Adirondack Pride

This summer, when I was living in Raquette Lake, in the Adirondack Park, I had an incredible encounter with regional pride. My parents were visiting and I took them to a concert at the Adirondack Museum by a local singer/storyteller named Roy Hurd. Roy grew up in the Adirondacks, born from an old local family, but moved to Nashville, where he was a songwriter. Eventually, however, something called him home from his career and he left warm Tenneessee for the North Country. To listen to his music is to hear an incredible pride in a place and a culture. These are lyrics taken from Hurd's tribute to North Country ladies, "Adirondack Woman:
"She's an Adirondack woman, she's purty as Silver Lake. She'll still the chill of the winter night with the love she make. Her eyes shine and sparkle, like sun on the fallen snow. Her heart's as free as the chickadee when the summer breezes blow. I've done my share of travel, I've been from state to state and I've rolled around from New York town to the city of the Golden Gate..." (quotes taken from Hurd's website)

The Adirondacks, perhaps more than any other region within our state, has a sense of place. There are Adirondackers and there are Downstaters; I was told by a woman who had lived within the Park for some 20 years that she was still not an Adirondacker, she was a transplant.

What has caused this incredible regional identity? I believe that it is a product of the fact that the Park is a magnified microcosm of Upstate itself. The legal and cultural artifact that is the Park would not exist without it's mirror opposite: New York City. It, along with the Catskill Park, was created in the 1800s to protect the Hudson River and Erie Canal watersheds. Since then, it has been the playground for generations of New Yorkers (in this sense, I mean people from the City) and Yorkstaters alike. The division between local and outsider was strong when Vanderbilts played here and has only been strengthened by the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in the 1970s.

Adirondackers, like Upstaters in general, often feel that control of their region and their communities is held in the hands of politicians, lobbyists, developers and, above all, Downstaters. Their towns are plagued by unemployment and a decaying economic base (logging, mining and similar industries). Their winters are amongst the harshest in the state; at least when the snow comes in Syracuse, one is surrounded by thousands of other suffering Syracusians. When the town of Raquette Lake is snowed in, only around 120 residents dig themselves out.

Perhaps it is fitting that some of the most famous Adirondack heros are guides. The legendary guides were loners, living off the land and surviving its trials, revealing (sometimes grudgingly) its secrets to outsiders. One must not forget that they were often more than a touch xenophobic.

Adirondack Pride has its positive and negative elements. On one hand, it has allowed for the preservation of local crafts and arts, especially music. The region is full of folk singers, fiddlers, cloggers and storytellers, often surviving off of tourism dollars. The pride in the wildlands and especially in the Forever Wild clause of the NY state constitution that protects the park has led to the creation of the Resident's Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and has allowed many locals to appreciate the beauty and value of their home. However, it has also led to xenophobia and nasty battles between environmental protectionists and property rights advocates. I highly suggest Philip G. Terie's seminal history of the region: Contested Terrain.

What does this mean to all of us Yorkstaters who live outside the Blue Line (the name for the boundary of the Park)? We are also affected by the same problems that face Adirondack communities: decaying economic base, youth flight, difficult winters and a feeling of lack of control over the destiny of our homes. In the Adirondacks, the unique nature of the Park has, over the years, served to amplify these problems. The Adirondacks, then, can serve as a testing ground for future regionalism. When we, as a greater region, respond to future pressures, we perhaps might look to the North Country for a lesson.

Posted by Jesse


lindsey said...

The 5th paragraph down, about the harsher reasons why people in the Adirondacks have pride for where they live, I believe is really accurate. I live just inside the park's borders, and have experienced all of these problems. I think the youth flight mentioned in the last paragraph is due to the problems mentioned in the 5th paragraph down, while youth flight may be seen as a problem of the Adirondacks, I think it is more of an effect of the other problems, one that could potentially be solved if the economy could somehow do a turn-around.

Also, another thing I noticed about the Adirondacks is the huge turnout of nature artists, particularly painters. There are so many of them. People who leave the Adirondacks, or who visit for the first time, continue to return to paint and photograph the landscape. The beauty of it is part of the draw.

Jesse said...

I agree that the Adirondacks are a place of incredible beauty, a true treasure, that has inspired generations of painters, photographers, environmentalists and ordinary folk who bring their children and grandchildren back year after year. The Adirondacks are not a soft place, but they are a striking one; those who have spent any time there have difficulty forgetting them.