What's it like to live in a small yet sophisticated farm community of 7,000 after decades of living in big cities and upscale suburbs?
Life certainly is simpler when the main "downtown" consists of two major streets and one stoplight, and the busiest gathering spots are a coffee-bread store, public library, and the oldest inn in America. The biggest events in town are an annual Dutchess County Fair, established more than 160 years ago and now filled with rides, farm animals, and food stands, and the newer but equally busy Sheep & Wool festival, which brings scores of knitters to the village's streets in between their shopping for wool and other supplies at the 162-acre fairgrounds.
But almost 6 1/2 years after moving to the Hudson River Valley in Dutchess County, N.Y., I've discovered so much is different yet so much is the same wherever you live.
One major difference for me has been that there's more mingling among different socioeconomic groups. Yet, people still try to determine your level of affluence, just in different ways. Instead of asking where you went to graduate school, college, or even high school to try to figure it out, as they did in the places where I grew up and have lived as an adult, in my new hometown folks want to know if you live in the village or town. The village implies more expensive housing stock, but that's really not accurate. On many streets, there's a mix of high- and low, big and little homes, including two-family houses with one part available for rent. In my former habitats, entire neighborhoods of single-family homes or condo buildings typically reflected the same economic strata, and you weren't as likely to have neighbors from very different groups side by side. This, I've found, is far more enriching.
Folks here also care far less about what type of car you drive since everybody seems to drive a Subaru, which operates well in a snowy climate. There’s also a family dealership right in town. Those who don't drive a Subaru may drive a pick-up truck because of their work as a farmer. I can't remember spying any Mercedes and certainly not a Rolls Royce, though I'm sure some have rolled through in summer. That’s when tourists come up from New York City, down from Boston, or even much farther away to visit their children at the nearby colleges of Bard and Vassar; attend classes, or eat a meal at the Culinary Institute of America, the other C.I.A., as it's known, or visit the late President FDR's home and library in Hyde Park.
We've got our fair share of celebrities, too, from Annie Leibowitz to Savannah Gurthrie, and Julia Margolies, any of whom you might catch shopping at the area grocery stores or farm stands or in some of the fancier shops that rival those in far bigger and more affluent cities. In fact, two actors--Paul Rudd and Jeffrey Dean Morgan--purchased one of the village's three beloved candy shops, Samuel's Sweet Shop, when its owner died too young, and it's not unheard of to catch them schmoozing or standing behind the counter I've been told, even if I've not seen this.
And we have the same gripes when change occurs. The recent switch from one supermarket owner to another generated great concern as stock was switched, merchandise in aisles rearranged, and some favorite clerks left. However, when the new owner finished and new better fresh fish and organic food areas opened, the negativity waned and kudos emerged.
Finally, if you go to a village planning board meeting, you're less likely to hear discussions about adding a swimming pool or tearing down a house to build something far bigger since the village was recognized as a historic district and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. At one recent town meeting, the same concern that is causing buzz in many far bigger cities about the sharing economy filled the room. Debate ensued about whether residents should be able to lease out rooms, their entire home, or accessory buildings to paying guests who view the homes available on Airbnb, VRBO, and Homeaway.
Here, many do so just as they do so in bigger cities to earn extra income because they have room after their children move away. No action was taken, but the solution discussed revolved around restricting the number of days a year this can be done, require a permit and enforce safety guidelines such as the necessity to have CO2 and smoke detector alarms and fire extinguishers, and for home owners to live on-site rather than purchase a property purely for investment.
Restaurant and shop owners also voiced the need to allow residents to do so since the rentals bring in scores of visitors who pump money into the village's economy. The one negative voice was a B&B owner, who understandably considers the sharing economy keen competition. Another meeting will supposedly occur in the New Year.
Passions seemed to run even higher among parents attending the meeting whose children are enrolled in a relatively new private elementary school, Primrose Hill, which teaches students through a nature-based learning program. It reflects the Waldorf philosophy (an experiential and academically rigorous approach to education with a focus also on the arts) with a farm curriculum, land stewardship, biodynamic farm, animals on the site, and a farm store.
The village was considering restricting the number of animals because of the size of the school's 7 1/2 acres. Parent after parent and teacher after teacher, and even the school's attorney, stood up to speak passionately about how important the animals are to their young children. They pointed out what they are learning about life cycles firsthand rather than from a computer screen or in a textbook. One even showed enlarged photos of the horses, sheep, cows, and pigs and cited their names.
How does living in such a cozy town feel for someone who once considered herself quite an urban sophisticate and craved anonymity? Good, when you are a newcomer and begin to recognize people at the local movie theater who attended the village planning board's meeting, who show up week after week on the next mat to you at your favorite Pilates studio, or who wait on you at the local coffee/bread store, learn about your family, and eventually suggest grabbing wine together. People are really the same anywhere.
It’s comforting as a single woman to feel like you’re part of a very special community where you are noticed, accepted and included, though deeper friendships will take more time. As you age and it becomes harder to make new connections since friends move away and even die, small town life where you're likely to run into one another more often definitely offers a welcoming option.
Part II: Condo Living in an Urban Hub