Community Culture

Academically Influenced…

Sep 07, 2017 CWN

They Came, They Saw, They Stayed

Students Help Shape The Valley

By Anne Pyburn Craig

    The Hudson Valley’s 18 independent institutions of higher learning and eight state university outposts have huge economic impact. In 2013, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities counted almost 26,000 jobs, with a combined payroll of $1.4 billion. Student and visitor spending pumps an additional $470.3 million into local cash registers. And SUNY, with over 55,000 students, employs over 7,000 people and pays them over $250 million a year.

    But there’s a subtler impact, one that’s harder to measure but no less important to quality of life. Students come from all over the world to our 26 campuses, and just like those who try out the region as weekenders, many fall in love with the area and decide to stay. It’s a phenomenon that has shaped the Hudson Valley’s culture for decades, probably longer, and it’s hard to overstate; beer brewers compete for the Matthew Vassar Cup, after all, and pizza is a highly competitive market.

    “It’s hard to picture what a community would look like without a school that’s been there forever,” says Jane Brien, director of alumni/ae affairs at Bard College and herself a member of the Annandale school’s class of 1989. Brien, originally from London, found herself living in a farmhouse in Tivoli, fell in love with a local, and chose to hang around. “I’ve been here 30 years and I know alumni who have been here for 50, and what they do runs the gamut,” she says. “Bard draws a lot of students from major cities—LA, Chicago, New York, Delhi—and I think when they first arrive, they’re kinda ‘Where am I?’ But Bardians tend to adapt quickly to the more rural lifestyle, get comfy, and want to stay.”

    And those educated new residents often become influencers. The Bard Prison Initiative was begun by a student, now an alumni, and has proven so successful and durable that Governor Cuomo is now advocating the resurrection of college programs for inmates on a much wider scale. Another Bard alumni, Guy Thomas Kempe, has been “stuck here since I returned for my MFA in ‘87” and uses his working hours helping to house people as vice president for community development at RUPCO, one of the region’s major affordable housing institutions. And Brien knows a great many more: restaurateurs, yoga teachers, retailers, schoolteachers. “It’s artistic and intellectually stimulating here, and cheaper than Brooklyn,” she observes.

    The impact of the Culinary Institute of America on the local dining scene simply cannot be overstated, either. This reporter literally can’t count how many times the phrase “CIA-trained chef” has come into play in describing a fine local eatery. Case in point, albeit a unique one: Diane Reeder of Kingston, who for a number of years was the driving and sustaining force behind Queens Galley, where anyone who was hungry could come and enjoy a healthy and delicious meal served restaurant-style free of charge. “I came up from Long Island for school and never looked back,” Reeder says. “I tell people that I was excommunicated from the Island for my inability to accessorize.” Queens Galley ultimately fell by the wayside due to infrastructure-related financial burdens, but Reeder is very much still around, promoting pure sweetness as proprietess of Kingston Candy Bar—and she knows exactly why. “The people. The grass and trees. I do miss the beach in winter, odd little things like Mister Softee cones, some foods like pizza and bagels and good Jewish deli sandwiches. But the quality of life is so much better here. And the competitive stress is different. There I felt we always had to be better than someone else. Here it’s more of rising to a best personal standard.”

    Another culinary star, Bruce Kazan of Main Course Catering in New Paltz, is also imported from downstate beginnings. “I came to the Hudson Valley to attend SUNY New Paltz after growing up in Flushing, Queens,” he says. “My older brother, who was living in the Hudson Valley at the time, encouraged me to escape city life. It was the best advice because after SUNY, I attended the Culinary Institute of America.” Kazan went back to the big city for a while to hone his skills, but when it came time to establish his own business, New Paltz called him back.

    Culinary Institute Alumni Relations Officer Steve Swofford, himself a 1997 grad who arrived from Texas, reels off a list: “Meghan Fells ‘99 with Artist Palette and Brasserie 292; Tom Kacherski ‘01 of Crew; Brandon Walker ‘01 of Essie’s; Claire Winslow ‘85  of The Would; Ed Kowalski ‘98 and Catherine Williams ‘01, Lola’s Cafe and Catering. They come, study, and come to appreciate the incredible bounty of the region’s food production; also, they’ve got a great labor pool in our current student body.”     

    SUNY New Paltz is responsible for a long list of now-permanent residents. According to their alumni affairs folks, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of grads end up living in the area. During the turbulent and fascinating ‘60s and ‘70s, bonds forged at New Paltz were powerful. “Connections were made between people that led to other connections; there was a web of relationships among the artists involved that remains tensile to this day, stretching without breaking, sustaining friendships, offering support, and inspiring new work. Of the Golden Age of New Paltz, we may truly say that the community that drew together, grew together,” wrote performance poet and author Mikhail Horowitz on HV1 this past summer. Horowitz, originally from Brooklyn, came to SUNY and ultimately dropped out to work on an underground paper called the Gargoyle. It was that kind of an era.

    Other downstaters who were drawn by SUNY New Paltz and built names for themselves in the arts include dance teacher Susan Slotnick, who taught thousands of local children in school residencies, led the Figures In Flight dance troupe, and organized the first known dance program for men inside prison walls; and minstrel Kurt Henry, who’s entertained countless thousands since leaving Long Island, first as leader of the Womblers and currently as leader of the Kurt Henry Band. “I guess it was easy to make guitar friends at SUNY New Paltz,” Henry recalls. Susan Krawitz, BlueStone Press columnist and author of middle-grade adventure novel Viva, Rose!, journeyed up from Florida to study at New Paltz; several decades later, she’s partnered up with a local farmer from a family that’s been in the Rondout Valley for generations.

    Romance plays a role, for sure. Rosendale Superintendent of Highways Robert Gallagher is a happy man as a result of the collegiate migration impact. “My wife Laurie came to NP in ‘79 and found me, and the rest is history,” he says.

    The anecdotes and variations on the theme are virtually endless. Professor and psychotherapist Peri Rainbow came to study at SUNY New Paltz in ‘79 too and ended up teaching there for 23 years and marrying a Dutchess County gal; her roots are in Long Island and Brooklyn, but she’s happy in Stone Ridge. Future bodywork practitioner Richard Condon of Gardiner found midwife-to-be Susanrachel Balber-Condon that way too, says his wife. “My husband was from the Upper West Side. Came to New Paltz. Still here. Two guys on his swim team did the same.”

    Food, arts, politics, health care—it’s hard to think of any aspect of local culture that doesn’t benefit from the educated input of our transplants. Each came here as just one person, and was changed. And many have gone on to change the world.