- The Sportsman's Alamo Cantina's iconic woodsman statue on Main Street in Phoenicia.
Although it seems like a kept secret of the Catskills, Phoenicia has captivating alpine scenery that’s cultivated a community of return visitors and full-time residents for over a century. Located off of Route 28 in the town of Shandaken, Phoenicia is just 30 minutes from Kingston and seemingly chiseled into a mountainside, just minutes away from skiing at Hunter and Belleayre. Phoenicia’s Main Street lacks both traffic lights and crosswalks. When looking both ways is even necessary, rusty pickups rumble past foreign luxury cars.
While traveling north on the Thruway, the purple peaks of the Catskill Mountains begin to tease visitors from a distance. After disappearing over the horizon, their silhouettes return within five miles of the Kingston exit—a reminder of the scenery to come. The remaining commute along Route 28 is scattered with small hamlets, smaller businesses, and the occasional totem pole, as well as a drive past the Emerson Resort and Spa and Catskill Corners, home to the world’s biggest kaleidoscope.
Upon entering Phoenicia, guests must pass over train tracks that were once the lifeblood of the hamlet. Phoenicia was once a stop along the Ulster & Delaware Railroad—a passenger and cargo railroad that remains active. Outside of town, along Route 28, the Catskill Mountain Railroad runs a 12-mile scenic train trip between Boiceville and Phoenicia. The Phoenicia station, home of the Empire State Railway Museum, is located in the historic railroad depot. The station, completed in 1900, allowed the hamlet’s tourism industry to flourish. Throughout the duration of World War I, the Phoenicia stop of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad provided tourist traffic that has since become an imperative social and economic aspect to the area.
What’s Shakin’ in Shandaken
The economy of Shandaken itself has historically been focused on tourism traffic. In an 1879 article in the New York Times, “In The Ulster Catskills: Attractions of Shandaken Valley,” it is noted that “many thousands of people will come [to the Catskills] annually to escape the heat of the pent-up cities, and spend some of their hard-earned money in gaining renewed strength and vigor of body and mind.”
Originally a part of Woodstock, the town of Shandaken was established in 1804. After its first town meeting less than a week after its establishment, hamlets began forming throughout the town. Phoenicia’s Main Street was constructed in 1853 and has been altered scarcely since.
Of the businesses lining Phoenicia’s 19th-century streets, the Town Tinker Tube Rental has become a staple of the Catskills. Housed in a giant red barn, the Town Tinker rents inner tubes for riding the rapids of the Esopus Creek. The Town Tinker has designated sections of a five-mile portion of the Esopus based on the experience levels of guests—safety equipment is readily available for those who desire or require it.
Considering this inherent vacation-based tradition, it is no surprise that locals and business owners are welcoming to the visiting crowd. “[Tourists] blend in—they become part of our town,” says Sue Taylor, owner of Sweet Sue’s restaurant, a breakfast and lunch spot on Main Street (serving 20 kinds of pancakes!) that’s jammed with hungry hordes on weekends. “A lot of our customers are second-home owners from New York City. This has become just as much of a home for them.”
In a 2002 New York Times article about Phoenicia, Claudia Rowe reported that “Real estate agents estimate that more than half of the property in Phoenicia is owned by part-time residents.” Town Clerk Laurilyn Frasier confirms the abundance of part-time residents. “Most of the people on my tax roll are second-home owners,” says Frasier.
These visitors may not live in Phoenicia full-time, but their impact is felt all year. Mike Ricciardella, owner of Brio’s, The Sportsman’s Alamo Cantina, and Ricciardella’s, says that he depends on tourists and second-home owners to keep his restaurants operating. Ricciardella has lived in Phoenicia all his life and was raised in his family’s restaurant business.
He believes that in order to maintain a business in an area like Phoenicia, you must plan for the “peaks and valleys” of income. As might be expected, businesses tend to fare better in the summer when most tourists and second-home owners are in town.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” says Dave Pillard, owner of The Tender Land Home, a gift and furnishing store on Main Street. As “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams echoes through his modest shop, Pillard continues: “In December it’s busy, but in January it’s rough. It gets easier once you learn the pattern.”
Like Coming Home
Although tourists are an integral part of Phoenicia’s community, full-time residents are also necessary for the vibrancy and vitality of the hamlet. Pillard says that he tries to cater to weekenders and full-timers alike.
“You need to take care of everyone,” he says. “I couldn’t run on just weekenders.”
Josh Quick, a bartender at The Sportsman’s Alamo Cantina agrees. Quick says his clientele is a mixture of “locals, tourists, transplants and lots of second-home owners.” He also considers his customers to be a “nice cross-section” with regard to age. “I have regulars who are 21 and I have regulars who are in their 70s,” he says.
“Here comes one of my regulars now,” he says as he spots a man approaching the restaurant. Quick begins pouring the man’s drink before he reaches the door.
The small town atmosphere seems infectious in Phoenicia. Natives seldom relocate and tourists convert to transplants. Town clerk Fraiser has lived in Phoenicia for 22 years. She raised a family in Phoenicia and two of her children still live in Shandaken.
Pillard grew up in a small town in western New York. He then moved to Manhattan where he “fatigued” of city life over the years. He says he moved to Phoenicia because “it wasn’t a totally foreign environment to me. In some ways it was like coming home.”
Restaurateurs Ricciardella and Taylor were raised in the area—Ricciardella since 1964. Both are currently raising children in the area and in their restaurants.
Twenty-year-old Samantha Taylor, Sue Taylor’s daughter, waits tables at Sweet Sue’s. She jokes about the affable competition between her mother’s restaurant and Ricciardella’s restaurants. “It’s a friendly rivalry,” she said. “It’s sort of like the restaurant monopoly of Phoenicia.”
Artist and owner of Homer and Langley’s Mystery Spot Antiques, Laura Levine adds that “people come from miles away to go fishing, camping, hiking, tubing…” She goes on to describe the hamlet’s scenery: “The village is only two blocks long, surrounded by gorgeous mountains, and the Esopus Creek runs right through town. The buildings go back to the 1800s, and it’s still a real village… there’s a real sense of community.”
Another aspect that keeps visitors and second home owners coming back is the abundance of unique specialty stores like Levine’s. She says that her store started as an antique and collectables store. Over the years it has evolved into a multi-room all-encompassing vintage store featuring everything from kitchenware to vinyl records.
“Though the place is packed to the rafters, it’s actually quite carefully curated; I only bring in things that appeal to my eye, so there’s a look that ties it all together,” she says. “Eight years later, we’re still going strong. As long it continues to amuse me and my friends and customers, we’ll keep going.”
Levine also began hosting a concert series that extends from July until October. Musical acts perform on the front porch of The Mystery Spot and entertain Main Street in its entirety. Last year Laura Cantrell, Tommy Ramone’s indie-acoustic outfit Uncle Monk, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Ambrosia Parsley were just a few acts to grace the porch.
Like Levine, Alan Fliegel also owns quite the unique boutique. A transplant from Manhattan, Fliegel moved to Phoenicia to rear his children. While living in Soho, Fliegel and his wife Lynn sold hand-painted clothing on the street—they call their line Babytoes. Upon moving to Phoenicia, Fliegel opened 60 Main with a few friends to sell their respective wares—Babytoes clothes are all made in Phoenicia. Now, 60 Main features clothes, art, music, and literature from friends and family members in his store.
Fliegel has also taken strides toward cultivating an all-encompassing community art center directly above 60 Main. The Arts Upstairs is a gallery, music venue, and movie theater. Fliegel hosts art shows every month, live music once a month, and shows independent films twice a month. The back room is also studio space that is available for rent to artists for $50 per month.
Every wall is decked with works from a plethora of media: paintings, pencil drawings, and photos were all represented in a recent show. Some artists even drew directly on the walls—Fleigel refuses to wash them off.
Fliegel and his partners will hang anybody’s art. “It’s a non juried gallery,” says Fliegel. “We didn’t want anyone to tell us what to paint. We have novice kids with no experience hung next to full-time working artists.” When pieces are sold, artists receive 70 percent profit for their pieces. Fliegel says his gallery is by artists and for artists. “We’re just entertaining ourselves here,” he says.
He holds the community element of his store in very high regard. Fliegel chuckles while knowingly leaving 60 Main’s front door unlocked to show the upstairs studio space to a visiting artist. “I haven’t been ripped off yet,” he chuckles. “When I get ripped off then I’ll be uncomfortable.”
The inherent close-knit atmosphere of this two-block community encourages a certain amount of trust and a special kind of relationship among neighbors. “The cast of characters you grow up with in a small town—when we need each other we all pull together,” says Ricciardella. “It’s kind of like family.”
Bartender Quick adds: “On Friday and Saturday I usually end up driving a few people home. I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt.”
City life is distant in Phoenicia considering its rustic atmosphere and colorful cast. However businesses are lively, tourists are socially active and full-time residents consider their respective places in the community to be of importance. Pillard says that he “impact[s] a small community in a positive way” when catering to Phoenicia’s blend of inhabitants. “You play an important part of the vibrancy of the community.”
The Arts Upstairs www.artsupstairs.com
Babytoes Clothing www.babytoes.com
Belleayre Mountain www.belleayre.com
Catskill Mountain Railroad www.catskillmtrailroad.com
Emerson Resport & Spa www.emersonplace.com
Empire State Railway Museum www.esrm.com
Homer and Langley’s Mystery Spot www.mysteryspotantiques.com
Hunter Mountain www.huntermtn.com
Sweet Sue’s (845) 688-7852
The Tender Land Home www.tenderlandhome.com
Town of Shandaken www.shandaken.us
Town Tinker Tube Rental www.towntinker.com