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December 10, 2016
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‘Looking forward, looking back’

By Stanley Harper

Councilwoman Eileen Falk, commenting on the proposed “Riverwalk” project during a public hearing: “Not trying to make Narrowsburg into something different, just trying to make it what it was.”

Something we often hear: “I don’t want Narrowsburg to change from the way it was.”

Was when? In the 1800s, when pioneers built the settlements that became our towns? The ‘30s, when merchants built our Main Streets? The ‘50s, when many families prospered as tourism flourished? Some of them are still present. Some survive only as the names that mark our country roads, gravestones, or on businesses and buildings no longer their own.

In the ‘70s recession, tourism floundered. Peck’s Plaza opened. The era of roadside malls and big-box stores began. Nationwide, the “big boxes” grew ever bigger, and brought impossible competition. Main Streets were emptied. Here, a few clung to the Main Street tradition. Our Main Street had a “group home” and many empty storefronts, some used for storage or apartments.

Today, agencies offer millions of dollars to help us develop riverfronts, but back then, some looked at our riverfront and envisioned a toxic waste dump for profit. The pall of intolerance lingered long, the presence of the Brown Shirts and the Klan still too recent a memory. Growth seemed impossible. The past is, in many ways, present.

But there were other visions: the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance, a newspaper and a chamber of commerce were established. A gallery here, a gift shop there. Some survived, some failed, all struggled. An overlook deck was built on Main Street for tourists and residents alike, over militant objections. Residents warned, “Outsiders will come! A waste of money! Not for the locals!” In their time of hardship, no one was looking forward. They had forgotten to look back.

Today, Main Streets are vital to small towns. Our location near New York City, spectacular frontage on the river and quality businesses on Main Street give us a triple advantage to revive our traditional tourism-based economy. Governments invest in revitalization because unique businesses differ from the big box stores’ cheap foreign goods. Sparsely populated areas like ours prosper by “importing” an economy drawn to higher quality.

A living Main Street increases your tax base. Home sales increase as new residents enjoy its vitality; 50% of the sales tax collected stays in the county. Institutions benefit from the generosity of those who’ve prospered far away but now feel grounded here. The young return as entrepreneurial opportunity expands. Rural traditions like farming are revitalized. Narrowsburg’s Main Street is alive with children’s laughter again as in years past.

However, for some, all development plans must exclude Main Street in order to find approval. Conversely, any plan that helps Main Street (even as it benefits the town) is opposed. Main Street’s residents, merchants, its customers, and its revitalization represent a wedge issue in 2012. Investment and hard work, which had always bound communities together, now divide us.

Some of us look forward to a new Main Street in the same spirit as that of the founding families, but many here no longer honor that spirit. As we look forward, we also look back to the struggles of earlier times, and hope that future generations will find meaning in our struggles after we are gone.

[Stanley Harper became a second homeowner in 1983, and has lived on Main Street of Narrowsburg, NY since 2000. At that time he bought a commercial building, renovated it, lives in it, and has started two businesses in it, the present one being Narrowsburg Fine Wines and Spirits.]