We encountered the “us and them” situation — us being downstaters, and them being locals — on our very first trip upstate to look for property, although at the time we didn’t realize we’d stumbled into such a loaded polemic. We just thought it was common sense.
Visiting Sullivan County for the first time, we wondered: Why don’t the locals get it together and capitalize on the proximity of the city and start bringing in the bucks? Elevate their economic status? Get some Fair Trade lattes up here already. And some micro-breweries. And, like, clean up the place a little?
Typical city people, we were. Arriving somewhere relatively unspoiled, and immediately demanding to know why it didn’t have the same people, food and aesthetics of the place we’d just come from.
Once we settled (near Hudson, first in Columbia County, then in Greene County), we learned a little more about the disconnect between city and country expectations. And I continued to experience (in my own head) the urban sentiment that wanted to turn every town into Soho North, and every hamlet into a twee Hollywood set.
But what we slowly figured out is that a lot of country people don’t want city people to take over and reinvent their towns. In fact, far from welcoming city people into their midsts, quite a few actively opposed the takeover of their town by New Yorkers. Huh? Say what? How could anybody not want to see beautiful hipsters shopping at precious farm stands, and for those townies over there to clean up all the crap in their front yard?
Even more, we discovered, there was actual hostility toward the very notion of city people.
Transplant friends told stories both petty and terrible of prejudice they’d faced as former New Yorkers. In the truly worst case I know of, one friend was literally almost run out of town by the old guard in his picturesque little town on the Hudson. The zoning board harassed him, tried to destroy his business, and stalked his family for evidence in their court cases. It’s an appalling story.
Most cases were more mild. A friend told of being cold-shouldered at parties and neighborhood events when it was discovered she was from the city.
A local, explaining the widespread acceptance of a town leader who happens to be gay explained that: “Around here, the only people we discriminate against are city people.”
A local kid took it a little further, explaining why a display at a county fair was all messed up: “It was set up by city people, and you know they don’t really know how to do stuff?”
A local farmer, in a conversation about the sometimes stunning lack of animal knowledge among city people offered this: “They’re stupid. They don’t know shit. I don’t know how they get their asses out of bed in the morning.”
With all this hostility and suspicion, it’s no wonder that a locally born and bred friend warned us with great seriousness not to tell people where we were from. “I hate to think how they’ll treat you,” she said.
We have never hid that we are city transplants, and we have been treated fairly, even warmly, by everyone we’ve met, at least as far as we know. (Even by the farmer I mentioned above, who knows exactly where I’m from, and still seems to trust that I know how to get my ass out of bed in the morning.)
But the funny thing that’s been happening, is that now I kind of get the prejudice. Where once I wondered why no one had the initiative to put some zinnias into a galvanized bucket, hang out a charmingly hand-painted sign and jack up the prices, now I get that some people don’t want a city gloss on their low-key lives. And I’m not really sure I want it either.
There are people who chose to live in the country, and in an undeveloped place like Greene County, precisely because they like the lack of fancy. They don’t go to Hudson, they don’t care about what shoes are cool this fall, and they don’t want to do business with high-maintenance city people. (And, yes, many of them are former city transplants.)
And now it’s happening to me. (Okay, sort of. I still wish that somebody would, please, just come up and open a cool coffee shop. I don’t need a vegan boutique like Chatham has, or a gluten-free bakery, or an arty movie theater. But a good coffee shop would be great.)
But I also love the lack of intensity, the I’m-minding-my-own-business attitude, the practical knowledge and abilities of almost everyone I meet up here, the shortage of i-Pad-hunger, the lack of what-do-you-mean-you-haven’t-been-to-Thailand? conversations.
I don’t think that tension between city and country will ever go away. But I love watching my place in the polemic shift.