Mark Greene has an Emmy, one of the better looking of the big gold-tinted statuettes that can make the difference between an expensive hobby and a career. His company, Pecos Design, won the 2007 Broadband Public Service Emmy Award for the animation “Big Fun With Global Warming” which it created for the Sierra Club. Mark is one of the three-dozen-odd artistic urban technophiles I met during my four-year stint living on West Chestnut Street in what I like to refer to as the “Rondout Heights” neighborhood of Kingston. He and his actress ex-wife and former business partner, Sharron Bower Greene, and their son Gus, used to live in a lovely hillside home in Bohemian/Park Slopian splendor on what they cobbled together from the freelance earnings they wrung out of the technological and artistic ether. Like many of their likeminded compatriots, they were transplanted New Yorkers who appreciated the relative affordability of Kingston, as well as the edgy quasi-urban sense of discomfort it provided to tweak their artistic natures from time to time. They have split up and moved back to New York, but Mark's dream remains alive for others whose trek upstate was fostered by his efforts.
The Great Recession may have put a temporary crimp in the flow of burned-out Manhattanites and Brooklynites gushing northward into the Hudson Valley to work the new global economy from a couch in a Midtown Kingston coffee shop, but the impetus is still there. Even with the price-skewing Wall Street thugs out of the way, New York City remains one of the most economically unforgiving places to ply one’s trade, while it continues to reign as a global center of artistic and technological innovation. The dream for hundreds of thousands of beleaguered Internet-based entrepreneurs and artists remains to ditch the expensive, postage-stamp-sized apartment, put some distance between themselves and the next terrorism target and find a cheap loft space or house in a small, reasonably funky and aesthetically pleasing city within a day’s drive of Manhattan that has enough crack vials and uncollected garbage lying around to remind them of home.
This line of thinking, which on the face of it is not particularly original, led Mark Greene, a guy with plenty of originality and more than a little chutzpah, to turn the concept over in his head, looking for a way to wrestle a potential profit center out of it. He came up with a brainstorm. Having lived in Kingston long enough to witness its cash-starved mayor and economic development people falling all over themselves trying to woo a succession of big-pocketed developers into cozy tax-exempt deals to build luxury housing without any tangible result, he developed a PR-driven economic development plot of his own for the mayor and company to try on for size. Dubbing Kingston the “Upstate Digital Tech-Friendly City,” Greene’s initiative, which he developed while catching the ear of former Mayor James Sottile in a series of e-mail exchanges a few years ago, is now an official campaign, having been touted by Sottile in his annual “State of the City” address to the common council in February of 2008. The initiative was dutifully reported in the local media, as well as by WAMC’s intrepid former Hudson Valley bureau chief, Susan Barnett, and gained traction as Greene hit up everybody he knew in person and through online social networking tools like Facebook to spread the word with their techie friends.
Personally, I would like nothing better than to lure all my friends and family, tech-savvy or not, to Kingston, a city I have grown to love not in spite of, but because of its surly reputation. So, to that end, I’ve retooled a little paean to my former town in the hopes of luring some of my delightfully misanthropic NYC-based associates who may otherwise have missed Mark’s message. For every successful transplant I coax to cross the city line to buy or rent, I’ll gladly accept a 5 percent cut of the resultant tax windfall.
As an incubator of pointless anger, Kingston is ground zero in the Mid-Hudson. It has been a crucible of dark feelings since the dawn of recorded time. That a fat loser chose the local mall to act out his frustrations with a semi-automatic rifle is not an anomaly. It’s more like the tip of the iceberg.
Indeed a lot of the music, as well as the art and writing of Kingston and environs seems to feature this same high degree of unexplained anger and frustration. While anger is a common response to growing up and seeing for the first time what a manure pile your parents have left you, there’s more to it than that, especially in Kingston. The anger emanating from here is more than just personal. It’s not just a reaction to the vapidity of general existence in 21st-century America. There’s a historical aspect to it. It’s ancient — and nasty. Like a curse.
For almost 500 years, Kingston and environs has slowly deteriorated at the hands of the European mercantile class that still runs things today. Their swords, musket balls, fires and bacteria wiped out the Esopus Indians, and their great-great-great-grandchildren remain in place as the landlords, judges, lawyers and bureaucrats who decide who gets a building permit. They still lord it over the swarthy lower classes, giving all the crap jobs to undocumented Latinos glad to work five to a Social Security number. In Midtown, beat-down descendants of the slaves from Africa who worked the fields and lugged the stones that built all these marvelous, historic Ulster houses hang on by a thread, as everywhere else in America, and the southern European and Mediterranean classes, while eventually managing to “pass” as WASPs and wrestle some of the local power away from them, still occasionally squabble over the right to fix their toilets or haul away their filthy garbage. It’s not hard to imagine at least one dying, pissed-off Indian laying a curse on the Dutch and English usurpers of this once beautiful land, judging from what has happened since.
Because Kingston surely seems cursed. It’s a true post-industrial wasteland, largely populated by the progeny of underemployed factory workers left over after it was stripped of its original white-man’s purpose as an iron-smelting, brick-making, mining backwater. When these industries died and left the town a rusting hulk, IBM came in and finished the job, making sure to dump millions of tons of toxic chemicals into the streams and aquifers before they split and left half the population without a job. Check out the cancer death rates in Kingston and Lake Katrine, out by the mall. They’re the highest in the state, and it’s not a secret why.
This cursed, toxic evilness is affecting the art coming out of Kingston, whether the artists know it or not. In this environment it’s only natural that punk remains alive and well, even as its anger fades elsewhere. CBGB might be just a fond memory in NYC, but here two hard-drinking, dissipated yet highly intelligent Kingston punks thrash about onstage at The Forum, turning their obsessive fear of a super-volcano lurking beneath Yellowstone National Park into screaming, distorted art. Down the street a grimacing singer growls “Murder murder, death and murder,” as dancers hurl themselves into each other. Another band’s lead singer tries to mitigate his natural nice-guy lyrical tendencies by throwing furniture at the crowd. People are getting drunk, acting badly, letting their anger fly, starting fights over nothing.
Kingston has always had a nasty reputation. My good friend Spike, a Kingston native who was a roommate in a dingy party apartment when I lived in Albany, was perhaps the angriest young man I ever met. He was a short, seething fireplug of a kid who carried a German luger, and wasn’t afraid to use it if his fists failed him, which was never. On a bet, he once beat the tar out of a black belt kick-boxer in the ring, using only his hands and his vicious, pit-bull nature. He personified Kingston, and told me many of the urban Kingston legends that defined the place for me. Now that I have lived there, I can see he wasn’t lying.
Kingston will remain angry, even as the carpetbaggers and tech geeks move in and take over the slums, trying to gentrify the place. No amount of pastel paint and fancy brick sidewalks will change that. The city still has freight trains running through it carrying garbage, toxic chemicals, plutonium bars and God knows what else that’s emanating and leaking into the brains of the poor saps who live along the tracks. Brain-rotting drugs are still being concocted in local coke and meth labs. Countless thousands of rusting 55-gallon drums leaching perchlorethylene and trichloroethane into the water table are still buried under every school, shopping plaza and sports complex. Even if all this poison doesn’t give us cancer, which it eventually will, it’s giving us headaches and making us as angry as treed wolverines.
But again, all of this is why I like Kingston, and would have never moved away had there been a real choice in the matter. I like its stubborn post-apocalyptic vibe, and that it will never be tamed. Then there’s the entertainment factor, as half the people you see walking down the street are fantastically ugly and hilariously dressed in ways I have never seen anywhere outside of an old Star Trek episode.
I like the edgy feeling of walking into a bar not knowing if some jockomo is going to blow his top and start punching people. And I like Kingston’s pointlessly pissed-off arts and music scene, and how people have a way of expressing themselves by yelling at the top of their lungs.
If this Kingston-based geek initiative can somehow bottle that anger and sell it to the angry masses yearning to break free of the Big, Rotten Apple, it should do just fine. Good luck, Mark, and I hope this helps.