There is little rush to be anywhere. The driver was having none of it, and passed us, clocking 50 in a 30 mph zone. Out here, there is a term for such people: citidiots.
You will know them by their driving. And their urgent need to acquire Catskills real estate during the pandemic, sometimes without visiting in person, often offering all cash and invariably above asking price.
When the coronavirus walloped New York City, some urban residents, cooped up together, denied all the wonders that make a city a city, sought space, fresh air, and fewer people and covid-19 cases. They desired yards. They dreamed of chickens.
They headed for the hills of Ulster County, about 100 miles north, a pandemic take on “Green Acres.” Some may have been drawn by the mystique of a place that promotes itself as “the most famous small town in America,” though the famed 1969 music festival took place in Bethel, about 66 miles southwest.
“I’ve never seen so many young families trying to restart all at the same time,” says Carol Spirig, a veteran of more than than three decades in local real estate. “Some of them are certain they’re not going back.” Twenty-five bids on a single property became routine. In this town of about 6,000, the sidewalks are thronged with young couples in pristine sneakers pushing four-figure strollers and lining up at local real estate offices, ogling listings.
During the year’s second quarter and New York’s deadliest months, the Ulster County seat of Kingston, with a population of about 23,000, experienced the nation’s largest increase in housing prices, according to the National Association of Realtors, 18 percent, an average sale price of $276,000.
“Last year, I couldn’t give my house away,” says contractor Sean McLean. This year, the house launched a bidding war — almost every sale does — selling for 20 percent above listing price, which has become standard in the county.
“Now, I’m rich and unhoused,” says McLean, who’s slammed with work, like everyone in the building trades. “Remember when you couldn’t find toilet paper? Well, that’s what real estate is like up here.” In nearby Saugerties, a yurt rents for almost $200 a night.
Clip Payne, a member of Parliament-Funkadelic, who normally tours much of the year, had his Woodstock rent almost double with a new landlord who overhauled the property.
“I know money has to make money. But this is a place where I didn’t have to worry about money,” says Payne, a resident of 25 years. “It was a place you could be secluded. It didn’t have that city feel,” he says. “Now, it feels like a couple of blocks of Brooklyn.” Three of the five women in his coffee klatch sold their homes.
“They were offered too much money not to sell,” Payne says.
During the pandemic, there have been frenzied reports of people — let's be honest, wealthy people — fleeing New York City and how it will never be the same. Actually, the city will be fine.
But what happens on the other side of the equation when, in a matter of months, country towns became inundated with urban denizens moving in? What does it look like when city people, with urban expectations (and driving habits), put down stakes in a largely rural place that has long been affordable to many?
Ulster County officials project a 10 percent increase in full-time residents this year of 17,000 more people.
Timothy Sweeney, president of the Hudson Valley Catskill Region Multiple Listing Service, believes the population will swell by 25 to 30 percent. "It's a frothy, manic market," he says.
“There is a tremendous opportunity, excitement and potential,” says Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, “but also great challenges if we’re not thoughtful, and the inequality and inequity continue to grow.”
On a recent Wednesday evening, a Black Lives Matter protest took place at Kingston’s Academy Green while, a few blocks uptown, patrons dined on $28 lobster rolls at the year-old Hotel Kinsley, where smaller rooms rent for $289 a night.
Residents worry about the remaking of funky Kingston, New York’s first capital, where one planned development will include another luxury hotel and 129 “market-rate residential units,” market rate an escalating concept when you’re dealing with the nation’s fastest-rising housing prices and the median household income is less than $50,000.
Barnfox, a glamping take on WeWork that looks nothing like a barn, promotes itself as “a world class collective of creatives, innovators, and industry leaders.” Annual resident membership is $2,500. Kombucha is on tap. In February, the first location opened in Hudson, 33 miles to the north in Columbia County. Hudson is anathema to many in Kingston, filled with pricey shops that resemble stage sets, a city vision of Upstate.
Barnfox has met with taunting detractors even before its Kingston location has opened. The Instagram account was bombarded with a hailstorm of 1,000 comments that tended toward “Let @barnfoxclub eat cake and read daily how unwelcome they are.”
Ryan has declared a rental housing emergency as properties have been sold, converted into long-term Airbnbs and rental rates have surged, limiting choices for working-class residents, many of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Asks Woodstock real estate broker Candida Ellis, “Where are all of the property managers and landscapers and housekeepers and restaurant workers going to live to support the idea that we have these really cute walkable cities?”
Woodstock Town Supervisor Bill McKenna closed two beloved swimming holes because of overcrowding and trash. Used to mailing 60 percent of the town’s property tax bills out of town, he’s thrilled that more families have relocated full-time as the town’s population was listing toward old-enough-to-have-
attended-Woodstock in 1969. He’s hopeful new residents will become stakeholders in the community’s artistic and environmental legacy.
People flocked here after 9/11, too, only to move back later. But that was before Zoom and employees being encouraged to work remotely.
In April, furniture designer Bill Hilgendorf and art director Maria-Cristina Rueda moved from Brooklyn to Saugerties. They lived in an 800-square-foot apartment, with their two children, ages 9 and 6, which was fine when they could leave for work and school but untenable when they were there together all the time.
“The playgrounds are closed, all the parks are overrun. Living in the city wasn’t going to be the same thing. It didn’t seem fair to the kids,” says Hilgendorf, who enrolled their children in Woodstock Day School. “Escaping the pace of the city is exciting after almost 20 years.”
The influx of recovering urban denizens has fueled demands for luxurious comfort.
Want a pool? Try spring 2022. Howard Rifkin’s firm installs an in-ground pool every week from April to November. Pool, patio and fencing — everyone wants the works — runs around $65,000. By April, Rifkin had booked all of next year. (Some people want a pond installed, too.)
“Insane,” he says, a common refrain these days in the crowded Catskills. “In 44 years, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Private schools have waiting lists for every grade. Almost half the 170 students at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, where first grade is $16,470, are new from the city.
“You can tell the city kids,” says High Meadow teacher Jamie Burdick. “They’re the ones pointing to the frogs, the turkey and deer asking, ‘What is that?’ ”
“People are astonished to see that we have bears,” says local author Emily Kimelman. “Yeah, you live in Bearsville.”
Don and Susan LaSala own the historical rose-colored house in Saugerties where the Band resided and wrote “Music From Big Pink” (1968) and, along with Bob Dylan — who crashed his Triumph motorcycle in Woodstock two years earlier — created “The Basement Tapes.” (The house is available for rent at $550 a night.)
“It’s this infiltration of people who don’t understand about country life,” Susan says, standing in Big Pink’s living room. “They don’t respect it. They want to have big lawns.”
Don says, “It’s like what Joni Mitchell sang, ‘we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,’ ” in her song “Woodstock.” “They’re trying to turn this place into something else. They’re going to pave paradise.”
The political landscape had already begun to shift. In 2016, the 19th Congressional District voted for Donald Trump, after going for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Two years ago, six Democrats challenged incumbent Republican congressman John Faso. Antonio Delgado, who moved to the district in 2017 after working in the city, beat out Ryan, a fifth-generation Ulster resident.
Amanda and Anthony Stromoski moved to Kingston four years ago (yes, from Brooklyn), and opened Rough Draft Bar & Books a year later in a 246-year-old former schoolhouse. “A very large percentage of people we haven’t seen before,” Amanda says, sitting by the store’s bar.
“It’s complicated. We ourselves are part of the gentrification,” Anthony says. “We’re concerned that a lot of empty storefronts will be occupied by businesses that will be inaccessible to the people who live here.”
Places are not static. They change constantly, albeit some more slowly than others. Kingston was long home to a massive IBM campus, which shuttered in the early 1990s, causing the area to shed 8,000 jobs. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Catskills were known as the Borscht Belt. (“Dirty Dancing” and part of “Mrs. Maisel” are set here.) Today’s older Woodstockers were once newcomers themselves.
Yoga instructor and filmmaker Kate Hagerman lives nearby in Bearsville. Her 5-year-old daughter, Nell, swims in a stream on their property while the constant din of construction reverberates through the mountain.
“Woodstock is packed,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to go back to being a small town.”
Hagerman mentions a family who has decided to leave Woodstock, not because of density but to take advantage of the frothy, manic market in Ulster County.
“They’re selling high and buying low,” Hagerman says. “They told me if the times were not so ‘nutso,’ they would have never sold.”
And, buying low, they’re moving back into the city.