Dr. Darrell P. Wheeler has only been president of SUNY New Paltz for four months, but he already feels like a familiar face in town. Wearing a sports coat and tie, he strolls the streets to grab a coffee or stop by the post office, and people come up to him to shake his hand. "I haven't even been on the ground for 90 days," says Wheeler, who moved from Iona College, where he served as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, to a home close to campus with his husband, Donovan, in July. His husband, with whom he has two adult children and one grandson, is also enjoying being the "First Spouse."
"I'm the first nonwhite president at SUNY New Paltz, so people recognize me and welcome me. It's really great to be in a town where you're seen as part of the community just by virtue of the college's stature." Wheeler adds: "New Paltz fits my temperament. There's good food, and it's physically breathtaking. I'm looking forward to getting to know the town."
A Playful PlaceThere's certainly a lot to see. Two years after a self-induced pandemic slumber, New Paltz has reawakened in 2022—with new businesses opening, tourists returning, and exciting plans emerging everywhere you turn.
In September, Rob Gamble, and his fiancee, Amanda McDonald, opened the Gunks Gaming Guild and Cafe on Church Street, where the room is filled with patrons playing Dungeons & Dragons and an assortment of board games while sipping specialty coffees and teas.
The one good takeaway from COVID, Gamble says, is that he had more time to be with his family at the dinner table and reconnect around games. And he wanted to bring that sense of intimacy and fun to New Paltz. "Community has always been one of our biggest things, giving people a place to hang out with their friends and make new friends," Gamble says. "Our first night, we had people who were 17 to 19 playing with 60-year-olds they had never met. That's been happening a lot."
Just across the street, at the Floating Lotus Lash Bar, owner Nicole Cabrera also welcomes everyone—"men, women and children"—to her softly lit microspa for facials and other treatments. "It's more of an experience than a service," says Cabrera, a Navy veteran turned aesthetician, who offers a range of beauty services like waxing, lash lifts, and brow lamination, all cruelty-free.
She is trained in the art of microblading, which uses a tattoo pigment to draw natural-looking hairs onto the skin. "I recently had a client who was a cancer survivor," Cabrera says. "She was in remission, and her eyebrows didn't grow the same. I gave her her eyebrows back. To me, that's why I do this."
Around the corner on North Front Street, Shabbat Rusciolelli, has a similar goal. She describes her consignment store, Nettle & Violet, which opened in August 2021, as a "joy factory." Packed with timeless classics, her shop sells pieces for men and women ranging from $30 to a $600 Vivienne Westwood coat.
Rusciolelli, who started out dressing her musician friends in the East Village, now styles anyone who comes into her store for free. Recently, she paired a Russian ballerina with a full-skirted evening gown made in France in the 1940s. "What happens when you put something onto your body that matches your own feeling is that you light up," she says. "I'm not interested in selling something to someone that doesn't make them light up. Because to me, I don't want a life that isn't rooted in joy."
Welcome to the ShowEd Carroll and Gina O'Brien also hope to bring joy to New Paltz with the new piano bar they're planning to open before Thanksgiving on Main Street. They have transformed the former Murphy's pub, now named the Lemon Squeeze (after a popular rock scramble in the Gunks), into a sophisticated club complete with banquettes, an elegant bar, and a stage built for a wood-toned grand piano.
Carroll and O'Brien met as students at SUNY New Paltz. He became president of AMC networks and she is now a screenwriter and director, but they could never forget the town where they fell in love. Before and after they married, they regularly sang along to show tunes at piano bars like Marie's Crisis in Greenwich Village, and wanted to bring the same vibe upstate. "We have a great affection for the town," Carroll says. "And we were having lunch at Murphy's and I said, 'You know, this place is for sale.' And she looked at me like I was an insane person."
"He plotted the whole thing out!" O'Brien says with a laugh.
They tapped their entertainment world contacts and scoured the Hudson Valley to find experienced piano players who could belt out everything from standards by Carole King, Billy Joel, and Ray Charles to current pop songs by Harry Styles, Green Day, and the Killers. The piano players will "read the energy of the room and take requests," Carroll says. "We want people to feel that their requests are welcome and everyone is there to have a good time."
Locals can find a good time at the Denizen Theatre at Water Street Market, now under the direction of Andy and Kirsty Gaukel. The couple are theater veterans who've worked in Europe, New York City, and across the US before moving to Tillson during the pandemic. So far, they have staged two shows, and their second, Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," played to sold-out crowds in October. "People have responded super well to it," Andy enthuses.
Their next show will be the comedy "An Act of God," depicting the heavenly father debating two of his archangels, Michael and Gabriel, and will run from November 25 through December 23. "I was laughing out loud when I read it," Andy says. "The characters will be holding microphones and coming into the audience and asking questions. It will be super lighthearted and get people thinking."
Esi Lewis wants to get people thinking, too. The attorney is the visionary behind saving the Ann Oliver House on Broadhead Avenue, a home built in 1885 by Black architect Jacob Wynkoop. Once slated for demolition, in 2021 Lewis swooped in and successfully submitted a plan to turn it into a Black cultural center, named for pioneering SUNY New Paltz Black Studies professor Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis. Now, she and her four fellow board members are working to raise $650,000 to restore the building and create a place for culture, education, history, and healing.
"Jacob Wynkoop was the first man born free in New Paltz, so he never was a slave," Lewis says. "He was called a carpenter, but he was more than that. He's credited for seven houses in town. He created a free black neighborhood for his friends and family.
"As a child growing up in New Paltz, I would go on field trips to Huguenot Street and see the houses that had been saved, but no one ever talked about if there were Black people here and their accomplishments," she continues. "I want my daughter and [other] children of color to have that same sense of pride. Historic Huguenot Street's offices are in one of the first buildings that Jacob built."
Lewis and the Ann Oliver House board members are hosting their first annual fundraiser on November 5 from 5pm to 7pm at the Dorsky Museum, and a Community Kwanzaa event on December 31.
Nice and New
Meanwhile, other projects that have been brewing for years have finally come to life. The new, energy-efficient New Paltz firehouse, with 10 bays and seven firetrucks, insulated concrete form walls, and all-electric systems, is fully operational on North Putt Corners Road. In the coming year, solar panels will be added to the roof, according to Fire Chief Cory Wirthmann.
Another eco-friendly project—Zero Place, a housing and retail complex on Route 32—has filled all 46 apartments since it opened in February, and "produces more energy than it consumes," says founder David Shepler. And Noah Michaels, a chef trained by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, will soon open a new bakery and coffee shop, Dry Fly, in a ground-floor space by the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.
Another person elevating the dining scene is Clare Hussain, with her restaurant Runa on Plattekill Avenue. Though COVID forced Runa's closure, Hussain is again serving high-quality French culinary classics with a Bengali/Indo influence. The return of her head chef in May allowed Hussain the time to refresh the outdoor dining area, where she added a bluestone sidewalk, picnic benches, Moroccan white lanterns, Adirondack chairs, and a fire pit around the 200-year-old copper beech tree out front.
"People are vibing, it's chill," says Hussain, who was born in Bangladesh and went to school in Ireland. "When people are leaving at the end of the night, they're all taking selfies."
Special Moments"Modern witch" Dana Cooper cultivates a chill vibe at plant and magic shop the Ritualist on Main Street, selling cauldrons, candles, and Tarot cards alongside houseplants—"my other passion."
"Magic and plants go together really nicely," Cooper insists. "As I was taking care of my plants and taking the time to notice what was going on with them, I saw how they mirror our bodies and energy levels. Plants are good reminders for us to take care of ourselves, too."
Anyone taking the time to notice what's going on in New Paltz will notice that even one of New Paltz's greatest institutions, Manny's Art Supplies, is evolving as well. Manny's, which turned 60 this year, got a facelift from Zack and Amanda Delfavero, a young married couple who started working here when they were students at SUNY New Paltz. In April, Manny's daughter Marilyn Golgoski sold them the business, and they rearranged the space, boosted its art supplies, and sprinkled in some "magical" touches, like Mystery Art Bags for $10.
At first, they were nervous to change anything, Zack admits. "Special moments happen here," he says. "People have proposed to each other in the paper aisle. Manny's is a really strange place and we wanted to make sure it stays that way."
But, buoyed by positive customer feedback, the couple hopes to be here when Manny's is 100 years old and they are both 70. "Marilyn used to say that the mountains call people to New Paltz and when they leave they call you back. I thought that was such a cool thing, but I never really believed it," Zack says. "But then so many people come here and then move away and come back. They just can't stay away. I can't imagine leaving. Everyone is just so kind..." he says, hesitating for a moment, before saying with a laugh, "...and weird."