So there was this old guy who lived here in Beacon, named Pete. A lot of us looked up to him, both figuratively and literally, since he lived on the mountain. Pete had lived in town longer than most of us, having moved here in 1949, but his early years here were a little rough. He had a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker, and not everyone was happy to see him. One of his grandchildren once told me that for many years only three stores in town would even do business with Pete; all the other ones simply refused him service. If it bothered him, you couldn't tell. Pete just kept playing his banjo around town and talking to people about what they could do to clean up the Hudson River.
They built a boat. People didn't like that. Some of them went down to the river and told him that to his face. Pete would smile and ask them if they'd like to go sailing. Sometimes they'd say yes. Sometimes they wouldn't be so mad at Pete after spending a few hours on the river with him and his friends and they'd agree to help them clean up the river.
Pete would visit the elementary schools in town to sing and play for the kids. Some parents didn't like that. They didn't want Pete putting his wild ideas into the heads of their kids. But the children loved Pete and the songs that he sung, and they grew up into young adults who still loved Pete and saw that he was trying to clean up the Earth and stop the war in Vietnam before anybody else was and realized that he was always on their side.
Pete was on everyone's side in Beacon no matter if they liked him or not, through the city's rough years in the `70s and `80s and into its rebirth. Toward the end of his life, someone asked him why he never stopped giving his heart and his soul and his songs to a town that didn't want anything to do with him at first. "I wanted to turn back the clock to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other," he said.
Pete's six years gone now. And Main Street is more desolate than it's been in 15 years, with almost all of its shops closed, its blocks deserted, and the multitude of new construction projects in town dark and empty. It was opposition to those many development projects, projects that Beaconites were worried were destroying the character of the city, that helped longtime City Council member Lee Kyriacou get elected mayor last fall. I asked Kyriacou if he could have predicted he'd be dealing with a global disaster a few months into his first term. "Nowhere," he said, "in any of our plans, did we think we'd get sidetracked by—"
And then he stopped himself. "Actually," he said, slowly as it dawned on him, "we're not sidetracked."
The city's police officers, firefighters, and local EMS workers haven't missed a beat. Trash is still being collected, the water and sewer departments are on the job. City Hall itself is open if you need it, even though the city council and zoning board are meeting remotely. And with the exception of the main trailhead to Mount Beacon, the city's parks are all open, something that many other towns haven't been able to do. They've been able to stay open because the overwhelming majority of Beaconites have been good about giving each other space when using them. "I think it matters to keep them open," Kyriacou said. "Because it encourages good behavior. We stick together because we can see each other and we see that we can trust each other."
In other words: The people of Beacon are taking care of each other.
Dara Silverman comes from a background of community organizing and, like a lot of other Beaconites, knew what to do when the COVID-19 crisis hit. On March 13, the day that stay-at-home orders came down from Albany and people began trying to wrap their heads around this new reality, she and a few other Beaconites started a Facebook Messenger group to respond to vulnerable community members who posted status updates about how they couldn't leave the house to get groceries or medicine, offering to run errands for them or donate whatever was needed. In less than 24 hours it was a public Facebook group called Mutual Aid Beacon, and by mid-April the group had filled over 1,600 requests and had 300 volunteers doing specific assigned tasks like packing donation boxes, coordinating drop-offs, filling in for older volunteers at food banks who now couldn't leave the house, cooking meals, and making emotional support calls. That's not counting the hundreds of untold and unreported acts of kindness on behalf of neighborhood "pods," smaller mutual aid groups within certain neighborhoods who are taking care of needs without alerting the main group.
"Beacon has a lot of people like me who have done community organizing for a couple of decades, and we're not afraid to put it out there and ask people because we've worked on other campaigns and crises like this," Silverman said. "I think there is something about having a lot of people who are invested and want to support the community but I also want to emphasize that people are doing mutual aid in communities that are directly impacted all the time."
No doubt wherever you live, a lot of volunteers have been putting in a heroic amount of work over the past few weeks to help your community. In that sense, Beacon is thankfully not unique. But I am humbled by how quickly it all came together in Beacon, thanks to people who had been building community bonds and support systems—even across the ever-fraught divide of the "Old Beacon" of longtime residents and the "New Beacon" of people who have moved here since the Dia:Beacon opened—for years. People had shown up and done the work.
It's paying off. Even before the severity of the crisis had really sunk in for a lot of households, Mutual Aid Beacon was working with longtime community groups such as Common Ground Farm, the Green Teens, and Fareground, as well as the employees of the city's school system, to start weekly distributions of free groceries. Those who wanted to donate something, or couldn't make it to the drop-offs, didn't have to look far for Plan B, thanks to the "tiny food pantries" that Fareground had put throughout the city years ago. The self-serve kiosks make it easy for anyone to drop off food, or pick some up, 24/7. And with one of the pantries currently out of commission since it's inside the (currently closed) public library, Binnacle Books converted the shelves outside its store into an additional pantry.
Binnacle Books' storefront may be closed, but if you still want to shop for used books you can. Every day the store posts selections from its shelves to its Instagram account. Customers can purchase the books online, to be delivered to their front doors via bicycle. Binnacle isn't the only local business that is, for the first time, venturing beyond its storefront and into the delivery business. Artisan Wine Shop, having been deemed an "essential business," is sending its wines and spirits out into Beacon, along with plenty of advice over the phone or email if you're not sure what you need to get you through these strange days. Spend enough time walking the empty streets and you're likely to see Katy and Buddy Behney drive by in their bright orange jeep, their two black dogs in the backseat, delivering their freshly roasted coffee beans or canned iced coffees from their two coffee shops, Bank Square and Trax, or outdoor gear from their Mountain Tops Outfitters. Even the Beacon Theater has gotten in on the delivery game, streaming new releases right into your home.
Elsewhere on Main Street, the staff and management at Key Food and Beacon Natural Market—the latter now operating on a pre-order and pick-up/delivery option only—have managed to keep shelves stocked with the essentials, negating the need for panic shopping. The calming effect of consistently being able to buy a roll of toilet paper cannot be overstated at a time like this. Denning's Point Distillery has stepped up, mixing up free batches of hand sanitizer. Those weekly distributions of free groceries sometimes contain a bar of soap made right here in Beacon by SallyeAnder Soaps, a welcome gift considering we're all washing our hands a thousand times a day.
Yet as comforting as it is seeing the lights on at longtime Beacon institutions like Max's on Main, BJ's Restaurant, and Sukhothai, as they whip up takeout and delivery orders, there's the ethereal emptiness that comes from no longer being allowed to while away an evening at these places. I recall an eerily prescient comment that Kate Ryan, one of Binnacle Books' owners, made to me when they opened in 2015. I had asked her if there was any trepidation in opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore in the age of Amazon. "We're at a moment where people can do anything they want without leaving their house," she said. "But what we're realizing is: We don't want that. We want physical experiences, we want social experiences."
I think about this as I sit on the steps of our historic post office building and stare at those dark condos and empty storefronts recently built by outside developers who thought that people should be paying more than they currently do for the privilege of living in such a vibrant city. Those developers are nowhere to be seen now, but across the street the lights are on at Roma Nova and Pizza And Stuff II, our two different combo pizza/Mexican take-out spots: Family run businesses that are still working long hours to keep the city fed and give us some semblance of normalcy.
What wouldn't we give to have an omelet right now during the breakfast rush at the Yankee Clipper Diner, or to sit in the window of Big Mouth Coffee, or in the garden at Homespun Foods? When will we get to see a concert again at the Towne Crier Cafe or Quinn's? Ordering Quinn's Japanese fried chicken to-go and then eating it at home while blasting a free jazz record helps, but it's not the same when you're by yourself. Will we ever have the privilege of once again sitting in a chair at Barb's Butchery and watching as Barb and her extraordinary crew break down half a cow? When will we be shoulder-to shoulder up at the bar at Dogwood again? Even complaining about the crowds at Hudson Valley Brewery seems like an incredible luxury now.
Who makes Beacon what it is? And will they still be there when this crisis passes?
"This is the big national issue," said Mayor Kyriacou. "How do we start up again?" Even though he's coordinating with Dutchess County to find out what options are available to help small businesses, without significant and sustained help, a lot of Beacon's small businesses may not be able to survive. That uncertainty also applies to Beacon's population. Despite its increasing gentrification, the city is still very much a blue collar art town. A study by the United Way in 2016 found that more than 40 percent of Beacon's population had less than $400 in savings.
"There's a bigger need right now," said Mutual Aid Beacon's Silverman. "But what we're finding out now is that there was always this need. The crisis is just uncovering that."
These are uncomfortable truths, ones that threaten to overwhelm me when I travel through this dark and quiet city. So I think about Pete.
Pete, as you've probably figured out, was Pete Seeger, the legendary folk icon and activist. When we lost him in 2014, the city's grief was immeasurable. Barack Obama eulogized him as "America's tuning fork." For us, he was always the city's moral compass. What would we do without him? "We all have to be Pete now," was a phrase that Beaconites would say to each other in the months that followed.
I don't think any of us feel comfortable at the idea of comparing ourselves to Pete Seeger. We have never marched with Martin Luther King Jr. We did not sit in the chambers of Capitol Hill and stare down those who sought to discredit and destroy us. Our fingers are slow, our voices cracking.
And yet: When the people of Beacon take care of each other, when we rise up singing as one, what beautiful music we make.