Hancock, NY and Towns on the Downturn

Sometime when I was in middle school, my parents purchased a lake house just outside of the village of Hancock, in rural upstate New York. For five or six years, our family spent most of our summer weekends there – swimming, boating, fishing, and playing a lot of cards and board games.

Until a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t been to Hancock in almost twenty-five years. I figured it might be about time to see how the place looked – and how it did (or didn’t) compare to my memory of it.

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Hancock, the seat of Delaware County, NY, sits at the confluence of the East and West Branches of the Delaware River. From Hancock, the Delaware flows southeast, creating the boundary between New York and Pennsylvania. As it hits the northernmost point of New Jersey, the river turns to flow south and forms the entire length of the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At its terminus, the river dumps into the Delaware Bay which then empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Delaware River is a big part of Hancock’s economy today. In fact, you might say it currently the town’s only economic engine. Once upon a time, the village boasted a thriving timber industry. Oak, maple, ash, and cherry were harvested from the surrounding forests, and a Louisville Slugger factory churned out baseball bats for players like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth for eighty-five years. In addition, Hancock was a source of bluestone – a slate-like rock quarried and fashioned into use as patio tiles, fireplace stones, and curb material. The pharmaceutical company Becton-Dickenson had a plant in Hancock that manufactured surgical blades, and the area’s many lakes and two golf courses attracted families from the New York City area looking to escape the summer heat.

The Louisville Slugger factory closed in 2005, and the active building I remember from our days of visiting is now crumbling on the outskirts of town. The demand for bluestone has diminished. The Becton-Dickenson factory lies abandoned, and the town of Hancock looks quite a bit more worn down than I remember, despite the new city park at its center. Where there were once two supermarkets, there is now only one, and it’s small. The car dealership is empty and the building is for sale. The movie theater has closed, the pizzeria is gone, and the historic hotel that housed the only good restaurant in town appears to have burned down.

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Fisherman still come to the area to enjoy the trout, bass, perch, and bullhead fishing in the Delaware and its many tributaries. Hunters visit in the fall in search of white-tailed deer, and a few families enjoy Hancock’s tranquil small-town atmosphere for the diametrical opposition it provides to the fast-paced Tri-State Area lifestyle. However, it’s fairly clear that the number of visitors to the area aren’t enough to enable the area to thrive.

To be blunt, Hancock looks depressed. Of course, it never looked like prosperous northern New Jersey. But it also never looked like a community that might be heading towards ghost town status, and it does now. A lot of buildings are abandoned, and many of those that are occupied are quite run-down. There was not much traffic flowing through town when I was there, and there were few people in the stores or on the streets.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I am fascinated by ghost towns. I find it intriguing that entire thriving settlements can simply fade away, and I am captivated by what remains of them after the majority of the villages’ inhabitants have left. I always wonder what tips the scales, what event or sequence of events turns a depressed and dwindling town into an abandoned skeleton of itself.

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As I stood in downtown Hancock, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take for the town to disappear from the map altogether – or, what kind of shift in its economy might transform it into a trendy second home mecca and raise it from the ashes.

I didn’t think about those things much on summer weekends I was a kid coming to town with my family to get some pizza and see a three-month old movie. Hancock seemed bigger then, like it had a little more to offer; yet, I have to consider the possibility that it’s my perspective that has changed more than the town itself.  Regardless, I didn’t really want to linger in there. I felt as though I needed to get out of there before being forced to witness an acceleration of the decay.

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In noticing that, I was struck by my own inconsistency. It appears that I like towns when they’re thriving, and I like them when they’re abandoned – but towns on the downturn give me the creeps. Thriving towns are vibrant and exciting, and ghost towns are quaint and nostalgic. Struggling towns are just, well, struggling.  I suppose that struggle is not something any of us enjoy watching, despite the fact that it is very real in this time of great socio-economic disparity.  And I suspect we like to see it less when we have some kind of historic connection with the place.  If it can struggle, so can we.  If it can deteriorate, we are reminded that we will as well – and that’s not an easy reality to stare down.

 

 

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