Saturday, June 4, 2011

Welcome to the Town of Olive

Outside of Olive Bridge, New York, on 213 close to the Ashokan Reservoir, a sign says:

Welcome to the Town of Olive

Hawking, Peddling, and Soliciting Forbidden Without Permit

Building Permits Required

It’s worth unpacking each line, for every statement reveals something of the complexity of what probably seems to tourists (if any of them venture here), a pretty if slightly down-at-heel rural hamlet. They’d be more interested in the rambling barn-with-a-barn-connected-to-a-shed-with-a-barn-and-another-shed-not-to-mention-that-tractor-shelter down toward the bottom of the hill, or the gleaming little once-a-church Rebekah Lodge with the brand new standing-seam roof that hasn’t done much to attract buyers. The real estate agency is on its third sign, not just because the agent has changed, but because each winter weathers the plywood and each summer bleaches out the silkscreened logo for Better Homes and Gardens Realtors or Westwood Metes and Bounds or Mary Collins Realty. On 213, you see so many realtor’s signs that it’s hard to remember which one goes where.

The town boundary sign is a work of antiquity. The welcome isn’t from Olive Bridge (or, as the feds have it, Olivebridge, though everyone says they’re wrong). Olive is the town; Olive Bridge is the village or hamlet. The distinction dates back centuries; it was a means of sweeping rural outliers into a taxing body that’s responsible for roads, jails, and the like. You won’t actually find a town of Olive—just when you think you have, you’ll see the sign welcoming you to the village of Olive Bridge.

The first warning beneath takes you back to one dark period in Olive Bridge history: to 1903, when New York City made a preemptive strike at water rights in the Catskills, took over a huge swath of land, some of it by condemnation, some by acquisition from the state. Over a ten year period, the city engineers and workers built a massive infrastructure project, including a dam, causeways, spillways, and pumping stations. In 1913, the dam closed Esopus Creek flooding thousands of acres of farmland, and thousands more of forest, and sinking a string of villages and hamlets whose residents had been bought out in condemnation proceedings. Between 1912 and 1914, the Esopus had become one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the United States, and one of the most despised. Land disputes continued for decades—the last was settled in 1940—and the deep mistrust of the big city by rural New Yorkers hardened to contempt.

While the reservoir was in the construction stages, though, the region swelled with laborers brought up from the slums of New York City and the surrounding urban areas—Jersey City, Newark, and the like. The builders pitted Italian and Eastern European immigrants (“the swarthy races of Europe” as they were denominated) and black migrants from the South, to keep wages low and union organizing unlikely.

All those workers, however, needed things—from opiated pain killers to brooms, tools and jeans. So also did the dislocated, most of whom stayed within 25 miles of their original homes. Many of these were farmers who would not farm again; with their cash payments, they were easy marks for Hawkers, Peddlers and Solicitors who came up from New York to fleece them.

It’s the Building Permits Required stipulation that’s most interesting, though. It marks the line between civilization and wilderness. By requiring building permits, the Town of Olive defined itself as a system of social regulation, a means of mediating the tragedy of the commons.

Out in the country, farmers tend to build what they need. My house started in 1784 as a stone-and-clapboard shed, with a single room downstairs and a ladder leading up to a low sleeping loft. A few good years and the farmer built a shed behind the shed; then a shed next to the shed, then a shed behind that shed. The result was a somewhat eccentric roofline, and places where the floor rose and fell in waves, high where the old foundation walls still mediated the general process of settling-in.

None of these construction projects had plans, or permits, or inspections. Neither did the barn, and when it collapsed early in the 20th century, neither did the new barn that grew up in its place.

Drive around this area nowadays, and if you’re in the right town, out where it’s just town and not village or hamlet, you’ll see a lot of that. Tyvek houses, we call them, though these days, DuPont has begun to lose out to Fiberweb’s Typar. You’ll be forgiven if you mistake the one for the other. They’re the sheets of cladding that get tacked onto the plywood after you’ve poured the concrete and built the balloon frame and cut out the window and door openings, but usually before you’ve gotten to the roof. Tyvek seals the plywood from the weather, and Typar actually boasts of its energy-saving insulating virtues. Over that, you plan to put something; in the housing boom, the McMansions were mostly fake-stone and stucco clad. Before that, it was pretty much vinyl siding all the way.

Riding around, you see a lot of Tyvek and Typar. People who started to build their additions tended to be hovering on the margins of the economy up here. The crash hit them first, and hardest. If they were doing their addition themselves, they probably had a contracting business, or they did some sort of building trades work, or they serviced the weekenders—lawn services, house painting, pet sitting, water treatment (weekenders don’t like sulphur smell in their water, and there are many incrementally more expensive ways to remove the last traces). When the housing boom went south, they were out of luck, and they had payments to make on their pickup trucks and their green-insulation foaming machines, and their zero-turn lawn mowers and the trailers to bring them from wide lawn to wide lawn on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays so the grass on the weekender place is nicely groomed when the tired couple gets up here from the City.

So Tyvek is still the outside cladding of choice. In front of those places, you’ll often see something parked—a Camaro, or an ATV or a dirt bike or a snowmobile—with a For Sale sign on it. Usually the price ends with obo: or best offer. Lately there’s not even a price on most of the stuff—it just says: For Sale: Best Offer. Or Any Offer Considered. When things are really bad, there’s a card table with a plastic painter’s tarp covering the smaller things—a food processor, a video game system.

Over time, the Tyvek starts to peel away, especially if the roof wasn’t completed. Rain gets in between the plywood and the wrap, and it bulges away from the underlying structure.

By then, though, the lawn is usually unmowed, and you won’t see lights come on as the darkness descends on a summer evening. The bank has foreclosed. There aren’t signs advertising the fact; Bank of America can’t be sure it did the foreclosure right, and besides, no one wants this pile of failed hopes. No one except the family that nailed up the plywood for the new kid’s room, and wrapped it in Tyvek.

In the Town of Olive, you’ll see one detail that's missing from the Tyvek houses in the neighboring towns: a piece of yellowing paper taped to the window or the glass of the front door: the building permit. If you walk up close, you can see it expired some time ago—right about 2008.

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