But this particular swath of glorious countryside has long been at the north end of the Harlem Valley rail line, allowing a cross-pollination with Manhattan and points worldwide that’s fertilized these bucolic view-sheds with a wildflower mix of intense creativity. And today, that rail line—turned rail trail—has become connective tissue for the downtowns of Amenia and Millerton, two world-class communities quietly bursting at the seams with endeavors, innovations, and optimism.
“My husband and I moved to Millerton 30 years ago because it had a bookstore,” says Lisa Wright, a manager at Oblong Books, the warmly and fiercely independent bookstore that’s been a Main Street fixture for 35 years. “A bookstore means something—that there are curious, thinking people around. This place, the movie theater, Irving Farm [coffee house]; over the years we’ve watched it go from being an agricultural town to an area with a lot more second-home owners. It’s been fascinating to watch the changes, even the ones that seem negative at first—dairy farms go under, but truck farms and horse farms come in. We get a huge influx of people moving in after 9/11—and the arts and business communities explode with their distinctive innovations. Millerton has become a much more interesting downtown to walk around.”
“We have an enviable Main Street,” says Millerton Business Association founding member Marta Reynolds. “It’s really evolved. About seven years ago, a bunch of people came along and saw the potential in a bunch of dusty, unused buildings, and said ‘Let’s do the work here.’ It turned into fabulous shops, and the world started coming. I can’t believe I was lucky enough to happen to move here. Art Frommer [publisher of Budget Travel] called us one of the 10 coolest small towns in America—we revel in that and earn it every day.”
“Our business district has gone from a sweet little fading town to an up- and-coming, thriving, place and Marta’s responsible for a whole lot of that,” says Jenny Hansell, director of the Northeast Community Center (NECC) in Millerton. “She bought that inn [Simmons Way] a few years ago, and ever since, she’s been out walking around with her dog, talking to people, putting things together, solving problems.”
The NECC began as the North East Community Council in the late'80s, beginning with a program for at-risk teens and a Care Car that got seniors safely to their medical appointments, and has expanded to coordinating a wide range of community programs and services. Tentacles of collaboration extend every which way—Gilmor Glass Works, Reynolds tells me, sponsors teens from the NECC as glass-blowing interns. The arts community has a variety of festivities planned—including one to coincide with the Bike New York Harlem Valley Rail Ride on July 25. “That’s how I first got involved,” recalls Reynolds. “I was helping plan the Ride and somebody asked me if I could find a couple of firemen who could cook. I found more than that—I found a world of camaraderie.”
Along with Oblong Books, downtown Millerton boasts its own indie cinema, The Movie House, offering fare ranging from the highbrow and subtitled to Adam Sandler and a red-carpet party for the latest offering in the Twilight series. A thriving farm market bursts with local produce every weekend. Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, an outgrowth of a Manhattan coffee shop, roasts its carefully selected beans here in a vintage carriage house and serves the results to a grateful local populace; Millerton has been a good place for Irving Farms, and plans for a new green roasting facility are in the works.
“I live right in between—I get my mail in Amenia and I vote in Millerton,” says official town artist Elizabeth Tilly Strauss, a 24-year resident of the farm her grandfather bought many decades earlier. “They’re both exciting places for me right now. There are a lot of creatives drawn by the beauty and isolation, and the economic meltdown is bringing us out of the woodwork. The creativity is on every level. The new diner is serving all local ingredients, and they’re being really careful to find a niche that won’t take away from existing places. And we have a huge group of artists, people who had never met coming out and working and talking together. We throw up random shows in vacant real estate. We help each other.