Is Everybody Here From Brooklyn?
John Wagner is a third-generation farmer from Athens, New York. In 1921, his grandfather opened a boarding house and a dairy farm in town. Wagner tells a story about infamous Prohibition gangster, Legs Diamond, who stopped into the boarding house one night to ensure Wagner’s grandfather was buying booze from his supplier. “Had it not been his supplier, my grandfather would’ve quickly learned who the right supplier was.”
The dairy farm and boarding house have since closed, but John and his wife, Kathi, now breed Herefords on more than 200 acres of property. The Wagner family business has evolved along with local history. In the early part of the century, New Yorkers hopped a northbound train or ferry to escape the brutal city heat and stay in one of the thousands of boarding houses lining the Hudson River. With the mid-century advent of air conditioning and interstate highways, the tourism industry fell into decline, as did the Hudson Valley. “I mean, it was not an up-and-coming place,” says Wagner. “Not like it is now.”
Interior designer Denise Gianna insists many towns are virtually unrecognizable from what they were in the 1970s. Only 10 years old when her family moved, Gianna found it hard to transition from the Bronx to Warwick. “We moved from a nice neighborhood of brownstones and children that played outside to, essentially, a cow pasture on a dirt road.” At one of her first jobs, Gianna worked in Newburgh — a cool, developing city — while Beacon rotted on the other side of the river. “Everything I ever saw in Dutchess [County] told me I didn’t want to live here,” she says.
But as a one-time Woodstock resident wrote, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Gianna has lived in Beacon since 1998 and now rents a storefront on Main Street for her business. Nearly everything about the city is different: from the rejuvenated buildings to the chic boutique shops to the demographics of people strolling up and down the main drag.
Indeed, the entire Hudson Valley has changed dramatically in the last 20 — even the last 10 — years; yet some traits remain the same. The region remains tied to New York City much as it was when Wagner’s grandfather operated his boarding house. While it may seem like all of your new neighbors are moving in from Brooklyn, there’s a good chance they’re actually from the Bronx and Manhattan, which each contribute twice as many New York City transplants.
Former Queens residents Jamie and Tracy Kennard first discovered the Catskills on a serendipitous weekend retreat with friends. Not long after that trip, the Kennards began looking to purchase a second home on the border of Kingston and Woodstock. They bought a house on the outskirts of town and for the next eight years, Jamie and Tracy were “religious weekenders,” traveling upstate to get outdoors, slow down, and relax. Two years ago, they decided to convert their weekend home into their primary residence and have since opened Brunette wine bar in downtown Kingston.
Like Jamie and Tracy, many entrepreneurs have decided to launch their business in the Valley, and they should be commended for their business sense; according to American Fact Finder data, in 2010 Kingston had the fifth highest self-employment rate in New York State at 8.4 percent. Hudson claimed the number one spot, with 9.96 percent of civilians reporting they were self-employed — more than San Francisco. The entrepreneurs who helped rejuvenate Hudson are finally starting to reap financial rewards. Over the last six months, street traffic has doubled.
Farther downriver, Kris Seiz, owner of Storm King Adventure Tours, a kayak tour agency in Cornwall-on-Hudson, founded her enterprise by marrying environment and business. Dividing her clientele between New York City and the Hudson Valley, Seiz regularly sells out her tours, which guide kayakers to the Moodna marsh and Bannerman’s Castle, among other destinations. She spent five years of her childhood in Chappaqua, and those memories are indelible. When asked what drew her back to the region, Seiz responds, “The Hudson River is my first love.”
To ignore the natural magnificence of the Hudson Valley while discussing its merits is paradoxical. Just a few decades before Wagner’s grandfather began milking cows, the region functioned as a health retreat for urbanites with tuberculosis and other diseases. The mountainous terrain, lush forests, and clean air were believed to cure illnesses. As time passed, rehabilitative treatments segued into outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, and fishing, once again redefining the region.
Rae Quinn, 28, has lived in the Hudson Valley intermittently for 21 years. For a time, Quinn moved to Olympia, Washington, an area lauded for its undisturbed wilderness and abundance of hiking trails. Ironically, once she arrived, those were the exact aspects that Quinn missed about the Hudson Valley. “It’s so much more pristine and well taken care of here,” she says. “Even in Washington, it’s depressing to see how abused the land is.”
Quinn, a writer and MFA student, also follows the burgeoning Hudson Valley art scene. She mentions the Basilica Soundscape as a standout music venue, a unique product of the Brooklyn-meets-mountains vibe that characterizes much of the local art scene.
Up in Kingston, Jamie Kennard still works as a graphic designer when he is not running Brunette. He points to Valley-wide meetups that make the tech, design, and art communities more accessible than in New York City. “I think whether it’s the art scene or the technology scene, people are really eager and open to connect,” he says.
Although the pool of artists is smaller, Quinn names several challenges to penetrating the artistic community. Like everything else in the Hudson Valley, the creative hubs are spread out. Whereas a gallery opening in New York City might require a subway ride, a similar event in the Hudson Valley could take two and a half hours round-trip. “If you’re not a really social person or a motivated [person]...it’s harder, I think,” says Quinn. Artists and fans face challenges of time and energy that simply don’t exist in a metropolis like Manhattan. Quinn recognizes this. “I think we’re so dependent on the City,” she adds.
Quinn isn’t wrong. The brunt of new Hudson Valley residents between 2010-14 came from (in descending order): Bronx County, New York County (Manhattan), Kings County (Brooklyn), and Queens County. Ten thousand more movers originated in these four counties than the next five counties combined.
In total, the Hudson Valley posted a net gain of 29,719 residents between 2010-2015. However, Westchester County alone boasts 34 percent of the entire region’s population and 61 percent of this population increase. (For more details and statistics on the region, see the infographic sidebar.)
It should be noted that this growth isn’t universal. According to US Census Bureau Quick Facts estimates, five of the ten counties in the Hudson Valley have experienced population increases between 2010-2015, while the remaining half has experienced decreases. Westchester, Rockland, Albany, Orange, and Rensselaer counties comprised the half with population growth, while Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Putnam, and Ulster counties declined in population.
During this five-year period, only three counties in the region experienced a net migration surplus. In other words, most of the population surges are due to natural increases (i.e. more people are being born than are passing away over a given period of time). Take Rockland County, for instance: the population grew by 14,350 residents; however, net in-migration only accounted for 788 of those individuals. In many cases, population increases are fueled by ethnic and/or religious groups. Despite rapid growth in these communities, the Hudson Valley remains predominantly white.
Nancy Proyect, President of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, explains the problem in her area is twofold: first, the population of adults age 25-45 is shrinking. Typically, this demographic contributes the most to society in terms of community building, childrearing, and economic growth. Second, the population of adults aged 85 and older is one of the fastest growing demographics in the region. People in this age bracket generally require the greatest amount of social services — health care, social security, and disability services. As the group of heaviest taxpayers wanes, the groups of heaviest tax users waxes. “It’s sort of a double-whammy,” says Proyect.
Based on data collected for the Tax Foundation Calculations in the 2010 American Community Survey, the median property tax paid on homes in Westchester County was over $3,000 more than both of the top counties absorbing its out-migration. (Westchester County also had the highest median property tax in the United States.)
But the people who are most likely to move are probably not homeowners yet. For young adults in their twenties, the region is a way station. In nine out of 10 counties, the population of adults aged 25-29 drops off significantly from those aged 20-24. Leah Galant, a 2017 Sundance Ignite Fellow in Pleasantville, says she figured she’d move home after college “like most millennials in my situation — those of us lucky enough to live in crippling student debt.” Ryann Wenke, a former recruiter for the American Cancer Society, says saving money also played a large role in her decision to return home to New Windsor after graduation.
Proyect cites several reasons for the Hudson Valley’s low youth retention rate, most notably cost of living. Over 40 percent of Hudson Valley residents spend one-third of their income on housing expenses. “All economists will tell you that’s an indication of instability at best and poverty at worst,” says Proyect.
At Arthur Lee of Red Rock real estate, owner Jean Price and agent Lenore Packet have witnessed some of this instability. During the real estate bubble, many longtime residents of Columbia County were priced out by wealthier clients purchasing second homes. Almost a decade after the 2008 crash, equilibrium has been restored, but volatility is a hard sell. “It’s beneficial always to have affordable housing,” says Packet.
Furthermore, most Hudson Valley communities do not provide the infrastructure younger Americans find desirable, such as walkable communities, accessible public transit, and low-maintenance properties. Public Square, a journal published by the Congress for New Urbanism, states that traditional cities (compact cities with the aforementioned characteristics) are seeing positive population growth for the first time in 70 years. Cities like Kingston, Poughkeepsie, and Peekskill, while far smaller than cities like New York, share more of these qualities than small towns. Consequently, their populations have remained relatively stable over the last five years.
By contrast, rural communities and suburbs do not offer these amenities, so most millenials set out for metropolitan destinations. Unsurprisingly, when we spoke to them neither Galant nor Wenke had long-term plans to reside in the Hudson Valley. “I want to move to either Denver or Boulder, Colorado,” says Wenke. “I feel as though those two places are much better for people my age as far as social life and job opportunities go.” (Editor’s note: Wenke, in fact, now resides in Denver.)
On a brighter note, several real estate agents have pointed to 2016 as a landmark year for the real estate market’s recovery. Since 2015, single-family home inventory has decreased in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties, which should be an indication for the rest of the Valley. Dianne Minogue, associate real estate broker at Houlihan Lawrence in East Fishkill, suggests the process simply needs time. As inventory decreases and sellers begin to receive multiple offers for their properties, home values should slowly increase.
Furthermore, returnees make up an unusually large portion of our region’s population. Minogue has multiple clients from California who have found their way back to Dutchess County to reconnect with their family in old age and enjoy their retirement here. At Smitchger Realty in Cornwall, owner Ellen Kelly has noted that West Point alumni usually reappear after they complete their service or retire. Also among the returnees? Two of Kelly’s three children. “I’m still pulling for the third one,” she says, crossing her fingers.
And then there’s the newfound agritourism division, which John Wagner says has fundamentally changed the farming industry from what it was 10-15 years ago, when earning a living as a farmer was an exercise in futility. The Hudson Valley has flourished with markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and local food — all of them new concepts that, in tandem with technological advancements, have reshaped the industry altogether.
Nancy Proyect believes tourism represents a strategic investment in the future of the Hudson Valley. It’s “a way for us to increase the strength of our economy while bettering our infrastructure.” And infrastructure needs improvement. When asked what changes would most benefit the Hudson Valley, respondents almost unanimously answered “more public transportation.” Lenore Packet says latitudinal travel is particularly difficult. The train from Columbia County to Boston usually requires a “wait so long you can drive to Boston and back before you’d be leaving.” Solutions varied from bus systems to extended ferry service to intra-city trolleys, but nearly everyone stressed the need for efficient mass transit. Ideally, this would result in greater inter-county travel and fewer cars on the road.
Proyect’s attitude regarding population and infrastructure setbacks remains proactive. “We see these problems as ‘problems with solutions,’” she says. “This is a growing pain.” Moving forward, residents need to engage with local governments and work on the ground level to shape the world around them. The involvement of community-driven organizations, such as the Olana Partnership and Scenic Hudson, would also be invaluable resources in this cause. Further north, Lenore Packet and Jean Price hope to preserve the rural charm of Columbia County while also providing affordable housing.
Across the river in Athens, John and Kathi Wagner are settling into the changes brought on by the agritourism industry. However, farming has always been a passion project for John. After retiring from his day job at the Red Cross three years ago, he can now devote all of his time and effort to the cattle.
Under different circumstances, John and Kathi’s cows could have been those gazing at Denise Gianna when her parents’ car stopped on a quiet dirt road in Warwick back in 1974. The future of the Hudson Valley is difficult to predict, but Gianna assures, with a touch of sarcasm, “If Warwick was able to pull it off, any of these towns can pull it off.”