Nestled in the shadow of the great, green ridge, the streets of the village of Ellenville are often deserted. When you walk in its downtown area, Canal Street and Center Street, and stop into its many homegrown businesses, like Matthews Pharmacy or Cohen’s Bakery, people are more than happy to help you find what you’re looking for and direct you toward a favorite hiking trail or watering hole. But if you continue walking for a bit longer, you’ll start to notice the many vacant storefronts, whose dilapidated façades complement not only the gaping absence of life on the inside, but also the utter lack of foot traffic on the streets.
Most of the time, Ellenville may as well be a ghost town. This fact is so widely regarded that, on July 15, the opening reception for this year’s “10x10x10” art event was attended with excited refrains of, “Look at all the people in the streets!” In truth, there were certainly more people in town on the overcast Sunday than usual, but one could just as easily say that the number of people matched that of New Paltz’s Main Street on a lousy day.
The diverse community is incredibly vibrant and committed, a core of individuals working hard to keep the village running and ready for people to come and take advantage of what it has to offer. Like our inner organs that keep working while we sleep, Ellenville’s residents are making sure the town will be ready when its turn comes to wake up and rejoin the rest of the Hudson Valley. Trying to get a read on Ellenville is as difficult as getting a read on a sleeping man: On the surface it seems like little is happening, but underneath there’s a flurry of activity keeping things alive.
In a lot of ways, the town of Ellenville shouldn’t really exist right now. Amid the many transformations it’s undergone since its purchase by Louis Bevier in 1711—from agrarian beginnings to becoming a stop along the D&H Canal, a major resort destination in the Hudson Valley, and, until recently, a center for manufacturing in New York State—just what the people in Ellenville stick around for can be difficult to ascertain.
Ellenville’s vital statistics serve as a numerical reflection of its empty streets. According to the 2000 census, it has a population of 4,130, the median household income is $27,474, and 23.4 percent of the population struggle below the poverty line. Compare that to Saugerties, another Ulster County village that is similar in size. With a somewhat larger population of 4,955, its median household income is $35,525, and 12.2 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2000. For more recent statistics, Brian Schug, Ellenville’s building code enforcement officer, says that of the approximately 1,570 structures in the village, 860 are rentals, and he estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of those rentals fall under section eight housing, compared to his estimate of around Saugerties’s 30 percent of section eight rentals. Village Manager Elliott Auerbach describes 2000’s census numbers to be inaccurate in the wake of Manhattan residents’ northern migration post 9/11, but Schug’s statistics are up to the minute.
According to those people who are keeping Ellenville’s blood pumping, it’s time to find a new way to try and wake their village up. And the Ellenville Area Arts Alliance, or EA3, is hoping to be the solution. Headed by Cragsmoor’s Judy Sigunick, EA3 is trying to dress the village in a new set of clothes, portraying it as a burgeoning artists’ community.
Complete with newly rezoned rental spaces downtown to attract artists to set up lofts, a slew of visual arts events lined up throughout the year, and the forthcoming Ellenville Arts and Ceramics Center, which is waiting for additional funding to pave the way for its opening, the village seems to be making some headway in its redefinition. Sigunick’s salaried position as EA3’s head was created in an effort to keep this momentum going, and so far it is the only job that’s been created through this focus on the arts. As of this writing, one of the last remaining industrial facilities, the aluminum manufacturer Hydro, is the latest in a line of manufacturers to abandon the area, having just announced an end to all Ellenville operations, resulting in a loss of more than 300 jobs.
Sigunick’s appointment as the village’s director of visual arts comes as a result of not only her volunteer work coordinating last year’s inaugural “10x10x10” exhibit, but also her decade’s worth of experience as a Hudson Valley visual artist, creating the Poorhouse Memorial for the Ulster County Fairgrounds, the cement rhino in Rosendale, and the whale in Poughkeepsie’s Wayras Park. “I’m very committed to bringing a kind of level playing field between the artists, the businesses, and the civic leaders,” says Sigunick of why she’s agreed to take on this position in addition to her busy schedule as a public artist.