The Andes Chronicles
A friend of mine is running for a seat on the town council, and the other day she and I sat on the porch of the local coffee shop talking about the village she lives in all year round and I call home in the summer and early fall. The town is Andes, N.Y. It is on Route 28, roughly halfway between Woodstock and Cooperstown, about three hours and change from the city. And it flourishes against all odds. I’m trying to figure out why.
First, the odds. The dairy industry that sustained the economy for many years has just about disappeared. Ditto for small farms. A railroad that once brought wealthy New Yorkers to summer homes ceased operating long ago and many of the rights of way now lie beneath the waters of the Pepatcon Reservoir, created in the Fifties when five towns were flooded out of existence. (Fifty years later the memories of this event still provoke great bitterness and even rage against New York City.)
Because of the reservoir, the Department of Environmental Protection discourages building and has an aggressive land-purchase program. The feeling is that the DEP’s fondest wish is that Andes cease to exist. The decline of farming and absence of any light manufacturing means that there are few jobs and young people move away as soon as they can. (Delaware County is one of the poorest in the state.) And Andes is just far enough away from the city to make it an unlikely destination for an impromptu Sunday drive.
Nevertheless, when the New York Post listed its top 100 destinations for a weekend visit this past May, Andes was number 38. The Post said that if you wanted to see the Catskills of your childhood, get yourself to Andes, especially if you have endured “one too many Woodstock traffic jams.” The town was described as “quiet and funky,” yet “cosmopolitan.”
That last adjective was no doubt bestowed because of the two serious art galleries, nine antique and craft shops, a restored mansion originally built by a lieutenant governor of the state, a beautiful park designed and built by a lifelong resident who is also a noted painter, a renovated historic tavern, a handsome 19th century hotel and dining room, a chic farmers’ market, a modestly named “basket shop” that sells (among many other wondrous things) stunning Indian kilim rugs for less than $400, and a restaurant that, because it is part of the slow-food movement, buys local and offers gourmet cheese and wines, high-end olive oil and absolutely real croissants.
There is also a general store that is a grocery, a pizza place, a baker and a gas station, and threatens to become a Mexican restaurant; a bank, a town swimming pool, two realtors, a school with graduating classes of six or seven, a post office, two tennis courts, a library, an international charity, a masseuse, a tea shop, a vintage clothing store and more artists than you can shake a stick at. All this with only 1,400 households and 950 voters, no traffic and no crime. What more could you want?
How did this happen? And the answer is, as far as I can tell, by accident. My wife and I certainly came here by accident. We were looking for a place in Woodstock, but couldn’t find one we could afford. We saw an ad in The Woodstock Times offering a house, with wild-flower meadows, a view of five mountain peaks and the Pepatcon Reservoir and nothing else. We didn’t know where it was, but we made a phone call, took a ride, sat down on the deck, and bought it.
My wife joined the Methodist Church and met regularly with a few other parishioners to talk about life; no agenda, just conversation. But then another accident. A schism within the church led the members of the discussion group to leave, and they met for a while in the hotel and then in the restored tavern. As word got out, more and more people joined them, farmers, retired school teachers, professional musicians, lawyers, judges, shopkeepers, businessmen and -women, visitors from nearby towns, just about anybody; and now every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. up to 70 people congregate to hear presentations and pose questions on every topic under the sun — Afghanistan, poetry, conservation, war, peace, the economy, energy, affirmative action, rural life, you name it.
Who are these people? Well, that’s another accident. Some of them are born and bred; others came to the area as kids when they went to camp or were taught how to hunt and fish by their fathers; others came to visit a friend and fell in love at once; others were refugees from more gentrified and expensive towns like Woodstock; many, like us, are second-homeowners; and some are here courtesy of the dot-com boom (that’s the unanticipated accident), which allows them to work mostly at home and reverse the traditional five-day work week, two-day weekend pattern. And there are celebrities. This past Saturday I had a brief conversation at breakfast with Kelsey Grammer, who has a house down the road. Yoko Ono, Dan Rather and Edie Falco are somewhere in the neighborhood, although sightings are rare.
The first question anyone asks at a social occasion is, “How did you come to be here?” (No one ever asks, what brought you to Lenox, or East Hampton, or Saratoga?) The question is a mixture of self-deprecation and pride. It implies what is true, that few have ever heard of the place, and it also implies that those who have found it are to be congratulated. Indeed, self-congratulation has its own organ in the form of the utterly charming Andes Gazette, a 20-page newsletter put together by locals whose lives are chronicled in it, who advertise in it and who accept contributions of $1 from their friends and neighbors. Talk about a company town!
And the town looks good despite the fact that many of the residents live at or near the poverty level. Lawns are lush; flower beds well-kept; the streets and sidewalks are squeaky-clean. When the new owner of a centrally located village house left it unpainted this summer, the town sent a notice saying that if it wasn’t taken care of, the job would be done for him and the cost added to his tax bill. It is now pristine white.
A few years ago an alliance of old-timers, newcomers and merchants fought and defeated the wind-turbine industry’s plan to put 400-foot towers on the surrounding hills. And as I write there are meetings being held to discuss what should be done about even more extensive plans of the natural-gas industry to drill in hundreds of locations. This one looks harder, and the word “inevitable” is heard quite often, but the game isn’t over yet and I’m sure that many will fight the good fight. (I know that many others will think of it as a bad fight.)
What remains unclear is why Andes has flourished while some neighboring towns are shabby, listless and bitterly divided between an old guard and resented newcomers. My candidate friend attributes this to what she calls “Andesness,” which she is unable to define. But whatever it is, it seems to work. And did I mention that you can buy a renovated three-bedroom house on a lake with some land for under $300,000, and a restored Victorian with land for about the same, and a secluded chalet on five acres for half that. And leaf season has just arrived. See you on the porch of the coffee shop.