Rural gentrification has appeared in almost every region, from Big Sky territory to the Rockies to Prairie Country to New England to the American South. Outside the United States, it has been documented in Spain, Turkey, Sweden, New Zealand, France, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, and especially Britain.
While the details vary from place to place, most gentrifying rural communities suffer the same consequences: the displacement of the rural working class, the decline of available space for social reproduction, and the aging of the vestigial population. Yet if rural America is united in its symptoms, it is divided by its disease.
Other rural American communities face similar problems for different reasons. Some have been devastated by capital flight. Others have been destroyed by unbridled extraction. Still others have been relegated to toxic waste dumps. A huge number have been gutted by the restructuring of agriculture. There is no royal road to demographic decline, and the diagnosis matters very much to the course of treatment.
The decay of rural America is rooted ultimately in the spatial logic of capitalism, which has for much of its history been an urbanizing force that profits from gathering people, capital, technology and infrastructure into the settlements we call cities. Capitalism did not invent them. Their origins lay some 5000 years in the past. But its emergence accelerated, intensified and enlarged them, simultaneously enclosing the countryside and privatizing its commons as a repository of raw materials, from the fuel required to feed the furnaces of urban industry to the food necessary to feed the urban workers it displaced from their farms. Capitalism remade the countryside into a nature bank for cities, and as it enveloped the globe, it brought that imperative with it.
And yet: “If the city is the world which man created,” noted Robert Park, “It is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live.” Capitalists soon came to detest the monstrous Mordors they had created, and looked back toward the shires for relief from the stinking miasma of misery that rose with their bank balances. And thus was a contradiction born. Capital wanted both production and consumption from the countryside, but these are uneasy fellows when they bed down in the same landscape.
In the Adirondacks, the Rockefellers did not drill for oil at Bay Pond, nor build a refinery in Saranac village; they kept their extractive business well away from the landscapes they consumed. The ostensible battle for the Adirondacks that resulted in the New York State Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park in the late nineteenth century was but one skirmish in a long war for rurality between nominal adversaries who are effectively on the same side, refereed by a state that must choose which rural capitalistic interest to uphold at any moment in history: consumption or production? Wetland or wasteland? Sanctuary or sewer? Productive capital was already on its way out when the State chose to defend consumption in the Adirondacks. Into that void rushed the small-scale development that has proven so amenable to the large-scale restoration of the forest.
This “see-sawing” of capital in and out of the landscape is also characteristic of urban gentrification, as Neil Smith noted. Gentrification is a product of uneven development no matter where it occurs, disinvestment providing an opportunity for recapitalization the moment some impetus arises. In the late twentieth century, the landscape differential itself was enough to propel capital back to the Adirondacks and other edge-spaces where private property meets undevelopable “wild” space – national parks, greenbelts, and waterfronts including the ocean – forming a rent sink.
The very act of maintaining sacred groves within a desecrated landscape of brownfields, freeways, strip malls and sprawl made disinvestment into both opportunity and impetus at one in the same time, shaped and molded by the cultural vagaries of taste, fashionability and marketing as well as the more mundane factors of infrastructure, proximity and access that draw capital toward Lake Tahoe rather than Lake Placid in some years, but over time gentrify both. The Adirondacks and spaces like it have not been gentrified because of the fact of environmental protection, but because of the form of environmental protection, which has left some landscapes heavily safeguarded and others utterly degraded. But more recently, another impetus has propelled people out of the city and into the wilderness with unprecedented speed: the plague of our time, Covid 19.
In March of 2020, an airborne respiratory virus christened SARS-CoV-2 by the World Health Organization reached the United States from its presumed origin in China, making New York City its American epicenter. As New York hospitals began to fill up, New Yorkers of means emptied the city, fleeing for their second homes in the Hamptons, Connecticut, and of course, the Adirondacks.
Resort towns the world over, unaccustomed to such traffic in the off season, begged the incomers to stay put in their cabins lest they spread Covid and overwhelm rural hospitals, edicts which were soon rendered obsolete by the proliferation of state lockdowns sending non-essential workers home and banning all superfluous travel.
Caretakers found themselves in high demand opening camps early, and lights gleamed from windows usually dark that time of year as urban families huddled in desperation behind the walls of everything from ski chalets to hunting camps to protect their loved ones from the abject horror they had left behind.
As the state at all scales proved catastrophically incapable of coping with the pandemic, others began to follow these initial incomers, and capital poured into the countryside. The Adirondack housing stock, already limited, grew desperately stretched. New builds were held down somewhat by the pandemic-induced rise in the cost of construction materials, but stars began to form in the eyes of local development authorities: could urban catastrophe mean rural salvation? Could we repopulate the Adirondacks with Covid refugees?
As of this writing, the jury is still out, but it is no secret that aspiring Zoom towns across rural America are banking on post-Covid gentrification to revive their flagging economies. As vaccines continue to proliferate and the end of the pandemic is at least plausible if not quite yet in sight, many potential transplants are expressing a reticence to return to the cube farm.
At the same time, some of our savvier corporations are recognizing the efficacy of outsourcing production overheads to their own employees, as well as siphoning off commuting time to lengthen the working day. The American working landscape could well be on the cusp of a momentous restructuring, one that could profoundly alter the relationship between urban and rural America. The Adirondacks have long been an archetype of that entanglement.
While the type of disaster capitalism that might roll back environmental regulations to grease the wheels of Covid boosterism is unlikely to overcome the constitutional protection of the Adirondacks, we may nonetheless feel the squeeze of additional pressure on an already-bare housing stock. Virus exiles can’t bring gentrification to the Adirondacks, because it is already here. But they could fatally accelerate it by increasing the cash incentive for longtime locals to sell up and get out of the Adirondacks before they become too expensive for any working family to afford.
In the absence of such a sea change, we may well look back on the gentrification of the Adirondacks as the reversal of a far longer process parts of the Adirondacks have been undergoing for some time: suburbanization. As long as the Adirondack Park maintains at least some private property within its borders, it will continue to require a working class to provide services for its visiting, retired and seasonal populations. But that working class is not compelled to live here, and increasingly, it won’t.
The edge spaces of the Park have long been commuter towns, the death of their own historic economies relegating them to the status of bedroom communities for proximate urban areas like Glens Falls or the Glove Cities, where the work went when the mountain mills closed. What infrastructure they supported fell to the same forces, leaving the worst-off of the border towns like Benson, Bleecker and Hope without so much as a shop or a gas station, and others like Mayfield, Northville and Corinth teetering on the brink with a small precarious grocery market, and some with only a convenience store.
Gentrification threatens to reverse this process, driving the remaining Adirondack working class to live beyond the Blue Line, and commute back in for seasonal work to serve the needs of a wholly consumptive landscape populated with summer people and retirees. While the remote interior of the Park has long been presumed immune to such a process by dint of sheer distance, the sharp rise in super-commuting demonstrates the plasticity of travel times under late capitalism. After two centuries of maintaining a stubborn foothold in the mountains, the historical Adirondack working class may finally be relegated to the role of transient servants in a six million-acre nature resort.
While the awkward term “resortification” has been kicking around the internet to describe something approaching the condition we face – a space produced solely for the benefit of tourists at the expense of the locals – there is a better, older word for what is happening to the Adirondacks, however incongruous it may seem: urbanization.
The Adirondacks are not becoming a city, or even a series of them. But they are becoming like cities at one moment in time, losing their residents to nearby suburbs on their borders, whence they will commute back in to tend to the functioning of a landscape that empties out like a windswept CBD but for the tourists at the end of the day.
More pointedly, they are falling to the “urban revolution” named by the geographer Henri Lefebvre, who defined a process by which the entire fabric of society falls under the influence of the city, and lives or dies by virtue of its demands. In that sense, the Adirondacks were urbanized the moment they were colonized.
Our final installment considers what, if anything, might be done about it – and who might do it.
This is part six 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: Anti-gentrification graffiti in rural Wales photo by the author; Fulton County wards off Covid refugees photo by the author; and the continental geography of Adirondack gentrification, map by The Adirondack Park Agency.