Since environmental preservation has in part contributed to the gentrification of wilderness, it may seem logical to conclude that deregulation is the solution to the Adirondack housing crisis. It is not.
While the peculiar form such administration has taken in this part of the world leaves much to be desired, the accomplishment of the Adirondack green movement is still nothing short of remarkable: it has compelled the State to discipline capital’s monstrous appetite for profitable nature, and it has held the line even amidst the neoliberal feeding frenzy that has consumed much of the world in the last half-century.
This ground, whether relinquished through abandonment or won through struggle, should not be ceded, particularly given that doing so would by no means guarantee the amelioration of wilderness gentrification in the first place, and indeed might even exacerbate it in the current climate. It makes little sense to burn down the house to prevent it from being burgled. It makes more sense for the environmental movement to radicalize, for it is not so much its successes which have helped to produce the collateral damage of wilderness gentrification as its piecemeal approach which accommodates a sea of environmental destruction as long as certain islands are spared.
This capitulation to the vagaries of uneven development has made rural gentrification not a problem of environmental protection but of environmental justice. Environmental justice demands equity for all people in the human relationship to the environment, whatever we decide to do with it – to preserve or pollute, to enclose or collectivize, to disinvest or develop. It is most famously associated with the struggles of BIPOC communities against the environmental racism which makes them many times more likely than whites to live in toxic environments, but it is also about the flip side of this coin: the right of all people to benefit from the natural wealth of open space, clean air and beautiful views.
The customary critique of the Adirondack Park as a “playground for the rich” has long hinted at the class dimension of Adirondack inequity, while a more recent initiative has finally begun to recognize its racial one. To these rightful and necessary interventions we must add gender, for as long as the labor of social reproduction continues to rest upon the shoulders of women, their status will decide the fate of the Park’s permanent population.
No Country for Young Women
The interests of working class women are championed by no relevant contender in Adirondack politics. Despite a few sops thrown to the feminist lobby, the State of New York, like the broader nation of which it is a part, is congenitally committed to privatizing, neglecting or otherwise externalizing the cost of social reproduction, and at present is mired in its own brand of toxic masculinity which hardly disposes it toward addressing the problems of rural women it neither understands nor values.
Much local government, despite its half-hearted hostility toward the State which keeps it solvent with tax dollars levied on the Forest Preserve, is of a piece. Resistance to the most basic benchmarks of progress is particularly entrenched in Hamilton County, whose Board of Supervisors has included only two women in 200 years, which welcomes misogyny to its petty halls of power as a matter of course, whose male-only hunting clubs outnumber its licensed daycares, and which even refuses to install a changing table in the restroom of its county building as a matter of principle. The regional intelligentsia is almost as culpable, far more likely to celebrate pioneer performativity among the ranks of the region’s middle class exurbanites than worry about the problems of struggling working class Adirondack women.
Such attitudes of antipathy or disinterest toward wilderness women are indeed shared by the political blocs that battle for regional domination. Both the bourgeois environmental movement that has hegemonized Adirondack politics for over a century and the oppositional conservative alliance are fundamentally masculinist projects which disagree primarily over whether the Adirondacks should be an industrial space where manly men wrestle to bend nature to their will, or a leisured space where they test their mettle against a more benign simulacrum of that hazard as play.
Both engage in fantastical thinking, one that large-scale forest industry is ever coming back to the Adirondacks, the other that displacing industry from one forest to another is somehow a net gain for the environment. Both see redemption in the paternalistic state, whether as owner-landlord through the accumulation and regulation of land or as owner-employer through the proliferation and maintenance of prisons, military bases and local government. One is emblematic of a broader American environmentalism that has been decimated by cooptation, marketization, and corporate greenwashing, the other of a broader American conservatism that has descended into nativism, nihilism and conspiratorial psychosis. In the isolated, self-regarding, myopic and masculinized Adirondack political landscape, these two “sides” regard each other as antagonistic, but in many ways they are cut from the same cloth. Capitalism, patriarchy and the state go hand-in-hand, and have since roughly the fifteenth century.
If Adirondack women are not overtly conscious of this indifference to their interests, they are nonetheless opposing it with their feet, and their wombs, as they leave the Adirondacks altogether, or stay but forego raising a family. The class character of gender means that the wages of social reproductive labor are to a great extent a product of struggle at any given moment in history.
Our historic demographic decline suggests Adirondack women are increasingly refusing to labor under the conditions Adirondack men, long in control of the region, have imposed upon them. This silent rural protest might indeed be understood as part and parcel of the quiet but momentous movement by American women to leverage the last prerogative within their power – the withdrawal of their free labor – in the face of a national political landscape hellbent on chipping away at what gains they have made through long decades of struggle.
If such exile is painful, then the only alternative is equally daunting: working class Adirondack women must organize, and demand affordable rural housing as a fundamental right. Yet in the face of the moribund regional politics that has brought the Adirondacks to this sorry juncture, that is exactly what they must do if they wish to make a stand for their mountain homes.
Killing The Canary
Those who would resist gentrification have their work cut out for them. Extant efforts to ameliorate the Adirondack housing crisis through redistributive programs are, like their urban counterparts, unlikely to overcome the gentrification juggernaut.
Like most efforts to resocialize the continual concentration of wealth inherent to the functioning of capitalism, they are akin to a bathtub with the plug pulled and the tap dribbling. They do not strike at the heart of the key contradiction underlying the Adirondack crisis: the convergence of the housing and labor markets which makes the seasonal shelter that is displacing workers from the region a cornerstone of the hospitality economy that employs them in the absence of just about any other viable form of rural livelihood. Adirondackers who build, maintain and otherwise perpetuate the production of such housing are robbing Peter to pay Paul, their paychecks ultimately paving the road out of the Park.
It takes a sustained level of struggle to continually wrest a sliver of the social surplus away from more corporate Adirondack landlords for reinvestment in protected local housing. And even when it is driven by amateur owner-occupants rather than professional mega-developers, rural gentrification is still generally lucrative for lenders, builders, speculators, realtors, lawyers, insurers and all the other agents of the real estate industry at large, and it often has the pleasing side effect of historic preservation, as well as incidental employment generation, so it inevitably finds its champions. Adirondack gentrification is less a moral problem of bad people doing bad things than a structural problem in which the logic of rural capitalism sets people against each other whether they are good, bad or indifferent.
Gentrification has ideology on its side. Like many of the inequalities essential to the normative functioning of capitalism, the havoc gentrification wreaks is easily naturalized by defenders of the status quo. The draining of many assets from rural America – youth, capital, skills, jobs, ideas, energy – seems inevitable in a capitalist culture that associates the city with progress, technology, and modernity and the countryside with nostalgia, tradition and the past.
“She’ll go far,” we say of our most promising youth, as if moving away from the place of their birth is the highest aspiration we can hope for our children. Mobility, too, has become a common and expected feature of working life, part and parcel of a broader process of accumulation by dispossession which requires workers to follow the jobs if they wish to survive. If the rural working class are displaced from their homes, well, so what? Aren’t we all?
Gentrification, whether urban or rural, is a damnably difficult foe to fight, for while its most pernicious effects are highly local, its causes are far more expansive in geographical space. Rural gentrification in particular presents unique challenges for resistance. Unlike its more conspicuous urban counterpart, it is a corrosive rot quietly devouring one household at a time. It seldom manifests as an entire block of flats evicted suddenly, brutally and visibly.
More often, it is the lonely resignation of a single family, a young woman, or a tiny village in the face of the inevitable. There is no obvious place to picket, no single decision to oppose or support, no lightning rod upon which to focus protest. The traditional tools of political struggle are insufficient in the face of such chronic, disarticulated, systemic change.
The Adirondacks are one in a range of American communities that have suffered from the general hostility of capitalism to rurality, whether through abandonment or assault. If it seems like rural people are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, decimated by disinvestment on the one hand and displaced by reinvestment on the other, it’s because they are.
This contradiction is a logical outcome of an economic system that has long presented us with a false choice between valuing workers and valuing environment, but ultimately values neither above profit and will spend both at its leisure in the pursuit of same. Capitulation to this fallacy would be unfortunate at the local scale, but it is potentially catastrophic at the global.
The abandonment of the Adirondacks to gentrification would fundamentally signify the failure of the Adirondack experiment, which holds enormous meaning as archetype. The Adirondacks are the canary in the coal mine. If we have not learned to live lightly on the landscape after more than a century of trying, then who can?
The gentrification of wilderness may seem like a small price to pay for saving the earth. But if the only way to save the earth is by vacating it, then there will be no salvation. People may leave the Adirondacks, but we are not leaving the planet. Unless we change course, then one way or the other, the devil will have his due.
This is the final part of The Devil’s Due: Adirondack Gentrification and Environmental Justice, a seven-part series considering the role of rural gentrification in the Adirondack Park. Read the entire series here.
Photos, from above: Brownfields on the doorstep of the Adirondacks, Schenecteady Gazette, June 5, 2019; a poor local and a posh visitor, Wells and Raquette, 19th Century courtesy the Hamilton County Historian; and the Peters family of Hope, 1960 courtesy the Hamilton County Historian.