The city of Beacon didn't quite know what to do when the first food truck arrived on its rapidly changing streets five years ago. The city was wary about granting permits in worries that it would lead to food trucks parked up and down Main Street. So the two young CIA grads who ran the Beacon Bite bought a vacant lot on Main Street and parked their truck on it. They planted a community garden on the lot and painted murals, including a smiling alien above the slogan KEEP BEACON WEIRD, a riff on the infamous slogan KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD.
The Beacon Bite's co-owner Dalton Edwards was from Austin. But, as Edwards explained to me back then, overdevelopment and gentrification had turned his welcoming and tolerant hometown into what he now called "Diet Los Angeles." And he was worried that the same thing was happening in Beacon.
"People ask me 'How weird do you want Beacon to be?'" Edwards said. "And I say 'I don't know, how many condos are you going to build around me? Because the more condos you build, the weirder I'm going to get."
The truck, the murals, the garden, the Tribe Called Quest tracks booming from a tiny speaker, the coconut-and-chili-scented cloud that hung in the air: All of them were a flag planted in Beacon's fertile soil, vowing that the city would not become a homogenized playground for the square and wealthy.
Just two weeks later, the truck was gone. The only thing left on the lot was a FOR SALE sign. Today, there's a sign on the lot announcing a public hearing to be held by the city's Planning Board. Someone wants to build apartments there.
Holding On To What's GoldenThe story of Beacon's revitalization is a lot more complicated than the Dia-as-savior narrative that still gets bandied about. To be sure, the 2003 opening of the large-scale art museum in a former Nabisco factory on the waterfront did have a seismic, transformative effect. But the Dia Art Foundation was drawn to Beacon by the arts community that had already been building up there for several years. And after Dia:Beacon opened, even though tourists were suddenly arriving from all over the world, getting them up the hill from the Dia and into the city itself was another matter. Many simply took the Metro-North train in, went to the museum, and headed back south. The adventurous souls that did make it up the hill found a Main Street with many empty storefronts and hardly any place to spend the night, only a single B&B.
It took an enormous amount of work from politicians, artists, business owners, local developers, community groups, and more to re-populate Main Street with restaurants, galleries, hotels, concert venues, and retailers to make Beacon more than a cavernous museum. Just as important as what they created is what they didn't: A proposal by the MTA to build a "Transit Oriented Development" center by the train station was soundly rejected by the city when locals said it would have essentially created a "Parasite Beacon" next to Dia with its own housing, restaurants, and chain stores, leaving the city itself to wither.
All of those actions and decisions, large and small, public and private, added up to create a thriving city that is now being devoured by its own success.
The first and most visible sign of radical change was probably the four-story building—one story higher than any other building on Main Street—that went up a few years ago, filled with units that were going for much, much more than comparable apartments in Beacon. Then two more four-story buildings went up down the street, which at least made the first four-story building seem a little less out of place. (As they say in jazz: When you hit a wrong note, the best thing to do is hit it again.) When Beacon's first million-dollar condo sale took place a few years ago, it was a curiosity. Now it's hard to find a two-bedroom condo in any of the city's new developments listed for less than that. And the prices on much of Beacon's remaining housing stock are following suit.
But gentrification is a lot like climate change. Once you notice it, it's already gone too far and it's about to get exponentially worse.
"Everything is a heck of a lot more expensive," says Justice McCray, who grew up in Beacon. "It's a lot whiter here. I'm seeing more and more of my friends and the people I care about being pushed out and priced out."
"When people talk about development and gentrification and unaffordable housing, they say it has to stop," says Terry Nelson, the founder of the Beacon Independent Film Festival and City Council member. "I tell them: It's already happened. It's past tense. It's about what we do now."
At a candidates' forum in 2019, as the aforementioned four-story building was being built, Beaconites came with torches and pitchforks (metaphorically speaking) to demand answers as to how this could have happened. Then-and-current City Council member George Mansfield, co-owner of the beloved local tavern Dogwood, explained that altering development laws was like steering a cruise ship: You can spin the wheel as fast as you like, but it takes a long time for the ship to actually turn. Beacon's woes were the result of a series of "it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time" moves to entice developers to come to the city when many Main Street storefronts were empty. Now the city was putting on the brakes so that the ship could sail to calmer waters, but the results wouldn't be seen for a while. If at all, actually. You can't see a building that was never built.
"I think we were at the point where we were starting to see some projects that were not a good fit," says City Council member Amber Grant who, like Nelson, decided to get involved in politics after being disheartened by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. "They were either too big or weren't the right type for our community. We've taken a very specific approach to zoning in a detailed way to make things fit a little better and we're starting to see that come online."
In the past few years, the city has passed new laws to protect viewsheds. Certain areas of Beacon have been rezoned multiple times. Developers who want to build a fourth floor must now provide a public good in exchange—such as providing ample public green space. After a new 50-unit building down by the train station drew a public outcry because its design didn't fit the rest of Beacon ("This looks to me like a painted rectangle," went one public comment before the Planning Board), the city granted its review boards increased power to legislate architectural aesthetics. And in 2019, the West End Lofts project was finished: 72 units of affordable housing built on city land.
But there's a lot that's out of the city's hands. The definition of "affordable housing" with regard to units that the city can demand developers set aside as part of a total project is determined by Dutchess County, Nelson explains. "A lot of it has to do with what their metrics are in terms of what 'affordable' is," he says, explaining that it's based on percentages of the county's median income. "We have to redefine it. And I don't know if the county has the will to do that right now." Nelson is also working on enacting the state's Emergency Tenant Protection Act in Beacon to bring some measure of rent control to the city, but the arcane parameters of the law mean that only about 40 buildings in Beacon would be protected.
The ship is turning, but the tsunami of New York City COVID expats willing to pay city prices for Beacon real estate is also coming.
It's hard and hypocritical to blame them, especially since so many of the people who moved to Beacon in the last 20 years came from the five boroughs (including yours truly, back in 2007). And many of the things that drew us here are still here. There's the city's namesake mountain, towering over downtown like a benevolent deity, resplendent with hiking trails and waterfalls. There's the golden Hudson River, getting cleaner every year. There's the series of parks down by the river overseen by Scenic Hudson and constantly being improved with new amenities and new paths.
And there's Main Street, still the place where dreamers with good ideas and an ample amount of elbow grease can make it work. Even in a pandemic.
The Happy Valley Arcade Bar opened at 296 Main Street in early August with the intention of bringing the best of the '80s and early '90s back to Beacon: NBA Jam and Ms. Pac-Man, a Salt-n-Pepa-themed vending machine with the words "Push It Real Good" painted on the dispensary flap, and enough Day-Glo graphics on the walls to make you feel as if you're inside your favorite Trapper Keeper. But for the past few months, the vibe has been less Fast Times at Ridgemont High and more River's Edge. Shortly after opening, the couple who own the bar were told by the state that the arcade games would have to be unplugged because of the pandemic.
And so the Happy Valley Arcade Bar had to operate without its arcade. And consequently, without its happy. "It was a bummer," says Alyssa Follansbee, who moved with her husband, Johnny Coughlin, to Beacon in 2018. "Everyone who walked in would ask us, 'Are the games broken?' Having to explain, 'No, they're shut off, and you have to buy a food item' just killed the positive energy."
Still, a bar is a bar. And a bar blessed with an ample outdoor courtyard, not to mention a kid-friendly menu, still had much to offer the pandemic-weary families of Beacon who wanted someplace cheery to sit outside so that the kids could eat pizza and tater tots while the parents enjoyed cocktails like The Bloody Mario, Sex on the Koopa Troopa Beach, and The Gin Blossom.
Then, at the end of March, Happy Valley got a 1-UP. The state told them they could plug the games back in. "It's been so nice to hear the games on and hear people groan and cheer," says Coughlin. "It's like something from the Before Times. It's starting to come back."
Down the street at another new business, Tom Labelle is also thinking past the pandemic.
Labelle is the owner and head chef at One More Bite, a Korean-fusion restaurant that opened in February. A veteran of both the restaurant industry and Beacon (he moved here 26 years ago), owning his own eatery in town had been a lifelong dream. The theme of his dream restaurant changed every few years, but then the Korean restaurant Seoul Kitchen came to Beacon. Labelle had grown up eating and loving his Korean mother's food, and sitting in Seoul Kitchen, talking about Korean food with owner Heewon Marshall, helped Labelle feel at home. After Seoul Kitchen relocated across the river to Newburgh, Labelle realized his time had come. And that it was time to finally make it happen. He discussed the idea and recipes with his mother, who at this point was now living in Beacon with him and his family. "She was so excited," Labelle recalls.
Then COVID came to Beacon, sweeping through the Labelle household last April. His entire family was stricken. Labelle, his wife, and his three sons recovered. His mother did not.
Labelle went ahead with the idea for the restaurant. "I wanted to fill that void," he says. So far the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Which, paradoxically, is a problem. "Not that I wish I would get more negative feedback, but criticism is always good to hear," Labelle says.
One More Bite and Happy Valley have not done as well as they would like, considering the circumstances of the pandemic. But Beacon has come out and been as supportive as possible of its businesses, both new and old. In November, Beans Cat Cafe opened on Main Street. Patrons can buy a coffee, a pastry, and, if they wish, spend time hanging out with the 10-or-so adoptable cats that live at the shop.
The cats don't stay long. When the cafe opened, owner Jessica Cruz-Strika told me that her goal was to adopt out 300 cats in her first year of business. So far she's on pace, having found homes for 116 cats by the end of March.
We Are Family
The pandemic has taught Beacon many lessons. One is that its businesses are resilient as heck. Story Screen, the city's independent movie theater, opened up a drive-in on the outskirts of town last summer. It was such a hit that even though their brick-and-mortar location has been allowed to reopen their al fresco experiment will return this summer. Bars mixed cocktails to go. Coffee shops and breweries delivered. Artists in Beacon designed t-shirts to support their favorite businesses. "This community really cares about each other and shows up when they need to," says Grant from the City Council. "And the efforts of the Beacon community have been outstanding in terms of taking care of each other, supporting our businesses, and making sure we come out of this."
At the forefront of the community response has been Beacon Mutual Aid, which formed on the first day of the pandemic and has handed out free groceries to more than 450 families once a week over the past year. Working with other local groups such as Fareground and Common Ground Farm, they've kept the city's Tiny Food Pantries (and, behind Binnacle Books, its Community Fridge) stocked. They've set up free wifi in Memorial Park, with more locations to come. They've baked, cooked, made vaccine appointments, and driven people to those appointments. They've provided free afterschool programs. The pandemic may be coming to a close in the months to come, but Beacon Mutual Aid is just getting started.
"We're so happy that so many people are ready to help their neighbors," says Dara Silverman, one of the group's founders, about the steady stream of willing volunteers and donors. "But the need is way bigger. Gentrification continues to spiral in the Hudson Valley. There are so many people, particularly people of color, immigrants, and seniors, who are really getting crunched."
This is the final lesson of the pandemic. From the outside, Beacon has appeared to be thriving. But for every tower that goes up, the people of Beacon get pushed down a little bit more.
There have certainly been positive changes thanks to attention the city has been getting. Increased tax revenue has helped fund a newly robust recreation department and reopened the municipal pool. A free hop-on-hop-off bus can be seen making loops throughout the town for those Beaconites without cars (or who would prefer not to use them.) And it's helped fund a series of continuing environmental initiatives, such as a field of solar panels that have cut the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent and helped Beacon recently attain a silver certification as a Climate Smart Community, one of only seven in the state.
Beacon's two-decades-long transformation has been a model of how to redevelop a city. But there isn't currently a model of what a city can do after gentrification takes hold to stop the rising tide of inequality and make sure that everyone can feel safe and welcome. But an emerging group of new leaders is ready to try.
This fall, four of the six Beaconites who sit on the all-Democrat City Council will not be seeking re-election, including both Nelson and Grant. The new Democrat candidates who have been announced aren't a lock to win. But as of press time, the Beacon Republicans haven't announced competing candidates and also appear to have abandoned their website. It will take big changes to guide Beacon into a post-gentrification era. And big change is on the ballot.
We See YouJustice McCray attended the first Beacon 4 Black Lives rally on June 1 of last year. It was the first time they had left the house in months.
Not just because of the pandemic. Because of Breonna Taylor. Because of George Floyd. "I would be at home and think 'it's ok to go for a jog' and then see the stories of Ahmaud Arbery," they say. "It became so clear that being Black was an unsafe thing."
But at that first rally, attended by a large and diverse group of Beaconites, McCray felt safe. "That was the first time I felt like my Black life mattered," they say. After the rally, McCray asked if they could help out with Beacon 4 Black Lives in the future, in a "behind the scenes" capacity. They were surprised to soon find themselves in front. "I didn't think that my voice in this movement made a difference," they say. "But it became clear that it did."
McCray may have been surprised, but many Beaconites weren't. For years, McCray's irrepressible smile had been a fixture about town, volunteering at the library to help senior citizens use the computers and always being one of those Beaconites who shows up when the community needs help. Seeing them standing in front of the Mayor's house, fists in the air, and screaming through a bullhorn for their right to exist was a clear sign to many that things in Beacon—and the country—needed to change. Long after many of the protests around the Hudson Valley this summer had faded away, Beaconites kept marching throughout the fall (one of the protests was even called "Yes, We're Still Protesting.")
When word got out that most of the City Council wouldn't be seeking re-election, McCray realized that since they were already calling into the city council meetings every week and working as a bridge between the community and the Council, they could run for office and be a direct connection.
Paloma Wake, another City Council candidate, hasn't been in Beacon as long as McCray (she moved here in 2017), but like McCray, she quickly became a fixture in the community. She ran the Beacon Farmers' Market, became vice chair of the city's Human Relations Committee, and has been volunteering with Beacon 4 Black Lives and Beacon Mutual Aid throughout the pandemic. The year has been eye-opening for her.
"It's been made clear that so many of our social safety nets are not strong enough to really hold people in crisis," Wake says. "But it's also been made clear that people in Beacon have a huge capacity to be creative and resilient and support one another. I'm seeing that in terms of the city's response to social justice issues. We saw hundreds of people marching almost all year, which speaks to the level of care and concern about the pain of others. That's an important thing to lift up." When she found out about the upcoming openings on the city council, she quickly volunteered to run.
Both McCray and Wake talk about Beacon's out-of-control development scene. But they're also looking to the bigger picture, and how gentrification is just one symptom of bigger societal issues of injustice and inequality. Is it a coincidence that in the early phases of Beacon's redevelopment boom the city's two community centers closed down, eliminating two of the only places where Beaconites of all backgrounds and all ages could gather year-round without having to spend money? Where they could have meetings, play basketball, paint together, and build community?
"It has to do with making sure people's basic needs are being met," says Wake. "And that we as citizens have a sense of safety so that we're not just surviving, but thriving together."
No one knows what a truly equitable post-gentrification city looks like. But Beacon may still be united enough, driven enough, and, yes, weird enough to find out. "I have a lot of love and care for this community," says McCray. "It's my home. Gentrification is pushing marginalized people out of communities in the guise of making things better. And there are ways to make things better for everyone, including the people that are here now."
I ask McCray what they would say to the waves of newcomers. They don't hesitate. "I'd say 'Welcome to Beacon.'"