New Paltz jumped on to the international stage in 2004 when the village’s 26-year-old mayor, Jason West, married 25 same-sex couples. Reporters from national news organizations flooded the streets. Images of the village’s Main Street, lined with funky shops and gently sloping down to the Wallkill River were broadcast worldwide. (No marriage licenses were ever issued, as the town clerk refused to do so.) Of course, gay marriages are not New Paltz’s only claim to fame. There’s the Mohonk Mountain House, supposedly the inspiration for the hotel in The Shining, and also where The Road to Wellville was filmed. In Dirty Dancing, it’s mentioned as the place where the character Penny gets an illegal abortion. Until only 10 years ago, the state university had a reputation as a bit of a party school, and was cited enthusiastically and often during the 1980s in the magazine High Times. (As an alumnus of SUNY New Paltz—class of ’96—I can attest to the veracity of the claim.) Acts like Jefferson Airplane and The Who played on campus, often grand outdoors affairs held in the “Tripping Fields.” New Paltz was also the longtime home of boxing champion Floyd Patterson, who died in 2006.
The town gets written up as a weekend getaway in the New York Times travel section on an irregular but frequent schedule, as if the newspaper had a financial stake in the local tourism industry. The coverage may or may not have to do with the fact that Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger owns a house in the area.
Media hype aside, New Paltz is really the perfect example of why so many people love the Hudson Valley. “It’s a melting pot between the city and the country,” says photographer G. Steve Jordan, who runs a gallery featuring his nature photography in the Water Street Market downtown. “It’s got all the elements—bohemian student character, proximity to New York City, Main Street buzzing with shops, critical mass of intellect and artistic expression—that make it a great place to live and work. We’re very lucky.” Stuart Bigley, director of Unison Arts Center puts it this way: “It really isn’t like other places; it’s very much its own thing. The town hasn’t been commodified and chopped up and spit out in the commercial way that so many other towns have been.”
New Paltzians are proud of the funky character of the town, comparing its quirkiness favorably against the Hudson Valley’s more well-heeled burgs. “Rhinebeck is prettier than New Paltz, but I don’t see a lot to do there,” says Rich Gottlieb, a legendary figure in the rock climbing community who owns the outfitting store Rock and Snow. “We’re a little more of a frontier town. New Paltz is not too precious. Everybody contributes. Nobody owns the place.” Bigley puts it this way: “It’s real here. New Paltz has its pimples here and there. If you go to some other places in the region, there’s a kind of hipper-than-thou quality. [Admittedly, some have accused New Paltz of being hippier-than-thou.] You don’t have to be cool in New Paltz. Maybe you are, but you’re accepted if you’re not.”
And friendly people—don’t forget the friendly people. “One of the biggest compliments we get from visitors is that the people here are just so friendly and helpful,” says Joyce Minard, president of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce. “And it’s true! Residents here are very much in love with their community.”
The Oldest Street in America
Let’s start at the beginning. (Ignoring the displaced indigenous residents, of course.) French Huguenots, fleeing persecution in their Catholic-dominated homeland, founded a settlement in 1678 on the banks of the Wallkill River. (An interesting ethnic variant in an area almost exclusively settled by the Dutch after their founding of New Amsterdam in the early 17th century. A few of New Paltz’s street names—Dubois, Hasbrouck—attest to the town’s French Protestant heritage.) The Huguenots built a cluster of stone houses along present-day Huguenot Street (regarded as the oldest street in America); seven of the surviving structures date from the early 1700s, and the other houses on the street are similarly styled. The six-acre site is a National Historic Landmark District, and also contains a cemetery and a reconstructed 1717 stone church.
Historic Huguenot Street, the association that oversees the buildings and grounds, hosts events throughout the year, from croquet parties to historic reenactments. In January, HHS will present a talk by historian Walter Wheeler, “Constructing Slavery: Beginning Investigations into the Housing of Slaves in New York State, 1620-1827,” on January 9, and an evening of music with violinist Marka Young and guitarist Jim Bacon (also a town justice) on January 23.