“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
— Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
Those are the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s monumental novel, “Invisible Man”, published in 1952, Coincidentally, my parents bought a summer-only house on Copake Lake the same year and so began my longtime association with the area. In 1990, my wife and I bought our home just south of the lake and, now retired, I spend much of my time here.
Over the years I’ve been a frequent visitor to Hudson. I am an observer, seeing it in many ways much as other visitors and 2nd home owners do rather than residents.
The changes to the city over the years have been extraordinary. In ‘52, there were few reasons for my parents to go into the city. Even in the late ‘80s my step-daughter would remark at the cardboard shuttered windows on lower Warren St. Today, though, it is one of the most highly touted destinations for tourists in the state. It has gone from an obviously depressed, ever dying industrial town, to a rebuilt, rehabbed, gentrified Warren St., with its trendy restaurants, art and antique galleries, food shops and entertainment venues; it has gone from a town that was losing its locally born best and brightest to a town that, although it was still losing some of its brightest young people, was attracting bright, energetic and entrepreneurial migrants from NYC as both full and part time residents along with 2nd home owners who, in the wake of 9/11, found the city and county a more accessible and affordable location than the Hamptons.
And yet…and yet…with all the buzziness of Hudson, there are things that may not have been noticed by the casual tourist or weekend county resident.
Take a walk down Warren St. How many African-Americans do you see? Go to a restaurant. See any Blacks there? I’ve eaten in a bunch of restaurants in Hudson over the years and once in a while I’ve noticed that there isn’t a Black person in sight, either as diner or employee. A few weeks ago, I had lunch in the Plaza Diner; A black family was seated in the middle of the restaurant. The other night we had a hamburger at Wunderbar after the movies; there were 4 Blacks eating and drinking. I mentioned the absence of noticeable Blacks on Warren St. to a friend, a summer resident for many years, who later told me he had mentioned what I had said to a number of his friends. To a man (or woman), they said that now that he mentioned it, they had noticed the same thing. So maybe I’m not imagining things.
Sometimes statistics are really interesting and pose unexpected questions. Consider:
The unemployment rate in the city is roughly 3.8%.
20% of Hudson’s residents are African-Americans.
25% of Hudson’s population falls below the poverty line.
How is it that if less than 4% of the population is unemployed there are so many who are poor? Two things seem obvious: 1) most aren’t poor because they don’t want to work and 2) many are poor despite working.
And at least two things flow from that: 1) Many jobs don’t pay enough to keep people above the poverty line and 2) there probably aren’t enough jobs available for the working poor to have a second job.
Then there’s this: Despite our penchant to think that the poor, working or not, are Black, all the poor in Hudson can’t be Black given the above statistics. To state the obvious, there are more people who are living in poverty than there are Blacks. In fact, more than twice as many Whites (689) than Blacks (320) live below the poverty line? Why do so many of us think that all or most poor people are Black?
An article in the Washington Post on August 18th about Ames, Iowa noted that the city had the lowest unemployment rate in America, 1.8%. Despite the unemployment rate, fully 1/3 of the city lives in poverty. Poor whites out number poor Blacks by 1000%, which may illustrate how white the city is as well as how little poverty has to do with race.
At the same time, full employment in Ames hasn’t created significant pressure to increase wages at the bottom of the market. Simultaneously, inflation and low unemployment cause prices to rise. The combination of the two opposite forces means that minimum wage workers, the working poor are, ironically, adversely affected by the economy’s success. Things aren’t supposed to work this way.
Something similar might be happening in Hudson where the low unemployment rate doesn’t help minimum wage workers earn more many and the great success of Hudson’s revitalization has led to increases in the real cost of living making life increasingly difficult for the working poor.
This, in fact, mirrors the national economic story where the disparity between the well off and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, grows ever greater despite the apparently booming economy.
We don’t like to think about the poor in this country. We don’t like to think that that working people can be poor. And yet the poor, working or not, are all around us even if they’ve been relegated to the fringes of our communities, even if we try to make them invisible to our eyes. Most of us don’t have the foggiest idea how hard it is, how much work it is to be poor. I’d urge anyone to read Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” And then think about Hudson or wherever you live and open your eyes. What do you see?
Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is still invisible and still all around us.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.