead, what would happen if we looked everywhere else – and even into the past? I recently hit the streets with my hat on to do just that. I was armed with a question, one that I think gets to the heart of it. Here’s what I asked people who live here: “Think about the place where you grew up. If you could magically transport one aspect of that place here to Cold Spring and Philipstown, what would you choose?” If you’re a true “local” you’re probably asking, “What about people who have lived here all their lives?” They weren’t forgotten. I asked them “If you grew up here, what would you magically transport back here from the past that would make this a better place today? People liked the question – but didn’t necessarily find it easy to answer.

Enda Cormican lives in Cold Spring but grew up in Athleague, Ireland. He hesitated for a minute but said, “It would be good to have a mom and pop butcher shop. It’d be nice to know where your meat comes from.”

John Pavlik is from Racine Wisconsin and lives in Cold Spring. “If I had to pick one thing it would be Golden Books. They publish children’s books and provide value not just for Racine but the whole country – even the world. And – they provide employment.”

Kasia Bilinski lives here now but was raised in Krakow, Poland. She said she’d bring more walking here. “I walked everywhere. There was no school bus. Streets were tree-lined, you could walk everywhere.” Jackie Pavlik, John’s wife and who is originally from Quetzaltenango, Guatamala, took that notion even further. “I would bring the idea of having walking paths from one community to another. I could walk from my school to the swimming pool or a park – without ever using a road.”

Philipstown contractor Stephen Carlson spent much of his early life in Maricopa County Arizona. Carlson said that Arizona is so different than Philipstown that it would be impossible to transfer what he valued most – the open range.  “As kids we’d go out on the wide open range and camp for three, four or five days. We didn’t even need a tent – it very rarely rained.”

Cindy Dreher lives in Nelsonville now but grew up in rural Cambridge, Ontario. She knew exactly what she’d bring here. “Our neighbors, the Bickles, used to have fabulous corn roasts. All the neighbors would stop by and bring pot luck. We had so many laughs in front of the blazing bon fire.”

Howie Gerhardt spent his youth living in Tappan, just down the Hudson River and would bring back an attitude from that time and place. “People didn’t care about property lines nearly as much then. My friends and I always cut across people’s property to take short cuts to where we were going. No one got annoyed – they just waved and said hi.”

Chris Burnett grew up in a small town in Connecticut. His mom still runs the weekly newspaper there. “I’d bring the Firemen’s Fair here,” something Burnett describes as a real community event. “And if I had a second choice it would be the turkey dinners at the church hall.”

OK, what did a few of the “true locals” have say?”

Ande Merante lives in Nelsonville and has lived here most of his life – other than a stint in Oneonta and then in Japan when he served in the armed forces. He has many happy and fun memories of his early life here. As a kid he swam in local ponds and in the river and in the pool at the old Dockside Restaurant. “So much of our open spaces have been taken up by structures. I’d bring back places for kids to play without being organized, natural facilities. We used to have 150 kids sleigh riding on the hill at Haldane. We’d skate on Glick’s pond in Nelsonville and at James Pond.”

Dyane Oswald, a life long Cold Springer didn’t hesitate when asked. “I’d bring back Palen’s Drug Store on Main Street, ” she said. Oswald was almost insulted when I asked what was so good about a mere drug store. “Jeepers creepers,” she said, “What wasn’t good about it? It had a soda fountain and bazooka bubble gum!” She also had a close second choice. “The Bijou movie theatre. I saw ‘Jaws’ there. I was terrified after the first scene.”

Kevin Lahey, a Springer who owns and operates The Main Course, did hesitate but he lit up when he thought of his answer. “The hospital. I’d bring back Butterfield Hospital. I don’t like having to go far to be taken care of.”

Only one person said he has already actually brought his favorite element of home town life to Cold Spring. Steve Bates manages the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market and grew up on Northeast, a town on Chesapeake Bay. “Fish” Bates said. “Just before we moved up here we had what we called ‘the last supper’, a great fish dinner, because everyone told us we wouldn’t be able to get it here.”

This year Bates added a fresh fish vendor to the market and he says it is going over very well.

For me, having grown up in Oldcastle, Ontario, a place considerably less than a village, the answer is simple. I would bring Jack Tasker’s Oldcastle Variety Store here. It was a store with incredibly little variety, a restaurant with four tables and six stools at the counter. It was the post office, a one-table pool hall and a one baseball machine pinball emporium. From age 10 to twenty one I hung out there with farmers, truck drivers, teachers, electricians and horsemen. My buddies and I ate there, played pool, talked to men much older than us about hockey, baseball and all things local. We found work there. We aggravated Jack, the owner, to no end. On the weekend he’d take us to the stock car races. On extremely rare occasions we even flirted with girls. Not once did my mom worry where I was – she knew.

People’s answers may seem only nostalgic at first glance. While they are that in part they also speak to the very basics of what make up a good community. Events and facilities that make it easy for people to get together. Shared experiences. Safety. Good food. Stores that have what we want. Fun, simple and adventurous things for kids to do. People of all ages. Ways to stay fit and healthy that are built into our daily lives. Jobs.

If you could, what would you bring here from where you grew up? And if you were born here what would you most like to bring back from the past that would make this a better place to live? Your comments are welcome!

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