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Entries in Arkville (4)


Taking Flight ... Steve Koester of Two Dark Birds talks the sticks and songs.

Photo by Brandon Harmon

I might be hanging out in the London fog -- and light rain and chill but my heart is in the hills and this week in the Catskill Mountain News I got to write about Steve Koester and his fine music as frontman of Two Dark Birds...

 Can I just say I love this cover? Total Peter Saville meets the Hudson River School. Though for the record the Thomas Cole painting is in Northampton, MA....

Moving to Arkville was a conversion experience of sorts for singer-songwriter Steve Koester. He found himself in nature and got a sense of peace. He’s also well aware that he’s hardly the only person to have that experience.

“A lot of people come from the city and get a chain saw and get one with nature,” he laughs. He is also, though, prone to such life-changing moments. One even happened in a grocery store when he heard Crosby Stills & Nash’s ‘Guinnevere’ anew. “I was standing in the aisle and just floored by the song. The harmony and structure is amazing,” he says, “but as a kid I’d have thought it ridiculous.”
Koester is the frontman of the band “Two Dark Birds.” Their second album has been praised by everyone from fashion magazines like Nylon and Men’s Vogue to the influential CMJ (College Music Journal) as well as on the blogs where indie rock idols are now birthed.

Mountain home
This morning he’s sitting in his kitchen nestled into the side of Pakatakan Mountain. The snow hasn’t melted yet, and he’s wearing an orange ski vest, gesturing wide with his arms as if embracing a globe as he talks. A turntable (yes, a turntable in 2011) spins on the counter next to him as he describes his move and his new record. “Moving here,” he says, “had a profound impact on me and on the music. The album’s subtext is about going from the city and feeling cut off and burnt out to reconnecting with the natural world again.”

“Two Dark Birds” has, as he puts it, “That kind of Catskills sound—Dylan, “The Band” and early Van Morrison. It’s that combination of acoustic, folk and soul. Using those elements just makes sense up here, but we didn’t want it to seem like it’s 1971.”

His bluesy voice gives a roots’ feel to the music. It could be described as part Glen Campbell countrypolitan with a dash of “REM” and even Waylon Jennings. (“Pie-eyed,” Koester says of the album’s third track, “is my Waylon song.”)

Paid his dues
He has toiled long in the trenches of indie rock from punk bands in his youth to self-fronted ones, and his music has been in Nike ads, movies like Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” even on TV on Bravo this fall.

In 2002 he and a few friends formed Maplewood. The band had a self-consciously ’70s sound that was in part an homage to the groups like America. While the group’s beginning was ironic, America then praised Maplewood and toured with them, even covering a Maplewood song. Now. that ’70s sensibility has shaped “Two Dark Birds.” The new album even has big string arrangements and a horn section, both of which surprised Koester when he found himself heading in that direction.

Family life
He arrived to Arkville in 2007, soon after his daughter was born. “All our money and time went to keep her in daycare. It just made no sense,” he explains. “After a decade in the city, my favorite place was Fort Green Park.” He’d find himself there staring at trees. So he and his wife picked up sticks, and that move and his daughter shaped his music. Now Delaware County and more specifically Middletown have inspired songs like “Ryder Hollow.” The album’s opening song “Closer To Water,” literally came from, as he explains it, “Being on the mountain in springtime and watching how water comes down off the side.” He gets embarrassed describing that sense of interconnectedness the moment produced.

Daughter honored
Koester knows such sentiments or writing songs about the joys of fatherhood are hardly cool, but he ignored that to make music that felt like it reflected him now including his “Song For Clementine.” It’s clearly a love letter to his daughter Iris. Her middle name is Clementine, and she appears in the video.

Soon the band will be shooting the album’s second video “Black Blessed Night” here and in New York City with the members dressed as blackbirds and even dancing, with professional choreography by the award-winning tap dancer Michelle Dorrance. Koester describes the song as being like a poem by Poe or Longfellow. At its base is the idea of escaping in nature and finding something much bigger than yourself, he explains.

His own journey
While he knows he’s hardly the first person to come to the Catskills seeking that kind of transcendence, he’s well aware of the larger lineage of artists who’ve come here with that in mind. In his music there’s a sense of connection to that same spirit many have found here from the Hudson River School painters to John Burroughs.


Local Politics – The Debate

Somehow covering local politics here in the sticks, makes me feel like William Kennedy. Or dream that I might be like one of my writing heroes. Except we don't have party bosses, kickbacks or anything quite that dodgy -- or fun to write about. WE did however have a debate. The four candidates for town supervisor addressed questions and issues -- all done to the League of Women Voters format. Hosted by the Catskill Mountain News, and moderated by former litigator and tennis coach (my tennis coach, he's great) Mark Birman.

Dick Sanford's photo of the candidates' debate. (Thank you, Dick, fine photographer not to mention editor and publisher of the News)

He was the only one in the room in a suit. The one thing about local politics is that every day is dress down with sweatshirts and workshirts and clashing stripes and plaids all in attendance on the candidates. I didn't write up the candidates' style in the Cats Mtn News, but about the debate itself. Which was fascinating. It even held the boy scouts' interest. Though they too were disappointed in the answers. Read on about the debate below:


A hundred and twenty-five people squeezed into the Arkville Firehouse on Monday evening to listen to the four Middletown supervisor candidates debate the issues.

The place was standing room only, with people sitting on the floor and Boy Scouts lined up near the kitchen. In the audience were two mayors, a deputy mayor, town and village board members and the Town of Hardenburgh supervisor.

The crowd included longtime residents, whose families go back generations, as well as new émigrés from the city. There were retirees and those with young families. All came out, making a statement that for at least one night local issues trumped Monday Night Football, the bowling league and watching the Cardinals nearly seal their fate in the World Series.

The evening was remarkable for many firsts; the first town debate in recent memory, the first time there are four candidates – all running without party affiliation, and the first debate to be covered not only by its sponsor, the Catskill Mountain News, but also on TV, the radio and online—a degree of media coverage one might expect in a larger community.

Often in agreement
Perhaps what was most remarkable was how often the candidates’ views overlapped. There were more issues on which they agreed than disagreed, and often the responses expressed merely nuances. The debate was also striking for how civil it was. That’s not to say there weren’t heated moments but they were never directed at each other or the audience. One candidate nearly swore, angry at the town’s inability to dredge, but there was little partisan posturing.

Not about parties
Jake Rosa seemed to sum up the sentiment when he said, “I don’t care what side of the aisle it comes from, a good idea is a good idea.” The night was also striking for the number of times the debaters said they agreed with each other.

Over two-and-a-half hours, questions ranged from what people considered the town’s biggest asset to taxes, the Crossroads Resort (about which Marge Miller quipped,” Dean Gitter has all the personality of road kill”) to the current budget, alternative energy, wind energy, fracking, the future of Margaretville and Freshtown, the Binnekill, tourism, second homeowners and working with local non-profit organizations.

Candidate intro
The first question asked of each candidate was factual, a brief biographical statement, and here the candidates nearly divided into two camps, separated by age and experience. Joe Moskowitz and Marge Miller, the older two both graduated from MCS within a few years of the other and both left for careers in broadcasting and as an actor, while Jake Rosa and Wayd Jaquish, the two younger candidates, also graduated around the same time as the other, and both chose to stay near home working in more traditional local jobs.

Find higher ground
All four candidates want Freshtown to relocate, and all of them support the Belleayre Resort. In fact, Jaquish wants it to return to the original plan – though that had nearly no tax benefit for Middletown as it wasn’t located in the town originally. All pledged to continue stream maintenance for flood mitigation, and Rosa wants to raise federal and grant money to fund it. All supported wind energy in one form or another, and Moskowitz and Miller were outspokenly opposed to fracking. Jaquish and Rosa felt it a non-issue.

Three of the four are opposed to discussing any referendum on property taxes. Moskowitz felt savings should be addressed by finding redundancies in current services and spending, while Jaquish likened the town to running his appliance business: “We need to treat it like a business and run it so it stays within its own means.” Three of the four candidates stated that tourism is the town’s greatest asset, but little was offered in how to encourage it beyond a website and Moskowitz’s saying that the area isn’t like a traditional park with a gate and ranger. “We need to show people where to find activities.” Similarly when asked how to increase second-homeowners participation in the town and as a valuable resource, again a website was suggested.

Some in the audience felt like there was a lack of vision expressed. Each candidate said the Binnekill was a Margaretville-only issue, though the bulkhead to the Binnekill lies in the Town of Middletown, outside the village, and when asked about how they’d work with local non-profits like MARK, most simply affirmed their importance in the community after the flood.

Miller was the only candidate willing to discuss a referendum on taxes. It’s a risky position to talk tax hikes in an election year, but she said, “We can’t not increase taxes as costs increase. We cut 23 percent out of the highway budget so two percent sounds great on paper, but it’s hard to implement.” She went on to say that if we kept increases to two percent or less, that equated to cutting needed work and not replacing needed equipment. It would be better, she asserted, to have a referendum sooner rather than later, when we need to raise the budget by six to eight percent because of all the spending that had been avoided to keep the budget flat.

In discussing the town’s assets, Rosa offered up the forest. He called tourism, “the gravy” not the driver of our entire economy. “We need jobs to attract those 20-60 year-olds to grow the area and support schools and the aging population,” he said, and explained that a forest-based economy would help. Still, he wasn’t clear on specifics. It’s also an area where he not only has a clear interest (he works as a logger and serves on the board of the CFA and the WAC forestry commission) but is an expert and can see areas where we might be able to develop forestry further.

In discussing assets, none of the candidates mentioned water—which is clearly prized by New York City. And none used the question as a way of discussing the area’s relationship with the city or to talk about other assets—like developing the maple syrup industry and other value-added businesses from cider products to small-scale dairies and organic farming.

The evening ended with a question from the Boy Scouts. They wanted to know how each candidate would help restore the Fleischmanns Park. None of the scouts were satisfied with the answers. They all included some spin on, “It’s a village issue, not a town issue.” Miller and Moskowitz both promised to help with lobbying and fund-raising, but the scouts were disappointed. As one scout’s mother explained the next morning, “They thought all the candidates missed the mark. The park isn’t just a Fleischmanns' asset but a community one, that being the entire MCS community. The boys want the supervisor to recognize that and be willing to devote time energy and assets to that issue. They wanted a stronger commitment to something which means so much to the town school population, especially after all the talk about needing to give kids here more opportunities.”


Margaretville's New Normal


Here's my post from Upstater today on post-flood Margaretville.... I found it really hard to write because, well, just because. 


The flood. Life in Margaretville now feels measured in before and after. And, the after I’ve been avoiding writing about. Nothing feels profound enough. I can never say enough and my take is not important enough. So where to start? Maybe with the piles of rubbish stacked on Route 28. Among the tires and shipping pallets, lumber, even an intact round wooden picnic table, was the cerulean blue siding of the Valkyrian Motel in Fleischmanns. It floated downstream, killing the one woman left inside. The sight is incredibly sad, the building reduced to stacks of kindling.  The temporary flood dump in Arkville is testimony to the destruction: mountains of debris – refrigerators, furniture and trees all separated out. Or, there’s the person who set fire to his building on Main Street last weekend to collect on insurance. Everything feels transformed and oddly normal at the same time. But, when the air raid siren for the volunteer fire department goes off, you get an inner quaking of not-again.

The grocery store: gone, CVS collapsed and a row of shops on Main Street condemned with police tape around the doors that now stand perpetually open. One of the biggest issues here is the housing stock. Not the kind of fancy for second home-owners, but apartments and trailers, places lived in by the folks with the least. If that condemned row on Main Street is torn down (along with its 25 apartments) rebuilding there will be virtually impossible. Building standards would require it to be at least 8 feet high, the height of the highest flood.

The day after the flood I found an undamaged red, white and blue striped candle in the Freshtown parking lot. Now that candle is just the sort of thing I’d have thought tacky the day before, but among the slabs of torn-up asphalt, it seemed like hope itself. I put it at the foot of the store’s mascot, a chainsaw bear I wrote about in my first post on Margaretville. If anything is a marker of pre or post, it’s that the bear remains, and the area is tenacious in its rebuilding.

The region is open and businesses need support. If you love (or even like) Upstate New York, this is the time to visit. Leaves are turning, foliage beginning to take that brilliant hue of fall, and money is needed. Things are back to normal, or whatever the new normal is. And, despite the lingering raw feelings, businesses all along Route 28 are open – including most in Margaretville, Arkville and Fleischmanns.


The Kids Are Beyond Alright. They’re Darned Awesome.

This is my piece on the kids cleaning up Margaretville and other communities in this week's Catskill Mountain News. The story is part Frank Capra, but entirely true. I am super proud of the kids here.

Hundreds of bottles of Snapple, Pelegrino and Coke. French butter, anchovy paste, cheese and balsamic vinegar and jugs of pickles. All had to be thrown away.

The liquids dumped into the gutter, bottles opened and lined in rows on the curb to spill out, then held upside down to get out the last drops. The yellow jackets loved it, swarming trash bags and sidewalks, flying around arms and sticky legs. And there doing the work? Kids, girls, Margaretville’s teenagers. All there of their own accord. Across the village they were out in force helping clean up.

Ready to go

Margaretville business woman Sue Ilho says, “They showed up at 9:30 every day and said, ‘What can we do?’ They just showed up and helped Sweet Peas, The Flour Patch, me…” There was Kellsey Buerge and Cecilia Galatioto, Cora Bruno and Sami Hunt, Raeanne Bond and Rachel Mathiesen. On Monday they laughed and swatted at the yellow jackets.

They were covered in mud – dirty, sweaty, sticky – and hauling bags practically bigger than they were. It was surreal to see so much waste, and a week later Cecilia, says, “Even dumping out the pickles was hard. Sue has worked to build up all this.”

Difficult time Her voice chokes up as she describes the scene and says again, “It was really hard,” but the girls didn’t show that. No, they smiled. Cecilia explains, “We wanted to be cheerful. We decided we couldn’t let the owners see how upset we were.”

Next, they went to Sweet Peas’ basement and shoveled out four inches of mud, bucket by bucket, and then went to the school, just showing up wherever they might be needed. Sami Hunt is now in Arkville cooking in the firehall and compiling lists of kids who need school supplies. Her voice is quiet almost a whisper, as if to hide the sadness of the work. “For each grade,” she says, “we have a list of five or six names.”

Many heroes

There have been countless heroic moments this past week, some small some big, but in this all the local kids have shined. You see them in videos of the cleanup, filling trash bags at the school. All of the children have been saddened by the losses. By Sunday some couldn’t face a sixth day in town.

Twelve-year-old Kevin Hubbell says, “It’s awful to see the place you pass through every day trashed to pieces.” He and his sister Erin are now officially Roxbury Central School students, yet they asked their mom to bring them with her when she came to the village at eight on Monday morning. They went to the thrift store where Erin was driving the backhoe, getting out soggy, muddy boxes.

Tess Svoboda worked in the village and then at her own job afterward. Her mother Pat said that on Tess’s Facebook wall, she’d written, “Everything I know is gone.” The effects of the flood will be profound for these kids, but they’re proud of their village. Their parents didn’t tell them to volunteer. They just came.

Returns home to help

Casey Hubbell was at college when the storm hit, and as soon as classes were done on Thursday, she was back. She and her cousin Erin helped clean the tennis courts. Both said the work was disgusting, Casey describing it as “four inches of mud like Silly Putty” and called the smell a combination clay and oil and something we can’t quite print here.

Now she’s down in Dry Brook with her father Rudd Hubbell where Casey is driving excavators and back hoes, articulated dump trucks as the workers try to claw out some kind of road and return the river to its course. She says she’ll be back again next Thursday and on into the future as long as she’s needed.

Countless others have helped, more than the News could track down by press time. Matthew and Jason Grey moved hay bales stranded on Main Street and hauled in the first loads of Red Cross food to the firehall on Sunday night as it still rained.

From young children to those who’ve recently left for college, they’ve come to clean the soccer fields and muck out basements. If the children are the future, our area has a strong one.

When asked her hopes after the flood, Erin said, “We’ve all been working well together, and I want that to continue because our community has gotten a lot closer and stronger.”