On poverty, NIMBYism, and development in the people’s republic of New Paltz, New York

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The view from my bike ride into town.

I went to tonight’s public hearing on the proposed Stoneleigh Woods giant hideous development monstrosity with the usual liberal sentiments: let’s defeat this mofo!

Five years ago I bought a house in my tiny tree-filled town because the mayor was marrying gay people and there were no Wal-Marts. Perfection. Little did I realize that living in a relatively undeveloped town meant a lifelong battle against sprawl and expansion. Currently there are at least three horrible developments everyone I know is fighting against—Crossroads (a truly disgusting shopping center/apartment complex hellscape complete with an ultra tacky cheapie fountain that would be the first thing visitors to town would see), Stoneleigh Woods (63 acres of condos with some token low-income and senior housing, click here and scroll down to read about it), and Woodland Pond, a senior housing facility that is already being built and kills my heart, but what’s done is done. The Stoneleigh Woods developers (they live on Long Island, are white and balding, and wear blue blazers, red ties and loafers. Needless to say, they do not hide their smirks when New Paltzian lefties start talking about what species of turtles live on the wetlands they want to turn into condos) have been trying to push their project through since 2003, just about the time I moved to town.

The public hearing tonight was one of several opportunities for the public to speak out about the project. The room was packed with people, most of whom were either activist types like me or residents of Sunset Ridge, the neighborhood that would be most affected by the noise, pollution, traffic and general annoyance of the giant project. Of the very few people who were in favor of the project, John Orcutt, a Republican gadfly complete with requisite blazer, tie, and leather-covered binder, was the most vocal. There were also a few “old guard” types who make the same argument all the time: if we don’t welcome developments our taxes will keep going up. An elderly lady next to me was of that school, and in-between very loud farts (my god I adore old ladies!), she kept telling me that all these people were crazy, and couldn’t they see that people were being pushed out of their houses by the high taxes, and here people were talking about turtles!

You know what? I agreed with her.

Me, the vegan, the animal activist since age 15, the head of the New Paltz Green Party, someone who will unhesitatingly tell you that she’ll take turtles over people any day. Here’s the thing. There was a whole lot of Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)ism going on at that meeting tonight, and it made me uncomfortable. On the drive back to work I think I figured out why it bothered me so much: I’m a working-class person hiding out in a middle-class world, and sometimes the disconnect just sucker punches me.

It’s not that I think people were wrong to talk about the fragile ecosystem around the Stoneleigh Woods area and the need to not build on wetlands. It’s not that I think Stoneleigh Woods is a good project—I hate it. It’s ugly and ticky-tacky and cheap and toxic and epitomizes all that I can’t stand about America. But New Paltz needs affordable housing, a fact which many quasi-comfortable (because I don’t think anyone is truly comfortable these days) middle class homeowners repeatedly ignore, deny, and refuse to understand.

It’s just that I wish more people had made a point at the meeting tonight to say that they care about working class people, and that while Stoneleigh Woods is a crap development that will be a blight on the town, we can do better. Everyone was just blindly against the project—I am too!—but without the next step: how do we bring responsible, eco-friendly, truly affordable housing to town? One person, a woman named Jenna who goes to SUNY New Paltz, talked about the need for affordable housing as well as reworking the project so that it was LEED certified and much more eco-friendly (SUNY NP Jenna—you should come to New Paltz Green Party meetings! We need people like you!). That was it. Everyone else talked about traffic.

What is it with traffic and this damn town? One guy made a big speech about how he already has to sometimes wait SIX MINUTES behind school buses when school gets out to get home (he lives right next to the school). Six minutes, dude? I’m assuming you didn’t move up from the city, because if you’ve ever driven from the Lower East Side to Midtown at any time of day, you will forever kiss the holy New Paltz streets, so blissful and empty are they in comparison. I don’t get the constant, unceasing fracas about traffic in New Paltz, and I am starting to think there is something wrong with me for not getting it.

Here’s my position: most people are lemmings who work boring 9-5 jobs and have kids that need to go to school at regular hours and all that, which is what causes traffic “jams” (by that I mean teeny tiny clogs) in New Paltz. The first step is to stop living a boring life like that where your hours are the same as everyone elses (notice that I, for example, went back to work at 9 PM after tonight’s meeting. That’s how I roll, and I never, ever, get stuck in the infamous New Paltz “traffic.”). Second, people need to carpool more and ride their bikes more and all that. (I need to, too.) Third, we need to do absolutely nothing about the “traffic problem” because if we made it easier to drive around NP it would only encourage people to drive more.

One way Main Street—WTF? Seriously, I really need someone smarter than me to explain why traffic is such a big deal to everyone. I think there is just something I’m not understanding. Brittany? Where are my smart readers? Show me where I’m wrong! Because except for maybe four days a year when traffic is backed up all along 299 going to and from the ridge, I just don’t get it. I’m not even in favor of fixing that situation, because I think the traffic jams are the natural check to too many people going to the ridge! (Again, I think I’m wrong but I don’t know why.) [Update: Brittany makes great points below—thanks for helping me to understand!]

Back to Stoneleigh Woods. So people talked about traffic, and a lot of environmental impacts involving kids in the neighborhood, the school next door to the project, and noise and quality of life issues. I get the environmental impacts, they are serious, but everything else really smacks of NIMBYism to me. Lady, you just can’t say that you were anticipating spending your sunset years gardening in your quiet backyard, and the noise of nearby condos (not of them being built, just the everyday people-living-next-door noise) is why you’re opposed to the project. Seriously. Other people are allowed to live somewhere too! Not in a craptastic hell development like Stoneleigh Woods, but somewhere!

Repub Orcutt made a big show of lecturing New Paltz for our supposed liberalism and inclusiveness, but said that when it comes right down to it we are not inclusive because we want to build a wall around the town and not let anyone else move in. He made a gahntze tzimmes (a big deal) of saying that he voted for Obama, “as did most people in this room, I assume,” (cue eye roll) but that he saw a lot of NIMBYism tonight and that Stoneleigh Woods would be good for New Paltz.

Here’s the thing: What if you didn’t vote for Obama because you’re eleventy zillion miles to the left of him, AND you don’t think Stoneleigh Woods would be good for New Paltz, BUT you do think people in New Paltz are sometimes too closed-off and NIMBYed out? Can all three of these things be held in the hand at once, or am I being a total hypocrite?

What I’m trying to say is that the choice between saving turtles and finding a place for poor people in our community is a false dichotomy that I refuse to participate in. I didn’t sign up to speak at the meeting tonight because I figured everyone else would be more educated than me on the project and would have more insightful things to say (OK, also because I am mildly terrified of speaking in public), but when Orcutt started spouting his Republican blather my face got all red because I was so close to yelling out “Stoneleigh Woods is not what New Paltz needs—we need true green building, not the low flow showerheads and Energy Star appliances that are being proposed! We have an environmental crisis in this country we can’t ignore any longer, and developments like this cannot be built any more!! The people who are railing against this project only look like they are Not In My Back Yarding because the developers aren’t talking about alternative strategies, not because they don’t want anything to be built in their backyards! I’m sure a biodiesel plant, or a wind farm, or an off-the-grid, geothermal, attractive, affordable housing structure would please everyone!”

But maybe I give my neighbors too much credit.

Orcutt spoke at the beginning, before the I-want-to-garden-in-peace lady, and as the night went on, I was simultaneously proud, as usual, to live in a community where people care so much about our collective futures, and worried about some serious elitist “I’ve-got-my-piece-of-paradise-so-fuck-you” attitudes I was picking up. Again, I am willing to entertain the idea that people were not precise enough in their arguments against SW so it only appeared that this is how they felt….but I’m not entirely convinced.

For example, a very engaging speaker named Andrew Benedict (a father and Earth Science teacher, as he introduced himself) gave a rousing screed against the project because low income housing won’t increase our tax base (I am not sure if this was his exact quote, this is the idea I got and is what I wrote down) and that the low-income housing was “modular housing.” I have to admit that I am not altogether positive what this is all about—will the low-income portion of the project be trailers, and the rest condos? Mr. Andrew Benedict said several times that “modular housing won’t increase our property values,” and I seriously almost puked. In fact, I was so angry that I turned to the person sitting next to me, who happened to be that King of Milquetoast himself, Village Mayor Terry Dungan, and said, outraged, “Where does he want working-class people to live??? In squalid hovels far from middle-class people, so their precious property values won’t go down? I mean, I am a homeowner too, but man oh man!” (For the record, Milquetoast King ignored me. I’m pretty sure he hated me already, though. Once when I was late for a meeting and dared to take up two parking spots in the otherwise completely empty Village Hall parking lot, I am 99.99% sure he was the one who put a mean note on my windshield. He was the only other person in the building!)

Anyway, everyone applauded their white asses off at Mr. Andrew Benedict, and I was left thinking: WTF, do I seriously live in a town where people applaud when someone straight up says that working-class people are not welcome? Not everyone can afford the white picket fence, dude! Also, some people prefer to live in trailer parks! Like my grandma!

As I was driving back to work worrying about why the meeting worried me so much, and wondering what it said about my cred as a hardcore Earth Firster-type of environmentalist, I remembered something I had half-buried. In the past five years or so I have been slowly allowing myself to remember strange things that happened throughout my childhood, and while waiting at a stoplight I got a literal chill down my spine as I realized/remembered that for a while my whole family lived in a trailer park.

The year I turned eighteen, when I lived in a hell-city thousands and thousands of miles from idyllic New Paltz, my father was arrested and sent to federal prison for five years for selling drugs to a DEA agent. When our landlord found out that a rather large-scale drug operation had been operating out of his garage, he kicked us out of our house. My mother was in a state of shock that she has since likened to waking up after living with Stockholm Syndrome for twenty years: my father was gone and she was realizing the horror her life with him had been—when the police busted down our door and handcuffed us all and started carrying guns and drugs out of the house in big giant loads, one of the things they told my mother was that if her kids were younger they might have been taken away from her. My mother’s only crime was being open-hearted, trusting, and slightly weak-willed, and that statement opened a vein of strength in her that she had never known existed.

These days she lives far from my father. Because she had grown up a product of a strongly feminist mother who refused to teach her how to keep house and a doting, intellectual father who taught her to respect the life of the mind above all else, my mother was not raised to know how to do things like laundry, paying taxes, and renting a house for your newly homeless family. We actually had more money than before my father was taken to prison, as his drug-dealing profits plus huge amounts of her salary had been exchanged for various snortable, shootable and smokable substances intended for his personal consumption. But everything happened so quickly, and two kids and a journalist’s slim salary meant no money for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent. So we did what we had to do: we moved into my grandmother’s (my father’s mother) doublewide trailer in a town 45 minutes away.

I was getting my financial aid forms together to go to college in New York, my brother had a busy and thriving juvenile delinquent career—we didn’t want to move. But we put everything in “storage” at “the warehouse,” a sketchy place where several of my father’s friends lived (I probably don’t need to tell you that about everything we stored there got “lost”) and we all moved into the trailer: my Jewish intellectual vegan mom; my wild Ritalin-addicted brother; nervous, bookish, militantly vegan me; my ultra-Catholic, Jew-hating, Pork-&-Beans-for-every-meal-loving grandmother; and Jimmy, my grandmother’s fourth husband and, she often says proudly, “the only one a’them who never hit me.”

It was an exciting few months. Every day after school my brother and I would take the bus to the public library, where we would stay until six or so when my mother got off from work, then we would all take the hour long bus ride to grandmother’s house—did I forget to mention that we lived in one of the most car-obsessed cities in the country with no car and only the erratic bus system? As I said, it was exciting. In a few months my mother found a house for us to rent, and I went to college and have never seen my father or my hometown ever again.

Now I live in New Paltz—full of trees and mountains and streams and people who care about beavers, turtles, wind power, trees and mountains and streams, and everything I care about. How could these wonderful people not also care about poor people—my people?

I am still hoping I misinterpreted tonight’s antipathy to housing for working class and poor people as antipathy to Stoneleigh Woods in particular. I know Stoneleigh Woods is crap. But we need to do a lot better job of protesting bad projects while not making it look like we want to create an enclave for middle-class white people.

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PS: Something else I am not quite clear on: the issue of density. Many, many people spoke out against the density of the project, as if that was a bad thing. If they were saying “density” and meaning “the project is too large,” I agree. But it doesn’t seem that “density” is the right word—“scale” might be a better word. I am super in favor of cluster development (i.e., that Main Street is where all of New Paltz happens) as a way to combat sprawl and minimize the footprint of any (dreaded) new developments—higher, not wider, you know? I can’t figure out if the arguments against the “density” of the project were truly against density in general, or were just a way of saying that the particular Stoneleigh Woods project was too dense overall. There was a lot I felt like I was just not comprehending tonight.

19 Responses to “On poverty, NIMBYism, and development in the people’s republic of New Paltz, New York”

  1. brittany

    ok i’m going to multi-comment you because there is A LOT…

    first, traffic… 6 minutes?! what a douche. but pick any weekend may – september and a few select weekends in between and it can easily take 30 mins each way between the thruway and the wallkill. to drive ONE MILE. that’s a problem and yeah, people SHOULD get out and walk, but we don’t, and we just have one big idling parking lot.

    there are also big problems with the flow. try turning left from rite aid/blockbuster/main course plaza ANY time of day. you’re taking your life into your hands. same thing to make a left off harrington or any other street onto main if there isn’t a light. and the p&gs/starbucks/library/bank intersection of plattekill and main is a nightmare. so instead of people being able to make their trips quickly and easily they end up taking big risks or rerouting their entire trip so that it intersects with main street at traffic lights (of which, really, there aren’t many).

    i don’t have a huge problem with one way main but i’m not really married to it, either (ha.). i think it’d be nice to be able to expand the sidewalks, maybe have some benches, public drinking fountains, etc. and a dedicated bike or bus lane.

    what would be even better is for suny to stop being freakin corporate pigs who route all traffic through the cute downtown (see how great our college town is?? see how immersed we are in the community??? HA!!!!!!!) and instead have them turn at north putt. we need lights and we need to deal with flow… it really would be nice if main street wasn’t the only way to get to the stupid ridge.

    Reply
  2. brittany

    you are NOT a total hypocrite. i feel very similar to you and am noticeably in the minority. i actually had one of the always inspiring healey talks last week on a different topic, but it’s relevant here, too. sometimes you are so left, you’re right (and not just in the smug sense). i am finding myself sharing a lot more common ground with repubs and conservatives lately simply because your run of the mill obamaites can’t even have a conversation. if you aren’t progressive (which is a narrow definition – you have to believe everything they say and do, because obviously that’s the only version), there’s nothing to talk about. you are the enemy. let’s do another rock da pasta night and he can explain it far more articulately than me… i think i’ve found my guru. haha

    Reply
  3. brittany

    you are giving them too much credit, i’m afraid. if crossroads was going to be only local businesses, for example, would it face the same opposition? yeah, it would. if crossroads was scaled down and was going to be built completely green, would it face the same opposition? yeah, it would. i don’t doubt that these people are strong environmentalists, but they’re lucky that the proposed developments are also terribly flawed. it gives them an easy out. it isn’t just the projects, it IS density and the “kind of people” affordable housing will attract. at the VB meeting a few weeks ago i almost fell out of my chair when someone was talking about how they are scared to walk on prospect street at night. a HS student and i made eye contact and a big WTF?!?!?!?! if you’re scared to walk on prospect street at night, you ARE scared of development. you’re scared of density. you’re scared of poor people. you’re scared of everything that you think comes along with poor people (crime, drugs other than pot which is perfectly fine for our middle class bougey intellectual types, furniture on the porch, cars that aren’t saabs, VW’S or volvos, etc.). the NIMBY undercurrent is exactly why i haven’t jumped on board. if you aren’t willing to talk about PEOPLE i have no use hearing how you feel about a freaking turtle. our community’s liberalism tends to stall when it comes to talking about people who AREN’T us. we have our token poor friend, our token black friend, our token single friend, our token gay friend, etc. but we don’t need a cadre of those types, especially when there may be actual values differences rather than just the superficial easy ones. because really, that ISN’T our way of life and we don’t want them pushing their ways down our throats. if they look enough like us and act enough like us, we’ll take it, but it’s still different and unwanted.

    it’s absolutely incredible and exactly why IHTFP.

    Reply
  4. brittany

    the one place where i’ll disagree with you is on the boring 9-to-5 job lemming thing. those same people who you want to make sure have housing also need jobs. and, by and large, those are the jobs that are available. without those jobs, they won’t be able to afford ANY housing, whether it’s “affordable” or not. you’ve got to pay the bills and people do what they need to do. they may love it or they may hate it, but it isn’t really our place to judge. being able to work outside of those constraints often IS a privilege question and i think most people who have that flexibility also have a lot more to go on.

    Reply
  5. brittany

    maybe we should start asking all these anti-stoneleigh, anti-crossroads, etc. people “how would you feel about wind turbines on top of the ridge?”. you’ll have all the insight you need very quickly.

    Reply
  6. lagusta

    Oh Brilliant Brittany! Where would I be without you?
    Thank god there are other radicals in town who agree with my gut feelings that these blah blah Democrats ARE crazy, and that’s it’s not me, it’s them.

    You’re absolutely right that my comments on 9-5ers are mean. I’m OK with that. ;) Small businesses for everyone!

    And YES, what a good point about if I were to propose wind turbines on the ridge. OOOh, I hate that mentality–I’d LOVE to look out my window and see wind turbines!!! What could be better, prettier, and more peaceful than a view that constantly reminds you that you’re free of corporate oil?
    OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH man I’d love to propose that to all the “liberals” in town, just to see them shake.

    Reply
  7. lagusta

    I also love that you have to be the only other person in town who hates rock climbing! I don’t hate the ridge, and do go there for fun wandering (on non-peak hours, like any sane person), but it’s so fun and perverse to be a non-hiker and climber in New Paltz!

    Reply
  8. rachel

    The importance or the turtles is that we are trying to create a nature preserve in that area– a place where you can hike by a beautiful stream that you can walk to. There will be a public meeting about that coming up. Animals are dying off all over the world and not just because humans are eating them. I understand that not everyone cares about either, but preserving turtles and low income housing are not incompatible. Turtles and other animals are also indicators of the health of the stream, generally it’s better to have unpolluted water for human recreation. I would be happy with one low income apartment building, zero net energy. Geothermal and solar would be great–I’m not sure a wind turbine would work in that area, not because of the view– they have them all over Europe and I think they’re beautiful–but perhaps because that is a sensitive area for birds. The reason that wetlands were the focus of the hearing was not just the reasons we all know– flooding, runoff and pollution control, wildlife, preventing the spread of disease vectors– but because they had been so egregiously left off the DEIS. Sure the NIMBYism was apparent, but if we can come together and create the park, everyone will be able to enjoy it.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Thanks Rachel! Yeah, I took pains to say that I am pro-turtle, all the way!

      Reply
  9. kt

    lagusta you make excellent points about the lack of commitment to low income housing and i will be sure to include it in my written comments to the planning board. i do think more than a few people touched on it, especially dorothy jessup, but we need to be clear to make the connections when we speak. and, as for the modulars… yuck! poor, old, all people deserve to live in green buildings and access to green lifestyles
    kt
    ps. i do wish you could get over your fears to speak in public, you add important and vital parts to the discourse

    Reply
  10. lagusta

    Thanks KT! Yeah, I’ll try to get better. :)

    And EEEK, Brittany, please do not admit that I go to cheeseball Rock da Pasta in public! That’s our little secret!

    Reply
  11. Dustin Rhodes

    I have a how-my-family-ended-up-in-a-trailer-story story, too–with a few exceptions: 1. it was only a single wide 2. the father wasn’t a drug dealer, but rather an alcoholic wife-beater and 3. the trailer was next to a poultry processing plant. It was the least glamorous 6 months of my life, to say the least.

    Reply
  12. Kevin Dresser

    This situation is SO hard. As a newbie to New Paltz, I came to this town for the nature, but also for all the restaurants and shops within walking distance. The Crossroads could be a great thing if it kept the feel of New Paltz and added more fabulous things to the town, like an art house cinema, art galleries with a blend of some not-too-tragic chain stores. Something that could blend the two. But, that’s my vision and clearly the whole situation is garbled by everyone wanting their own vision of the place.

    Reply
  13. kt

    oh, and about the traffic, i agree on most of what you said, but would be remiss to not point out that idling is a huge emissions culprit and is a very big no-no. UPS eliminated left hand turns and saved a bundle on oil costs… but for the green-minded, this means less yuck into the air, even our school district has nearly eliminated left turns from their bus runs.

    Reply
  14. lagusta

    Thanks for all the info and opinions about the traffic, everyone–I think I finally do see the light that the traffic situation is ridiculous.

    Dustin, you are a gem, as always.

    Kevin, I would kill for an art-house cinema, but can’t be down with chain stores, even not-too-tragic ones, alas….

    Brittany, shhh!! It’s so corny! But yep, OK, OK, they make some tasty pasta.

    Reply
  15. Dorothy

    Great comments, you guys! I’ve been thinking I wish we could come up with some creative ideas for how we can get some truly affordable housing — NOT trailers, or look alike ticky tacky housing, but something that’s aesthetically compatible with the natural surroundings. And better yet, truly green building, in terms of energy usage, preserving open space, etc. Can we put our heads together to find a conscientious, public citizen kind of builder, interested in building “green” affordable housing, conserving turtles, beaver, wetlands and open space? It just might be possible.

    Another problem will be how to/who will pay for it. A lot of the people who turn out at public hearings seem to think that we can just demand developers build what we want. To be realistic, even the most civic minded builder needs to make a living at what he/she is doing. So we’d either have to find a way to get subsidies to finance construction of affordable housing. OR – it might help if the cost of constructing the housing could be offset by including other stuff that would bring some returns to town (i.e., tax dollars) and builder — e.g., business, a small hotel, something we need (what?) that would be appropriate and aesthetically compatible with the site. That might be easier to do with Crossroads than Stoneleigh, but let’s think about possibilities for both.

    What if we put out this idea (or modifications of it — I’m just putting this out as a germinating idea) to the community and see if for once we could get people in New Paltz to mobilize in FAVOR OF something, instead of always turning out to oppose?

    (By the way, I don’t blame people for opposing developments that are not in character with our town. I would have liked to mention at the Stoneleigh Wds that I really HATE the way the most recent apartment complexes built locally look (Mulberry Square and Briarwood, both on HW DuBois) but I was told I couldn’t take any more time. Those complexes are both are so called “cluster” developments, which would be good in concept, but in actuality miss the point. My idea of cluster housing is that you have a lot of open space, with clusters here and clusters there, with a lot of green vegetation (bushes, trees, some open areas) in between . Those two complexes are just big buildings jammed together in two tight areas. Cheap siding makes them even worse. On the other hand, Meadowbrook (which happens to be our “affordable housing” and the third most recently built apartment complex in town) is far more attractive! So it can be done.

    Reply
  16. gentle « resistance is fertile

    […] of worrying that I am a bit of a loose cannon who is constantly spilling my guts on the internet ([awesome] blog posts I’ve written on various local projects were mentioned, and we talked about my ability to keep my mouth shut about my opinions on projects, which I so […]

    Reply

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