Reporters recount memorable stories of 2019
In this, our first edition of the new year, The Current’s reporters look in the rear-view mirror and reflect upon what they wrote in 2019, making their “top picks.”
The selections are not limited to a top 10 of traditional “breaking news” stories. Nor is this a week-by-week summary of the year’s coverage. Instead, what follows are reporters’ personal choices — the stories, subjects and columns that struck them as particularly noteworthy — sometimes as journalists, sometimes as people, and always as citizens of the Hudson Valley. All reporters were asked to summarize their choices in their own words — which are as varied as the beats they cover.
Michael Turton’s Picks
Life in the Hudson Highlands is multi-faceted, so it makes sense that my highlighted stories are eclectic — from tragic to uplifting, troubling to joyful.
■ Cold Spring’s Riverfront Puzzle
The village now manages Dockside Park and is renegotiating its lease with the Boat Club. The 2012 Comprehensive Plan provides ideas for making the most of the riverfront but sits on a shelf gathering dust. Perhaps village and Boat Club leadership, and the community, ought to revisit that plan.
■ First Graders Map Main Street / Bright at the End of the Tunnel
Education at its best. Both stories chronicled Haldane’s Discover, Create and Innovate program, which teaches practical skills, using the community as a classroom. First-graders mapped Main Street, interviewed merchants and produced videos. Middle schoolers researched, planned and painted the pedestrian tunnel, a project long overdue.
■ Recycling More Expensive Than Trash
A few years ago, recycling produced revenue for municipalities. Now, recyclables are costlier to dispose of than trash. Dual stream, or separating recyclables into two groups, could save tax dollars but would require extensive public education and diligence by residents.
■ Are Food Trucks Unfair Competition?
Food trucks have burgeoned nationwide. In Cold Spring, not so much. Restaurant owners, fearful of losing business, adamantly opposed allowing them on village-owned properties. Yet during peak tourist periods, local eateries sometimes can’t keep up with demand. Readers haven’t heard the last of this issue.
■ Reporter’s Notebook: Would You Survive a Mass Shooting?
What a comment on our times. The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office offers training for civilians on how to survive an active shooter event — how to think in advance about the unthinkable. I took the training; it affected me. It was supposed to.
■ Woodstock 1969
It was a joy to gather local residents’ stories about the mother of all music festivals. Each marveled at how 400,000 people cooperated and got along. Apparently, the music wasn’t bad, either.
■ No Vacancy at Airbnb Meeting
Most who attended the packed public forum agreed short-term rentals are fine — to a point. But unregulated, they can have detrimental effects, including reducing the number of rental properties available to full-time residents. The Cold Spring Village Board will no doubt address the issue in 2020.
■ Philipstown Man Dies in Mobile Home Fire
Some readers objected to my photo of the fire’s aftermath; the image was startling. But if it prompted anyone to check their smoke detectors it was worth the criticism. The story is incomplete; the investigation into the fire’s cause and Louis Weber’s death is ongoing.
■ Brothers In Arms
My most fascinating story of 2019. “The war to end all wars” put two Putnam County soldiers shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines. Kent resident Clinton Peterson was black and poor; Garrison’s Hamilton Fish III was white and wealthy. They shared a bond that endured after the war, even though they were from vastly different worlds.
■ Has the Trolley Turned a Corner?
Putnam County Transportation’s Cold Spring trolley began operations in 2007, with more than 8,000 riders visiting area attractions. Usage steadily declined to a 2017 low of 792 passengers. By 2019, aided by the Cold Spring Area Chamber of Commerce and Magazzino Italian Art Foundation, ridership increased to 1,883. Will the trolley ever regain the popularity it enjoyed 13 years ago?
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Jeff Simms’s Picks
These are not necessarily the “biggest” or most-read stories I wrote in 2019, but I decided instead to pick a handful that were important to me for one reason or another. In no particular order, these were articles I enjoyed writing.
■ Reporter’s Notebook: When Finishing Isn’t Enough
I’ve written only two columns in the four-plus years I’ve been with The Current, both of which were departures from my normal areas of coverage but were personally important. This one covered a weeklong biking trip I take each summer, and how 2019’s journey made me feel terrible about myself. It was an endeavor I’d planned for almost two years, but one that left me sad and unfulfilled in the end. Writing about it helped me process some of those feelings while motivating me to continue getting back out there.
■ New Member for Centenarian Club
This profile of a full-of-life Beacon man, Salvatore “Phil” Mattracion, celebrating his 100th birthday was fun in every way. I also don’t consider myself a very good feature (versus “news”) writer, so it’s a good challenge to take these stories on sometimes.
■ For Some, Vaccination Law Stings
After a state law invalidated thousands of vaccination exemptions across New York, this article profiled some of the families affected locally. But the real work on this took place before I began writing, as I had to earn the trust of the parents who were generous enough to allow me to interview them. I tried to tell their stories honestly, allowing the reader to reach his or her own conclusion on the issue.
■ Minister Finds New Home in Beacon
Sometimes you get lucky and interviews cease being interviews and just become conversations. The Rev. Daniel Blackburn came across to me as a humble, pleasant guy who seemed excited to be in Beacon. Perhaps most rewarding, however, was another local clergy member emailing me after reading the article to ask for the new Star of Bethlehem minister’s contact information. The emailer wanted to welcome the new minister to the city — reminding me that behind the complex communities we cover are lots of good, caring people.
■ Living on the Edge / With Housing, What is ‘Affordable’? / New Law Allows Rent Limits / Study: Hudson Valley “Out of Alignment”
Can I cram four semi-related picks into one here? So much has been said over the past few years about development in Beacon, but there’s more to that conversation than buildings alone. The first part of this pick, my contributions to our Living on the Edge series, studied the complexity of job creation and sustainability, topics I’d wanted to write about for a long time. I’m also including locally and state-focused pieces on affordable housing, another critical piece of the puzzle. Finally, I was impressed with the Out of Alignment study issued by Pattern for Progress in October, which collected a wealth of data on many of these intersecting issues, almost creating a handbook for “What’s next?” when thinking about the economic health of our region and the well-being of its residents.
Most Viewed Column, by Author
Kid Friendly, by Katie Hellmuth Martin: When a Pet Dies (April 19)
“Processing is a process.”
Out There, by Brian PJ Cronin: Unknown Pleasures (Jan. 4)
Tracking down the secrets of Putnam Valley’s Granite Mountain
Roots and Shoots, by Pamela Doan: Creating a Flower Forest Garden (July 5)
“I’ve finally found a term for my gardening style: flower forest.”
Small Good Things, by Joe Dizney: The Time is Right (Aug. 23)
Pasta with sweet corn, tomatoes and basil
Alison Rooney’s Picks
My “beat” is usually described as “arts/people,” but, “community,” a force in many of my stories this year, is also an important part of the mix.
■ Assembly Required
Writing about the arts in Beacon and Philipstown often means writing about visual artists. Beacon, especially, continues to be a magnet for painters, ceramicists, print-makers, photographers, multi-media practitioners, sculptors and others. Many cite “a thriving arts community” as the reason for moving to the area. Some are just starting out, many are mid-career, and then there is Joan Phares, who, though she doesn’t actually live in Beacon, is a member of the BAU collective there, and likes being part of that community.
Phares is another type of artist: someone born in a more restrictive time, discouraged from attempting a career as an artist, and pushed to earn a degree in home economics. Yet she kept studying art on the side, eventually earned a master’s, then taught art for decades in a public school.
What liberated Phares to finally become a full-time artist? Retirement. As an assemblage artist, she’s always noticing things. “Every time I dug a hole in the ground, some object would pop up that someone had buried. I pulled out an inner tube from a tractor, a pair of coveralls, abandoned logs and barn wood, faded from the sun, and it spoke to me.”
Phares is flourishing now because she has the time to. “It’s mainly about finding a quiet space in your brain,” she says. “When I retired I took my watch off for six months. Then I realized how much time I was wasting. It’s wonderful to have a creative energy. I’m enjoying this age! I get to do what I want to do!”
■ Social Activist Reflects on Decades of Advocacy
Perhaps when Phares reaches Connie Hogarth’s age, she’ll really get cracking! Hogarth, the Beacon social activist, was 92 when I spoke with her at length last summer. In describing her life’s work, it’s almost easier to list what she hasn’t been involved in, because the causes and issues she is associated with include “working to ban the nuclear bomb, stop the Vietnam War, end racism, abolish the death penalty, impeach a president (Nixon), end apartheid in South Africa, close Indian Point, create a Palestinian state, defend the Bill of Rights and slow global warming as a founding member — 15 years ago — of the Climate Crisis Coalition.”
Phew! And was she cynical or overtly exhausted or anything but cheerful and dynamic during our interview? Not at all. My hands-down winner for “most inspiring interviewee” (the runners-up are the impassioned Haldane High School student actors who spoke so eloquently and clearly about why their production of The Laramie Project was important to them and essential viewing for the community), these words of Hogarth’s can be extended to everyone, regardless of political leanings:
“People often ask me, ‘How could you be involved, not knowing if you would ever see it happen?’ You should know that you probably won’t succeed right away. You have to take a long-range view even if you don’t live to see it.”
Let’s see what Hogarth has up her sleeve for 2020!
■ Nourished by a Friend
A too-early death, particularly of someone with children at home, ripples through our close-knit communities. Fortunately, sometimes friends and family honor the person they lost, and a greater community discovers the essence and talents of a person they may have never met. Case in point: Nourish, a beautifully designed and photographed cookbook produced by the Philipstown friends of Stanzi Allen Pouthier, a young Garrison woman who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013, leaving two small sons. Pouthier’s delicious recipes are the heart of the book, which is both a labor of love and a polished compendium of ideas for Hudson Valley foodies.
■ A Growing Business
At the other end of the life cycle, there are babies being born, toddlers melting down, and teenagers getting annoyed over everything. Dr. Peter Gergely has seen it all in his nearly 30 years as a Philipstown pediatrician. For once, the good doctor had to sit down and answer the questions, which revealed much about his background, including his time in the Army, talents as a painter, and his description of what the “true art of medicine” means: “It’s patients getting a call back. If you make that call, that follow-up, that reassurance, the parents will trust you forever. ‘We’ll get you through that anxious night.’”
■ A Celebration and Farewell
Painter, sculptor and jewelry designer Marnie Hillsley also passed away from cancer young, in 2015, leaving a teenage son and good friends in many different sectors of the community. As her widower, Simon Draper, lovingly described: “They knew her as a great neighbor, someone who loved singing in the St. Philip’s choir, as a person who helped set up a community garden, as someone they’d see, always smiling, as Aidan’s mom, or just as a good friend.” Just before selling their Cold Spring home, on the heels of their son’s departure for grad school, Draper mounted an exhibit of Hillsley’s life and work, with photos and artwork, at Nelsonville’s perfectly named space, Create Community.
■ When Grandma is Mom and Dad
Tragedies and traumas cut through communities, and reverberate beyond the individual affected. The children at the heart of the Relatives as Parents program (RAPP) receive the benefits of activities and camp scholarships, but it’s their caregivers — most frequently, but not always, grandparents — whom RAPP truly supports. The key component of that support is meeting others facing the same challenges in a facilitated group setting, usually with a speaker addressing ways of coping with the hurdles. Most of all, though, it’s a sharing, openly and without any judgment, for a population that often feels isolated and overwhelmed.
10 Most-Viewed Stories
1. The Extremist Next Door (May 17)
2. Huge Fishkill Development Looms Over Beacon (Sept. 20)
3. Garrison Man Dies in Crash (Sept. 20)
4. Former Cold Spring Trustee Arrested by FBI (Dec. 20)
5. Cold Spring Resident Says He Foiled Robbery (April 12)
6. Philipstown Man Dies in Mobile Home Fire (Nov. 8)
7. Beacon’s Lost Bridge (Feb. 8)
8. 2019 Beacon Grad Sues School District (Dec. 27)
9. Judge Reitz Dies at 57 (June 21)
10. Booming Beacon (Nov. 15)
Brian PJ Cronin’s Picks
■ Out There: Running Circles Around Racism
Race directors love even numbers. With the exception of the marathon (26.2 miles, with the extra two-tenths added at the 1908 London Olympics to ensure the finish line was in front of the royal viewing box) race lengths are almost always multiples of five. Run enough races and you’ll soon run into one featuring a ridiculous loop added to make sure the distance ends up being exactly 10K or 50 miles or whatever.
More races should honor and illuminate the land they’re run on, no matter the distance, like the Catskill’s Escarpment Trail Run, which simply covers the 18.5 miles of its namesake trail, or the new “5k-ish” Run The Redline in Poughkeepsie, a course that traces the outlines of the “redlines” set by real estate evaluators in the 1930s that led to increased racial segregation and influenced what Poughkeepsie neighborhoods prospered and which declined.
■ Bracing For Impact
In last three years, so many environmental regulations have been rolled back, that, before you get a chance to examine the long-term impacts, three more regulations have been dismantled. I thought it would be interesting to wait until one such change was announced and then forgotten about — in this case, the rolling back of a regulation that would have led to improved brake controls on the so-called “bomb trains” carrying explosive fracked oil along the west side of the Hudson River — and then examine the rule change more closely to see if anything had been missed. Sure enough, combing through the report that was released to justify the rule change revealed that the estimate of the death toll that such a change would bring was severely underestimated.
■ Out There: No Limits (Except All Of Them)
Last year I ran two 50-mile races, two trail marathons, and qualified for the Vermont 100 Mile race this summer. But the year started with me collapsing on a mountain in the Pacific Northwest while trying to run 31 miles after getting over the flu. I don’t recommend that. But I don’t think I would have had the success that I had throughout the year if I hadn’t crashed and burned so badly attempting the Orcas Island 50K. It was a wake-up call that I couldn’t coast on past successes if I wanted to accomplish bigger goals.
■ Small Pieces, Big Problems
A great question you can ask at the end of an interview is: “Whom else do you think I should talk to?” (If I interview you in the future and ask this at the end, try and act surprised.) I started the research for this deep dive into microplastics and the Hudson River with just one contact. That source suggested others, which led to more sources, all laying out a bread crumb as activists, researchers and politicians throughout the Northeast examine this issue. Many of those I would never have found on my own.
Of all the pieces I wrote this year, this is the one that made me rethink my own life and my daily choices the most. If you got a reusable filtering water bottle from me for Christmas this year, this is why.
■ Still Electric / Outside Voice
The Golden Age of any city is, of course, whenever you arrived. It’s always about a year or two after that when things change. “Man, you should have been here when it was cool.” I try to avoid this trap in my own thinking, but nevertheless, it was fun to pay homage to that Beacon of 2008 to 2012 energy when two things happened that made me reflect on what the city was like when I moved here.
The first was the closing of the Open Space Gallery on Main Street, which was the creative force behind such projects as the Electric Projected murals on 1 East Main — a building that back then was an abandoned factory and now is the home to million-dollar condos, high-end boutiques and a great coffee shop.
The second was the return of Stephen Clair’s “In The Pines” concert series at the University Settlement Camp. Nowadays, the site hosts a thriving summer camp, a packed swimming pool, frisbee golf and weddings seemingly every weekend. But back then, the camp had a distinctly “Friday the 13th” vibe. You know it’s a good show when your fellow concert-goers are asking you, “Are we allowed to be here?” or “Are we about to die?”
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Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong’s Picks
Top Philipstown-related political news in 2019 ranged from the micro-local (as in the quirky aftermath of a Nelsonville election) to the national (a resident’s role in President Donald Trump’s impeachment) and from one end of Putnam County to the other (in clashes over myriad matters), while cell tower lawsuits, white supremacy in the Highlands’ backyard, and other issues stirred additional controversy.
■ Putnam County
Conflict between the Republican-led county government and Philipstown, where Democrats dominate, began soon after the arrival in Carmel of District 1 Legislator Nancy Montgomery as the sole Democrat on the nine-member Putnam County Legislature. Montgomery disagreed repeatedly with her fellow legislators over such actions as passage of an inflammatory anti-abortion resolution (“Anti-Abortion Draft Ignites Debate at Putnam Legislature” and “Putnam Approves Anti-Abortion Resolution”) to the renewed appointment of such officials as the legislative attorney without review or discussion (“Putnam Legislator Questions Contracts”) to county finances, and, as the year wound down, attacks by Republican legislators and County Executive MaryEllen Odell, also a Republican, of budget transfers in the Sheriff’s Department under Sheriff Robert Langley, who, like Montgomery, is a Democrat and Philipstown resident (“Putnam Legislators Deny Request from Sheriff to Shift Funds”).
Continued retention of a constituent services representative who doubles as Odell’s bodyguard (“Odell Looking for New Bodyguard … Sort Of”) also raised eyebrows, while the enactment of a county secrecy law, presented as an innocuous amendment to the county ethics code, touched off more friction between Philipstown, skeptical residents of other towns, and Carmel. Philipstown Town Board members threatened to sue over the secrecy and criticized the county barrage against Langley as the 2020 election year loomed (“Putnam Passes Secrecy Law”; “Putnam Legislators Deny Request From Sheriff to Shift Funds”).
Nelsonville got the honors for quirky political developments, with three mayors holding office in three months: In a non-partisan election, voters chose Village Board challengers and ousted incumbent Bill O’Neill in mid-March, only to see the new mayor, Chris Caccamise, resign within weeks, compelling the Village Board to fill the vacancy by picking Trustee Michael Bowman as mayor (“Challengers Sweep in Nelsonville,” “New Nelsonville Mayor Says He Will Resign” and “Nelsonville Trustees Choose Bowman as Mayor”)
In November, Philipstown’s electorate replaced the town clerk, Tina Merando, a Republican, with Tara Percacciolo, a town government secretary, who took up her new office on New Year’s Day. Incumbent Supervisor Richard Shea, Highway Superintendent Carl Frisenda, and Town Board Members Robert Flaherty and Judy Farrell, all Democrats, also won office in November (“Beacon Has New Mayor; Philipstown, New Clerk”).
■ Cell towers
The long-running battle over construction of cell towers continued with negotiations by both Philipstown and Nelsonville with Homeland Towers LLC and its partner, Verizon. The companies sued both municipalities in 2018 over their rejection of cell towers on Vineyard Road and Rockledge Road, respectively.
Despite opposition from immediate neighbors of the tower site, the Philipstown Town Board reluctantly approved a settlement in August, allowing construction of a tower on Vineyard Road. At the end of December, Nelsonville residents got a look at a draft settlement of the lawsuit against their village and village officials scheduled a public forum for Monday (Jan. 6) on the matter (“Philipstown Approves Cell Tower Settlement”).
After initially expressing willingness to remove Trump if necessary but preferring to defeat him at the polls, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in December voted for impeachment (“Maloney Says He Would Back Impeachment, But Prefers Ballots” and “Maloney: Impeachment ‘Necessary’ But ‘Heartbreaking’”).
The vote followed months of investigations by the House Intelligence Committee, on which Maloney serves, and other panels into Trump’s conduct, including attempts to use Ukraine to smear his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and withholding aid, approved by Congress, until Ukraine complied.
Maloney, a lawyer, played a notable role in questioning witnesses and became a source for the national news media and TV pundits and a target of the Trump re-election campaign. He and his family live in Philipstown. Besides dealing with Trump, he continued to draft legislation and hold forums with constituents in the Highlands (“Maloney Proposes Replacing MTA”).
The existence of extremism close to home became apparent with the identification of a Garrison-raised man as a leading figure in the national white supremacist movement (“The Extremist Next Door”) and the charging of a young Philipstown man in an incident involving the painting of an anti-Semitic slur and swastika on a Jewish resident’s Nelsonville property (“Philipstown Resident Charged with Hate Crimes”).