The county seats of Hudson and Catskill are dissimilar in many respects, but their residents are passionate about the possibilities for their towns. We speak to the movers and shakers in the two communities about what makes them tick.
The logical place to start when talking about Columbia and Greene Counties is with the bridge that connects them, the Rip Van Winkle. Opened in 1938, the span stretches above the Hudson River, carrying 15,000 people along Route 23 between Catskill and Hudson each day. Like the region itself, the bridge is also changing with the times. Earlier this year, the New York State Bridge Authority completed the first phase of the Hudson River Skywalk project, a scenic pedestrian trail linking two state historic sites—the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill and Frederick Church's Olana in Hudson—with a rebuilt sidewalk on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, including three scenic viewpoints, each 50 feet long by 10 feet wide, with views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.
Betsy Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, sees the construction of the Skywalk as the continuation of a longstanding connection that began 200 years ago. "We've been collaborating for centuries," says Jacks, "since Cole showed Church that piece of property where Church would build his home." The Skywalk project will ultimately link Thomas Cole National Historic Site and Olana via trails on either side of the bridge that are scheduled to be completed within a year's time. The cross-county collaboration will be celebrated on September 30, with the first Skywalk Arts Festival. There'll be plein-air painters on the bridge, an art sale at Thomas Cole National Historic Site, music, food, and activities for families at both sites.
Despite some similarities between communities on both sides of the river, there are clear differences and divergent challenges facing the main municipalities in Greene and Columbia Counties, Catskill and Hudson.
Catskill: A Village Always On the Verge
The village of Catskill (population 4,081 according to the 2010 census) is the county seat of Greene County. It's most famous former resident (other than Thomas Cole) is the boxer Mike Tyson, who trained here. (The actress Jennifer Connolly was born in nearby Cairo—pronounced kay-row.) A sense of being on the verge has characterized Catskill for the past 15 years. There was momentum building prior to the real estate crash of 2008, with new businesses opening on the village's historic Main Street, but the downturn stalled the village's rising economic fortunes. A resurgent entrepreneurial class and some well-funded new projects in town have many believing that with this wave of revitalization Catskill can realize its full potential.
Jacks, who's been the executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site for 15 years, is a keen observer of village happenings. "We've had so many people working on bringing up Catskill's fortunes for generations," says Jacks. "But now there's so much happening in Catskill. It's been like a snowball rolling downhill. Catskill has always been cool and fun, but it seems to have arrived."
Many residents talk about the opening of HiLo Cafe in the spring of 2017 as the physical manifestation of a turning point. The storefront space, run by Queens transplants Liam and Laura Singer, wears its municipal pride on its sleeve, referring to itself as "a cafe, bar, art gallery, and performance space located in the greatest village in the world, Catskill NY." Niva Dorell, visual arts director for the Greene County Council on the Arts, agrees. "Hi-Lo is the heartbeat of Catskill," she says. "It brings a lot of different people together for different reasons. It's a real cross-section.
The building housing HiLo is owned by photographer Alon Koppel and his wife Melissa, a painter, who live on the top floor (the Singers live on the second floor). The Koppels moved to Catskill three years ago from the Dutchess County town of Red Hook and began looking for a tenant for the storefront. After talks with a man who wanted to open a traditional bar but wasn't open to having art in the space's proscenium entryway, Koppel realized he was looking to foster a community space in his building. The Singers' idea for HiLo fit the bill. The cafe hosts community events (like fundraisers for the local public radio station WGXC) and serves as the meeting place for a village steeped in symbiosis. "People come to HiLo and say, 'There's community here, I can see myself here.'"
"Catskill is open to collaboration," says Koppel, who should know. Currently, he's curating a photography show at the Greene County Council on the Arts ("No Nudes, No Sunsets," through September 22), shooting drone photography for the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, and documenting the rehearsals and performances of the new big player in town, Lumberyard.