As part of Birkenstock’s 1774 collaboration series, Document Journal meets 10 creatives making the Hudson Valley a kingdom of their own. Moving upstate has offered the downtown icon mental sanctuary and sartorial freedom.
Discover the full Birkenstock 1774 collaboration series here.
Michele Saunders has declared Catskill the “New Brooklyn.” Forty years ago, you would never predict Saunders’s future as a pioneer in the creative exodus upstate from New York City. A star of the iconic—if mythologized—1980s downtown club scene, spending her nights dancing into the early afternoon in sequined, hot glue-gunned, group-coordinated outfits at Paradise Garage, Saunders relocated to Catskill after thirty years in the city and a brief stint in Miami. “I would consider myself to be a ‘new’ local, even though I’ve been here for 15 years,” she explains. “In Catskill, we are a village of NYC expats… the ‘local’ locals are all transplants from the Bronx or Staten Island, while the ‘new’ locals hale from Brooklyn.”
Over the years, Saunders has watched these Brooklynites move to Catskill eager for a subway-free, rat-less life of painting or writing, trading Food Bazaar for a front yard vegetable garden. While Catskill is just a short train away from the city, she points out that living upstate represents an entirely different lifestyle. The post office workers won’t ask for your ID because they know you by name but forget about finding Chinese food at 3pm. Parking isn’t a problem upstate, but you have to drive everywhere. To our effervescently fabulous, highlighter-haired “new” local, the benefits of small-town life boil down to the sartorial. In the city, she is limited to traversing the urban jungle in layers of practical black, accessorized with a backpack. Upstate, she is free to experiment with the full range of her closet, changing outfits sometimes five times a day. “I try pieces that I would never dare wear in the city… if it’s too weird, I can just go back and put something else on!” She has even converted her guest room into a closet—a luxury most city dwellers only fantasize about. Here, she speaks from a true New Yorker’s perspective about her experience living upstate.
Document— Are you more of a city person or a small town? Has that changed over time?
Michele—I enjoy both the big-city life and the small-town pace. As a good friend of mine says, “city country, country city.” Both possess a different rhythm; I love changing things up and the variety both have to offer.
Document—What’s your most inspiring season upstate?
Michele—I love living upstate because I am able to experience the change of season. Each one, different in their own way, allows me to love all of them equally. Every season brings inspiration for a different lifestyle, wardrobe, food, mood, and vibe. Upstate, nature is always extremely close and present. Living upstate is a marriage of all of the parts of life that make me feel alive.
Document—Where do you go to get inspired, think, and decompress?
Michele—Just around the corner from my home is The Point, an incredible place where Catskill Creek meets the Hudson River. In just 30 minutes I am able to decompress. If I have a little more time, I venture out to the RamsHorn bird sanctuary. Meandering around all of the amazing trails, I can make my phone calls while simultaneously enjoying nature. If I am really going to make a day of it, I travel about 40 minutes from Catskill to Colgate Lake in the mountains near Tannersville. Though it’s relatively close, it feels remote and secluded. There’s nothing like the view of mountains framing the lake to make your worries feel insignificant.
Document—Tell us something you learned while living upstate that you might otherwise never have known.
Michele—Living upstate has granted me an education in home maintenance like no other; I am versed in everything from heating systems to leaky pipes. When living in a rural place, one must learn to be self-sufficient to a certain degree. I have also learned how to drive in all kinds of weather (four-wheel drive is a must!).
Document—How does your sense of community differ from when you live in a city?
Michele—There is so much to get involved with when living in a smaller community like Catskill. Whether it’s a fundraising project or checking out the new business on Main Street, I have a pulse on everything going on here in this village. In the city, I was sticking to one group, which usually centered around art, fashion, and downtown. Because there was too much to do, it was more limiting. Up here I am able to focus my time on more projects and interests, so I’m all over the map.
Document—How do you feel when you return upstate after being away?
Michele—I feel at home. But I feel at home too in the subway.
Hair and Grooming Mimi Quiquine at She Likes Cutie. Photo Assistant Annabelle Snoxall. Production Liana Blum and Patch Ward.