Backroads of Jewett in Greene County
New York Makers recently visited, and fell in love with, Greene County.
With an energetic spring awakening finally replacing the last traces of snow, droves of weekenders venturing out of their winter dens are rediscovering Greene County, a historic haven in the Catskills now pulsing with a vibrant art and food scene, while also offering all the attractions of the great outdoors.
Greene County, located on the west side of the Hudson River just minutes from the hotspot of Hudson (under an hour’s drive from Albany and some 120 miles northwest of New York City), was created in 1800, a swath of about 658 square miles, 11 of which are water, carved out between Albany and Ulster Counties. So what is behind the resurgence of this once-vibrant, then long-overlooked, community? The confluence of its long-time attractive features drawing creatives, celebrities, and others seeking urban retreat, with a new wave of entrepreneurial attention, seems to be at the heart of its rebirth.
The gorgeous land itself, is where it all begins. While much of Greene County is flat, the Catskill Mountains range over its southern and western areas. Catskill Park, with some of the tallest peaks south of the Adirondacks -- including 4,040-foot Hunter Mountain -- harbors some of the most exquisite hiking and strolling, wildflower, and picnicking spots in the state.
Hunter Mountain in the Summer (left), North South Lake Tannersville (right)
With population density in Greene County being approximately 74 people per square mile, versus 27,000 people per square mile in New York City, according to census data, the attraction is easy to understand.
In 1894, the New York Legislature declared Catskill Park “forever wild,” protecting its natural splendor in perpetuity. So, even as the region becomes more popular, its Zen vibe should remain as serenely unthreatened as ever.
Windham path (left), Catskill Mountains (right)
Greene County has captivated artists with its rugged beauty since the beginning. It is especially known for Hudson River School artists who memorialized vistas that visitors can still see today, including the one enshrined in Thomas Cole’s famous The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826).
Thomas Cole's The Falls of Kaaterskill, oil on canvas (1826)
In the following decades, towns filled with lovely Victorian homes. Then, easy railroad access via the Ulster and Delaware County railroad lines built in the later portion of the 19th century meant more people from a variety of backgrounds could come in on the fly. In addition to artists and full-time residents, Greene County attracted a whole new cadre of middle-class Americans from various backgrounds looking for some rest and relaxation. With them came luxurious hotels, like the Hotel Kaaterskill and the Catskill Mountain House.
The Great Depression between 1929 and 1939 created a series of challenges and opportunities for the region, and, by the 1950s, Greene County had changed rapidly. Dirty Dancing-style summer fun — pools by day, dancing and shows by night — had become the norm, at least in the southern edge of Greene County, which shared a bit of the Catskill Mountains’ Borscht Belt with neighboring Sullivan and Ulster Counties. (For a fun read about the comedic Catskills tradition, see New York Makers' Comedy in the Catskills: Remembering The Borscht Belt.) Gradually though, the Borscht Belt lost its appeal. By the turn of the 21st century, much of the county was in what felt like a permanent slump.
But, within the past decade, a new day has bloomed for Greene County. Pioneering entrepreneurs saw opportunity. Celebrities and artists sought anonymity, space, and gorgeous scenery. (Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, Yoko Ono, Uma Thurman, Robert De Niro, Steve Buscemi, Kelsey Grammer, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe, among others, have all been rumored to have homes in or around the Catskill Mountains.) And the rest of us soon followed.
This rejuvenating and endearing Greene County is the one New York Makers recently (re)discovered. The land and the history were initially the draws for us, yes, but when we strolled the streets of its towns, we delighted in finding a series of architecturally-charming mountain communities with “great bones”, spry with new businesses, as well as some familiar older ones that managed to weather the region’s period of neglect.
Common white siding with green trim exteriors
With more suggestions in our companion article New York Makers’ Guide to Exploring Greene County, here are topline things not to miss. Upon arrival, first seek out a few rugged mountain vistas (hit Route 28A toward 42 and buckle in for a winding drive through forests between hairpin curving cliffs in the Catskill Mountains), then check out the new art scene. The vibrant Greene County’s Council On the Arts has all of the latest info on upcoming exhibits, receptions, galas, and auctions. When you are hungry, find delicious farm-to-table fare at Bonfiglio & Bread in the rivertown of Athens (keep an eye on Athens, one of the big up-and- “coming-back” stories). Explore critically acclaimed breweries and wineries too numerous to list or miss -- follow the Catskills Beverage Trail to find out why. And shop the many funky stores, like Ulla Darni’s Blue Pearl, which is packed to the gills with imports, custom chandeliers, and Danish art. Then, go back to the heart of Greene County: wondrous nature. Take a deep breath. Stare at some hay or something. If you squint hard enough, you may even spot a contemporary celebrity wandering among lush Mountain Maples or checking out a farm stand. Remember to keep your cool. Just like the Catskills itself wants to keep it, life here is about being undisturbed.
Written with contributions by Audra Herman, New York Makers' Marketplace Director, and Amanda DiRobella, New York Makers' Editor in Chief.
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