David Nightingale: Small Towns

Apr 24, 2014

When considering a place to live, many people go for small towns, where there is frequently friendliness, trust, character and beauty. Additional qualities such as farmland, rivers, possibly mountains are all part of the mix, as are coffee shops, a book store, a library, maybe even a college campus. Fresh air is a plus – and maybe some trails for walking or biking.

 Small towns, like Plymouth, or Salem, or Stockbridge, in Massachussetts – or Woodstock, Phoenicia, New Paltz, Saugerties, in the Mid-Hudson region – have to be preserved of course for them to remain enjoyable.

But is it possible to preserve them? A town like Stockbridge seems to have kept the look that Norman Rockwell captured in his art, and, seemingly, Woodstock is keeping its pleasant aura, as are places like Phoenicia or Palenville in the Catskills.

Not so poor old New Paltz – once a small college town, with the Wallkill river, 17th Century stone houses, and a glorious view of the Gunks, especially at sunset. Sadly, New Paltz has been under assault for 50 years and more.

In 1973 Con Ed proposed building a nuclear reactor to the east of the town, with concrete cooling towers and steam that would be visible for miles around. Fortunately, these plans, after court hearings, and after the Three Mile Island leak of 1979, were withdrawn. In 1981 Marriott presented plans for a huge $78 million hotel/condominium and conference center at pristine Lake Minnewaska. This was fortunately turned back by the outrage of those commie liberal environmentalists, many associated with the college. Walmart presented plans to settle in town, as did MacDonald's, Starbucks and Burger King; the latter three breached the walls, albeit without the golden arches. But continually embattled, New Paltz managed to cling to its heritage of old houses, small town-ism, mountains in the distance.

Today, a few miles north, a private company from out-of-state is buying up a local lake-and-swimming area and turning it into a private resort, with a conference center and hundreds of homes. There is also a complicated plan for another out-of-town company to build extra housing for the campus – not needed if there weren't this ubiquitous drive for expansion – on once peaceful farm land, and, adding insult, insisting on reduced taxes for themselves where the residents are to make up the shortfall. Also today, a small and locally popular CSA which has been providing fresh farm produce for  residents, is to be taken over by a large outside conglomerate. No-one seems concerned that the bottleneck combination of Main Street plus its solitary bridge will become more like a plaque-clogged artery bringing weekend traffic to a near standstill.

The commonality in all these onslaughts is outsiders seeing dollar signs, closing their eyes to the impacts, and belittling the finiteness of things like water and sewage.

A rather conservative local college Dean wrote to the papers '… there are a lot of liberals in this town who are anti-development ...'

Yes indeed, and unashamedly so. Furthermore, didn't people such as he settle in part because of the attractiveness of a small town?

 So why are so many of us opposed to such superheated development? Why be against Westchester-ization? After all, isn't sprawl the way a town manages to fit everything in – a cornfield there could be a bowling alley, an orchard here could be space for another gas station – and more restaurants, supermarkets, dental offices, legal firms, movie houses, maybe an arcade, a roller rink, ice skating, a bigger transit system – and indeed then we wouldn't have to travel to Long Island for such amenities.

No, choking bumper-to-bumper traffic is not, surely, what we want. And yet, just this month, there is a serious plan for a huge water park.

Funnily enough, on the other side of town we are desperately drilling for more water.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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