NARROWSBURG, NY — If you’ve known Narrowsburg since before the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad discontinued passenger service between Hoboken and Hancock, you might think it’s basically …
NARROWSBURG, NY — If you’ve known Narrowsburg since before the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad discontinued passenger service between Hoboken and Hancock, you might think it’s basically unchanged since the early part of the last century. The public buildings of the town look pretty much the same from the outside, except for some superficial façade updates.
But the heart and soul of this town, like the inside of those buildings, have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past 50 years. Evolving from an agricultural and commercial hub forged by dairy and poultry farmers with the help of working-class merchants and tradesmen, Narrowsburg has become the darling of artists and celebrities, captains of industry, and entrepreneurs of every variety. It attracts the glitterati of New York and other world-class cities and still somehow manages to retain the small-town charm and personal business model for which it has always been known.
The change became noticeable in the early 1970s, when the late Tom DeGaetani and Elaine Giguere settled permanently into his weekend home on the Delaware, just south of town. Former artistic director of Lincoln Center, DeGaetani was so captivated by Narrowsburg that he decided to spend the rest of his life here. However, that Narrowsburg lacked the one thing he needed to be perfectly happy: a robust arts community and economy. So he and Giguere, a former dancer, planned to create one.
Upon arriving, DeGaetani discovered a town dissatisfied with losing its paper. The Delaware Valley News had been sold, becoming part of the Hawley News-Eagle. So DeGaetani worked with residents to create The River Reporter. The first issue was published on December 3, 1975. After DeGaetani died in February of 1978, its production was taken over by Glenn Pontier (editor from 1978-95) and current publisher Laurie Stuart. The River Reporter has been covering the news of Narrowsburg and the Upper Delaware Valley ever since, with a particular focus on the arts, the environment, community dialog and civic journalism projects.
Within a year after the paper was established, DeGaetani and Giguere were able to focus on their main goal. Together they founded the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance (DVAA) in 1976, putting out an open call for artists of all genres. The response was astounding. Graphic artists, performing artists, writers and musical composers all descended on the makeshift arts center on Main Street. In acknowledging the wide range of artistic talent that answered the call, DeGaetani told the newly established DVAA’s board of directors, “They came out of the woodwork.” In addition to a board of directors, the DVAA soon had its own grant-writing staff, an art gallery and a dance studio. It served as an incubator for theater groups, an opera company, a chamber orchester and numerous writers groups.
The Tusten Movie Theatre, unused for decades, was renovated by DVAA and became a live performance venue to showcase the offerings of the organization and its partners. Later “borrowed” for cultural events—such as Riverfest, Eaglefest, the Honeybee Festival, The Big Eddy Film Festival and a variety of weekend concerts—the Tusten Theatre has become both a landmark and an essential component of the town’s artistic offerings.
Some of the other visionary contributors to Narrowsburg’s transformation were homegrown. Local historian and community activist Grace Johansen imagined a world-class library for Narrowsburg. Starting life humbly in a vacant storefront on Main Street during the late 1980s as a reading room filled with donated books and staffed by volunteers, it attained certified public library status in 1990, becoming affiliated with the Sullivan West Central School District in 2000 and later the Ramapo Catskill Library System (RCLS). Today, it is the Tusten-Cochecton Branch of the Western Sullivan Public Library, sharing resources with the Delaware Free Branch in Callicoon and the Jeffersonville Branch. Its ability to draw on the additional resources of 48 member libraries in the RCLS system, as well as countless university libraries, brings a world of knowledge to Narrowsburg area residents and visitors.
Visionary and entrepreneur Art Peck started small, too. Aside from taxidermy, his first enterprise was a grocery store on Main Street. When it took off, Peck knew he needed more shelf space for merchandise and more parking space for customers, so he built the town’s first shopping mall on Kirk Road. The flagship store of his supermarket chain moved into 120 Kirk Rd., where it was later joined by a sporting goods store, a pharmacy, a hair salon, a liquor store, a laundromat and a carwash. In 1990, Peck and his wife, Beth, gifted the town with a building for its new library. Located next door to the town hall, that building housed not only the young library but also the Tusten Historical Society.
Amid all this positive change and growth, the town was dealt a serious blow. Narrowsburg Central School, a K-through-12 public school in operation since the 1930s, was merged with Delaware Valley Central School in Callicoon and Jeffersonville-Youngsville Central School in Jeffersonville by mandate of the New York State Board of Regents. Two campuses—one for the high school in Lake Huntington and one for the elementary school in Jeffersonville—would replace the Narrowsburg building. Shuttered, it was scheduled for sale by the Sullivan West Board of Education.
The school board was prepared to accept the best offer on the building. When one came from a substance abuse rehabilitation facility, Brendan and Kathy Weiden stepped in to re-establish the building as a backbone of the community, as it had been for 70 years. At first, architect Brendan Weiden envisioned the building as a multipurpose space. He called it the Narrowsburg Union when it opened in 2017.
It didn’t take long for the Narrowsburg Union to acquire a unique identity. Now known as the Union Business Center (UBC), it boasts printing and mailing services, a commercial kitchen, maker spaces, temporary office space, a conference room, uninterrupted high-speed Wifi, event space, classrooms and more: Recently, it began housing a new takeout food vendor, Botanist Vegan (see Lake Huntington News on page 9). Catskills Curated is currently hosting a makers’ market (see page 18) featuring a variety of local artists and businesses.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UBC came into its own. It provides fully functional business office space for workers displaced from their usual bases of operation and meeting space adjusted for social distancing. Recently, it began offering professional dry-cleaning services to its office-space renters.
Within the past five years, entrepreneurs have been flocking to Narrowsburg. “Narrowsburg is just bursting with personality, and the community has been very welcoming. We’re very happy we made the move to this area and that our daughter will grow up here,” said Colin Gallagher of Vegan Tacos.
“I ended up here because I love small-town bookstores and felt Narrowsburg had all the qualities that made sense for a bookstore: a thriving arts community, a dynamic community of entrepreneurs along Main Street and a stunning location on the Delaware River,” said Aaron Hicklin, owner of One Grand Books on Main Street. “My first visit to the town came on the night of the tree-lighting ceremony in 2014; I was smitten. It seems to have been the right decision. The community here has been incredibly welcoming, and there’s always a sense that the more you embrace the town, the more it encourages and rewards you in return.”