Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sad days in Hudson

The past few days have been the first days since I moved to Hudson that I have felt really sad. The trigger was my exploration on Monday of Hudson's barren industrial areas—Hudson Avenue, Route 9, Power Avenue, Dock Street, and the waterfront. I've wandered into these areas many times over the past four months, but in seeing all the empty, underused, and falling down buildings in the space of an hour, and in realizing how many lives have been hurt by the loss of jobs, I felt overwhelmed.

[photo from]

But if it is overwhelming to be confronted directly by a big problem, it is truly dispiriting to not be allowed to talk about it. Such a prohibition seems to hang over Hudson today. In the wake of the defeat of the Saint Lawrence Cement plant, some Hudsonians now oppose all industry within Hudson's borders, regardless of its size, shape, or ownership, and will not tolerate any conversations on industry. They seek to ostracize those who suggest that industry might deserve a place in Hudson's future, and greet even the most neutral comment or question with suspicion. Any view that is not stridently anti-industry risks being construed as evidence that one is a closet SLC supporter, a hater of the natural environment, and an enemy of all that is good and beautiful about Hudson and the Hudson Valley. You're either with us or against us, the anti-industry crowd seems to think, and if you go looking for gray area between those two positions it’s probably because your secret goal is to sneak a 400-foot-tall toxic smokestack onto a nearby mountaintop.

I do not know what legitimate social, economic, cultural, or moral basis there could be for staking out an ironclad anti-industry position. Even ecology-based arguments against industry (e.g., prohibiting industry on the waterfront will allow the causeway to continue returning to a more natural state) are of dubious merit when considered in a broad global context. Banishing industry from Hudson simply means its negative impacts will be felt somewhere else in the world, because consumer demand for manufactured goods persists. And its new location likely will be within the borders of a nation that lacks the environmental oversight we are capable of in the United States. Which means that banishing industry from Hudson ultimately causes more ecological damage than it prevents. Which turns the ostensibly high-minded, ecology-based argument into little more than a provincial argument: "I don't want industry here because it's where I am."

NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard-ism) has a multiplier effect that even further endangers the natural environment: As one American city after another banishes industrial activity from its borders, those activities become consolidated in their eventual locations as larger, more singular entities. The resulting mammoth projects produce the worst environmental and aesthetic nightmares: Instead of five thousand scattered factories producing five thousand comparatively small sets of environmental issues, one enormous factory in one place brings more harm to its local environment than it can reasonably be expected to absorb.

This brings us to a painful irony: because industrial prohibition increases the scale of industrial development elsewhere, the eviction of industry from Hudson increases the likelihood, however incrementally, that some other small city will have to fend off an SLC-scale nightmare. Such would be the worst possible legacy for our victory over SLC: to have realized it at the expense of another city.

There is only one valid way for a city to assert an anti-industry argument, and that is to reduce its demand for manufactured goods to zero. Since Hudson is not doing this, we need to accept the moral and practical weight for how we live. We need to match our demand for manufactured goods with the responsibility for producing them. I don't mean we should have an automobile factory because many of us drive automobiles, or knitting mills because we wear sweaters. But we need to be willing to match our overall demand for manufactured goods with a willingness to manufacture some goods here in comparatively large numbers. We need to manufacture more storm doors or wigs or buttons than we use ourselves, as we once did, to keep our manufacturing responsibility on balance with what we demand from the rest of the world. To refuse to do so is to consider oneself, or one’s city, a special case. Perhaps you will want to argue that we are a special case, but every other municipality, county, and river valley in the country has its own reasons to make that same claim. We can either wait in line with the rest of them in the hope we will be anointed the holy one, or we can start getting realistic.

What does getting realistic mean? That we ought to accept the next outrageous SLC-scale proposal that comes along? Not at all. In fact, we need to get entirely past the ridiculous, widely accepted notion that economic development means "attracting" businesses from somewhere else. Real, meaningful economic development—the kind that not only provides jobs but that interweaves basic human needs for self-actualization, creativity, and cultural enrichment—has to come from the community itself. Further, if economic development is to be genuinely creative and meaningful, in the words of the late Jane Jacobs, “you can’t decide ahead of time what activities you want to see. Economic life is full of surprises, and if you decide what you’re going to base your economy on — what do you have to think about? Things that already exist. You’re ruling out innovation right away, and yet innovation is of the essence for a live and prospering economy.” I am sure Jacobs would have agreed that innovation is of the essence for a truly vibrant culture as well.

I arrived in Hudson at an interesting time, to say the least. It is a time at which the city is very, very unsure what it should become next. This uncertainty is itself a big part of what drew us here. The only certainty that seems to exist is that Hudson will not be the home of a mammoth cement plant. But the struggle to not be something is very different from a concerted effort to be something, to shape and pursue a genuinely inclusive vision of the future, to work as a community toward it, and to willingly accept the headaches that come with it. The anti-industry, arts and recreation-based vision of Hudson's future really isn’t a vision at all, it’s a simplistic extension of the what-we-don’t-want-to-be mode of thinking with a few innocuous activities thrown into the mix. The resulting picture appeals to a small, influential group of Hudsonians that do not directly depend on the making of things for their own well-being, and they somehow seek to translate this narrowness into a model for everyone else to adhere to. But if a gallery walk, some window shopping, and dinner at a waterfront restaurant constitute a full urban day for this set, it is incredibly self-centered of them to think that an urban community can subsist on such a narrow range of activities. I enjoy these activities myself, but to turn them into the totality of the future of Hudson is to subject much of the city to a dearth of employment opportunities, not to mention a first class yawn festival.

In my recent review of Miriam Silverman's Stopping the Plant, I ended with a question posed by the author toward the end of her book: Who gets to determine the direction of development in a community? I think most reasonable people would agree it should be the community itself—the entire community, not just a vocal fraction whose personal circumstances allow them to get out in front of and control the dialogue.

To this end, Hudson needs to embrace a patient, inclusive, human-scaled model of economic development that builds organically and creatively on who we are and what we have—warts and all—from the bottom up. And right now, we have people of ambition, talent, and need sitting idly all over our city (although more north of Warren Street than south of it) who could become productive businesspersons in their homes if they weren't forbidden to do so by intrusive regulations and the fears of the anti-industry set. Up and down State and Columbia Streets, in living rooms, bedrooms, and garages, residents could be opening repair shops, second hand stores, weaving studios, cafes, and a thousand other things we can't predict in advance, if only our economic development environment didn't force them to forever sit on their hands. In time, a few of these mom and pop entrepreneurs would outgrow their home locations and move to Hudson’s outlying industrial areas, where they would become exporters to other parts of the world. These industries would not only be in Hudson, they would be of Hudson.

What an exciting and original city Hudson would become, if only we were willing to let it be.


  1. THANK YOU for this post. You have adequately and eloquently made an argument I could never have articulated, but have been trying to formulate as I've pursued a self-education of Hudson issues (I'm a relative new-comer). I, too, have felt sadness over what's been "lost" in Hudson, from historic buildings (I'm thinking of, say, the General Worth Hotel), to jobs and industry (now I'm thinking of the Pocketbook Factory, in its many incarnations; and more recently and therefore importantly, the loss of Kaz). Additionally, I'm like a broken record when it comes to sharing my thoughts on what Hudson needs in order to move forward: JOBS. Hand-in-hand with that, every Hudsonian needs PURPOSE; to feel they are contributing to the betterment of our community, that the part they have to play and the gifts they have to offer are valued.

    Your vision for Hudson's future is inspiring, exciting, appropriate, and worth strong consideration. I admire that you're keeping in mind the environmental and economic well-being of other communities and countries, not just Hudson and our own interests. I, too, have been frustrated by the "absolutely no industry" ideal for Hudson's future. Frankly, it doesn't seem realistic OR all that interesting. The groups and individuals vying for this approach are attention-getting, leaving me wary of sharing a differing opinion. After reading your post, I won't worry about that anymore. Now I know I'm not alone in my thinking.

    What will the big picture of Hudson Future look like? How can we guide the development process toward lasting vibrancy? A two-word answer immediately comes to mind: careful stewardship. An applicable definition of stewardship is "a cooperative planning and management of resources, by individuals, communities, and organizations in the interest of long-term sustainability." My observation is that Hudson and Hudsonians have not always been the best stewards; perhaps due to hardship, lack of jobs, money, education. I've also observed that leadership and direction are not often agreed upon. I'm afraid the forest is being missed for the trees. But it doesn't have to remain so. There is much to be done in Hudson to organize, develop, and realize our future. Myself, I've only taken small steps to "mobilize" and participate in the process, but I will keep participating and paying attention-- particularly to your blog, your ideas. The "state" we are in IS cause for feeling overwhelmed and sad. But I feel very hopeful and inspired by your vision. THANK YOU for sharing it. Please keep on!

  2. Mathew,

    Who and where are the "absolutely no industry" people? I've lived here 20 years and don't know anyone who fits that description. I would be delighted if the Pocketbook Factory, the Cannonball Factory, McGuire Door, the Allen St. School, KAZ, the Button Factory, and L & B Furniture were all fully occupied by people producing goods or offering services. And everyone I know would be thrilled to see mom-and-pop enterprises flourishing in homes along our city streets.

    And along with that, I'm absolutely opposed to the trashing of our waterfront and South Bay by corporations from Switzerland and Connecticut, both of whom have a well-documented history of abusive behavior, and are offering little in the way of upside economic development.

    But I look forward to your answer-- where do I find all the people you refer to who are supposedly unwilling to see our empty industrial structures utilized? There has been a recent rumor circulating that indeed the Cannonball Factory has entered into a leasing arrangement with a marketing and distribution firm that promises to bring a significant number of new jobs, and everyone I've spoken with responded with a hearty 'Hallelujah!'

  3. Reusethematerialgirl,

    Thanks so much for your enthusiastic and supportive comments. Thanks for simply "getting it." I hope you stick around Hudson! Please stay in touch.

  4. Peter, thank you for your note. Unfortunately, you seem to be expecting me to publicly identify individuals that have expressed opinions to me in private, which I don’t think would be appropriate. (Public comments by the same individuals are obviously another matter.) But I will offer a few reactions to your comments. (My apologies if this gets windy... I’ve lifted some in-process thoughts from another post I've been working on.)

    Firstly, I will freely admit it is possible that the perception I and others have of an anti-industry faction in Hudson is inaccurate, despite our efforts to be fair. But it is also possible that the people we perceive as anti-industry really ARE anti-industry despite what they think is true about themselves. There is a place where worldviews diverge, and the holder of one worldview cannot grasp--at least, not without giving up much that is dear to him--the validity of the other view. Both worldviews might perceive the same thing on the surface (e.g., an industrial building), but there may be all kinds of systems and relationships at work behind the scenes that are effectively invisible to and/or devalued by, one of the worldviews.

    I suspect that may be the case here... that the sect (faction? group?) in question accepts industry in a literal, finite sense (e.g., as a specific, 250-person employer arriving from somewhere else to “tenant” an existing Hudson industrial building), but doesn’t support the behind-the-scenes processes that predated that arrival and without which there would be no arrival. Obviously, a 250-person industry doesn’t materialize on the face of the earth fully formed. At some previous point it had to be a smaller entity, and a smaller entity some time before that, and at some point it was simply two people in a shed on an alley bolting together odd pieces of metal (or some such activity). If a city doesn’t make conceptual and physical room for the small industry in the shed on the alley, it isn’t pro industry; it’s simply cherrypicking the clean fruits of a process taking place somewhere else. And without the process, there is no product, and therefore such a model is not a sustainable one.

    I do not see a willingness among members of the (real or perceived) anti-industry set to make room for the more ad hoc stages of industrial development. (BTW, let me be clear: the core of this conversation is MANUFACTURING activities, not simply paper pushing.) What I see is an expectation that entrepreneurial endeavors emerge fully formed and aesthetically perfect. I hear and overhear examples of this thinking in Hudson nearly every day. To wit, the comments and e-mails I received in response to my earlier posting on ad hoc entrepreneurship indicated that some Hudsonians cannot accept models of businesses creation that don’t involve a masters degree, a formal business plan, a capital-intensive investment, and a fully formed entity on the first day of business. Such is a safe, static understanding of commerce that tends to work only for persons with access to formal channels of advancement and for industries of the most innocuous, clean-hands variety. [cont.]

  5. There’s more. When that 250-person industry tenants a given building, its activities need to be interdependent with those of other local industries if the model is to be sustainable. Perhaps it outsources some aspects of metal fabrication to a small business, hires independent machinists to service its production lines, or engages some post-college youngsters to conduct R&D. It is this scattering of developmental industrial activity that builds a sustainable network of economic opportunity, advancement, financial reward, and skill building among a wide range of citizens. These smaller, fledgling industries typically need to be located in places with low overhead and in proximity to where their operators live. This is an aspect of industry that is easily missed, even though you can see the evidence of its existence in Hudson’s past--in various odd buildings on our streets and alleys, used today for non-industrial purposes (or that have disappeared). Without this scattering of odd little buildings and industries, the process of creating and growing industries is hampered. And when that big industrial building comes to lie fallow, there won’t be other industries nearby that are in the process of growing organically into filling it. Instead, the building will lie fallow for a long, long time while an arduous search is conducted for another external industry to fill it. As more years go by, the mere rumor of a possible tenant gives reason for a “Hallelujah!” Under a sustainable business model, however, such an occurrence wouldn't be a remarkable thing.

    I have spoken with other Hudsonians who have experiences similar to my own, experiences that have led them to also conclude that an anti-industry set resides in our midst. A middle-aged businessman, in Hudson for a time comparable to yourself, says he frequently feels exasperated by a small, influential group that has a stunning intolerance for the smallest displays of disorder. Ditto for a twenty-something young woman, born and raised here, who singled out a specific gallery owner (I’ll call “X”) that she feels reacts stridently and repeatedly against “anything that isn’t gallery friendly or for the upper classes.” I must say that my own experiences with this very gallery owner are a match (although I do not wish to conclude that all gallery owners are of the same feather): X once voiced to me a viscerally angry reaction to a store a dozen doors away that had some (admittedly unfortunate) duct tape patches on its front window for several months. X is even angry that the store has a blinking Budweiser sign. Should I really believe this gallery owner is prepared to accept the realities of industry in Hudson when such things lead to such distress? Should I think it likely that X would accept a welder in the back alley next door to X’s business? Does it seem likely X is willing to engage in the personal give and take called for by such proximities when X was unwilling to speak directly with the store owner about the duct tape problem? And what should I make of the fact that when I directly asked X on several occasions, both in person and via e-mail, to have an dialogue with me about these kinds of issues, I was ignored? How could I not conclude that X is anti-industry and anti-dialogue?

  6. Peter, you claim that “everyone [you] know would be thrilled to see mom-and-pop enterprises flourishing in homes along our city streets.” Well, I have had no problem finding people in the much shorter time I’ve been here that won't entertain for a minute a suggestion of shops on Union or Allen streets. Too, a city administrator told me that zoning was changed in some areas of the city a few years ago to prohibit mom and pop businesses, including benign ones, from arising on a number of city streets. Before I moved to Hudson, I took a city alderman to lunch to discuss the value of mom and pop home-based enterprise, including manufacturing related activities. The alderman didn’t simply disagree with me, but got up and left the table in a huff. Gallery owner “X,” who was present at that lunch, suggested that my passion for Mom and Pop businesses amounted to a “jihad.” Now, I actually like many things about X and am grateful for the time X spent in showing my partner and me around Hudson. But I can't say that he and these other people are promoting a comfortable environment for dialogue.

    More: What should I and others conclude of the stream of newspaper articles and blog postings articulating a future Hudson economy based on arts, tourism, and recreation? What should I make of the near or total silence in such media regarding manufacturing? What else is one to conclude when some local commenters continually set forth proposals for museums and the like while volunteering effectively no ideas on those aspects of our economy that are less aesthetically palatable but more necessary?

    Again, Peter, maybe our perceptions of an anti-industry, anti-dialogue faction are wrong. Being wrong would certainly make the efforts of those who are pro-industry easier, and it would be better for Hudson. So I hope you will help the ostensibly anti-industry faction show how they are being misunderstood. I hope you and they will come forward and join forces in articulating a detailed industrial vision for Hudson. I look forward to working together on rezoning our streets and pursuing other measures that will make Hudson a place in which as many citizens as possible are involved in its economic and urban growth.

  7. It's always a mistake not to listen to Peter, because one always can learn from his insights...

    Peter asks just the right question: Does this caricature of "anti-industry" sentiment actually exist? No doubt one could find *someone* who sort of fits the Limbaughesque description of a treehugging NIMBY. In a City, there will always be someone who fits any bill. (Heck, I know a guy locally who claims never to have eaten any vegetable besides a potato... But I digress.)

    The problem comes when one extrapolates from the extreme 1/10th of 1% to generalize about whole populations.

    Consider this: The largest manufacturer in Columbia County (at the time of the plant controversy) became, after long consideration, a staunch plant opponent. His rationale was economic: The scale of the project meant it posed a real potential for grave harm, and coupled with the company's dishonest dealings with the community he concluded it was a threat to all other economic hopes for the area. How's a person like that fit into these neat categories of "anti-industry" or "pro-environment"?

    Over 200 other business of many different descriptions signed onto a Statement of Business Values. The signatories represented well over 1,000 full-time (and additional part-time) jobs in and around Hudson. The Statement was as much or more about a vision for smart, sustainable, meaningful economic development as it was about how SLC was incompatible with 99% of all other businesses.

    Or consider Paul and Nancy of HAVE Inc.—primarily a manufacturer of audio/visual equipment—were among the earliest plant opponents. They required me and the SLC reps to come to their offices and present detailed arguments before they decided where they stood. And I know no manufacturers more committed to a local economy... Their goal for the past 30-plus years had been to have as much of their workforce as possible be able to walk to work as possible.

    The list goes on and on of people who don't fit neat "us vs. them" categories.

    Now, back when I moved to Hudson in the '90s, McGuire's, Kaz, the Button Factory and L&B were all still open, along with HAVE and Dinosaw and more. This was not a deterrent to moving to Hudson; it was a feature, though the styrene fumes from the Button Factory were often pungeant at my house. The disappearance of those businesses had absolutely zero to do any anti-industry agitation (there was none against them), and everything to do with the perils of a global, borderless market for labor and incentives.

    Nor did I encounter back then anyone who was turned off by what you've elsewhere described as Hudson's "messiness." Indeed, the City's rough edges and peculiar history are still a key asset, in that the people already here, like those who move here, don't want to live in a sterile, homogeneous place.


    Most people, regardless of how long they've lived here, think that places like the Fugary Boat Club ought to be assisted, not ejected. It's City Hall that's pushing to oust them, not those pegged as preservationists or environmentalists. Yet these categorizing impulses (their people think this, our people think that) persist.

    As posted elsewhere, many "new" residents joined with "old-timers" (I dislike even using those terms) to try to keep Gold's Junkyard here; we lost that one to the very same "pro-industry" pols who supported SLC.

    It was a favorite slogan of the SLC p.r. flacks that their opponents were "against everything," so its all the more dismaying to see industry-created terms like NIMBY bandied about here. (Pete Seeger says that word should be spelled with an I, for Now I Must Be Involved. Another of their favorite acronym, straight out of the astroturfing playbook, was BANANA—for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere, or something like that.)

    Nevermind that things get built all over the place, all the time, without any opposition. If you oppose one thing, you automatically must be branded as against them all.

    Indeed in 13 years locally, I've only seen sustained opposition to two industrial proposals, both of them extraordinarily large and exceptionally ill-advised: a massive coal-burning plant, and a toxic waste plant. While the lion's share of attention has been focused on the SLC and Americlean battles, hundreds of businesses have quietly opened or continued to coexist without controversy.

    Why, then, make the rare exception the general rule?

    Still we find elsewhere here at Hudson Urbanism that the waterfront debate is mischaracterized as one between industry and the "environmentalists," though the main objections to the draft plan concern how to develop the riverfront intelligently as much or more than ecosystem threats.

    After all, what does "pro-industry" or "anti-industry" mean, anyway? Does it mean smokestack industry, or widget manufacture, or high-tech, or cottage industry? Who actually opposes all of these forms of industry, regardless of the details? Let's at least be specific about terms, and ground them in actual evidence. Let's test theories against actual events and history, and get out among real, live people rather than getting sucked into cartoonish, cardboard versions of our friends and neighbors.

    --Sam Pratt

    P.S. Ask me sometime about the antics of Silverman and her lawyer shortly before her book's publication.