Lighting the Way: Beacon Brightens Up | Community Pages | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Lighting the Way: Beacon Brightens Up 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:52 pm

Less than a mile from the Hudson River, located at the center of a small but bustling town, the Howland Public Library houses photos of historic Beacon. Nestled discreetly among the shelves between Old Dutchess Forever and The Hudson Throughout the Years is an aging, thinly bound book held together only by its laminated covers. It is a souvenir from Beacon’s “Golden Jubilee” celebration held in June 1963, commemorating the city’s official 50 years of existence. At the beginning of the book is a letter written by the mayor of Beacon at the time, Stanley Odell.

“During the past 50 years, Beacon has progressed slowly, but steadily,” Odell writes. “With continued faith in our community and the splendid cooperation of the citizens, it may well be that 50 years hence, at the time of our centennial, Beacon will be the metropolis of the Mid-Hudson Valley.”

Although Odell’s prediction may not be entirely true just yet, Beacon is anything but faded. It is, however, vastly different from what it once was.

Beacon was named for the lighting posts used as beacons on the mountain that shadows the town, which warned American soldiers of British troop movements along the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War. Beacon has numerous historic sites from that era, including the Madam Brett Homestead (the oldest building in Dutchess County), said to have provided a respite for George Washington during his time spent planning for battles in the Hudson Valley.

Decades before Beacon incorporated as a city in 1913, after the villages of Matteawan and Fishkill Landing merged, the neighboring villages had collaborated on an effort to bring investors and newcomers to the area. In 1898, banks and hotels sprang up along what is now Main Street, preparing for an explosion of business in the years to come. In 1902, an incline railroad on Mount Beacon afforded passengers photo opportunities that rivaled the hills of San Francisco. Trolley cars transported visitors from the east end of Main Street to a casino located next to a powerhouse atop the mountain. From the late 1800s into 1930, impressive factories flanked Fishkill Creek and towered over the small water source, making the town a major headquarters for hat making and milk deliveries. During the 19th century, Beacon was known as the Hat Making Capital of the US, with 50 hat factories in operation at one point.

When the Great Depression hit, Beacon was not immune to its blows. But the town rolled with the punches, so to speak, surviving the Depression only to witness the closing down of its factories in the 1970s. The construction of shopping malls on the Route 9 corridor north of the city contributed further to Beacon’s economic malaise. What followed was a downward spiral that could be seen most detrimentally in its Main Street district.

Ron Iarossi, president of the Beacon Business Association, paints a vivid picture of the city he discovered more than 15 years ago, one that appeared bleak and scary, at least from its storefronts.

“There were a lot of things that needed improvement,” says Iarossi. “The buildings needed improvement. There were a lot of boarded-up buildings, burnt-out buildings, the whole street was pretty shabby. Once all the factories had closed, they lost lots of jobs here, a lot of people moved away. It became a poor town.”

Small-Town Phoenix
But Beacon has proven to be a small-town phoenix, laying down the framework for innovative new business on the ashes of its past. The opening of the Dia:Beacon in 2003 has been credited with putting Beacon back on the map. One of the world’s largest contemporary art musuem’s, the nearly 300,000- square-foot renovated Nabisco box-printing factory on the Hudson River houses masterpieces from the permanent collection of the Dia Art Foundation, like Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse series. Museum visitors flood the nearby Metro-North platform on weekends, and many now come to Beacon for Second Saturday, a full range of art events scheduled on the second Saturday of the month that center on the Dia experience. Attendees can walk up Main Street for gallery openings, studio exhibitions, and antique shop sales. But it isn’t just visitors that have benefited from Beacon’s resurgence. Locals frequent their favorite lunch spots like HomeSpun Foods and have exotic cuisine dinner dates at Sukhothai and Isamu. Local and organic fare are available at many eateries, with the west end of Main Street serving upscale burgers and fries at Poppy’s, gourmet ice cream sandwiches at Zora Dora’s, and traditional Polish dishes with a creative twist at Marlena’s Kitchen.

Both younger and older crowds lounge in laid-back cafes like ZuZu’s and Muddy Cup, enjoying free Internet, comfortable chairs, loose teas and Scrabble. Live music and cozy bar scenes have emerged, with establishments like Max’s on Main, The Piggy Bank, Chill Wine Bar, and Joe’s Irish Pub, offering the shows of budding and experienced musicians. And for those who are not weekend warriors, yoga, meditation, and classes and lectures on a variety of subjects are part of Beacon’s bounty as well. Real estate has not been left out of the equation. Posh apartment buildings have been renovated and erected along the east end of Main Street, above clothing boutiques, restaurants, and artisan shops. To top it off, the location of a world-class scientific facility—The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries—since 2004 has furthered the cutting-edge reputation of the city.

So, what now? Despite the country’s obsession with that played out R-word, current Beacon Mayor Steve Gold sees a bright future for the town, as well as a fairly good-looking present.

“One of the reasons Beacon is strong in spite of this economy is because when Beacon was a depressed city and Main Street was just beginning to see new life through antique stores, organizations like the Beacon Business Association formed in an effort to put on programs to attract more people. And they became good at doing just that,” the mayor says, adding that along with art attractions, Beacon has beefed up its culinary industry, as well as its offering of special events like its trademark hat parade. The fifth annual Beacon Hat Parade will take place on June 6, traveling east along Main Street. The following day, June 7, as part of this year’s quadricentennial activities celebrating Henry Hudson’s voyage in 1609, the tall ships of the quadricentennial flotilla will be docked at Beacon Point Park, with live music, dancing, and storytelling by the water.

Old & New
Iarossi says that the new Beacon looks nothing like the one he saw when he first moved here. According to Iarossi, who owns Kringle’s Christmas House on Main Street, the motivation for business owners to put in the sweat of reviving Main Street was simple. “Your Main Street is the backbone of your community and if your Main Street isn’t good, your community isn’t good,” Iarossi says. He credits the cooperative attitudes of tightly knit business owners, the current mayor, and former Mayor Clara Lou Gould for making the strength of Beacon’s Main Street a priority. “Nobody said afterward, ‘It was my idea.’ Nobody took credit for everything. Nothing was politics,” Iarossi recalls.

The town also continues to see a growing population of new citizens, moving in primarily from urban areas. Scott Tillitt, a Brooklyn expatriate, says that he and his wife moved to Beacon after she fell in love with the coffeehouses and the health food store—Beacon Natural Market­—on Main Street, among other things. Tillitt’s wife, Andrea Ramirez, is a Beacon entrepreneur herself, having began True Nourishment, a service through which she offers holistic health counseling to professional women. Tillitt never visited Beacon before moving to the town. He says he “just sort of heard the buzz that everyone had heard.”

“More and more people like ourselves are coming here. More and more people are escaping the city,” Tillitt explains. “It seems like people are looking for community.” He has taken his search for community in Beacon one step further. He has started Beahive, a “coworking space,” or shared office for independent workers. “We offer shared workspace for these people who are tired of working from home and want the camaraderie of having people around,” says Tillitt. Those who have already expressed interest in participating in the project include designers, technology programmers, professionals in the public relations and marketing fields, and various consultants. Tillitt says it is this diversity of professions that will contribute to Beahive’s second purpose.

“You can collaborate on your own projects together but also we’ll collaborate on projects for Beacon, for the town,” Tillitt explains. “It’s a community of people who want to improve our personal lives, our professional lives, and our community.” Tillitt mentions that along with planning entertainment events, he also hopes to bring back a town newspaper.

According to the inventive PR consultant, Beahive has substantial potential because of the flurry of creative sparks that he has seen developing in his new hometown, particularly from those moving in. “People are bringing that culture and the energy that New York provides and they’re bringing it here and focusing that energy on a smaller scale in Beacon,” says Tillitt.

It is true that Beacon’s transformation is partially due to the fresh ideas brought in by Tillitt and his fellow urban transplants. However, changes in the town have long been catalyzed by a number of factors. Kelly Kingman, who also moved to Beacon recently from New York, is responsible for another new community-enhancing tool in town. She started the Beacon Citizens Network, a website similar to Facebook that lists information on upcoming Beacon events and provides users with the opportunity to create networking, social, and recreation groups online. Kingman says she decided to start the website out of her own desire to find out what was going on. “We always found out about things after they happened,” says Kingman of her experience with Beacon events in the past. “[The website] has evolved—it’s become a way for people to organize around common interests,” says Kingman. The Beacon Citizens Network currently has 350 members.

When asked why this specific type of communication hadn’t already been in place before Kingman arrived to Beacon, she said the introduction of the town’s networking site was not the result of an urban trend transported upstate, but instead came from an overall change in the world’s use of technology, specifically by younger people. “It’s more of an age or generational difference. We’re used to finding things online,” explains Kingman.

Tillitt’s and Kingman’s quests for community are what fits them snugly into the community of Beacon as a whole. Mayor Gold governs citizens who have volunteered as the town’s ambulance corps and firefighters for over 50 years. He believes that Beacon has long exemplified a tradition of community involvement, and the integration of passionate forward thinkers like Tillitt and Kingman meshes well with the intentions of the city’s older inhabitants.

“There’s almost a tradition in Beacon of communicating that to love the city means to be involved in improving the city, and that gets passed on from old Beaconites to new Beaconites,” Mayor Gold says. “And it’s almost indistinguishable, the degree of concern for the city between someone who was born here and lived here for 80 years to somebody who moved here eight months ago.”

Civic Inclination
Such civic devotion can be seen in Jim Bopp, a resident born and raised in Beacon, who feels the town has gained so many newcomers because of what it has always exuded. “There’s just a lot of good energy here and the people who are moving here are coming here because of that energy,” says Bopp, who believes the vibes of his hometown come straight from its grandiose, natural backdrop. “People need a suitable place of rendezvous with nature to recharge themselves,” says Bopp. “You can’t tell me you go on the top of Mount Beacon and you don’t feel different. I love Mount Beacon.”

He loves it so much, in fact, that he’s worked relentlessly for over 10 years to get Beacon’s incline railway reinstated. Bopp, who began his lifetime career in welding and engineering at a factory on East Main Street, was the last person to operate the railway before it shut down in 1978. With the help of upstate advocacy organization Scenic Hudson, his group, the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Society, has entered what he hopes are the final stages in securing the project’s planning. He has stumbled across and worked through numerous obstacles to get to this point. But he has persisted partially because of his love for his town’s history and partially because of his hope for its future. According to Bopp, a rebirth of the train is essential to Beacon’s financial success. “Tourism is the key for economic regrowth of the town,” affirms Bopp. On behalf of the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Society he currently leads hikes up Mount Beacon on weekends and has seen the amount of hikers skyrocket from a total of 50 people to 400. The society’s website, he says, gets hits from all over the world.

When asked about his experience in moving from Brooklyn to Beacon, Tillitt says that good food and better quality of life are two of the most important things Beacon offers. As new businesses and cultural happenings continue to pave a yellow brick road for the small city, it is clear that Beacon’s colorful track record is anything but over. A witness to several harrowing turning points in American history, Beacon continues to reinvent itself, thanks to the creativity of the people who live and flock here.

Beacon Arts Community:
Beacon Business Association:
Beacon Citizen’s Network:
Beacon Rivers and Estuaries Center:
City of Beacon:
Mount Beacon Incline Railway:

click to enlarge JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
click to enlarge JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
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