The perception of suburbia has changed a lot since the 1950s, when car-based communities outside the city limits were seen as the domestic ideal. Cleaner streets, less crime, better schools, the convenience of shopping malls and supermarkets, a wide lawn and a backyard barbecue—if your family could afford it, you moved to the suburbs. If not, it was a dream deferred, an aspiration for the following generation. You watched “The Brady Bunch” as an instruction manual.
Suburbia’s reputation has taken a beating in recent years. More often than not, the word is used as a blanket pejorative for entire communities perceived as dull and conformist. Current depictions of the burbs on television portray tortured executives and their unfulfilled wives, like Don and Betty Draper of “Mad Men,” a far cry from the honeyed contentment of Rob and Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” pesky ottomans notwithstanding.
And then there’s sprawl, the car culture’s masterpiece of nowhereism, three lanes of traffic and strip malls on each side of the divided highway as far as you can drive. You could be in New York or you could be in Orlando. Best Buy. McDonald’s. Barnes and Noble. Wal-Mart.
Small town charm
Orange County is one of the fastest growing suburbs in New York, with a population spike of 10 percent in the last decade. What was once a rural, farming area—the Black Dirt region’s fertility is legendary—has become mainly residential. The two villages of Chester and Washingtonville, in central Orange County however, will cause you to rethink your assumptions about suburbia.
The village of Chester, population 3,500, just north of Route 17 on its way from Monroe to Goshen, has a Main Street perched on a bluff overlooking acres of fields below. The street is lined with three- and four-story buildings built over a hundred years ago, ending at the historic Chester Depot, a train station that now houses the Chester Historical Society. Behind the station lies the Orange County Heritage Trail, a paved, a multi-use rail trail stretching 11 miles from Goshen to Monroe on the former Erie Railroad line. The trail winds through the county’s signature rolling hills, past bird sanctuaries and farmers’ fields, used by bikers, walkers, and rollerbladers. The completed trail will eventually extend 25 miles from Harriman to Middletown.
Across the plaza from the station is Outdoors, a clothing and footwear retailer housed in a massive barn with exposed beams. It’s been a cornerstone of commerce in Chester since 1978. Owner Barry Adelman, like most of the residents and business owners in the region, attributes the success of is business, and the village’s charm, to its old school attention to personal interaction. “In this day and age, you gotta give people a good reason to come, you have to do something special” says Adelman. “Customers really appreciate a small store that can give them the personal service they won’t get elsewhere. I advise my customers.”
Up the street, Jeff Johnson, who runs Awake Fitness, a core to extremity fitness studio with partner Piper Bowman, echoes the lure of Chester’s small town feel. “The town clerk walks by every morning and waves,” says Johnson, whose studio is open to the street with a bank of windows, through which passers-by can watch Johnson coach his clients.
Fran Fumo, moved up to nearby Washingtonville from the Bronx 17 years ago. She runs the Kokopelli Cookie Company in Chester, and oversees all the baking herself, testifying that all her cookies are made from scratch. Fumo, too, loves the small town feel of the area. “You can garden in the backyard,” says Fumo. “It’s a nice place to raise your children. It’s growing, but it’s still peaceful.”
Mayor Phil Valastro grew up in Chester and worked the black dirt in his youth, and remembers driving into town in the back of his grandfather’s `55 Chevy for an ice cream cone (for him) and a pack of Camels for grandpa. “I’ve seen Chester go form a quaint farming village to what it is today,” says Valastro. “We have the hustle and bustle of modern-day suburbia: our industrial park, our Lowes, our ShopRite. Most of the people that have come here have come from the city, but they’re trying to get away from that. They want to still be close, but not too close.” Valastro works full-time as a field technician for Verizon in addition to his mayoral duties.