Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Diversity, Inclusion Drive Saranac Lake’s Hip Vibrancy

Lake Flower in Saranac Lake courtesy wikimedia user MwannerI have spent a fair amount of time in Saranac Lake and have come to very much appreciate “The Little City in the Adirondacks.” While I recognize that tourism is a vital part of its economic identity, I have always seen Saranac Lake as a community distinctly of and for its residents, possessing quite a different feel than the international resort atmosphere found in its neighbor Lake Placid.

Yet Saranac Lake’s variety, its youthful vibe, its cultural amenities and its sophistication belie its small-town size (a shade over 5,000 people) and gives it a more urban feel than one would expect to find smack dab in the middle of the Park.

But if I already knew that Saranac Lake was a nice, even surprising town, it took participation in the inaugural Saranac Lake Street Fest last month to discover that it deserves a much more rarified descriptor. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Saranac Lake is hip.

This is not a slight thing, a mere throw-away label. To the contrary, I mean something very important by it. You see, whatever one might think of efforts to make places we live, work and visit more diverse, welcoming and inclusive, diversity in and of itself is unquestionably hip. It is vital, expansive, vibrant and very much current. It is the way the world is evolving and there’s no stopping it. Street Fest showed that Saranac Lake embraces diversity and inclusiveness to a level that exceeds any place I’ve been in the Adirondacks, even Lake George.

The value of diversity is inarguable. Talk to any economist, demographer or sociologist: diverse communities thrive in comparison to less diverse places. They thrive culturally. They thrive economically, consistently outperforming places that lack diversity. They trend younger. They draw entrepreneurs who start businesses. In other words, diverse communities exhibit all the traits we desperately seek for our struggling, aging Adirondack towns. Too many local leaders with whom I’ve conversed don’t buy into this enough, so perhaps Saranac Lake can teach us all something.

Why Street Fest itself has anything to do with this is interesting. Yes, as a whimsical festival that filled Main Street with a kaleidoscope of events, activities, music and food, Street Fest fulfilled the promise of Saranac Lake’s new slogan, “Decidedly Different,” in itself an expression of the importance of diversity. But it’s much more than that.

My wife Amy and I have done fairs and festivals all over the country in a twenty year career as performers and we’ve learned that the concentrated energy of a community event like Street Fest reveals more about the nature of a place than any day-to-day activities can tell you, even if you live there for a long time. People’s natures come out publicly at a festival like this – that is, if they feel safe enough and comfortable enough to be part of the surrounding energy, to feel, almost reflexively, that they belong.

That’s the key – safety, comfort and belonging – that we experienced at Street Fest. We saw spontaneous displays of individual expression, from telling jokes, to breaking out in song on a street corner, to turning a chair back into a percussion instrument, to putting on a wild hat or crazy jacket and dancing, to making up verse on the spot, and we saw this come from a broad array of people of every age, color, physical ability and gender expression.

Collectively, visitors to Street Fest clearly were able to inhabit Main Street as themselves, whatever their version of self might have been. That’s the very essence of a hip place. It’s the kind of place people want to be. It’s the kind of place people want to live in, hold a job, raise a kid, grow old.

By virtue of its relatively large population and infrastructure, Saranac Lake has obvious advantages over other Adirondack communities that might want to be hip. But it’s not really about size: Amy and I have spent time performing and hanging out in many larger places that in terms of being hip and inclusive pretty much flat-lined. It’s more about the joyful embrace of different perspectives and experiences than it is about size.

As a resident of the Adirondacks who does not live in Saranac Lake, I want my town and the surrounding towns to realize that they can do it too. I want communities throughout the park to realize the economic and cultural benefits that a diverse, inclusive atmosphere can bring. I want them to thrive.

I get lots of questions from people about what I mean by diversity work, and often those questions come with preconceptions: it’s about political correctness, or statistics, or quotas, or guilt. It’s none of those things. It’s about helping to create conditions that result in what Saranac Lake has going on.

While that kind of inclusive hipness is fundamentally organic, it can be encouraged, it can be expressed as a value, it can be promoted, and it can be celebrated. Communities can benefit from that kind of work, and they can have brighter futures as a result, just as Saranac Lake is doing.

So I decided I’m going to carve out more time to spend in Saranac Lake. Like everyone else who makes ends meet in the Adirondacks, I’m pretty busy, but I want to hang out there. That place is hip.

Photo of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake courtesy wikimedia user Mwanner.

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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.

7 Responses

  1. Na says:

    “They trend younger”… classic ageism…

    • Shaun says:

      It’s a shame that’s all you took from this essay.

    • William Quinlivan says:

      Sorry, but you don’t have to be young to be “hip” — it is purely human, but it does have the prerequisite of an open mind and a desire to discover with a respect for other cultures and points of view. “hip” is enriching, as Saranac Lake has apparently discovered.

      Thank you, Pete.

  2. Tim says:

    Fine article, Pete. Now, if Saranac Lake could also become a center for classical music, I would love it.

    • Erika B. says:

      I’m with you! I miss Gregg Smith. . . anyone remember how wonderful the summer concerts were?

  3. Shaun says:

    Pete, thank you so much for the kind and thoughtful essay. As you know, a goal of the event was to not only create something that truly celebrates why Saranac Lake is such a “decidedly different” Adirondack town, but to do it in a welcoming, inclusive way. It worked — the entire day was bustling with locals and visitors, all taking part in the revelry. What fun!

    We’re already planning next year’s Street Fest and we have a lot of fresh, new ideas coming everyone’s way. We hope to see you all there!

  4. Vanessa says:

    Fantastic! As a millennial who wishes she could move upstate to the ADK park, I’d love to live in such a community. I am at present pretty intimidated by the age demographics and what I perceive to be the politics of much of the park.

    Do I not want to live around people older than myself? Of course I do not mind whatever age my neighbors are…but if those neighbors are going to be suspicious or afraid of those in my family who are not white, for example, then I’m given significant pause from considering a community.

    Interesting that the author is from Keene, as we often stay in Keene Valley when visiting. I have put Saranac Lake on my list of ADK places to visit 🙂

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