Last weekend I spent at a friend's house in Ghent, New York. Ghent is one town over from Hudson. Hudson is a charming little town about 2 hours north of the city along the east side of the Hudson river. In the past couple decades, it's been a magnet for a lot of antique dealers, art collectors (and dealers) and gay and lesbian ex-Manhattanites.
My friend who lives in Ghent has long been lobbying for me to consider joining the throngs of ex-New Yorkers who have relocated out of harm's way of Ground Zero. And I've actually considered it. The town is picturesque, as is the surrounding countryside. But each time I visit, one thing keeps slapping me in the face. Hudson feels like a town that's being dragged to the edge of the culture creek, its head being pushed down toward the water, its citizenry being told "Drink! Drink! It's good for you." And as far as I can tell, the town is not yet entirely convinced.
The same could be said of Hudson. But in Santa Fe, there were also artists. . . everywhere! Artists on the street, just hanging out painting. Artists in their own galleries, selling. Artists in the schools, teaching. In Hudson, I could hardly spot one.
I did spot one, actually. A musician trying to promote her show that night at a local restaurant that's trying to feature local live music in order to replicate something that, one assumes, some of those ex-Manhattanites pine for. . . the overflowing abundance of art and culture mixed with pass-the-hat commerce that used to fill every block of downtown New York City.
What struck me, as I watched the young woman trying to hand out her fliers was how few people would even make eye contact with her, let alone take one of her pieces of paper. Most pedestrians on Warren Street are quite well dressed and white. Walk two blocks over to Allen and the skin tone darkens and the clothing is more worn.
There's a visionary impresario, Linda Mussman, who has been running an art center, gallery, performance and film venue cum café and community center called Time Space Limited since she and her lover migrated north from Brooklyn in the 1990s. And there's the Fairview 3 (a truly independently-owned cinema -- a dying breed) on Fairview Avenue behind the Burger King which limps along. At a recent Saturday night screening of The Social Network, my friends and I were joined by about 6 other souls in a theatre with a capacity of nearly 200.
As I dropped into a new BBQ restaurant (American Glory) on Warren Street, I noticed that they have a small stage with microphones in the back of the dining room. I asked the hostess about it and she explained that Friday through Sunday nights they feature live music. When I asked who was playing that night, she was at a loss and nowhere to be found was either a calendar or a brochure or even a clipboard with the name of the band. So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise then that later that night, there were hardly any souls gathered to hear the music.
Across the street, the historic Hudson Opera House has also been limping along, struggling to sustain interest with a mixture of community classes, lectures, concerts and plays.
So the question on my mind as I drove away last weekend was simply this. Have the citizens of Hudson failed their artists or have the artists of Hudson failed their community? Or are American small towns just generally cultured out with the abundance of 300-channel cable and satellite television, not to mention casinos, fairgrounds and Wiis within driving distance.
Is there hope for small town American locally-grown culture? I'm not sure. I hope to visit some other small towns and see how they compare. One interesting fact about Hudson. The town defeated a plan to reopen a cement plant on its outskirts. It would have meant thousands of new jobs but also at great environmental costs. Interestngly, one of the town's most active artists, Linda Mussman, who actually ran for mayor, fought vigorously against the cement plant on environmental grounds. One wonders what 1000+ jobs in her neighborhood might (or might not?) have done for her own bottom line. Put another way: Can we expect small towns and cities to sustain vibrant cultural life without a solid base of blue collar manufacturing jobs?
Are these things related? I suspect they are. What do you think?