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‘Looking forward, looking back’

July 5, 2012

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.