These words of quiet despair were uttered twenty years ago in the aftermath of a meeting at the Raquette Lake School, whose imminent demise was increasingly apparent to the people of the village. The atmosphere at the Tap Room, the unofficial community center where attendees had decamped to face the inevitable over a beer, was raw.
The man who issued the fatal prognosis relished it neither as a parent nor an alumnus. But the writing was on the wall. Pupils had dwindled to single digits, too few for a play or a baseball team, never mind the district budget for utilities, maintenance, transportation and salaries. With no babies on the horizon, the current crop of children would age out, and there would soon be none left to educate.
“This town isn’t ours anymore,” he added.
This epitaph was a bitterly sweet shorthand for rural gentrification.
Gentrification is not a term passed casually round the dinner table in the Adirondacks, but it stands for something Adirondackers know all too well: the slow but inexorable erosion of community as they are replaced by a population with only an instrumental stake in its endurance. It’s the closure of the local school, the conversion of the building into a museum, and the inability to find a historian to run it because no one has been around long enough to remember the days when the school was open. It is the displacement of Adirondack families to make way for Sarasota snowbirds and Brooklyn bobos, for whom the trappings of community are superfluous.
In technical terms, gentrification is the loss that triggers all the other losses: the shrinking stock of housing local workers can remotely afford.
Yet gentrification is more than a six-dollar word for daylight robbery on the rental market. It comprises a constellation of economic, demographic and cultural changes whose burden falls first upon the shoulders of the rural working class, but comes to weigh eventually on everyone with a stake in the fate of the countryside.
For local workers in the Adirondacks, it means the loss of home and identity. For local businesses, it means a decline in the available labor force. For seasonal residents, it means a dearth of vital services. And for environmentalists, it signifies a regional failure with global implications, for it calls into question the ability of eco-capitalism to save nature for anyone but those with the money to buy it.
Adirondack workers are experts in getting by. Through the rise and fall of subsistence agriculture, through the flaring up and burning out of large-scale extractive industries, through the vagaries of a fickle tourist trade, Adirondackers have navigated the fitful course of capitalism as it manifests in economic edge-spaces like ours, where the precarity lately bemoaned by the postindustrial working class across the Occident has been a persistent fact of life for two hundred years.
The landscape has seldom been wholly local. Indeed the term “Adirondacker” first referred to visitors, emerging as early as the print advertisements for Adirondack Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness in the 1860s, and was only later appropriated by those who lived here rather than those who entertained that aspiration.
The locals have long accommodated this incursion, rather like wildflowers accommodate a pavement, springing up in quaint colorful colonies on the periphery of the grand infrastructures laid by Durant and his lesser descendants.
At times, their many needs – for servants, for builders, for caretakers, for guides – have provided a living for locals when no other living was to be made. But it was a devil’s bargain. With the influx of tourists, trade, and tax revenue, came a decrease in the number of places where Adirondack locals could hang their hats. Gentrification is the price now coming due across the Adirondack Park.
But what is it, really? What does the word “gentrification” mean and where did it come from?
The term was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe a change overtaking the working class neighborhoods of central London in the 1960s. In the ensuing decades, the transformation she observed would appear in city after city, until it became clear that it was no aberration, but a systemic manifestation of broad shifts in the underlying urban economy.
The cities of the west were once major centers of manufacturing. But as postwar prosperity gave way to postwar recession, capital began to leave western nations to set up cheaper offshore operations. Deindustrialization was followed by decay, disintegration and decline, but a few saw opportunity in the disaster of disinvestment. By the mid-1960s, something had begun to rush into this void. A newer slate of financial and service industries were recycling the urban spaces evacuated by manufacturing capital.
As the economy of the city changed, so did its built environment. Abandoned factories were converted into office buildings. Empty warehouses were turned into loft apartments. Quiet dockyards became residential waterfront districts. Historic tenements were renovated into pricey flats. Decrepit parks were cleaned up, pockmarked streets were repaved, art galleries opened their doors and coffee shops began to hum.
As the built environment of the city changed, so did its people. After long years of flight to the suburbs, a new class of young urban professionals began to return, bringing deep pockets and upscale tastes. The laborers who had run the factories, filled the warehouses, worked the docks and occupied the tenements were soon priced out of their neighborhoods.
A few maintained ties to their old haunts as commuters, eking out a living in the service sector that grew up around the yuppie transplants (someone had to pour the coffee and dust the artwork, after all). But most were dislodged by rents they could no longer afford to pay. The working class neighborhoods that had supported the urban industrial economy were transformed into middle class neighborhoods that supported a new urban service economy. As cities fell to FIRE – finance, insurance and real estate – this process of creative destruction burned its brand into the urban landscape across the world.
“Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district,” Glass observed, “it goes on until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.”
Gentrification did not remain urban for long. By the late 1980s, a remarkably similar process had made an appearance in the countryside, first in Britain and later Stateside, including the Adirondacks. Anthropologist Janet Fitchen found that “the stock of low-cost rental housing has been diminished by development, rural gentrification, and inadequate public investment” in her research on homelessness in upstate New York.
The New York State Commission on the Adirondack Park in the Twenty-First Century, tasked by then-Governor Mario Cuomo with anticipating threats to the century-old Adirondack experiment, remarked that “Many older buildings in the Park have been purchased, gentrified and resold at high prices, making affordable housing in some Park communities hard to find.” Even the Adirondack Park Agency chimed in, noting that “The issue of ‘gentrification’ and the ability of long-time Adirondack residents to maintain a quality and affordable lifestyle is an aspect of community welfare worthy of monitoring.”
A few years after this final prophecy, Raquette Lake School closed its doors. Nearby Piseco and Inlet would follow, leaving four schools standing in all of Hamilton County. Enrollment across the rest of the region declined, prompting crisis negotiations across the Adirondack Park as communities mulled mergers, consolidations and regional catchments – most of which they have thus far stubbornly rejected, leaving the landscape of public education in the Adirondacks in a state of uncertainty.
School closure was just the tip of the iceberg, the most painful and symbolic manifestation of what would come to be recognized as a full-blown Adirondack housing crisis as the twentieth century gave way to its successor and the portents of the 1990s came to fruition. The more recent crunch triggered by Covid flight has only added insult to longstanding injury.
When I first wrote about Adirondack gentrification in 2005, it was notable especially in the storied Adirondack
resort towns from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid to the Fulton Chain. The longstanding hydrocentricity of Adirondack
development meant that our breezy lakefronts were the first to gentrify, becoming no-go areas for our working class
save as visitors in their own land, while the buggy backwoods were ghettoized.
But even these badlands are now becoming dear. The recently-documented rise in wilderness-proximate ground rent leaves little doubt that
gentrification is not only here, but generalized, for the cost of the land beneath the building is the ultimate
benchmark of gentrification, whether urban or rural.
What was evident over two decades ago in places like Raquette Lake has now spread to all corners of the Adirondacks, driving a regional demographic slump portended by Cornell researchers in a series of sobering projections in which the Adirondack population would not only dramatically decline, but dramatically age.
These trends do not make the North Country unique. The Adirondacks, and Hamilton County in particular, occupy the extreme end of a spectrum of demographic decline afflicting rural New York and the rural United States more broadly. And yet, Adirondack depopulation is markedly distinct from the type of decline at work in broad swaths of the American countryside.
Anyone glancing at the numbers alone might reasonably expect them to represent a landscape mired in generational poverty and intractable unemployment, with the hollowed-out storefronts and tumbledown high streets habitually trotted out as evidence for the rural version of American carnage.
But that’s not us, or at least, not anymore. Raquette Lake isn’t depressed; it’s hopping. Employment rates across the Adirondack Park may plummet during mud and blackfly season, but they rebound and more when the tourists return. Abandoned, derelict housing is a rarer and rarer sight. On the surface, our communities look healthy, even thriving.
That is precisely the lie of gentrification: it disguises dispossession as revitalization. The working Adirondack poor are neither progressing nor languishing. They are leaving.
In the second part of this series, we turn to the paradox of housing poverty among housing plenty that is driving them out.
This is part one 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: The Raquette Lake School baseball team in 1972; the rich at play at Echo Camp, Raquette Lake, 1896; and the Blue Mountain Lake School is now a gift shop (courtesy the Hamilton County Historian).