A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 23, 2008

I once listened to a tape recording of the late Alf Evers, the great storytelling historian of the Catskills whose book The Catskills, From Wilderness to Woodstock is the best history to date of our region. Evers had been recorded as part of the Oral History Project that flourished in Arkville in the ‘70s and ‘80s under the auspices, first of the Erpf-Catskill Cultural Center, and then the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. Born in New York City, Alf Evers lived in Woodstock for most of his lifetime, writing, along with his wife, children’s books, and, later, on his own, histories of Woodstock and Kingston, as well as the 1972 Catskill Mountain book. On this tape recording, Evers spoke of a visit he had years earlier with Dr. William Gallo, the highly-respected physician who lived in Margaretville and practiced medicine for decades in Roxbury and at the old Margaretville Hospital.
Evers told the interviewer that he often ended his visits with people in other parts of the Catskills by asking them what they thought of Woodstock. Old Alf had both pride in his hometown and a sense of humor, knowing Woodstock’s artist colony ways might elicit some interesting opinions. He was surprised, however, by Dr. Gallo’s reply. The physician allowed that he had never been to Woodstock, so he couldn’t say anything about it.
Now, Alf Evers was one of the great promoters of the idea of the Catskills as a region, so he reacted strongly to Dr. Gallo’s admission. “Here was an educated man, a physician,” Evers explained to the interviewer on the tape I was listening to, “a man who had lived in the Catskills almost his entire life, and he had never even visited one of its most important towns, just 45 minutes away!” Evers was flabbergasted. So he asked Dr. Gallo, why? Why had the physician never gone the short trip to the world famous artist colony?
On tape, Evers recalled Dr. Gallo’s reply. The good doctor leaned back in his chair, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, gazed out the window, and said, “To tell you the truth, I have everything I need right here in my valley.”
The Catskills tend to do that, nestle you in to the particular, hold you close to home. We come quickly to think of ourselves as from Halcott Center or the New Kingston Valley, or Broad Street Hollow. The larger Catskills seem, I don’t know, distant, across the ridge, somebody else’s valley.
But the Catskills are a region, made up of parts of four or five or six counties, depending on who’s doing the defining. (Can you name them?) And in the Catskills, the old town of Catskill, NY, certainly has claim to being an important regional center. I say the old town, because, as long as I’ve lived in the mountains, Catskill has been down at the heels, a bit dilapidated. A few years back, my son managed a business over there, so I spent a little time there, and, to tell the truth, it wasn’t pretty. Old, and historic, and interesting, maybe, but run down and kind of depressed. Recently, a carpenter friend told me he was working over there, that some new investment was going on, and Catskill was changing. So, a couple of weeks ago, I drove up to Catskill, to see for myself.

Downtown change
One of the reasons for downtown Catskill’s decades-long decline was the fact that, for 20 or 30 years, most of the retail expansion in town occurred in a kind of suburban sprawl on the Route 23 hill just above, and to the west, of the village center. How things have changed! The high ground shopping area is still very much thriving – Wal-Mart has opened a super center, and that appears to have actually spruced-up the Radio-Shack and Rent-a-Center and pizza place that were already there. But the downtown village center is hopping!
I parked my car on Main Street and got to choose among several trendy-looking cafes for lunch. Old buildings have been restored, and art galleries and antique and curio shops line the main street. A coffee house advertises a wireless Internet connection. The movie theater, an art and office supply store, and bank that, just a few years ago, seemed lonely on Main Street, are surrounded now by new businesses and new investment. The building facades attract in brightly painted wood clapboard or sandblasted clean brick, giving an appearance of individual initiative rather than master-plan sameness. There are people on the street! Old Catskill is new.
Across the river, the City of Hudson, for 25 years, has been a great day-trip destination because of its funky cleaned-up main drag, Warren Street is lined with galleries and restaurants and antique shops and performance centers. On our own side of the Hudson, our mountain-river town, Catskill, is undergoing its own Hudsonization, and makes a great little day-trip destination whenever one might feel the need to expand the Catskill Mountain experience beyond our own valley.
© William Birns