Sunday, September 1, 2013

By the time I got to Woodstock...

(This was the story written for 25th anniversary of Woodstock for the Secaucus Reporter in 1994)

The first time I ever heard the name ``Woodstock'' was when my top sergeant yanked me from my bunk saying I'd volunteered for duty there. I was too busy overcoming my fear of helicopters to ask many questions, or point out the 1969 rock festival was actually held 50 miles southwest of the town.

I was part of one of the medical evacuation teams sent to the area to transport the ill and injured to area hospitals. But I kept my eyes closed for the greater part of the time in the air, much to the chagrin of the Vietnam-hardened pilot. On the ground I dragged people on or off under the swipe of the helicopter blades. My best friend was flown out with pneumonia by a crew from the New York National Guard. Reportedly he screamed the whole time he wanted to wait and see Jimi Hendrix. It was only when my unit left that I opened my eyes, and briefly glimpsed the magnitude of what has been called ``Woodstock Nation.''
For years the town of Woodstock has been the Mecca for people seeking to recapture a bit of the old magic, and celebrated as a place where some of the 1960s ideals had been put into practice. I studiously avoided the place, having once been turned away from Alice's Restaurant of the Arlo Guthrie song for not having a reservation. The experience made me a cynic on 1960s myths. But as the 25th anniversary of the concert neared I gave in to the urge to see just how much better the people of Woodstock were handling the crisis of the 1990s.
Strangely enough, I found the people of Woodstock struggling with many of same problems people in Hudson County faced: questions on development, how to attract tourism and how small communities deal with nationally advertised events.
Hanging over Woodstock were not rumors of traffic woes caused by World Cup soccer, but much more acute concerns about the impact of this weekend's anniversary concert on what was normally a sleepy community. While Hudson County had the benefit of mass transportation and a variety of highways to help siphon off the invasion of cars, many of the roadways around Woodstock are narrow two-lane 1950s roads, never designed for high volumes of traffic. Like Hoboken with its recent bar-closing hysteria, Woodstock fears a major social impact, and yet refuses to shut out the traffic entirely the way Secaucus has during the World Cup. For the businesses of Woodstock look forward with mixed feelings towards the concert, hoping it will revitalize their economy.
One essential difference you notice when turning off Route 375 into Woodstock is the lack of development. No condominiums. No chain stores. No office buildings of any kind. But along both sides of Tinker Street, there is store after store straight out of 1967 Greenwich Village, selling everything from beads to wind-chimes. Indoor and outdoor art galleries give the village an oddly urban feel, contrasting against the clearly rural mountain community around it.
It is like stepping back in time with many of the local residents dressed in period costumes, beads and headbands, as conventional as suits and ties are in most places. White-haired hippies walk side by side with high school-aged kids. Few but the tourists stare. At the local outdoor fruit cafe, a Janis Joplin look-a-like lectures kids half her age about 1969 and that era's philosophy.
The name ``Woodstock'' is an obvious selling point with nearly half the stores in town incorporating it into their own names. But plenty of other places opted for the usual 1960s flair, with names like the White Buffalo, the Warm Store or Sunflower Natural Foods. The smell of honeycomb and incense inside the Candlestock brought it all back. The 7-foot-high collection of wax drippings might well have been started in the Summer of Love.
Although many people came here after the 1969 concert, Woodstock has a long history as a Mecca of the arts, contrasting with Hoboken <197> where the gallery scene started after development began to transform the town. Ralph Whitehead, a utopian English philosopher, founded the Brydcliff Art and Crafts colony here in 1902. Woodstock became the summer home of the Art Students League and in 1910 Woodstock Artists Association was started. In 1940, the Woodstock Guild was formed to promote the development of arts and crafts and form the basis for the current ``Colony of Craft the Arts.'' A variety of chamber music concerts began in 1916, and in 1937, the Woodstock playhouse began theater and dance performances <197> for which Woodstock was initially famous. Famous writers, musicians, artists and crafts people are among those who live in the wooded crags around the village. Indeed, Woodstock is now known for some of the finest recording studios in the world.
While development in Hoboken and other parts of Hudson County has spurred the economy, here in Woodstock, there is a not-so-silent dread of developers. Development is strictly limited.
``The owner of one piece of property tried to put in a small strip mall, but it was voted down,'' said Roz, an owner and operator of a small bookstore in the center of town.
Most of the local economy here runs on tourism, something Secaucus is now investigating as an antidote for shrinking ratables and its own rebellion against development. Yet Woodstock has taken much from the 1960s. Competition is not welcome here. While the 6,700 full-time residents endure the tourists, it does not open itself up to increasing business.
``This is not the kind of place where new faces are welcomed,'' Roz said. ``We started our business here and they didn't want us. They said they already had a bookstore in town, they didn't want two. That's the way it is with everything here.''
The vision is also typical of the 1960s in which there is only so much to go around, and with too many people dipping into the tourist trade, someone's bound to suffer.
But this dependence on tourism has its price. When Roz first got here in 1985, business was booming.
``The streets were so packed on a weekend in the summer you couldn't walk down them,'' Roz said. ``Business is down. The recession has hurt us. People are staying away.''
Coinciding with the recession was the fire that burned down the Woodstock Playhouse, one of the other chief attractions of the town. Although IBM and other corporations located their national headquarters within a stone's throw of Woodstock, layoffs have sent a further chill into the local economy. Barnes & Noble had planned a store in a neighboring community, but backed out of the lease after the layoffs.
One answer to the slumping economy is nostalgia. Woodstock is world famous for the 1969 concert which bears its name. A 25th Anniversary concert planned next month for eight miles out of town has many people hopeful of a tourist revival. Indeed, the town is dripping nostalgia, taking its cue from the national event to recreate 1960s magic here and now.
This weekend, Woodstock was holding a festival of its own in a nearby field, featuring 20 bands and 40 crafts concessions. The names of the bands were hardly the household variety of the original 1969 event. Many of these bands have copycat names typical of generic perfumes and video pornography. The
Clearwater Singers, Pepe Santana, Ellis and Friend, Chiapas Indian Peace Caravan were among those scheduled to play.
Even the local movie house has gotten in on the act, featuring a Cinema `69 series that includes Yellow Submarine, Woodstock, Easy Rider, Alice's Restaurant, In the Year of the Pig, Gimme Shelter and other films, as well as guest speakers like Arlo Guthrie. The admittance to each performance is $5, half price if you come in period costume.
Yet the impact on the area may be many times greater than World Cup soccer had been on Hudson County. Unlike many of the dire predictions made in Hoboken and other Hudson County communities, changes in Woodstock have already begun. Town Hall estimates that 25,000 will descend upon the small community during the weeks before and after the concert. The volunteer rescue squad, already short-handed, is out seeking more volunteers. The local soup kitchen, set up in 1993 to help feed people suffering as a result of the recession, closed its doors for the summer.
``We do not have the resources,'' said Victoria Langling, of Woodstock soup kitchen. ``We did not have enough food and we did not have enough volunteers.''
The soup kitchen had been feeding 40 people a day until last month when the numbers began to increase. Last count it was at 75 per day. The church out of which they feed people has a maximum capacity of 80. There have been burglaries, too. Over a three-day period at the beginning of July, police reported several break-ins to local restaurants. Over the July 4th weekend, Police made 40 arrests up from 18 the year before. Many of the people arrested gave addresses from Texas, California, Idaho and Florida.
``Several said they were in the spirit of Woodstock,'' Woodstock police chief Paul Ragonese said. ``But these people can't just do their own thing.''
The police have also found people camped out on private property around the area. This weekend, store owners say, the local green has seen a significant increase in new faces. Many of those coming are in their early to mid-20s. Chief Ragonese said there are plans to bring in the auxiliary police and ask for volunteers. But this is largely to handle the expected traffic woes. He said for the most part, people are well behaved.
``They made very little noise and didn't leave much litter behind,'' he said.
One of the clerks at a town jewelry store said many residents are worried about what kind of people the concert will bring in. ``The organizers initially wanted to bring in rap and other new bands,'' she said. ``We don't need that kind of trouble around here. We pressed them to cut out most of that music. But there's still the heavy metal bands to worry about and the kind of kids that music attracts.''
Members of the Family of Woodstock, a local social organization, said they noticed an influx of people, too. There have been reports of panhandling and other activities. On my brief tour of town, I saw several girls hitch-hiking. Although they were dressed like hippies, down to the almost obligatory backpack, they were barely 20 years old.
An umbrella organization called Woodstock Ambassadors met in order to deal with the incoming crowds associated with the festival. Their agenda included festival hours, drugs, noise, trespassing, pay phones, directions for local roads, lost and found, free food, transportation, festival information, parking, trash-recycling, baby-sitting and auto repair.
In the typical Woodstock tone, a spokesperson for one of the participating organizations said the idea was to show care and concern.
``We want to show them the real Woodstock in all its variety,'' said Eric Glass of Woodstock Youth Center. ``We want to offer reassurance and a deep sense of community good will.''
Although ticket sales for Woodstock `94 are not moving as quickly as first expected, organizers from Polygram Records say they will pick up. As of July 5, 128,000 tickets were sold. It is estimated that the event will draw 250,000.
Will the festival bring back the post-recession business of the 1980s? Some business people like Roz from the bookstore think not. Roz said her business is solid, based less on tourists than local residents. But many are not so lucky. At the Sunflower Natural Food store, women walk around in full regalia, straight out of photographs from Haight-Ashbury. Yet inside, an elder hippie and his son are paying for their natural food drinks with food stamps. 

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