At home in the historic Rokeby estate, just north of Rhinebeck, celebration artist Jeanne Fleming is busy building a colony of paper ants. In December, they'll take over the village during Rhinebeck's signature winter event—the Sinterklaas festival and parade—held the first weekend of December each year.
Fleming, who created the event, says designing the smaller puppets and the yearly star for the parade keeps her sane as she fundraises and wrangles a new generation of organizers for the extravaganza, which sees the community dance through packed streets, surrounded by illuminated paper-craft animals, great and small.
"The honored animal this year, the ant, is very appropriate for this time in the village. They reflect community unity," says Fleming, who also helms the New York City Village Halloween Parade (now in its 50th year). "Sinterklaas was made for Rhinebeck. It's a celebration of new life and spring in the darkest time of the year."
Fleming and her collaborators have been inventing traditions and mixing symbologies from the old Dutch holiday since 2008, and the result is an expression not of any one ideology but an amalgamation of Rhinebeck's creative spirit. "I think Rhinebeck is a magical place," she says. "It's beautiful and the perfect petri dish for this kind of thing. The community is filled with wonderful, creative, and passionate people."
The Colony of RhinebeckAt first blush Rhinebeck's "unity" can come across to some as an over-preened postcard version of a small Hudson Valley locale. But, as Fleming points out, Rhinebeck's growing popularity as a destination is not due to some monolithic design—rather, it thrives because of the individual achievements of a network of stakeholders, working in concert. Businesses and restaurants collaborate with farmers, local makers and artists, and local government is toiling away over a new comprehensive plan to support growth, while trying to address major issues like housing, cost of living, inclusivity, and sustainability.
"The comprehensive plan committee has lead the biggest community input project we've ever had," said village mayor Gary Bassett. "The main point is not to write a plan for today but for 10, 20, 30 years from now. Housing and use of space is a big issue that is being prioritized."
The hottest issue in town recently was the fight over the creation of a composting facility at the Village Highway Department. A boisterous clash between environmentalism and NIMBYism broke out at municipal meetings for months. In May, town officials came down in opposition to the village board's proposal, after feeling the pressure from a group of neighbors who live near the proposed facility. According to reporting by Hudson Valley Pilot, the group threatened to sue the town and village into bankruptcy if they had to. The project is now on hold indefinitely—a blow to organizers who saw an opportunity for Rhinebeck to be a leader in local environmental sustainability.
While neighbors may be divided on compost, Bassett says by and large Rhinebeck excels at teamwork, using its response to Covid as an example. During the pandemic the village made outdoor dining and shopping a priority, creating a level of security for businesses that has carried on. "We created an even more vibrant community coming out of that experience," he says.
With so much new coming to the village, some of the old is falling away, however. The Thompson House senior living facility went under this spring, Astor Services for Children and Families closed its residential services, and one of the village's legacy businesses, the A. L. Stickles variety store, closed its doors in May, after 76 years in operation.
"It's definitely bitter sweet. I think there's a reason you don't see five-and–dimes anymore," says Matthew Stickles, the shop's third-generation owner. "People's shopping habits have changed. My family heritage goes back to the settlement of Rhinebeck. This store was my grandfather and grandmother's life. I've worked here since I was a teen. The kind words people have been saying since we announced we are closing have meant a lot to our family, and we thank everybody who came through our doors."
Village businesses, old and new, have their patronage greatly boosted by the thousands of visitors who come to Rhinebeck throughout the year and for events at venues like the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, and Omega Institute. The upstate migration during the pandemic likewise brought many new faces to the area.
Historic architecture and well-curated shops like Hammertown, Rhinebeck Department Store, and Winter Sun & Summer Moon make the streets of Rhinebeck eminently walkable. Tourists stay at one of the oldest inns in America, the Beekman Arms and Delamater Inn, or the village's newest hotel, Mirbeau Inn and Spa.
A Village Expressing ItselfThere's so much going on in Rhinebeck these days it's even found need for its own digital news outlet, the Hudson Valley Pilot. Publisher Mark Fuerst, who also led the Rhinebeck Responds community aid nonprofit through the pandemic, saw an opportunity for a town-specific news source and hired village resident Eric Steinman, former editor of Edible Hudson Valley. They both felt Rhinebeck deserved a dedicated voice to showcase what's new and bring residents the information they need.
"Mark was convinced that the community would come out in favor of something local and homegrown," Steinman says. "As Rhinebeck residents, we'd had too many experiences where we didn't know what was going on. It's an exciting time, but there's a downside to every upside. There's a new comprehensive plan for the town in the works. A lot of it has to do with housing. Entry-level homes are few and far between, and the reality of being a renter right now is bleak."
One thing that keeps things a little less bleak is the focus Rhinebeck puts on its arts community. Betsy Jacaruso Studio, Art Gallery 71, Albert Shahinian Fine Art, T Space, Hudson Valley Pottery, and a handful of other galleries are year-round fixtures, and events like the Art Studio Views, Porchfest, and of course, Sinterklass give visitors opportunities to interact with the many artists who call Rhinebeck and the surrounding area home.
"We really love it here," says Paul Sturtz, co-executive director of Upstate Films, which opened its Rhinebeck location in 1972. "I think the reputation of Rhinebeck as this fancy, slick tourist destination misses the details. There are so many talented artists and businesses here with real integrity, some really great down-home spots, and a super-supportive village board. It's a very intimate and friendly place."
While Sturtz admits that the rise of home streaming makes running an independent movie theater more complicated, the distinctive programming of Upstate in Rhinebeck is an experience you just can't replicate on your TV. "The working theory is that people still have a desire to leave the house," he said. "What Upstate can do is provide this town hall experience. I think we provide something that's totally unique. Our programing is reflecting the wide and varied world of cinema right now."
This June, Upstate Films will show a science fiction series, "Otherworldly," in advance of the release of the Wes Anderson film Asteroid City. The series will include screenings of classics like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, and more. On June 21, Upstate will hold a fundraiser featuring two famous regional residents, actress Frances McDormand and director Joel Coen. In conjunction, the theater will screen The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Cohen and staring McDormand.
A Food CommunityRestaurants are another big draw in Rhinebeck. While it's a true local experience to eat with the ghost of George Washington in a dark wooden booth at the Beekman Arms Tavern or the slightly younger Foster's Coach House (circa 1890), the number of new dining options in Rhinebeck has increased dramatically as of late. Other popular eateries include Bread Alone (which just underwent major renovations), Terrapin (newly expanded outdoor seating), Market Street, Gigi Trattoria, the Amsterdam, Bia, and many others.
There is a high level of cultural diversity in the local restaurant industry here these days. You can get falafel at Aba's, Thai cuisine at Aroi, Japanese at Osaka, and mofongo at Cafe con Leche. The latter has been a major standout since opening in May and locals have been raving about the massive sandwiches and sides from the Puerto Rican restaurant.
Next door to Upstate Films is another new joint, Pretty to Think So. Named after the last line in The Sun Also Rises, the restaurant takes inspiration from the Bohemian style of American expats in Europe during the early 20th century. The menu includes classically inspired entrees, a raw bar, even caviar service. The bar keeps the theme alive with a robust cocktail menu and an absinthe fountain.
"We are definitely trying to create an inclusive space and are leading with a lot of whimsy," says co-owner Madeline Dillon. "We are prioritizing diversity and want to make sure everyone feels welcome."
Just down the road, the Bottle Shop at Astor Square, which has been in Rhinebeck for 27 years, was taken over by Emma Thomas and J. P. Sabia this past November. The pair see working directly with local farm distilleries and beverage makers as a major part of their mission.
Over the past decade, the local offerings of wines and spirits have increased greatly in quantity and quality, and the shop has a dedicated local section featuring bottles from Branchwater, Slow Fox, Rose Hill, and others. They recently hosted Rachel Petach, who just moved her brand, C. Cassis, to Rhinebeck from Catskill.
Back on Market Street, even Jean Michel, founder of Megabrain Comics, is entering the culinary game, with the help of new business partners Ayumi Tomaru and Martin Resnick. Tomaru will cater the new Cafe Manju gaming cafe in the back of the comic book store with Japanese pub fare and whipped coffee. Michel hopes the café will entice customers to hang out and game and provide a comfortable and safe afterschool option for local youth.
"We are looking to have a fully functioning space operational by summer," Michel says. "We want to make sure that students know this is a safe space for them no matter who they are."
Megabrain celebrated free comic book day on May 6, and the store was loud with the buzz of conversation and `90s jams. Tomaru brought a sampling of her baking and the organization Trans Closet of the Hudson Valley tabled, giving out information to support to local trans youth.
Businesses all over Rhinebeck wear their support for inclusivity on their sleeves and in their window. There has also been a big project in town to support those with neuro-divergence. "Our goal is not just to welcome people with neuro-divergence into our community but also bring those people into jobs," says Mayor Bassett. "We created a model and now Astor is sharing that model with other communities. Fifty percent of the proceeds collected during the recent Taste of Rhinebeck event went to supporting that."
Rhinebeck might seem idyllically unified at first glance but through the magnifying glass, it's really a colony of individuals and small groups who care deeply about the sense of place they've created. The community's cohesiveness may be well represented later this year by Sinterklaas's ants, but the people who make up this community are anything but drones.