12.04.2006

Two Faces of the Adirondacks: The Almanack and the Boys

In general, among us Upstate bloggers there tends to be a climate of amicable tolerance and friendly exchange. Certainly, we come from all points of the political prism—from Anarchist (that’s me!) to conservative (such as my old arch-nemesis the “Let Upstate Be Upstate” blog[1])—but overall we’re all just pretty much thrilled that other people are also interested in our region.

That’s why I was pretty shocked to read the Adirondack Almanack’s latest post:
An Angry Adirondack Almanack Note to Neighbors, which tears into the (relatively) new and highly prolific blog Adirondack Boys (“Everything Fabulous About New York’s Adirondack Park”).

I must mention here that I’ve always had a deep respect for the Almanack’s thoughtful commentary on life “Behind the Blue Line,” the Almanack seems to never post unless its something that it deems useful and important (which is a bit different from the Boys… but different styles are ok). The Almanack writes about the new blog:

The posts started nicely enough, mostly the history of Penwood (Old Forge), where the Adirondack Boys have recently had a home built for them. All was well for a while, until, perhaps inevitably given the pace of posting, the posts started turning to other subjects and, well, frankly, began pissing us off.

For several weeks the Almanack held a regular internal debate about the new blog. The Almanack doesn't always agree with even our
favorite bloggers, and we don't always have to comment on a bad post or two. The Almanack encourages conflicting viewpoints, alternative ideas, even the downright outlandish. The Almanack doesn't want to be mean. The Almanack wants friends in the blog world and wants to encourage Adirondack blogs. Today however, the insults aimed at locals reached a crescendo and if there is one thing we can't stand it's hypocrisy: don't believe one thing and support the exact opposite just because it fits your social milieu more appropriately. If you worship the devil at night in the woods, don't send money to evangelical TV preachers and sell bibles on the side.

Yes, that’s us that they’re referring to as a “favorite” blog that they don’t always agree with[2]. Fair enough. But this post, which I’m not going to quote much further (you should read it yourself) goes on to condemn the boys for hypocrisy (for instance they’re gay men who love President Bush enough to copy his entire lunch menu as a post) and outright classism.

Without a doubt, the Boys seem completely clueless about the world of the working folk around them. Their celebration of what is ‘fabulous’ about the Adirondacks refers primarily to the Great Camps of the wealthy elite of the Gilded Age. As someone who worked at
one of these Camps as a tour guide for three years, I can tell you that perhaps the lives of the wealthy there were ‘fabulous,’ but to not mention the lives of those who worked in and built those camps and lived in them year round is to ignore history just as vital as that of the “Summer People” (their words) that arrived for a few weeks. The descendents of those same workers are the ones that the Boys blissfully ignore or denigrate all around them.

It is within the Adirondacks that the Upstate-Rural-Poor versus Downstate-Urban-Rich dichotomy is the most acute. It is there that jaded, tired Downstaters build their sprawling ‘camps’ and host their elaborate parties. Of course nthing wrong with a little bit of R&R, I can’t think of an Adirondacker that doesn’t appreciate that land for its calming, healing properties. But in the view of the Boys, the Adirondack Park is simply that: A Park. A place for their own amusement. While I admit and enjoy the unique nature of the Adirondacks, I try never to forget that it is also a human place where people make their lives—they and their communities are never simple backdrops for my Adirondack adventures or props for the fulfillment of my dreams. It is that simple truth that the Boys have missed as they have treated decorative
lamps and terra cotta urns as more important subjects than the lives that surround them.

-Jesse

[1] I’m pretty sure that Let Upstate Be Upstate, the blog of the Business Council of NY, doesn’t share in my analysis of our relationship. However, this letter I wrote to them explains my feelings.
[2] Which of course, gets me curious as to which posts they’re referring to.

17 comments:

TourPro said...

I think the very issue that is illustrated by the Adirondack Boys' post is something very much worth discussing. At least the Boys were cognizant enough to recognize the significance of the incident and their role, and even acknowledged the criticism from the Almanack. This is one of the historic dichotomies that makes the Adirondacks interesting.

Jesse said...

TourPro-
I've looked through both sites and I can't see where the Boys responded to the Almanack. They don't have a post up about it, at leas that I can find. You're right on the money to say that this is the core social dynamic of the Adirondacks, throughout its history as a tourist destination (which has been over a hundred years). One could go further and say that the dynamic between the wealthy few who control land, power and resources and the poorer majority who work in the institutions controlled by the wealthy is one of the most important forces at work in human history. Is it not the dynamic that allowed factory owners to move to Mexico and China, devastating our Upstate cities for the past 30 years?

The Adirondacks only highlights these forces since they are so acute. It is perhaps fitting that the "Boys" celebrate the camps of the great industrialists of the late 1800s since they themselves represent the same phenomenon in the modern era. The Almanack is, of course, a voice for the opposite view today--it is interesting that the Internet has allowed both a voice and a chance to face each other. The workers have always critiqued the lifestyles of the wealthy in the Adirondacks, it is only that the Web has amplified their voices.

Adirondack Boy said...

It doesn't seem to take much more than the mention of summer people to ignite a firestorm of criticism. As we mention in our post today, its not that we feel greater or lesser than locals, but that the two populations are different, and interesting for their differences. We love the Adirondacks as much as everyone does, and our blog celebrates that sentiment. It also explores our view of the world using the Adirondacks as a prism through which to view it. Adirondack Almanack thinks we live in a fantasy world; but the Adirondacks can be about fantasy, dreaming, the un-real - just as much as it can be a place of hardship, loneliness, poverty and grief. We have chosen to focus more on the former than the latter, but we aren't ignorant of the suffering and difficult lives that are as much, if not more, a part of the park as great camps and antique boats.

Jesse said...

I tossed and turned in my bed last night mulling over the questions raised by these posts and comments (yes, I know that I need to get a life... but at least it was more 'real' than some of the 19th century anthropological theories I spend my days memorizing). What exactly raised my hackles about the Adirondack Boy's site and what did I see in the Almanack's post that inspired me to join the fray? After all, York Staters has featured pictures of beautiful Adirondack sunsets, examples of old architecture and regional dishes. We certainly don't shy away from celebrating the beauty of this land--in fact we would post ourselves many (if not the majority) of the posts on Adirondack Boys if they were submitted to us. In fact, I applaud the global warming post.

The conclusion that I came to was that I was disturbed by two inter-related, but distinct aspects of this question: the selected celebration of history and the presentation of the present.

Any presentation of history is always selective--because we are always constrained (by time, space, resources), we can never present all of history, or even all that we know of history. Instead, what all historians (at least the good historians) do is synthesize historical events and convey them to others. My problem with the Boys' celebration of the Gilded Age of Adirondack History (very roughly 1890-1929) is that their selection emphasizes certain elements of the story while ignoring others--in particular the stories of the working people of the Adirondacks.

Let me give an example, one that I know well. On Sunday, the Boys posted a picture of Great Camp Sagamore, a beautiful Great Camp near Raquette Lake that was owned by the Vanderbilt Family; I have worked there for three summers as a historic interpretor and archivist. The story of Sagamore can (and has) been told of one of rustic luxury, summer fun, Christmases with roaring fires, men in fine suits and ladies in beautiful dresses. This is one of the stories of this place, a legitimate and important one.

But Sagamore has other stories to tell. The land on which it sits was first acquired by the developer William West Durant via money he inherited from his father, Thomas Clark Durant, the infamous architect of the Credit Mobilier scandal. The money used to buy the land was either stolen openly from the railway investors (both private and the US government), extorted from farming communities along western rail-lines or beaten out of the backs of the Irish, Chinese and Black laborers along the lines. Closer to home, William took control of the Adirondack land through shady dealings with Lt. Governor Timothy Woodruff--he was paid the highest price ever given for Adirondack land by the state, retained isolated lake parcels for his camps...and Woodruff was given nearby Kamp Kil Kare. Durant proceeded to chain off 'his' outlet to Raquette Lake---and when locals continued to fish there (remember this is for sustinance, not entertainment), Durant posted snipers on the rocks to shoot them. Neighbor JP Morgan had armed men and dogs patrolling his property lines to drive out locals who had hunted there for generations (and probably didn't have a clue where boundary lines were found). Another neighbor, a Rockefeller, used goon squads to intimidate locals into selling their land.

Is this also a legitimate story of the Adirondacks? Yes. Is it as pretty? Of course not. But to completely ignore it in some 200+ posts is to show either a complete ignorance or a lack of concern (perhaps the later leads to the former) of these abuses. In fact to completely ignore the vibrant, interesting and often beautiful stories of these working people (working life isn't always hardship, loneliness, poverty and grief), is to systematically continue the same marginalization and oppression that the great industrialists began in the region 110 years ago.

I have lived and worked in the Adirondacks for close to 12 months over the period of the last three years. During that time, I found the locals to often be suspicious and cautious with outsiders. I also found the same in several other small, rural communities in which I've worked (Walsenburg CO, Argyll NY, Mexico NY), despite their lack of 'Summer People.' Those communities don't even have the thriving oral history of systemic Gilded Age oppression that the Adirondacks have. At the same time, I have found the people of all four communities to be warm and welcoming... if you come to the situation right. To come to the Adirondacks and to go to tourist-only bars and restaurants (you can thell them not only by clientele, but price, ambiance) will get you marked as not interested in their lives as them as people---understandable given the generations of experience. But, on the other hand, when you start going to local bars, talking to people at libraries, laundrimats or--perhaps ideally--working with them cleaning the bedrooms, bathrooms of tourists or serving them food or chopping their firewood--you'll find them to be as open and friendly as people anywhere else in the world.

How we treat the past is how we treat the present. When you continously gloss over the fiscal scandals and systemic oppression of the Gilded Age, I am not surprised to find your interactions with those same phemonena today to be lacking profundity.

I believe in fantasy, dreaming and the un-real... but my flights of fantasy always have their launching pad from the real world. I love and celebrate beauty and whimsy, but I believe that if they were paid for in blood and sweat, that to ignore that history is to commit an injustice against those who sacrificed.

[This comment has also been posted on the Adirondack Boys site]

have skunk said...

Adirondack Boy on 9:48 PM, December 04, 2006

"... Adirondack Almanack thinks we live in a fantasy world; but the Adirondacks can be about fantasy, dreaming, the un-real - just as much as it can be a place of hardship, loneliness, poverty and grief. We have chosen to focus more on the former than the latter, but we aren't ignorant of the suffering and difficult lives that are as much, if not more, a part of the park as great camps and antique boats."

You're right, Adk Boy. Your blog focuses on the fantasy world of great camps and antique boats and the carefully cultured shadowboxes of privilege that surrounds them. You and yours, as you repesent your sensibilities in your blog, are top carnivores in an economic food pyramid that you will never fully understand in your role as transients, even if you live in the Adks for ever more. Being "summer people" is as much a state of mind as it is a descriptor of a type of seasonal inhabitant. Your blog focuses on an unreal world of artificial valuations. For the people you overlook, there is no such artifice, but just the clarity that comes with being the practical people upon whom the summer people call when something real needs to happen, like fixing a leaky roof. An apt metaphor would be that the real Adkers, the caretakers and carpenters and the like, are the James Bakers to your little family of George W. Bushes: the family fixer who unclogs the toilets and gravels the driveways and fixes the boat dock so that you can go on living in your happy, ignorant bubble. I hope I haven't put too fine a point on my point.

Nice blog, yorkstaters.

Natalie said...

Jeezy creezy, I'm off the grid for a couple days studying, and the comment lines are burning up.

Jesse - It's hard to find posts on Adirondack Boys sometimes, they have quite a number of tags that aren't all consistent, and posts get pushed off the first page very quickly with a flurry of new ones. But I recall when Adirondack Almanack posted their article last week, the Boys reproduced it in full, no comments, just a re-posting of the Almanack critique.

Jesse, Skunk, etc. - As for the balance of the life they portray, most of the Adirondack Boy posts are images, and historic images of the Adirondacks that are easy to come by in digital form are more often than not of the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" Posting images, and even celebrating the positives they see in that part of history doesn't necessarily advocate a return to it.

joe said...

Jesse most of that stuff you said about how the land was acquired and how it was owned would be superfluous in a post about the history of the structures and the structurization of the camp(s).

But AB aren't even giving a history of a great camp or their development. Y'all aren't even in the same frame and are misusing 'people's history' discourse.

Jesse said...

Natalie- I would heartily disagree with you, you were also a Sagamore tour guide and you know that the first breath out of many people's mouths when they see the Main Lodge is "Wow, so beautiful!" and the second is "I wish I could live like that!" Celebration of an oppressive era without recognition of its oppressive nature justifies the same oppression in the modern day. I know that most of the ADK Boys posts (I did find their commentary by the way) are simple pictures, but communicative media involve far more than words and essays.

Joe-I agree that most of what I said about the land aquisition of the land would be superflous to a picture blog... and I don't expect anyone except for a few Sagamore junkies like myself to even know it. What I am trying to say is that there is a world beneath the glitz and glamour. They didn't call it the "Gilded" age for nothing. I wanted to strip away the gilt for a moment and show what lay beneath. Even if you don't always articulate what lies beneath, you have an obligation to keep it in mind.

Jesse said...

Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but Joe, I think that how land was acquired and how it was owned is incredibly relevant to the history of the structures. The architecture of the camps reflect a Romantic value on the importance of unity between humans and nature--that the divine could be found in natural landscapes. The architecture of the Adirondack Camp is notable in particular because it is the first large scale American architectual form to open embrace unity with nature...harmonization over domination. But once again, the Camp is a complex place and the front 'Gilding' is not the whole story.

When we begin to look at land-use patterns and other aspects of the buildings (especially the service complexes), we see another story: the continued importance over dominance. Nature was shaped and controlled at the camp and part of that story involves the exploitation of cheap human labor in order to construct the fantasies out front. The Camp purposefully cannot be separated from the landscape and the story of the Camp is not complete without the story of the land around it.

So, if we only look at the buildings, we see Romantic love of nature and if we only look at the service complex, we see heartless exploitation of both nature and of the working classes in order to construct fantasies. But the most valuable story of Sagamore is the fusing of both of these stories: the ambivalence of our views of nature. This is a cultural paradox that continues until this very day, one that Sagamore is uniquely well-suited to reveal.

Natalie said...

Jesse - saying "wow, I wish I could live like that!" is the viewer projecting their desire onto the structure. the building or image itself doesn't carry that in it, the people viewing it do.

I think when indicting others for the perceptions that they bring to a structure, place, or issue, it might be worth considering that the dualistic (oppressor-oppressed) perspective you bring as a lens itself, not entirely unlike the rosecolored lens with which the Adirondack Boys view the history around them.

As long as no one has blinders on, I think we can continue to have interesting and meaningful discussions regardless.

joe said...

the AB have no duty to present the suffering in the Adirondack park as they're not giving any kind of history.(everything great about the park... shouldn't be taken as some serious proclamation) And if you really wanted to force what they're doing into some sort of history of the elite, then you're still wrong to chastize them whereas they've written about raquette lake and the difficulty of life there in the winter, they've written about the deaths of non-elites and the lives of regular people and even in calling locals crazy they've presented marginal living.

From what you've said it seems like you've read more of what Almanack has said about AB than what AB have actually written in their zillion posts... for christ's sake have you actually read how the Almanack used a short story to call the AB hypocrites and bushite acolytes:

If you write the following:


...The young, hormone-rich bodies of the two fourteen-year-old boys sent signals to Mark and Tad that urgently needed translating. Their conversations, normal verbal communication, in the fresh, Adirondack air, by the lake and in the sun, and at night, definitely at night, were subsumed by a much more powerful chemical communication exchanged between them through the air, in a language neither understood and neither could control...

You are being a hypocrite, of the Mark Foley variety, when you revel in the "magical" quality of the Bush oligarchy and are proud of your role in propagating its lies and hypocrisies. Boys, in case you've been living in your own fantasy-land since the days your hormone rich fourteen-year-old bodies shared that cigarette - Republicans are opposed to you and your lifestyle. Today's Republicans have been, and still are, leading the charge to make your lifestyle illegal. When you smoke pot and work for the DEA, you are a hypocrite - plain and simple.

Almanack is a joke.

Joe said...

Again, Jesse, AB aren't giving a story of the camp(s) that you can use a people's history discourse on.

Adk Boys said...

I think that Adirondack Almanack is a little bit nuts. That little story, the Secret Cigarette, was simply a recounting of an experience of mine when I was a teenager, sneaking a cigarette with a close friend for whom I had a deep affection for, which I realized only in retrospect was a sexual attraction. It happened in the adirondacks and is part of my adirondack experience, growing up there and experiencing something significant to a teenager discovering sexuality. I also think it is a little jarring to be told that the Almanack is on record approving of alternative lifestyles. We are on record as approving of indian lifestyles, black lifestyles, jewish lifestyles, etc etc. When you say it that way, what does it reveal? Ignorance? Bigotry? I love my black maid - I told her so! See what I mean? Our blog is about what we see in the world, and in the Adirondacks and a lot of it is beautiful. By the way, a blog is a place to express your individual opinions and not a forum for objective, well reasoned history, unless you want to make it so. And, really, the Adirondack Almanack blog is just boring.

TourPro said...

After the Almanack's scathing criticism, it seems the Boys pulled their original post. IMHO, that is simply wrong. In fact, the only remains of it can now only be found on other sites. (Bring it back Boys!) When I first read the original post, I really felt like commenting. Truthfully, I found nothing but honesty and none of the elitist/capitalist/industrialist/republican(?) ranting as would have been expected from the Almanack's breathless attack. It was such a personal admission made by the Boys, I felt I would be intruding with comments.

Now the Almanack's post was another matter. I was dying to respond, but alas, no comments allowed. How Web 1.0 of the Almanack. I can't tell you the many conversations I've recently had about this topic, I for one am richer for the experience (not in the "I own the means of production" sense) s/.

Natalie said...

before this post gets burried in the flurry of other AB posts I figured I'd add it to this discussion, if for no other reason than posterity.

Jesse said...

I would like to put in a few quick points here, to avoid beating around a topic that has perhaps droned on far longer than is necessary with more misunderstanding on all sides that was intended. Firstly, I was also struck by the use of 'alternative lifestyles' by the Almanack and the high-handed patronizing tone the Almanack uses. I've never liked blogs that don't allow comments and I think that this debate would have been even better carried out on the Almanack, not on Yorkstaters. I found the 'alternative' comment to be offensive and regret now not bringing it up. I was looking to be concise and perhaps in the process allowed myself to be companion to that comment.

I also disagree with commentors that have stated the the Boys site is useless, etc. Obviously, there are talented writers behind that organization... people who love the Adirondack land deeply. Which can also be said for the Almanack and, hopefully, this site. Likewise, I have no problem with whimsy and production of a website for simple entertainment purposes--we do enough of that here.

Joe- I have read dozens of posts on AB, and perhaps I missed some that you saw, but I'm afraid that can happen on a site that posts a dozen times a day. I will take you on your word, as I have before, that there is a deeper side that I did not see.

The problems that I believe that both myself and the Almanack saw, and which I still believe (above annotations aside), however remain. A love for the Adirondack landscape is fine, but I believe from what I have read of AB that there is a distain for the local residents which the Boys have reflected back upon those locals by decrying them as prejudiced. What I saw in the Boys, and have seen so many times (but not universally) among either visitors, emigres or summer residents to the park, was a cultural arrogance and a refusal to examine the value of the people living around them--a trait which was also true of the Gilded Age merchant princes who built the Great Camps that the Boys love so. I chose to come at it through the discussion of history, since ADK history is a strong point in my book of tricks, but I saw it in so many aspects of the site. Tourpro-you were looking for rabid Republicanism and didn't find it because the irritating points of the AB were subtler than that. Open conservativism is, in many ways, easier to take issue with than the Boys' form of urbanocentric ambivalence towards rural lives.

Zoo Keeper said...

I've visited old forge a few times, and let me tell you... it's nice, it's peaceful and quiet, in fact it's beautiful. That is until I realize I am actually surrounded by rednecks(and I mean the trashy kind). I went to a restaurant that was near old forge, it looked fine on the outside, but soon as I stepped in I felt like I was in some bizarre twilight zone. Some lady with a poofy bleached mullet and long fake-ass nails came up to serve our food. I don't really care what people look like, but if you look like fug and you give me mad attitude... It just enforces the negative stereotypes of rednecks to others. These summer tourists pay your bills buddy. Don't hate on people who aren't like you, example, the tourists, because frankly we hate most of you self-piting low-edumacated folks too. Not all of the summer visitors are rich, we earn our money with hard work, so stop trying to remove yourself from the rest of us. Don't act as if you work harder than us, have it tougher than us, or are more down to earth than us. Yes, some visitors are rich enough to buy lake houses, but not every one. They obviously live a segregated life from you because they can. Do you really think you're the only one? Puh-lease~. This happens every where... Also if they do live such a different life style, obviously they can do have a different view/facts. Why argue over it. This whole fight over the net seems silly anyways. It's almost as if the locals just wants the out-of-towners to be appreciate their existence, and their underlying function that lets the rich people live an easy (summer) life there -- which is great. You should be acknowledged, but at the same time, I read what was said, and it was really more of a verbal attack upon a carefree blogger. What the hell do you expect when you criticize anyone and try to burst their happy bubble? Seriously. You can write as intelligently and grammatically correct as much as you like, but if you can't approach a subject with more sensitivity, you are only going to create animosity.