Saturday, February 22, 2014

Adirondack Diversity: More with Carol Cain

John Brown FarmhouseTwo weeks ago I posted my initial interview with noted travel writer and blogger Carol Cain.  That column set a record for comments here at the Almanack.  My own reaction to those comments taken as a whole is that they persuasively demonstrate the need for this conversation (fortunately the off-line discussions that have been spurred by this issue are leading to some productive initiatives… more on that in the future).

Subsequent to my first interview with Carol I asked her a series of of follow-up questions.  I share her answers today.  These questions were formulated previous to the posting of the first interview, thus not influenced by the tone and content of the comments.   However her answers, written after the comments, speak powerfully for themselves.


(In the previous interview, with respect to her own love of the Adirondacks Carol had said “We have found that the beauty of the area, the natural resources and ability to get lost in nature is what keeps bringing us back.”)

How do you see the value of being able to “get lost in nature?”  You have written elsewhere about why many non-white cultures do not share that value, for example camping in “primitive” surroundings .  Do you see that as a deeper cultural issue or simply a lack of exposure to the outdoors, particularly in a wilderness  context?  What would make others who might not be able to envision  themselves in the woods change to the point where they too would seek to “get lost?”

If you could market the park and provide avenues for urban New Yorkers to experience the park, what kind of marketing approach do you think would be effective?  What messages do we want to send?

Being one with nature is a great part of our heritage and history, albeit a deeply buried one for a lot of us. If I were to focus on my own heritage, I can speak to the traditions of using natural resources for medicinal, religious, and farming purposes, and I don’t have to go very far in my family lineage. The history of farming and preserving the land is deeply threaded in the black history of this country, and now in the Mexican and immigrant communities in rural areas of this country. It is deeply threaded in the Adirondacks’ history though forgotten due to the changes many had to make when moving to more urban environments by choice or by force.

Access is a problem, but not just access to transportation (though that is an expensive problem for many). Access to a connection, a cultural bond to the area that can do wonders in inspiring others to be a part of something that is their history as well. Everyone I have ever met who values the land, advocates for it, and cherishes it, feels a sense of emotional ownership to it. Few outside of it understand the roles their families played here as well, it’s a history that has been ignored. The history that many are aware of is the dangers once faced as a person of color in the area and the great lengths taken to exclude them. Some may say that things are different now, things are better, and I believe that it is true. The fact that this conversation is even happening is proof of that. My own experiences when visiting the area have shown me that. But, it wasn’t that long ago that this wasn’t the case. And that’s a difficult reputation to erase.

So whether it is through school group trips, or reforestation programs, or tourism efforts or incentives for small business owners in urban areas, or home ownership incentives for families of the same, the reality is it has to be a conscious and focused approach to lure people in. And then, will they be welcomed? Will they feel safe? I’m not sure. That is a community-wide effort and a commitment that has to be taken on so many levels. Especially since history is not really on your side.


Do you know about the strong historical connection between the Adirondacks and the abolitionist movement, specifically Gerrit Smith, John Brown and the settlement of Timbuctoo?  Did you know that John Brown’s farm and grave, a New York State Historic Site, is in the park just outside Lake Placid?  Have you been there?  If so, was that a significant experience for you and give you a different connection to the area?  If not, would it interest you now?

Do you think this history is well known to people of color living elsewhere in New York?  Do you think it would be seen as important and help to foster a connection to the region?

I know a bit about the history of the Timbuctoo, and I know about John Brown’s farm, but have never visited. I think that highlighting historical elements in an area is always important in preservation and education, and it does raise interest, for sure. But I think ultimately, the connection I may feel to any place, and that visitors may remember the most and want to return for is really in the community that is there. When people ask me about a destination they usually want to know three main things:  Were people nice? What is there to do? How do you get there/how long of a drive is there? What usually “sells” a place is a few great restaurants, a welcoming and friendly sense of community, and a range of activities that don’t break the bank. Obviously safety is up there as well. So again, history is important and matters, but what brings people back are the other people who are there now and we meet along the way.


How – if at all – do the Adirondacks seem different in terms of diversity compared to other wilderness areas you have been?

Well, the Adirondacks is less diverse than say the Catskills or Hudson Valley, and more diverse than the Finger Lakes. At least, that has been my experience. I think a lot of it has to do with proximity to the city.

What I have also seen is that as the cities become more and more expensive, people are fleeing in search of affordability and quality of life. So, I can walk into a local diner in the Catskills and meet a chef who was once celebrated in NYC, but chose to change his life and bring his business there. Or a once struggling artist, who decided to start a school in a smaller town. Or a city couple who decided to leave the rat race and open a B&B. These services attract more people with different skills and talent who then make a community more desirable and valuable. I see it happening across the country, and the areas most receptive to change and diversity are doing incredibly well and slowly getting on the map as must-see destinations.


(In the first interview Carol had said “Funny you should mention the prisons, as I remember it being points of references for some of my city friends (regardless of race) when I would share tales of my adventures…”)

Do you think these city friends might choose not to visit the area because of this prison reputation? 

You know, with my friends, the narrative isn’t so much focused specifically on the topic of prisons, though the general premise as it relates to race and fears is the same. We know that we can be seen as a threat (note my response on it being safer because my husband is white). We know that we are associated with a lot of negative stereotypes and generalizations (as proof, I refer simply to the comment board of our previous interview). We know that “minorities” and “diversity” translates to some as illegal immigrants, who bring chaos and destruction, who come to steal jobs and suck the social services system dry. That we come to commit crimes, burden the infrastructure, and wreck havoc. We know that the levels of interaction with people like my friends, who can be of color, gay, of different faiths, and non-European foreigners are limited and rare. We know this. Some of us come prepared and can move past expectations of discrimination, others would rather avoid it all together.

I am a travel writer. I am a New Yorker, daughter of immigrants. I went to college, have an MBA, speak three languages, and have seen and experienced different parts of the world. Many of my friends come from similar backgrounds. We are not looking for government assistance…we are looking to spend our money and invest it. We are looking to provide our children with a great education, a happy life, and a safe environment. We are consumers with disposable income. Sure we might eat rice and beans and have the names Juan or Antoine or Lee…but many of us are the successful fruits of the labor invested by our immigrant families who came to this country to give us what we now have. Just like the many other immigrants before them.

So, no. Prisons aren’t a part of the conversation we have when we think of whether we want to spend and invest our money in the Adirondacks. It’s whether there is an incentive to do so there…or whether we should choose a place where there is more tolerance and acceptance for who we are. The disparity of race in prisons is a concern for sure, but we are more concerned with how those who live around these environments perceive and treat minorities in general. If we don’t feel safe or welcomed, we’ll just spend our money somewhere else where we are. Our conversations are really that simple.

I love the Adirondacks. I promote it a lot through my profession and through word of mouth. We spend a lot of money when we go there, even when I come on assignment. I have never experienced any negative reason to not return, nor have I ever witnessed anything that would change my mind. But, as I said before, perceptions are hard to change, even when the reality is so different. It is not something that can go away just because we will it. It takes a committed effort by many, both on the political and social level. I think the parks deserve the fight of preservation and conservation. But there are many other parks that do across the country. There’s a large part of the population that can help, through various means – exposure, investment incentives, etc., but it doesn’t come without some change. I guess in the end the question is whether that is something the Adirondacks is willing to do.

Photo: John Brown’s Farmhouse, from the Timbuctoo era.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

12 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    “but it doesn’t come without some change. I guess in the end the question is whether that is something the Adirondacks is willing to do. ”

    Pete, what would change is the makeup of the people who visit and live there. I don’t really see that as a “change” although I guess it is to some degree. What I saw in some comments previously is a “fear” of that “change”. Maybe if we don’t call it a change they would not be so afraid??

    I like to think that In America ( the Adirondacks includeded) “change” is a part of what we are.

    If it makes the place better I don’t care what we call it.

  2. Henry says:

    A good interview and interesting insights, but I strongly suspect this conversation will once again become dominated by one or two trolls that are here mainly to get their kicks by writing whatever they think will get the most people riled up. I’ve stopped participating in several other forums because of this universal problem. The only answer I can think of is to please ignore the trolls! Don’t respond to them.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    I think diversity is something that just happens. I don’t believe it is something you can make happen.
    I believe the key to diversity has been and will always be something that stems from economics.
    People move to an area in search of work. This creates a problem for the Adirondacks because it is not a place where you think of moving to find a job.
    On the other hand, a diversity of people are moving to areas around the Adirondacks. They do it for jobs and better living conditions.
    Considering these factors, we might better target minorities in surrounding areas.
    I have always been amazed at how many people of all races who live between Glens Falls and Albany, yet have never ventured into the Adirondacks beyond Lake George.

    • Sandra Weber Sandra Weber says:

      I agree with Pete Klein. We can debate and discuss “diversity” all year but what is the bottom line here? Exactly what is the “perceived problem” in the Adirondacks that is different from anywhere else? And, exactly what are the plans to solve this “perceived problem?” That is the key question.

      I applaud Peter for bringing awareness to this issue. I think the Adirondack Park (the same as any community) has an opportunity to embrace “all” potential visitors and residents. But can this somehow be mandated or marketed? I think it is a grassroots outreach initiative, which is already underway in some Adirondack communities and organizations.

      • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

        Dear Sandra:

        I don’t think anything could or should be mandated. What would one mandate? Quotas? Speaking for myself I’m opposed to that kind of thinking.

        But marketing, broadening the appeal, that’s another matter… more next week.

        Thanks for being involved. I understood your frustration from two weeks ago. I think Carol does too. She loves the region, as do I, as do you. I find it more welcoming than many places I’ve been and I’m particularly well traveled in small town and rural America. But as Carol says, perception is a difficult thing that lives on and we cannot simply wish it away regardless of reality.

        For example, having nothing to do with racial diversity one perception prevalent outside the the park is that the “local Adirondacker” is taciturn, minds his/her own business, doesn’t want to be told how to live and is not particularly friendly or welcoming. We all know of that perception; it’s practically lore. It’s also negative, as least as perceived by outsiders.

        Are some people like that here? Sure. Absolutely. Just like innumerable other rural and urban areas I’ve been. But in my experience, as a stereotype and generalization it is simply not true.

  4. Sandra Weber Sandra Weber says:

    And why might the “local Adirondacker” feel that way? Do you have any perception of what it takes to survive 365 days a year up here? Do you know how many “outsiders” keep telling the “locals” how to live? Or how many “environmental” organizations refuse to consider how their initiatives impact local human populations because that is not part of their mission statement?

    We are all part of the future of this glorious place and need to treat each other with respect. Please, it is time to stop using the labels “outsider” and “local.” Perceptions die if you stop watering them.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      I agree entirely with you, the labels are not helpful in any way. They just sustain mis-perceptions. The label “outsiders” is just as pernicious as the label “locals,” so I’m glad to see you bring it up and put it in quotes.

  5. dave says:

    This continues to be a really thoughtful series.

    It has had me shaking my head in agreement and in disagreement just about equally. But all the while forcing me to examine and re-evaluate the issues, which is really, I think, what you hope for out of a series of articles about a topic like this.

    I have come to a few personal conclusions. One is that my view on issues of race and diversity is clearly not a very common one. Whenever I engage in these conversations I find myself standing on some lonely ground. The ground where race and color get checked at the door. It just doesn’t come naturally to me to even consider them. And so I am neither ally to those who want to increase the diversity of race and color in an area… nor the ally of those who want to prevent it (and let’s not kid ourselves, there are clearly people – some commenting on these articles – that want to prevent it)

    I’m sitting in some weird third camp. Camp Color Blind. Or maybe, Camp Contrarian.

    The truth is, I don’t care what race or color the people in a community are. That is just not how my brain works or how I personally measure diversity. All white, all brown, a mix of everything. It is just about the last thing I could give a hoot about. And I still, naively I suppose, am surprised when I discover that most everyone else does care about it.

    Oh, I am sure I could make a passionate argument that more people should come join me in camp color blind… but there is really no sense in butting my head against reality. Fact is, it does matter to most people, and this fact asserts itself – and has asserted itself over centuries – in social, political, and economic realities.

    Realities I can’t ignore if they are really the key to protecting the future of the park. And I suppose that is the next big question I personally need to examine… is increasing interest in the park really the way to protect the park? I imagine for some that may qualify as a no-brainer. But accepting assumptions has never been my style.

    • Paul says:

      These are very good comments.

      I think if tourism were not as an important part of the parks economy than it would not matter as much.

      Like I said in the last post the question is really one of market demand.

      The market for the Adirondack product is becoming more diverse. We can’t change that. It doesn’t really matter what is in here it matters what is out there. The world is becoming more diverse. So you have two choices adapt to the evolving market or go out of business.

      Some might prefer a third option which is halt and reverse the demographic changes going on across the country and around the world so the issue does not exist but that isn’t going to happen.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


      These are thoughtful comments. I don’t think your views are as uncommon as you might think. I also think many would say they embody an ideal to which we should all strive. We should all be color blind.

      We’re not, though, none of us, and that’s why color still matters. If I share your colorblind disposition I still have to think about how pernicious racism remains in this country and what my reaction to that should be. It’s a very difficult problem.

      With that said, other commenters are correct: when I refer to diversity, I do not mean merely racial diversity. I merely point out, as i have previously, that race is unfortunately tied to so many other issues of diversity and inequality that it remains a central concern.

      Would that it was not, a thought to which your values aspire.


  6. Henry says:

    Following on what Dave said I think some reflexively think of racial issues when the term “diversity” is used, but I believe the argument here is that we need to embrace diversity in its actual meaning: rich and not so rich, locals and those from away, urban and rural, retired and working, young and old, diverse religions, and yes even diverse races. It just makes sense because that is who we are. If for no other reason even those opposed to encouraging diversity probably realize that it is also economically advantageous to sell your “product” to a broader audience.

  7. Hope says:

    Completely anecdotal, personal experience here.

    Just spent 6 weeks skiing out in Colorado and I did a lot of days where I was skiing as a single person. When you do that you end up riding the lifts with a lot of different groups of people, especially on a gondola. Most of the time people are very friendly and ask where you are from, etc. Well people skiing here are from all over the world so it is pretty diverse population but they are all skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. They have a common denominator. Actually, their “race, country of origin, or language” is superseded by their interest in snow sports. I’ve never seen anyone not get on a lift because of someone’s race or country of origin.

    The first step in getting more “diversity” in Adirondacks is making people outside the area more aware of what we have to offer. I came here back in 1978 for a job I found advertised in the NY Times and ended up staying. I had come here twice before, in the early 70’s as a part of a high school Outing Club trip to Keene in the winter and in 9th grade school skiing trip to Whiteface when they used to wrap you in wool blankets before you got on the lift. So, while I had some exposure as a teen to the area it was a job that got me here initially and the people here that got me to stay. So if you don’t really like winter much your not going to like living here year around but that shouldn’t keep anyone from visiting at other times of the year.