Rolling Stone once called Times Square “the sleaziest block in America.” The shoe fit in the early 1980s, when the crossroads of the world was the Skid Row of the east coast.
Today, a building in Times Square will run you somewhere in the vicinity of $600 million, but not long ago the neighborhood met the primary precondition for gentrification: disinvestment, a malady common to many inner city districts at the time.
Deindustrialization was one factor in urban depreciation. Suburbanization, rezoning and public retrenchment were others. All added up to the same sum total of cheap urban space beckoning profitable reinvestment.
The logic of this “rent gap,” as geographer Neil Smith called it, is intuitive. No one is going to gentrify Times Square today. It’s already so heavily invested that any one of its buildings would cost an arm and a leg. But if times Square were again to be abandoned – its landlords neglectful, its buildings in disrepair, its tenants paying rents below overhead – then it might well be worth a second chance, if the profit from what realtors call the “highest and best use” of its properties were likely to exceed their current revenue.
Gentrification is about buying cheap and selling dear, so a neighborhood ripe for gentrifying must first be sufficiently devalued to make the investment worthwhile to begin with, and potentially fit for some other profitable purpose to boot.
The Adirondacks have seen their share of investment. Industrial magnates, dynastic politicians and glittering celebrities have all lobbed mountains of cash at the region for purposes of recreational consumption, profitable production or speculative gamble. Capital began flooding into the mountains on a large scale in the latter half the nineteenth century, when the subsistence economy that had predominated since the post-Revolutionary period gave way to privatization, marketization and urban predation.
Some places, like Raquette Lake, owed their very existence to the conspicuous consumption of wilderness by America’s plutocracy. More hardscrabble outposts, like Tupper Lake, were born of extraction and manufacturing. Although most Adirondack communities would eventually suffer disinvestment, the industrial spaces were hardest hit, for industry often stripped the landscape of what virtues might draw anyone back in the immediate wake of its retreat.
The abandonment of the Adirondacks was uneven, but deindustrialization had largely been accomplished by the midpoint of the twentieth century. Some industries were dead before it had dawned. The southern tanneries did not survive the Victorian Era. Most of the forges and many of the early mines had vanished along with them. On occasion, individual manufactories showed remarkable resilience, such as the massive mill site just south of Wells village, built in the 1840s as a pottery, then repurposed over the decades as a sawmill, tannery, veneer mill and bobbin factory, ending its industrial run finally as the Adirondack Lumber Company, which closed in 1976.
A few ventures – such as Tahawus mine in Newcomb, the Benson Mines at Star Lake, and Oval Wood Dish in Tupper – opened, closed and were resurrected for a second life before folding for good. Others would follow their own peculiar timelines, but the overall drift has been one of decline since 1950. By 2004, the authors of the monumental Adirondack Atlas could proclaim that “The old economy of mines, mills, woods-work, and farming, while neither extinct nor unimportant, has to a great extent been replaced by a new economy of hospitality, professional work, and service… it is no longer, and probably never will be again, primarily based on extraction and manufacturing.”
The industrial fossils littering the Adirondack landscape proved unevenly suitable for repurposing. Some structures, like the old mill complex in Hope Falls, fell into the ground long before anyone was ready to recycle them. Others, such as the mining structure at Tahawus, were impractical for redevelopment due to their peculiar forms. Some were meant to be temporary, such as the backwoods logging camps that were hurriedly erected and abandoned just as quickly when the surrounding area was depleted.
The colonial nature of Adirondack industry meant that a preponderance of resources were extracted for manufacture elsewhere, so in some cases there was no industrial structure to refurbish. For all the untold number of pulp trees taken from Hamilton County, it has never had a paper mill within its borders. And transient workers of all kinds were not infrequently quartered in local hostelries, whose owners welcomed the off-season custom when tourists were scarce, obviating the need for additional infrastructure to house imported labor. So too with various forms of home-work, including the gloves stitched by southern Adirondack women in their own kitchens and sewing rooms.
A few industrial structures followed the stereotypical pattern of urban gentrification. The wood veneer mill in Wells became the studio and gallery of a world-renowned sculptor. The old stone mill complex in Keeseville, where the Ausable Horse Nail Company operated until 1923, is undergoing rehabilitation as upscale office space and waterfront park through a private-public partnership that deploys the urban code word for gentrification – “revitalization” – to describe its aims. The Oval Wood Dish factory in Tupper Lake is now similarly slated for redevelopment as flats and retail space. Many smaller sites, from Buyce’s blacksmith shop in Speculator to the grist mill in Warrensburg, were quietly converted from industrial to retail use with far less fanfare.
But in the main, it was not the conversion of industrial buildings that gentrified the Adirondacks. Deindustrialization mattered incidentally to Adirondack to gentrification for the abandonment of infrastructure, but systematically for the abandonment of land.
The State of New York, which had de-accessioned most of its Adirondack holdings in the period between the American Revolution and the mid-nineteenth century, had re-acquired nearly a million acres of it by the beginning of the twentieth. Much of this was spent woodland abandoned by logging capital and reclaimed by the State in lieu of tax payment.
This core would form the basis of the New York State Forest Preserve, a kitty of public land removed permanently from capitalistic production and circulation, created in 1885 and today constituting some 2.6 million acres inside the border of the Adirondack Park, which was established less than a decade later.
The creation of the Forest Preserve comprised one half of what would become a two-part State strategy of managed disinvestment. The other was the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency and its Private Land Use and Development Plan in 1972. If the Preserve prevented any and all investment in the public lands of the Park, the Plan channeled investment selectively into the private ones through the imposition of a series of density zones ranging from Hamlet, where development is largely unfettered, to Resource Management, where development is largely prohibited.
The Plan is effectively an investment spigot, allowing the tap to flow freely into some Adirondack landscapes while slowing it to a trickle in others. As with the Forest Preserve, the State regulation of private Adirondack land did not so much pry investment out of the built environment as prevent new investment from flowing into it.
In this endeavor it had a partner. Industrial capital did not entirely leave the Adirondacks. Logging interests continued to constitute the largest private landholders inside the Blue Line long after the Adirondack region ceased to be major producer of lumber and pulp. For much of the 20th century, this meant that huge tracts of recovering timberland lay unexploited, whether through easement agreements with the State or lease contracts with private clubs. These were not insignificant parcels. By the end of the twentieth century, over a quarter of the private land in the park lay in the hands of only ten owners.
Into the void of industrial production rushed something else: trees. While some old growth did survive the flaying of the landscape by nineteenth-century capital, much of the Adirondack forest we know today is regrowth. This was a crucial step in establishing the conditions for gentrification, for it pointed the way to the “highest and best use” for the ex-industrial landscape.
The Last Nickel Bargain in America
Extraction and manufacturing were not all that left the mountains during the postwar decline. Tourism, the longtime confederate of Adirondack industry, did not outright expire. It restructured. The Gilded Age of wilderness consumption, whose built environment was characterized by everything big – Great Camps and grand hotels, steamers and stage coaches, posh parties and passenger railroads – faded as the Adirondacks fell out of vogue and into a quiet period. Like Johnny Cash on the fairground circuit, their glory days were behind them, but a revival was on the cards.
The decline of big tourism was as jagged as the decline of big industry, some towns crumbling while others were on the rise. The magnificent 300-room Prospect House in Blue Mountain Lake, the first hotel in America to run electricity to every room, closed a mere three years after the Raquette Lake Railroad was completed in 1900, securing its reputation as a rustic retreat for the wealthiest men in America. Raquette itself was in steep decline a mere thirty years later, devastated by fire, financial failure and flagging interest.
The Great Camps began their long decline, some falling into ruin, several eventually passing into the hands of the State. Many of the remaining grand hotels, from the Sagamore on Long Lake to Osborne House at the Lake Pleasant outlet, were demolished. Indeed the main streets of Speculator, Indian Lake and other classic resort towns, once lined with veranda-stacked piles, looked like another world by the time Hamilton County Historians Ted Aber and Stella King penned a eulogy for the heyday of Adirondack tourism in their monumental tome The History of Hamilton County:
“The era of the big hotel has passed…Today’s summer visitor builds or rents his Adirondack camp, provides his own mobile living quarters, or lives under canvas…The number of summer homes continues to grow along the shores of the lakes, placing Adirondack water-front property at a premium. The summer campsites operated under State auspices gain ever-increasing use. Throughout the area, new stores, restaurants and motels spring into being. The hunting season brings countless sportsmen to the area in numbers that defy the permanent residents’ capacity to find quarters.”
Although they lacked the language to name it, Aber and King had spotted the seeds of gentrification in the Adirondacks a mere year after Ruth Glass described it in London. By the time they wrote this in 1965, the disinvestment which ended the heyday of both big production and big consumption in the wilderness had begun to create a rent gap, sending the price of Adirondack land diving deep enough that New Jersey developer Roger Jakubowski called it “the last nickel bargain in America” after snagging a Great Camp for a cut-rate million some twenty years later.
It wasn’t the only bargain on offer. Economist Charles Zinser found that land prices declined by as much as 30% in the Park’s Rural and Resource Management zones following the implementation of the Private Land Use and Development Plan in the 1970s. By the 1980s, both the necessary and sufficient conditions for gentrification were in place. Much of the Adirondack built environment was disinvested, providing possibility. And much of our decimated forests had regrown, providing the impetus for recapitalization.
This is part four 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: Disinvestment in Speculator, 1960s; a lumber camp in Indian Lake, ca. 1920; and the demolition of the Sagamore, Long Lake, 1959 courtesy the Hamilton County Historian.