The Sixth Borough
How Hudson, New York, went from faded industrial town to hipster haven
Some 130 miles north of Times Square, on a bend in the river that shares its name, sits the city of Hudson, New York, population 6,300. Hudson once enjoyed a manufacturing boom—along with a national reputation for illicit pastimes—only to enter a period of steep economic decline during the second half of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, though, Hudson is enjoying a significant revival. With its galleries, coffeehouses, and open-kitchen restaurants attracting hipsters, writers, artists, and movie stars, Hudson has been called the Un-Hamptons, New York’s Upstate Downtown, and Brooklyn North. It might just as easily be called the sixth borough of New York City.
The city’s attractions draw heavy summer traffic, but it flourishes in wintertime, too. On a twilit mid-December evening, three art galleries held openings. Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag, lined with galleries and cafés, bustled with groups of young and old, some well dressed and some in painter’s pants, crisscrossing from sidewalk to sidewalk, laughing, shouting greetings, their visible breath making what looked like cartoon-dialogue balloons, creating a carnival atmosphere in the frigid air. The city also attracts young families. “When we moved here ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a stroller anywhere,” says Betsy Gramkow, Executive-Director of Columbia-Greene Hospital Foundation, located just off Warren. “Now, it’s stroller central.” Gramkow and her husband, Ted, moved to Hudson from San Francisco. “Since we moved here,” Ted said, “every house on our block has been renovated. The death and rebirth of American cities is happening right here.” So are the tensions—between social classes, values, and visions for the future—that roil American politics today.
The city has seen booms and busts ever since Henry Hudson sailed by in the Half Moon in 1609. Dutch settlers were followed by other immigrant groups—English from Boston; more Dutch from Connecticut—and, by the War of 1812, when the British blockaded seaports like Nantucket and New Bedford, Hudson was for a time the most important whaling port in the Northeast. With sailors on shore leave from all parts of the world, the city became a multiethnic prostitution and gambling center. When the war was over, blockades in other ports were lifted, and Hudson hit a slump. Economic ups and downs came and went until Prohibition, when Hudson, ideally situated to transfer bootleg liquor from Canada to the north and Massachusetts to the east, again flourished.
In the 1920s, Hudson hit the big time. Men came from all over the country to gamble, drink, and sample Diamond Street’s notorious red-light district. “My dad used to tell about how in Germany, in World War II, he’d be sitting with the guys, and people were talking about where they came from, and Dad would say, ‘Hudson,’ and they’d say they knew all about Hudson,” said native Marjorie Tanzillo. The brothel girls and the gamblers bought food and clothes in town. Hudson factories made high-end pocketbooks and men’s clothing. Work was plentiful at the Canada Dry bottling plant, McGuire’s machine shop, and two cement plants. Everyone was making money.
“I was in Japan,” says Pat, Marjorie’s husband, who served during the Korean War. “R and R in Hokkaido. I picked up this book. It was all in Japanese. But I was looking at the pictures—and there was this photograph of that raid on Diamond Street.” The raid, on June 23, 1950, dealt Hudson’s economy a major blow. “I was at the movies with some friends . . . and outside, there was this commotion,” said Marjorie. “Maybe 50 cars—patrol cars and unmarked cop cars. State police. The governor’s people.” Under orders from Governor Thomas E. Dewey, state troopers broke down the brothel doors with sledgehammers. Half-naked girls spilled out into the street. Eighteen-year-old Tanzillo and her friends watched wide-eyed as the troopers arrested hookers and johns—including Hudson cops, the chief of police, and the mayor.
By the 1970s, Hudson was dying. Malls had hollowed out what was left of the city center. Mom-and-pop stores—Michatelli’s grocery, Smoltz’s bakery, Adler’s deli, the Third Street drugstore—couldn’t compete with the big-box retailers on the edges of the city. The movie theaters—Community, Warren, Star, Rialto, and Strand—fought a rearguard action against triplexes and multiplexes. The bars that had lined Front Street across from the train station closed.
“My father sold his shoe store in 1972 for $17,000,” said Roselle Chartock, a writer and artist who grew up in Hudson in the 1950s. “Ten years ago, the building sold for $345,000. Today it’s worth over $1 million.” She was having coffee at one of her favorite places on Warren Street—the Lenox Patisserie, part of a small chain that has shops in Lenox and Great Barrington, just over the Massachusetts border. “One good thing about the slump,” she said, “is that many of the old buildings weren’t torn down. Hudson has some of the best architecture around.”
When I came to the area 30 years ago, Hudson was a ghost town. The city’s population, which had swelled as high as 12,000 during the 1930s, was thinning out. The shops on Warren Street were boarded up. Streetwalkers trolled for johns; drug dealers, sitting on chipped stone stoops or leaning back in doorways, caps pulled low and fists in pockets, eyed the slow-passing cars for customers. Throughout the 1990s, baby boomers who had grown up on family farms moved out of the area. With no one to pass the farms on to, the boomers’ parents and grandparents sold their properties to developers, outsiders who built second and third homes, and agribusinesses. In search of cheaper labor, factories moved south, and then out of the country. The economic foundation of Hudson’s middle class disintegrated. The young who remained found work as gardeners and house-sitters.
Around the same time, however, artists, actors, writers, and musicians started arriving in Columbia County—and they’ve kept coming. Poet John Ashbery and painter Ellsworth Kelly settled nearby. Actors Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Richard Dreyfuss, Ashley Judd, Griffin Dunne, Matthew Modine, and Chloe Sevigny have been spotted in town. Unlike the Hamptons, Hudson is easy to get to; no crawling traffic during the two-and-a-half-hour drive up the New York State Thruway or the Taconic State Parkway. The train takes just two hours from Penn Station. Local giveaway magazines advertise attractions within a one-hour radius: the state capitol in Albany; Williams and Bennington Colleges to the north; Bard and Vassar Colleges to the south; the Tanglewood Music Festival; the Williamstown Theater Festival, the Berkshire Theater, the Berkshire Theater Lab, and Jacob’s Pillow to the east; Andy Appel’s Four Nations concerts; Ken Winokur’s Psychedelic Cinema; Aromatherapy and Energetic Healing; local bourbons and wines; Etsy (the crunchy-granola Amazon); and workshops (“How to Build an Insect Hotel”) or a life-drawing class at Hudson Opera House. Brochures at the Hudson train station offer “Advice on Eating Fish You Catch in the Hudson River,” tout hot chocolate at the Verdigris teahouse, and advertise tours of Martin Van Buren’s homestead, the Windham Chamber Music Festival, artisan distilleries, migratory game birds, and farmers’ markets—and lots and lots of farmers’ markets.
Up the hill from the train station, at Hudson City Books on Warren Street, you might find a first edition of Tik-Tok of Oz, bound 1940s copies of Esquire, or a leather-bound set of Dr. Johnson’s Shakespeare. Or you can buy new books and locally brewed beers at the Spotty Dog, where you could see a troubadour playing her guitar to a packed room or a community Trivial Pursuit game in progress. Not far from the Spotty Dog is Moto, which sports a 1962 Ducati 350 in the window, and where the bulletin board recently advertised Mass MOCA, a High Mud Comedy Fest, Sadhana Breathworks Circle, Playdates for Pets, and Boeing, Boeing by the Ghent Playhouse, a theater that presents a traditional English pantomime every Christmas.
Over at Helsinki, a complex with a ballroom, restaurant, and club, you might hear Ben Taylor spoof his parents, Carly Simon and James Taylor, weaving their droll styles with his own into a complex, funny, and charming song. On another night, Nellie McKay or Rosanne Cash might be singing. Or Jim Dale might be trying out the one-man show that he would later bring to New York City, or Deborah McDowell—owner Marc Schafler’s wife and partner—huskily delivering a torch song. Helsinki started in Great Barrington. When it moved to Hudson, it took up quarters in a garage, where—rumor has it—in the old days you could go to get a taxi and an introduction to one of the nearby brothels. Schafler renovated the place himself, using local or near-local materials. One way or another, everyone in town or passing through pays a visit.
Hudson’s creative mix draws together two significant American sensibilities: the Berkshires and the Catskills. The area’s creative roots go back to two founders of American literature, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. Influences to the south include the early-twentieth-century art colony in Woodstock. Berkshires influences include artists, writers, and divines such as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French, Edith Wharton, Norman Rockwell, filmmaker Arthur Penn, and singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie.
In 1980, former New Yorker film critic Jacob Brackman (who wrote, among other things, the Bob Rafelson–Jack Nicholson movie The King of Marvin Gardens, produced Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and was lyricist for many Carly Simon hits) bought a house on the top of a hill outside Hudson, not far from Olana, the home of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church and across the river from Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole. “Why Hudson?” Brackman asks. “I’d made some money from my movie Times Square, and I wanted a place two hours or under from the city. I looked in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Princeton.” Hudson seemed fresh, new, raw—a town without a ready-made culture. “When I got [to Hudson],” he said, “the town was depressed. There were really only two restaurants to go to: the Charleston and Bucci’s.”
Not long after Brackman arrived, his friend Rudy Wurlitzer followed. Wurlitzer, a novelist (The Drop Edge of Yonder, Nog) and scriptwriter (the cult classic Two Lane Blacktop, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), had pals like Philip Glass, Bob Dylan (who played a part in Pat Garrett), Patti Smith, and other postmodern moderns. When friends visited, they spread the word about the interesting town.
These weekend rich would transform the Hudson area with restaurants that the old-timers couldn’t afford and businesses at which only the rich shopped: a store that sells hats for hundreds of dollars; another that specializes in cooking oils, fancy salts, and different vinegars; still another that sells expensive gluten-free breads and pastries. Other establishments peddle specialty teas, homemade chocolates, and upscale secondhand clothing. The area is dense with spas like Hudson’s Bodhi, where local sound-and-energy healer Lavender Suarez runs a popular monthly music-meditation workshop and where Patricia Lucardi worked until she started her own business, Breast Thermography for Health, which, as its brochure explains, offers “ways to prevent cancer at a cellular level.” The Won Dharma Center and Omega, an Esalen-style retreat, which has lectures such as “Love Arising from Stillness,” are just up the road.
After 9/11, the pace of New Yorkers moving to Columbia County increased. By 2010, rents in the greater New York City area had climbed so high that Hudson was hit with a third wave—after the antique dealers and those afraid of terrorism—of bohemians. Keith Nelson is typical of the recent arrivals. With his partner, Stephanie Monseu, Nelson created the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which has its home in Hudson. The Cirkus—performed in both adult and family-friendly versions—is a mix of vaudeville, burlesque, and performance art. The adult version has included a fully dressed balloon-bondage routine and a profane sword-swallowing act. The family version involves Nelson’s Kinko the Clown, one of the regular acts, and a remarkable routine in which a man climbs through an unstrung tennis racket.
Nelson grew up in Massachusetts and North Carolina. His parents taught at Andover and Northfield–Mount Hermon. At Hampshire College, Nelson studied “anarchist theory” and traded a bottle of cheap whiskey for lessons in how to eat fire. He ended up in a neo-Marxist collective in pre-gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Monseau and Nelson met while they were working the graveyard shift at an all-night diner in the East Village. Monseau had attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and made jewelry until, while Rollerblading, she was hit by an uninsured driver and broke her wrist, ending her bauble-making career. “She learned that I ate fire,” Nelson said, “and whenever the work was slow I’d show her how.” When the city got too expensive, they moved to Hudson.
The various cultures don’t always mesh well. Two fundamental divides separate current residents. The first, less definitive, is between what might be called the newcomers and the new old-timers—that is, between those currently flocking to Hudson and those who had the same idea but five, ten, or 15 years earlier. The layering of new arrivals has created a curious kind of nostalgia. Almost as soon as Hudson began making the news as a new bohemia, people began looking back at a time some years earlier, when the city, as they now remember it, was going through a mythical Golden Age. Today, in Hudson, Monseau says, “Culture creators are being pushed out.” Nelson agrees. When they arrived in Hudson, it was like the old Brooklyn that Nelson knew. “Williamsburg today has lost all sense of community,” Nelson says. “People don’t say hello to each other. The same thing is happening in Hudson.”
Linda Mussmann and Claudia Bruce, founders of Hudson’s arts center Time Space Limited, divide the community into “the makers’ culture” and, well, the non-makers’ culture. Mussmann founded TSL in 1973, and Bruce joined her in 1976. Visitors to TSL can watch classic movies, performances, and live Met broadcasts. Members of Hudson’s new old guard like Mussmann and Bruce look askance at the millennials arriving here, who don’t know how different things were for the town’s bohemian pioneers. Mussmann and Bruce recall when Hudson had only a few places to hang out. During a recent cold snap, Bruce said, “Linda and I looked at each other and said, ‘Where’s Mama Rose’s?’ ” where they could “sit around the stove.” Of course, “they wanted you out by 9 PM.” They talk about how young people in Hudson are “more likely to ride a bicycle, more likely to think of what they eat,” their tone tinged with anticipated regret. Among the young, Mussmann sees “too much conformity . . . too much texting.” “I had a chance to fail,” she adds. “Failure isn’t permitted [today].”
Mussmann and Bruce are concerned not just with young artists arriving in town who may not be adding what they should to the community; they also seem worried about others who may add too much. “Marina Abramovic said she wanted to turn Hudson into Park City,” Mussmann said, referring to the upscale Utah ski destination and home of the Sundance Film Festival. A conceptual artist with an international reputation, Abramovic bought the boarded-up Community Theater building in downtown Hudson in 2013 as a home for her Marina Abramovic Institute. As MAI’s publicity explains, the 33,000-square-foot space will eventually host long-durational (six hours or more) works, multidisciplinary collaboration, educational programs, and the Abramovic Method—“a series of exercises designed by [the artist] over the course of 40 years to explore boundaries of body and mind.” When Mussmann and Bruce heard of Abramovic’s plans, “we said, ‘Oh, no!’ She said she needed a hotel, a garage to park 700 cars. The infrastructure of Hudson isn’t suited to [that].”
The more profound divide is not between these different cohorts of artisans and artists, bohemians and entrepreneurs, but between them and the old Columbia County families. Rich newcomers sometimes treat the locals, who work for them, as a servant class—creating resentment toward the outsiders on whom the locals are largely dependent. A representative anecdote: “I was in the Price Chopper [supermarket],” a truck driver whose family has been in the area for generations said. “Friday afternoon, and there were two very skinny women, well dressed—you see women like that driving huge 4x4s—and one said to the other, ‘You’d think the locals would be more considerate. They know we come up and shop Friday afternoon. You’d think they’d shop some other time.’ ”
The tensions were dramatically illustrated in a dispute over the building of a new cement plant—a battle that raged, in one form or another, from 1998 to 2005, when St. Lawrence Cement finally gave up. The battle pitted the (mostly) multigenerational residents of Hudson who hoped the plant would create new jobs and the (mostly) progressive artistic community that wanted to keep the area bucolic.
The first hint of a fight shaping up between urban newcomers and longtime Hudson residents came in January 1999. Americlean—a Canadian company that, among other things, processed potentially toxic dry-cleaning waste—tried to set up business in Hudson. The move triggered a rebellion against the company from many residents of Hudson and the surrounding area, who would become the nucleus of an anti-industrial movement. These residents were generally left-progressive, had settled in Hudson and the surrounding area because of its pastoral splendor, and didn’t want the area to change. A number of people in this Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) contingent told me, in one way or another, “I didn’t give up my life in the city to move into industrial blight. We’ve got ours. Now drop the portcullis and raise the drawbridge.”
An acquaintance of mine saw the conflict as between angels and demons. If you didn’t believe that the cement plant was evil—and the word “evil” was sometimes used—you were ostracized by Hudson’s leftist leisure class, which had chosen the area as its new Eden. It was an early glimpse, for me, into the kind of political passions that would devolve, over the next decade and a half, into the quasi-theological, black-and-white rigidity that dominates our social and political discourse today.
The anti-industrial, anti-cement-plant activists saw the working-class locals—who viewed the plant as vital to future economic success—as a problem. My loyalties were divided. I bought my place in Hudson more than 30 years ago, and I was a NIMBY, too: I didn’t want the city surrounded by ring roads and 16-wheeler traffic. I’m an ex-hippie. I like the small-town feel of Columbia County. But I’m also the son of a union organizer. I grew up on picket lines and identified then (and still do) with factory workers, people who—as one politician recently said—get their hands dirty at work. I understood why the locals were worried about losing their jobs. As Ted Gramkow put it: “Three and a half generations of poverty since the 1970 government assistance programs, and nothing to replace the jobs that used to be here.”
By January 2001, the sides in the battle were digging into their positions. Friendships sundered. Neighbors stopped talking to one another. The fight drew national publicity because the problems in Hudson were the same in towns and cities around the country. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the growth of a service economy, the disappearance of the middle class—Hudson was a mirror of our times. The anti-cement-plant activists reached out to communities in New Jersey and Texas that were engaged in similar battles. In May 2003, Patti Smith performed in Hudson to raise money for the effort. By February of the following year, then-senator Hillary Clinton said that the cement plant would be “a big step backward” for the area. A few months later, activists alleged that the company was illegally bulldozing local wetlands. Doctors from the local hospital (Columbia County) voted 55 to 0 against the plant because of its health hazards.
Finally, in 2005, New York secretary of state Randy Daniels refused to approve the plant because (among other reasons) it would pollute the area, and its 40-foot smokestack and two-mile-long riverside conveyor belt would blight the beauty of the county and discourage the growing tourist industry.
Stresses in Hudson also include the divide between the large poor black community and immigrants from Bangladesh and the West Indies. But the town has done a decent job reaching out to these vulnerable communities. “For the first time in 13 years,” current mayor Tiffany Martin Hamilton, a Democrat, said, “the school system is not designated [by the state] as segregated.” And the immigrants enrich the city (one of the best and least-known restaurants in Hudson is the Taste of the Caribbean, which offers a limited menu, only two or three dishes a day, like goat or oxtail stew). The mayor works out of an unassuming building on Warren Street with bulletin-board notifications about varsity boys’ basketball (the Bluehawks), Amtrak train schedules, and child-care counseling. “If I had a Magic 8 Ball and could make something happen, I’d take care of the Ferry Street Bridge,” said Hamilton. “I’d get broadband. I’d do something about truck traffic.”
In another sign of the times, Hudson is suffering from an increase in heroin addicts, many of whom are “white males in their early forties,” according to police chief Ed Moore. Moore sees the practical job of keeping Hudson safe as part of a broader project. Drug users need help, not punishment, he says. For addicts, he explains, “We don’t have holding facilities. We use hospitals.”
Moore is a son of Hudson. His parents met in the knitting mills, and his uncles worked in the old cement plant. “I remember Hudson when it was covered in cement dust,” he says. After 32 years working in the state police, he came back home to a much-changed city. Whatever Hudson’s future holds, the changes will probably continue, even accelerate. “Ten years from now,” he says, “I don’t think you’ll recognize the town.”
Top Photo: Once a manufacturing center, Hudson has found a second life as an arts and tourism destination. (WOLFGANG KAEHLER/LIGHTROCKET/GETTY IMAGES)
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