Five months ago, a visit to the local bookstore-cum-bar or farmers market meant a minimum two-hour outing; one couldn’t take a few steps without bumping into another friend or acquaintance. Now, I go to the farmers market and strain over my mask to recognize anyone but the farmers themselves; everyone, it seems, is new here.
At the same time that Kingston real estate has become a shiny lure for moneyed city folk, the suffering of those most vulnerable has become less visible and more dire. As the county seat, Kingston is the rare town in Ulster County with walkable or bus access to grocery stores, legal services, and jobs. As such, it has long had a sizable population of renters, and many who were just making ends meet before have been pushed to the brink of desperation, and face losing their homes through eviction. Kingston is facing the potential loss of people who’ve kept our community vibrantly diverse, not to mention alive and functioning.
In April, I started working as a volunteer delivering emergency food relief to needy residents, and driving to their homes has revealed more of my own city to me: carefully hidden housing projects and apartment complexes, motels where people are seeking long-term refuge, and, more and more often, rental units right next door to speculatively priced homes.
It forces me to turn the lens on myself, as I sit on my rebuilt back deck, reaping the benefits of my own move only a few years ago: did we really care about the gentrifying forces we were a part of then, or have we been so buffered by our privilege that “caring” was merely a costume we donned for visits to one of the less affluent neighborhood’s playgrounds? What I know is that the way we’ve grown to care is by virtue of our daily proximity to, and interactions with, the many human beings among whom we live, work, and raise our children.
To willfully ignore the people who live on a city’s margins is one thing, but to be unable to see those people at all is entirely another. Will our new neighbors understand the widening gap they’re contributing to? Will they care?
Which raises the question: with our city still shuttered, and with the few spaces where we could actually encounter one another closed for the foreseeable future as we pass one another, masked and silent in the streets, how will we come into relationship with these newcomers, and they with us? How do we find cohesion when we’ve been turned inside out? What does it mean to be a city so quickly remade?
Sara B. Franklin is a co-author of the “Phoenicia Diner Cookbook,” along with her husband, Chris Bradley and the restaurant’s owner, Mike Cioffi, and a professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and the Wallkill Correctional Facility.
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