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New Paltz: Berkeley of the East


Last Updated: 02/01/2023 9:54 am
Huguenot Steet memorial. - DAVID MORRIS CUNNINGHAM

When Occupiers pulled a “mike check” on the New Paltz Village Board at the December board meeting, it was something of a nonevent. “They were surprised but smiling,” notes an occupier on the group’s Facebook page. And why not? Mayor Jason West had already helped them choose a campsite and an amiable liaison with the police had been established. This is, after all, a community where the Women in Black’s weekly vigil on Main Street in front of Elting Library is outlasting the seemingly interminable wars. West, one of the most renowned mayors in local history for his bold instigation of the Great Gay Marriage Rebellion of 2004, was recently put back into office by a village that decided they just plain liked his leadership, drama or no. Also recently reelected is Susan Zimet, supervisor of the town from 1996-2000, famed for leading the effort that stopped Walmart in its tracks.

Ask Zimet what she loves about New Paltz and you get a torrent: “Just being downtown. I love the [Main Street] Bistro, the [Village] Tearoom, the Bakery—any of those for breakfast or brunch. Then there are the bookstores: Barner Books and the Inquiring Mind. Just hanging around Church and North Front street is amazing. Handmade has such beautiful decor, the Groovy Blueberry has all that tie-dye. Bruce [Kazan] has the most wonderful food at Main Course. My newfound place is Paul’s Kitchen. But the thing about New Paltz is, even the standard stuff becomes transformed. The post office, the Mobil station, the wine store. Do your errands and then go hit the Gilded Otter for drinks with the teachers. You can’t get through the supermarket without ending up in a discussion. The diner, PDQ copy shop—I mean, even the copy shop rocks!”

How so? Exceptional ownership. “Last time I was at PDQ, Craig [Shankles] told me he’d asked Kathy [Cartagena] from Family of Woodstock how many families were gonna be hungry this holiday. Kathy said, ‘46 families and 80 kids.’ So we’re getting with ShopRite and Stop-n-Shop and Moxie Cupcake and making sure none of those people do without for the holidays, but we’re also brainstorming and organizing how to make sure they don’t go without period. Ever. Because this is New Paltz.”

Berkeley of the East
New Paltz, once nicknamed the Berkeley of the East Coast, has been transforming—revitalizing, devitalizing, shape-shifting and growing—since the 17th century. Zimet and West are both partaking of a grand tradition that started with a dozen French Huguenot immigrant families who built houses of stone so sweet and sturdy no one has knocked them down yet.

Huguenot Street, the oldest in the United States with its original buildings intact, is managed as a living museum, offering educational programs along with community events. Come autumn, it’s harvest festivities and hauntings; around Christmas, period celebrations; in springtime they’ll be hosting a literary workshop slyly entitled Women’s Writes. The Historic Huguenot Street folk are a fermenting cauldron of ideas, embracing all aspects of the heritage of a street that, any time of year, is a world class place to take a walk.

It’s far from the only world class walk in town. Care to make your walk quieter? Try the Rail Trail or the less-frequented Huguenot Path down near the community gardens along the Wallkill River. More athletic? Head west a little ways and you’ve got the miles of carriage trails of Mohonk Preserve. Slower? A walk from the movie theatre to the post office can fill three hours with mini-adventures with no trouble at all. If you don’t know folks to stop and talk with, you soon will, because college towns are made for chance encounters. And there is simply no better town in the known universe for a pub crawl, whether you prefer your company curmudgeonly, comely, or both. From Truman’s 9,000 sexy and sophisticated square feet and Joe’s East West to the east, down through the triangle formed by P&G’s, McGillicuddy’s, and Murphy’s, and on into the west end—Oasis, Bacchus, Snug Harbor—you’ll find hot live music and laughter.

Rather have yours nonalcoholic? Check out places like the Village Tearoom (not only for tea, but also for dinner and delectable desserts), the Cafeteria, and SlashRoot, where you can have all of your computing problems solved at a reasonable price whilst drinking fair-trade coffee and getting the absolute latest. Grabbing a slice or a sandwich or a taco is the easiest thing in the world. The uptown Taco Shack serves up a quality that packs ‘em in—call your order ahead—as does Mexicali Blue, a taco joint with such personality that Anthony Bourdain stopped by to film a segment of “No Reservations.” In this town, even the snacks are special.

A Village of Small Shops
And so is the retail. Zimet remembers how, during her earlier tenure as supervisor, still fresh and green, she encountered Republican stalwart Paul Benson in his eponymous Gardiner pub and steakhouse during a community event. Until very recently her fierce opponent, Benson took her aside and said she’d been one hundred percent correct in her opposition to Walmart. Benson’s family had owned a downtown New Paltz department store that folded in the wake of the opening of Simmons Plaza, the beginning of a downward spiral for local business that has long since reversed as Simmons Plaza has matured into a well-loved part of the community in its own right. (A strip mall it may be, but it’s also home to the world-class Mark Gruber Gallery. And in order to obtain final blessings, Stop-n-Shop had to agree to tailor its branch to meet the community’s need for basic department-store needs.)

Instead of a Walmart, New Paltz eventually saw an abandoned lumberyard turn into the Water Street Market, an eclectic array of shops, galleries, and restaurants down by the riverside. The Water Street’s benches and courtyards invite hanging out—especially when performance poet Carl Welden is hosting the free Sunday night movie outdoors, the Broads Regional Arm Wrestling League is BRAWLing, or a chili cookoff is in progress, like it will be on January 28.

Certainly one of the prime engines that makes New Paltz New Paltz is the college. For generations, it’s been a gushing pipeline full of smart kids from the city, many of whom fall in love with its charms and settle in to contribute to the mix. Joint town/college projects such as One Book, One New Paltz, an alliance pulling together readers and nonreaders alike around a single significant book, further facilitate the cross-pollination.

How does Zimet intend to govern such a place? “For brainstorming purposes, why don’t we just throw every last written rule out the window,” she suggests, “and start a Utopia Commission? How do we do this as our best selves? What would it look like? Then we go talk Albany into changing the rules so things will actually work right. Who the hell can stop us? Why would they want to?”

Local Notable: Gerald Benjamin
Gerald Benjamin came to New Paltz from Columbia in 1968, newlywed, an assistant professor of political science, passionate about his field of study. Besides teaching in Italy and Japan, Benjamin has built a resumé that reflects his ability not just to teach Poly Sci but to practice it. Elected to the county legislature in 1981 was just the beginning of his extracurricular adventures in regional governance: He rose to be majority leader, garnered a bouquet of awards, recognitions, and citations, and was included on the Times Herald Record’s “Most Powerful People” list two years in a row. When Ulster County decided to move to a charter form of government, Benjamin was the unanimous and bipartisan choice to lead the effort.

“I really love this school and its mission,” he says of SUNY New Paltz. “We’re not educating the elite here, we’re providing a very democratic opportunity. And when I first came here, the college and the community were not particularly connected—I always felt they should be.”

That vision, shared by recent college president Steven Poskanzer, became the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach, which Benjamin directs. “It’s a big achievement for us, being more connected to the psyche of the larger community. I love being part of a university that’s in the vanguard, doing interesting and important things. And I love this community—I’ve met such a diverse array of people here. It’s a gem of a place to raise a family.”

Local Notable: Jim Hyland
When the Hyland family started to outgrow apartment living, Jim and Julie Hyland drew a circle around New York City at the two-hundred-mile mark. In May, 2005, they found themselves in New Paltz with four-year-old James, two-year-old Jack, and Ryan on the way.

“Being passionate about food and outdoor life, it was easy to fall in love with New Paltz.” says Hyland. “We instantly felt at home, and before I knew it I was starting a local food company.” A committed locavore, Hyland wanted to be able to enjoy the bounty even in the colder months—and his company, Winter Sun Farms, provides processing, packaging and distribution that make it possible for the Hylands and many others to do just that. From a modest beginning offering “winter shares” to folks around New Paltz, Winter Sun has grown to embrace 2,400 members in four locations.

For fun, the Hyland clan hikes in Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park. Jim and Julie, runners, thrive on a steady diet of benefit events like the Family of Woodstock annual Turkey Trot. “Even the boys joined in for the Survival of the Shawangunks triathlon for kids,” says Hyland.

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