Bill Chaisson

Bill Chaisson

I have enjoyed being a full-time community journalist for most of the past 15 years. I was raised to be civically engaged, to some extent by my family, but perhaps to a larger extent by my teenage association with the Beacon Sloop Club. The Sloop Clubs are local chapters of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization, which was formed in the mid 1960s by Pete and Toshi Seeger. The eponymous replica vessel was launched in 1969. My family moved to Beacon in 1971, and I think we began attending the monthly potluck dinners at the sloop club a year or two into our residence there. It introduced me to the idea that it is people who change a community, not the government. The government ought to do something, but you should hardly count on it.

I also learned about the role of the press through my teenage civic involvement. Craig Wolf, the staff writer for the Beacon Evening News, the local daily newspaper, was a member of the sloop club. I watched him walk the line between his personal civic investment and his professional duty to be objective. I saw Craig in attendance at the various events — the Shad Festival, the Strawberry Festival — and then read his articles. There was no boosterism, no rose-colored glasses, just reporting of what had gone on. And there were not a lot of gratuitous pictures of Pete Seeger either. Pete (only Toshi called him Peter and no one called him Mr. Seeger) was inarguably the most famous participant in any event organized by the sloop club (and Toshi was inarguably the most adept organizer), but his fame was not used to sell papers.

I have written in other columns that Claremont reminds me a lot of Beacon. They are two post-industrial cities struggling to reimagine themselves and find a new way forward. Between 1971 and 1979, when I lived in Beacon, it remained on the ropes economically and there was little change for the succeeding 20 years. As singer/songwriter Dar Williams documented in her book “What I Found in a Thousand Towns,” Beacon seemed stalled halfway between its past and its future for about a decade. What made its renaissance take off was a critical mass of people who identified ways to improve the quality of the public sphere and then went ahead and made those things happen. They didn’t wait for the government to do something. Of course, the Beacon Sloop Club had been doing exactly that for decades, but its focus had been on improving the riverfront, not the whole city.

Most of the members of the Beacon Sloop Club were not from Beacon, and most of the people who changed Beacon into the thriving city that it is today were not from Beacon. Pete and Toshi had lived in Fishkill, the town that wraps around the city of Beacon, since the 1940s, but they were obviously cosmopolitans, with ties to the rest of the world rather than being only locally focused. But the fact that their local focus was a matter of principle rather than tribalism made an impression on me. They and the people who trickled into Beacon over the years and then came in a torrent in the 21st century were all looking to build a community that would embrace the present and the future while honoring the past.

The treatment of the past is one of the paradoxes of the evolution of communities. In Beacon, the natives tore down whole neighborhoods of houses and blocks of storefronts and then either left them vacant or erected anonymous-looking structures that had no sense of place. When the new people came in they took one look at the remaining Victorian infrastructure and immediately began stripping away plastic veneers from brick facades and chipping linoleum off ceramic tile floors, restoring it to its 19th century glory.

A contingent of native Beaconites jumped on board. One of my contemporaries opened up an auction house in what had been the old Army-Navy clothing store. Another embraced the revived interest in American comfort food and used social media adroitly to establish a thriving restaurant. I’m sure a number of natives made a killing in real estate. These are people who realized that their hometown was changing and they decided to be part of it.

I have no idea how well any of this economic and social transformation is documented, as the Beacon Evening News went out of business in 1991. Craig Wolf went to work for the Poughkeepsie Journal, 35 minutes to the north. The sloop club is still there, but the city long ago took over the park we built. The overall goal of reviving the riverfront has been achieved; much of it has been converted to parkland, condominiums are being built, a research institute (administrated by Clarkson University) was established, and whole neighborhoods have been built in areas that were razed the year I moved to the city.

The city I grew up in didn’t have a record store or a book store, a tough row to hoe for a nerd like me. Now it has pottery and yoga studios, a taqueria, a Thai restaurant, an art museum, a creamery, a distillery, and, yes, a bookstore. The Towne Crier, a famous live music venue, moved from Pawling, New York, to Beacon.

I am astonished by the number of times I am reading an article about anything at all and stumble across the fact that so-and-so now lives in Beacon. My favorite example is Richard Butler, the lead singer for the Psychedelic Furs, one of my favorite bands back in the 1980s. For most of my life when I told people where I was from they would literally shrug, having never heard of it. Over the last 15 years more and more people now brighten up and say, “Oh, I was there last spring to go to DIA:Beacon [the art museum]” or “My friend Natalie just moved there; I’ve been meaning to visit.”

Claremont is on this trajectory, but it appears to be in that stalled stage that Beacon was in for a while. The renovation and repurposing of the Monadnock Mills and the populating of downtown with new kinds of stores are part of the early evolution, but the changes have not yet begun to cascade. But one sign that further change is coming is the recent surge in real estate transactions. People are moving here from the Upper Valley in significant numbers. Perhaps they will be merely a passive consumer base. Perhaps they will be a source of change. But like Beacon, this city needs money and ideas from outside of itself. I believe it is about to get them.

Bill Chaisson has been editor of the Eagle Times for 14 months and this is his last editorial.

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