REGIONAL – Local reaction to the official launch of the Valley of the Giants project last week has been mixed, with some residents pumping up the idea of roadside colossi in every town, while others sought to cut the idea down to size. The idea of constructing large statues in the Americana tradition throughout the Rondout Valley is the brainchild of Maria Reidelbach, the local artist who brought the giant gnome, Chomsky, to Kelder's Farm on Route 209.
"I used to enjoy driving by Kelder's Farm and enjoying the beautiful view," said Cragsmoor resident Anitra Brown, "but now I just turn my head the other way when I drive by . . . that thing is so ugly. I just don't want to look at it." Brown, who owns Red Lotus Skin Care Studio in Ellenville, describes the gnome as "kitschy" and believes that it detracts from the local beauty of the Rondout Valley. To the aesthetician, the idea of there being more large characters on the roadside is "horrifying."
Brown has allies in historic preservation circles. Alice Schoonmaker, who sits on the boards of both the Friends of Historic Rochester and the D&H Canal Museum in High Falls, says that neither group is supporting the project. "We don't want to be known as the Valley of the Giants," she said. Schoonmaker said that regional identity should be based on something "real," like history or agriculture. "Friends of Historic Rochester wants to represent the people who lived here, not a gnome."
"That's a bit of an ephemeral judgment," said Reidelbach of the term 'kitschy.' "Many things which were originally thought that have become beloved parts of Americana." Giants often become members of their community, she said, pointing to the Big Duck of Flanders on Long Island as an example.
"Most people don't like change," said Mary Collins, owner of the eponymous real estate brokerage in High Falls. Collins likes the idea of smiling characters dotting the landscape as part of a regional identity. "Kingston has its art in the park, Catskill has decorated cats . . . you need to draw in new people."
When asked about concerns that the Valley of the Giants would have a negative impact on property values, she responded, "Reduce values? Why? Would you rather look at a gas rig or a cell tower?"
"A strong, healthy community with visible cultural roots is a key factor to making a place attractive and desirable," responded Reidelbach. "Our giant gnome at Kelder's was even recently recognized by the Library of Congress in its symposium Marvels of Main Street and the Roadside. I do think that's the kind of attention we'd like to get."
"I think that's a bunch of crap," said Rochester Town Supervisor Carl Chipman when asked about property values. "Take a look at the crowds you get over at Kelder's Farm."
Those crowds are a large part of what concerns Brown. "Will it draw in traffic?" she asked. "I don't know, but if it does it won't be worth it for the people who live here. I'm interested in business thriving, but not because people are driving up and down, taking pictures of giant gnomes."
"Perhaps the name is unfortunate," conceded Collins. "When you think of giants, you think of Paul Bunyan." When asked what she would like to see in High Falls, she suggested that a canal boat driver might fit the bill.
Reidelbach's early ideas reflect a heavy emphasis on characters inspired by produce, such as a "blueberry girl" for Ellenville, but the next giant in the works is a concrete miner to reflect the history of Rosendale. Local reaction favors statues with an historical, rather than agricultural, emphasis.
"We've been hearing some objections, and it's important to talk about them," said Reidelbach. Citing the recent court decision in Napanoch, she continued, "Walmart is coming to the Rondout Valley, and we need giants to compete with a giant. This is a wonderful way to express who we are without commercial signage." Addressing concerns about traffic, she remarked, "This area has supported a much higher population than it does now. If they want to keep our local businesses thriving, we need to draw people here to shop during the summer and spend money locally."
Local historians like Schoonmaker agree with the strategy, but not the tactics. Her present focus is on building up Accord's pumpkin festival. "We'd like to be known for something that's touchable like a pumpkin, something that children can take home, eat, be creative with." She stridently believes that "each town has something kids can look at that is real."