Correction to This Article
This article misstated the year in which Pete Seeger had the sloop Woody Guthrie built to call attention to pollution of the Hudson River. The ship, which is moored in Beacon and offers free cruises, was built in 1978, not 1969. A sloop with a similar mission, the Clearwater, was built in 1969.

Impulsive Traveler: Beacon, N.Y., more than art museum

Mount Beacon in the distance from Beacon, N.Y.
Mount Beacon in the distance from Beacon, N.Y. (Kristen Hinman)
Laris Karklis - Washington Post
By Kristen Hinman
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 2:06 PM

By the end of my second day in Beacon, N.Y., I'd scaled its eponymous peak and sailed its lively waters. I'd feasted on its arts, both visual and culinary. I knew that I liked the place immensely and still had plenty to discover. But I wasn't sure that I understood why the vibe was so feel-good. That's when I heard about the crack dens.

I'd been standing on a corner of Main Street, straining to freeze its image in the camera I was hoisting above the passing traffic, when I felt a tap on the shoulder. "That's a pretty good shot," offered a man with a long white ponytail. "But the best one you'll get is from up there." John Gilvey pointed to the old firehouse that's now home to a glass-blowing studio of which he is an owner. "Come with me," he said.

We climbed to the building's third floor for the money shot: a sweeping view of the streetscape beneath the mountaintop where, in the early 20th century, the world's steepest railway hauled tourists to a restaurant and dance hall with Hudson River Valley vistas. A fire destroyed the so-called Casino in the 1920s, and the railway made its last climb in 1975, after which the town of Beacon began to decline. In the 1970s and '80s, gangs migrated to the area, Gilvey said.

"Only 15 years ago, this street was all flophouses, brothels and crack dens," he said. He pointed to a nearby storefront. "That was an old market where you could buy crack over the counter. And that building over there had a pulley system. They sent the crack down in a basket." Nobody in their right mind came to town, day or night.

But in May 2003, Beacon got back on the map when the Dia Art Foundation opened a modern art museum in a former Nabisco box printing factory . Dia:Beacon has since brought throngs of visitors to the site. At the same time, a new creative class has put down roots in the town of 14,000, buying fixer-uppers and organizing creative collectives and potluck suppers. A developer has plans for a boutique hotel; a theater company plans to revive a long-shuttered playhouse.

Though you'd expect the mile-long main drag to feel abuzz with tourists, a good number of visits seem to begin and end at Dia:Beacon, according to some shopkeepers. Day-trippers take the 60-mile train ride from New York, walk to the museum and return the same way they came, unaware that there is Dia, and then, a bit farther up the hill, there is Beacon.

Staring out Gilvey's window, I could suddenly understand why Beacon residents seemed so eager to share the town's renaissance.

My husband and I had driven up from Washington to visit friends. Since I was once an oblivious New Yorker who visited Dia and only Dia shortly after it opened, I was excited about getting to know Beacon better this time around.

We began by taking the well-marked trail up Mount Beacon. It's a heart-pounder of a hike, ascending about 1,000 feet in less than a mile, but it crests at the ruins of the old Casino, an exquisite spot for a picnic.

Down below, there were numerous ways to enjoy the river. Mountain Tops Outfitters rents single and tandem kayaks for pleasure paddling. Several tour companies offer boat trips to nearby Bannerman Castle, a Scottish-style island fortress built by a weapons merchant in 1901. Proceeds from your 90-minute "hard-hat tour" help fund efforts to preserve the castle, which is literally crumbling.

Instead, we chose a sunset sail on the Woody Guthrie, a 15-passenger wooden sloop. Folk singer and longtime area resident Pete Seeger had the boat built in 1969 to call attention to the raw sewage then being pumped into the Hudson. Seeger thought that if he took people sailing, they'd rally for environmental safeguards. He was right. Now the boat sails much cleaner waters every weeknight. In true Seeger spirit, the ride is free.

Back in town, we found a growing culinary community feeding off the many acres of nearby farmland that have been revitalized by small producers. Such bounty in the hands of so many graduates of the nearby Culinary Institute of America made us want to spend an entire day on Main Street grazing.

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