Tivoli, New York

Note: This article was written in 1981. The character of the village has changed. Tivoli has become the college town adjunct to Bard College, 3 miles down the road in Annandale. Because Bardies are, in the large, both rich and rotten, this has altered Tivoli in ways which the author is unlikely to be aware.

Tivoli, New York, has the distinction of being the most extraordinary, and at the same time the most hum-drum among all the villages in the Hudson valley. Extraordinary because over its 3 centuries of existence, the more exotic events of its bi-centennial history have a tendency to recur. . Hum-drum because, at any other time , there Ōs just nothing there. The artifacts lodged in the townscape bear witness to this combination of an underlying mediocrity with cyclic spurts of transient greatness standing that stand , like the peaks of truncated Dirac-delta functions, ( which are defined to be zero everywhere save at one place where they are infinite ), above the quotidian desert.

The eccentricity one uncovers in the annals of Tivoli is present even in its name. What kind of a name is that, I ask you, Tivoli , for a commonplace settlement on the east bank of the Hudson? Name me some other TivoliÕs around the world! One unearths the popular amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen; then another far more notorious Tivoli, the favored summer residence of the Roman emperors.

One digs back to the 18th century to learn that its founding genius of the village called it Tivoli owing to his assumption that it could become the Utopia of the future. Pierre deLabigarre, (his real name may have been Pierre de Sauvigard ) , an aristocrat fleeing from the French Revolution, had successfully prevailed upon the region's feudal despot, Robert Livingston to grant him a tract of land on the border of his estate in neighboring Clermont. Robert Livingston, eminent statesman, signer of the Declaration of Independence, owner of both serfs and slaves, promoter of the first steamboat, and co-negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, had inherited the estate from his grandfather, who had robbed both the local Algonquins, and his sovereign king, blind. Afterwards he imported German refugees from the Palatinate fleeing the 30 Years War, and reduced them to slavery. Not a nice man, even if he was a Founding Great-grandfather.

Be that as it may, Tivoli, New York was inaugurated in 1794 and dedicated to the noble cause of establishing the spirit of Transcendental Idealism on the banks of the Hudson River . Transcendental Idealism need not be Kantian: any form of idealism which aspires to the transcendent can claim to be a transcendental idealism: there is no doubt that a certain latitude in its definition is required to accommodate the theory and practice of M. Pierre deLabigarre.

The districts of what was to become Tivoli were laid out on the twin slopes of an exceedingly steep winding incline that starts near the Hudson River and reaches a plateau after about 587 yards, or a third of a mile. When Pierre deLabigarre was asked how he expected his settlers to consent to live in a commune, where the daily round demanded constant and frequent confrontation with this slope, he answered with a phrase that has come down to us in two distinct interpretations: the first is that its citizens, by continually walking up and down the hill, would develop high and noble thoughts. The other is that this same activity would engender the spirit of high living! And indeed, it has been these two themes which have rung the centuries in this torpid hamlet, their shrill discord stirring its slumbers with visionary terrors, briefly arousing it to action before dying away and leaving it, unfailingly , in bafflement and defeat.

By flattering Robert Livingston's talents as a scientist, deLabigarre quickly ingratiated himself into the generosity of his esteemed patron. A bug from the river's edge had crawled into Livingston's brain which led him to imagine that he could manufacture high quality paper ( dubbed conserva ) from river weeds. deLabigarre may have believed this himself. In the accounts of their exploits it is not always so easy to seperate out the Don Quixote from the Sancho Panza.

Yet in 1800 when the paper manufacturing scheme , the Tivoli commune, and a host of other ventures came synchronically to grief, it was Pierre deLabigarre, not Robert Livingston, who ended up in debtor's prison in Poughkeepsie, and it was Livingston who raised the capital to rescue him. Half a decade later, deLabigarre was dispatched to Louisiana to oversee the importation of merino sheep. We are relieved to read that this venture was successful. At his departure, Livingston is reputed to have said, quoting Shakespeare : " I could have better spared a better man." Few physical traces of Pierre deLabigarre's stewardship adorn his village today: the chateau de Tivoli , deLabigarre's chef-lieu , copy of a French octagonal Romanesque fortress, had been dismantled long before my first visit to the village in 1973. And there is a fragment of a road at the base of the hill, contiguous with the railroad tracks, that is still called by its original name, as one may read on its street-sign : "Frindship Street". The touch of poignancy added by this misspelling ( granting that the word "friend" is misspelled in standard English ) sends me reeling with admiration.


Further Information on the history of Tivoli may be obtained from the historical collection in the Starr Library at Rhinebeck, N.Y. Eager to get to the present, I must perforce eclipse a century and a half into a single paragraph. Tivoli's Utopian beginnings , either in the form high thinking or high living (with an occasional odd attempt at combining the two) have cast their shadows through almost two centuries. Its day in the sun occurred in the early part of the 20th century, when the ferry across the Hudson docked there and it was known as Tivoli Landing. However for the most part its prowess has been mainly spiritual.

The present history of Tivoli begins with the establishment of the farm of the Catholic Worker organization in Rose Hill, a wild forested tract of land bordering the river in the upper village on the northeast slope, in 1965. That an internationally famous clan of anarchist-Catholic Utopians ran a commune here for 15 years made little impression on the natives. Local conservatism kept most of the villagers away from the farm, which itself related more to Dorothy Day's principal operations in New York City than to the region.

An entire novel could easily be written for every year of the CW farm's presence in the town. The story I wish to relate begins a few months before the Farm closed up shop and moved its small remnant over to Marlboro, New York, on the other side of the Hudson, another riverfront settlement a few miles north of Newburgh. The decision to sell the Tivoli farm had been taken by the New York office 2 years before its closure in 1980. Rich and generous investors such as Central Hudson Electric and the Reverend Sun-Myung Moon had each bids and been summarily rejected, the former because of a justifiable suspicion that Rose Hill might be turned into a waste dump for a projected nuclear power plant, the latter because ecumenicism is not a highly developed religious trait.

In the spring of 1979, the aura of Livingston and deLabigarre transmigrated to Tivoli in the guise of two hallucinating businessmen, Wayne Karmgard and Joseph deCastele. In a very loose way deCastele might be dubbed the 'Livingston' of the duo, although he incorporated so many of the features of the exiled French Count deLabigarre , that one could also make an argument for switching their roles. For rumor informed us that ( and all one ever had to go on was rumor) deCastele was also an aristocrat, a Baron no less, from France, or perhaps Switzerland, or possibly both. More than that , he was a Rothschild no less , from one or both sides of the family, with hereditary conduits into unfathomable mountains of lucre.

Rumors about Karmgard were plucked from the same archetypal tree, if not always of the same species or genus. Perhaps Karmgard was also a Swiss count. No, that wasn't right; instead, he was thought by some to be heir to the fortune of a Southern dynasty that had somehow retained its wealth through the Civil War. Some said he was even richer than deCastele. Not so rich, others thought. Word got out that he was merely the agent of his mother, who'd become rich through real estate speculation in Florida.

Then there were the nay-sayyers, who stated that Karmgard didn't have any money at all, but was just there to keep deCastele "company" .

The truth, which has yet to surface, must exist somewhere, unless one is a Logical Intuitionist, in which case even this claim can be disputed.

Some data was however made available to the general public. Since their arrival in the region the two of them had been buying up everything that wasn't bolted to the ground. Their forays had begun with two well-endowed estates on a bluff above the river banks, to the south of the road that was alleged to keep everyone high , the very site in fact where Pierre deLabigarre had erected his impregnable chateau de Tivoli . One of these, the McCormick estate, was reputed to have cost them $8 million, cash on the line.

Then they bought the warehouse of Larry, the player-piano repairman. It had been sitting idle for two years, ever since Larry gave up trying to live in the 19th century and migrated to California to sign up for Primal Scream therapy.

Then they purchased all the shops, most of them abandoned, on Broadway, Tivoli's partially-paved thoroughfare. Finally they bought up everything on Broadway except the library, the Laundromat, the Post Office, Morey's bar and the little run-down general store known as Stan's Confectionery. It is unlikely that they would ever have gained possession of these latter two. Morey had been serving booze in Tivoli since the dawn of time, while Stan's store had been there almost as long. Undeterred, the pair quickly acquired every empty building and every unused tract of land in the town, that is to say, most of it . Finally they cast their eyes on the Catholic Worker Farm.

Mysteriously, even as they were engaged in this massive landgrab, bit by bit the nearby town of Rhinebeck was disappearing. Parts of it had an odd way of showing up later in Tivoli. The finest bookstore in the whole Hudson Valley, and one of the best in the state, Parnassus , dismantled its shelves in the Starr Building on Rhinebeck's main thoroughfare. A few months later a new, smaller version was officially inaugurated in tiny Tivoli, a town noted more for its unusually high incidence of incest than for its literacy. I was in attendance at the opening, a glittering champagne reception where virtually everyone was some New York City upper-crust arts gypsy. Much of the stock and a portion of the personnel of the old Parnassus filled its reincarnation.

Then the dress shop of Edith Bain, together with Edith herself, vanished from Rhinebeck to re-appear later on in Tivoli as a garment factory. Restaurants closed down in Rhinebeck as others opened in Tivoli, the staff of the former tending to migrate upstream to the latter.

Without a doubt miracles were germinating in the moist Tivoli hothouse. For the briefest of interludes Tivoli had become an orchard of dreams. Even I abandoned my skepticism one afternoon in July of 1979 when, strolling down the main thoroughfare to the highway, Route 9D, intoxicated and wretchedly lovesick I espied, or imagined I did, or prayed that I had indeed espied - then walked up to it and realized that I had indeed espied - a brittle, recently printed 500-franc note fluttering in the grass!

Not one Tivolian in a hundred ( and at that time there were not more than 600 hundred inhabitants all told ) , would have recognized a 500-franc note if it were handed to him personally. I was one of the saving remnant! A clear case of predestination, which is to say, a miracle! For how otherwise interpret a gift, flown to me direct from the hands of a pair of Swiss-French Midases and their high-living band ! I had not touched or seen such a note since coming back from France 7 years before. How silly I reflected ( folding the bill into my wallet to convert it into the neighborhood of $100 a month later in New York City) I was, to fritter away my days writing articles, books, stories or poetry for illusory compensations. Far better would it be for me to follow the flux of dream Utopias across the United States, as they mushroom, sprout and die!

Some of these speculations about the true character and intentions of Karmgard and deCastele could become quite convoluted and grandiose. Only two were worthy of serious consideration: the first was that they were trying to spark development by force-feeding dollars into Tivoli until an economic miracle exploded like Mount St. Helen's. Once the concentration of stores and services passed a certain threshold, it was argued, the magical word "Tivoli" would draw tourists from all over the world. The return would more than handsomely compensate the investment.

The second theory, the more likely to be true in that it was the more fantastical, was that given the proximity of the Woodstock of festival fame just across the Hudson River , Karmgard and deCastele were attempting to transform Tivoli into the ' East Bank's gay Woodstock" . It was no secret that the two men were of that persuasion, nor that the same could readily be assumed for their many male friends who drove through the village in sparkling limousines, nor for their servants, attendants and co-workers.

By this theory, all present residents of Tivoli would be bought out or persuaded to leave within a few years. The displacing population would consist entirely of rich homosexuals, playboys of the Purple World. The shops, bookstores and restaurants had never been intended to function as businesses, but rather to service the refined tastes of this decadent fin-de-si¸cle jet set. In that case, turning a profit would have appeared to be not only superfluous but downright vulgar!

I left the region shortly afterwards. It would be another 3 years before I would return to discover the sequel.

Or so things stood when I visited there briefly in August of 1981. Yet Utopia, which never departs yet never quite arrives at the village, is not dead. As it has been through the major portion of its long history, Tivoli is merely awaiting its proper moment to be reborn.

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