Appreciating nearby small towns
At the end of a busy week, I love the sight of a blank calendar for the coming weekend. A homebody at heart, I enjoy hanging around the house, taking care of the odd chore or catching up on a good book.
I have found, though, that taking a day trip can be equally restorative. Although it takes a bit of planning, I usually have a few ideas in my head already, so it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger when a nice-weather day is on the horizon.
That was the case earlier in November when I saw that the coming Saturday would reach a high of 57 degrees with no rain. My husband’s calendar was free as well, and we agreed on a destination that required no more than 90 minutes of driving: Beacon, New York, it was.
The town is situated along the east bank of the Hudson River at the foot of Mount Beacon. It got its name during the American Revolution when Colonial troops burned signal fires atop the mountain to alert local militias of British ships heading north along the river.
In the 1800s, Beacon enjoyed a long stretch as a factory town, but by the 1970s its industry had dried up. The town’s steep decline resulted in boarded-up buildings covered in graffiti.
But Beacon has had a rebirth, and I was anxious to see it.
We set out at about 10:30 a.m., and 70 miles later we were looking for parking near a surprisingly large and busy downtown. Main Street is quite the hub of Beacon, with all sorts of interesting shops and restaurants. It even boasts a cat café; I was eager to visit, but the wait was several hours long. Despite cloudy skies, the sidewalks were jammed with people like us strolling along and enjoying the day. Beacon, a mere 100-minute train ride from Grand Central Station, attracts many a city dweller eager for some fresh air.
After popping in and out of shops and grabbing lunch, we took a short ride to visit Dia Beacon, a contemporary art museum housed in a former Nabisco box-printing factory. The museum opened in Beacon in 2003, and according to Wikipedia that’s when the town started perking up.
Toward the end of the day, when Rob and I stopped to look at the Fishkill Creek waterfall by the East Main Street bridge, we spied a bronze plaque honoring Ron and Ronnie Sauers for their work revitalizing Main Street. I was intrigued.
When I got home, an online search told me that the Sauers had been private developers and longtime residents of Long Island and New York City. Looking for an upstate community in need of revitalization, they chose Beacon and, starting in the early 1990s, turned three burned-out structures in the city’s East End into high-end apartment buildings with desirable storefronts. The couple became known for combining historically accurate facades with elegant modern interiors. They continued to acquire and restore vacant and abandoned buildings while encouraging others to invest in Beacon. Later, when Beacon was chosen as Dia’s upstate site, other developers saw the town’s possibilities and rushed in to buy and restore old buildings.
Seeing what Beacon looks like now reinforces the idea that great downtowns don’t happen by accident. They need ardent supporters with vision and a commitment to the planning and hard work it takes to realize an area that is relevant to residents and visitors alike. Just ask anyone on the boards of the Maplewood Village Alliance, South Orange Downtown, Springfield Avenue Partnership and the other special improvement districts in our towns. They can tell you about the work that goes into transforming streetscapes into magical places, especially at holiday time with Maplewood’s Dickens Village and horse-and-buggy rides and South Orange’s street fairs and markets.
On the way home from Beacon, Rob and I drove through Cold Spring, an adorable town full of antiques shops. Perhaps that will be our destination the next time a warmish day is in the forecast. I’m sure Cold Spring will look lovely during the holidays. The chores at home can wait.