My cat is weirder than yours
Woodstock 2001: after 30 years of decay, hippie culture stands revealed as intensely conservative.
Nestled in the hills at the foot of the Catskill mountains in upstate New York lies a beautiful little village that seems lost in time.
Many small towns in rural America appear almost like they did 50 or 100 years ago: modern technology and economic development seem to have had little impact on the quaint wooden houses surrounded by picturesque stone walls or picket fences, unpaved roads and lush green woodlands.
But this village is different. The economy is bustling, partly due to hi-tech companies that prosper here, partly because it is a country retreat for wealthy New York City folk. All the houses are well-kept and freshly painted, the gardens are flourishing with spring flowers and the stores are clean and inviting.
The village is Woodstock, NY, famed for the hippie festival in 1969, and one of the last enclaves of hippie culture. The first thing you notice as you drive up the road from the Hudson River Valley is the relative wealth of the place – you pass an exclusive country club, and homes that are larger and plusher than those in neighbouring towns. Next, instead of the fast-food joints you find elsewhere on busy roadsides, are a series of restaurants with names like ‘New World Home Cooking’, serving organic vegetarian menus.
There is no parking available in the village centre, so you park your car outside and walk the short distance to the village square. As you stroll around, the uniqueness of this place strikes you. Sitting on a stone wall, smoking a cigarette, is a young punk with dyed spiky hair, his right arm completely covered by a colourful tattoo. Many women are wearing dresses with bright flowery or psychedelic patterns, with an abundance of jewellery around their wrists, ankles, necks, bellies and foreheads. For guys over 50, a full-grown beard and dreadlocks are de rigueur. Sandals, worn without socks, are more popular than otherwise ubiquitous sneakers.
Every once in a while you encounter a monk from the local Tibetan Buddhist or the Zen monastery. There are art galleries, head shops, hemp shops, exotic retailers with names like ‘Tibetan Emporium’ and ‘Dharmaware’, and Tibetan Buddhist bookstores. All in all, this is a Mecca of alternative, new-age living.
Woodstock seems lost in 1960s time. Few people realise, however, that the three-day Woodstock festival of peace and music actually took place some 65 miles away, on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY. The festival was named after Woodstock because it was home to Bob Dylan and other artists who embodied the spirit of the time (1).
But Woodstock was already hip before the events of 1969 and has retained its image for the 32 years since. Today, the town boasts the largest number of professional artists and recording studios per capita in the world.
At first glance the hippie lifestyle may be appealing. Its advocates claimed that the hippie movement represented liberation from the rigid formalism of 1950s and early 1960s society – a break from the pressures of conforming to peer pressure and a staid society. This idea had some very real limitations in the 1960s – but look at it now.
Far from being the liberating experience many associate with 1969, hippie culture in the year 2001 takes on a form of intensely oppressive peer pressure. Even though no two individuals in Woodstock look exactly alike, in a certain sense they are all peas in the same pod – it is just as easy to recognise a local as it is to spot the tourists. What is so individualistic about having a tattoo or dreadlocks when everybody does? Why is it so difficult to buy (or, heaven forbid, wear) clothing from the international chain stores? Why can’t I choose to eat greasy food from a global hamburger chain?
When the local Grand Union supermarket went bankrupt, a national chain drugstore was poised to move into the vacated building. The citizens were quickly up in arms protesting the reviled replacement: ‘The people that live here, many of whom are my age – 40s and 50s – they don’t think the 1960s ever stopped. If Woodstock isn’t a town that can keep a supermarket, and prevent an unneeded chain store that no one wants, what is Woodstock all about?’, says Woodstock resident Jeff Cohen (2).
In 2001, politics in Woodstock can no longer maintain the pretence of radicalism. After 30 years of decay, hippie culture stands revealed as intensely conservative. Thirty years ago the ‘alternative revolution’ spanned the globe – today, as far as the residents of Woodstock are concerned, the outlook does not extend beyond the town line. In fact, for most people the outlook does not extend beyond the personal sphere – which is why there is such an obsession with spiritual enlightenment, yoga and meditation classes and holistic health.
I stood on the village square and watched a group of 20 drummers perform a monotonous rhythmic chant, which attracted as many tourists taking pictures as it did locals. The scene suggested that, like it or not, the ‘alternative lifestyle’ is part of the system: without cash from tourism and wealthy Manhattanite weekenders, there would be no ethnic drummers.
The hi-tech companies thriving next to the alternative shops and restaurants show that time hasn’t really stopped in 1969. Money makes Woodstock go round just like the rest of the world. However, in a stark contrast to the neighbouring Hudson River Valley, which is often labelled ‘Tech Valley’ because of the large number of hi-tech firms along the river, Woodstock manages to be part of the modern world without actually embracing it.
As I headed for home, I noticed the car parked next to mine had a bumper sticker which displayed the message: ‘My cat is weirder than yours. Woodstock, NY.’ In a town proud of its alternative lifestyle, perhaps having the weirdest cat is now a status symbol to which the in-crowd aspires. Though intended to be humorous, it exemplifies well the peer pressure, narrow individualistic outlook and refusal to embrace the future of Woodstock in year 2001.
(1) For a detailed history of the festival, see How Woodstock happened…Part 1 at Woodstock69.com
(2) Plans for a CVS Draws Protest in Woodstock, 11 April 2001 (this link will ask you to first register with the New York Times).
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