EDITORIAL: Ghent turns 200

JUDGING FROM THE SIZE of the crowd at the Ghent VFW Hall Tuesday evening, the Town of Ghent is feeling pretty chipper for a 200-year-old. People who aren’t familiar with the charms of the town may ask what all the fuss is about?

It’s tempting to conjure up a notion of a town full of country folk living a simple life in rural America, but it’s hard to reconcile that portrait with a place that has two airports–one has a paved runway–and a contemporary art institution like Art Omi and part of an industrial park and a winery and some of the most spectacular views in the Hudson Valley. It’s population is economically and culturally diverse, politically too. Now, having been around for two centuries as a town with a sense of what it is, Ghent appears to be reinventing itself again.

This is a county newspaper and it would be impolite to omit mention that both New Lebanon and Austerlitz are also celebrating their bicentennials this year. And it’s not as if there aren’t older towns in the county. The boundaries of Ghent were drawn by lopping off parts of Claverack, Kinderhook and Chatham. And while it might seem that issues of municipal lines were settled in the 19th century, the decisions of 200 years ago are still subject to debate and change. For example, think about the pressure from state government to share and consolidate local municipal services.

The state constitution and state law as it has evolved over the years embrace the principle of Home Rule, which gives local municipalities the right and the responsibility to elect local officials and to maintain local services like roads. But now the thrust from Albany is that to save money we need to share services in ways that blur the distinctions of who’s doing what for whom. So after two centuries of building an identity rooted in a sense of community, are the residents of Ghent and of the other 17 towns in the county supposed to call it quits and merge into one big municipal glob?

The question suggests an extreme version of how the state’s shared government services initiative might play out. But it also helps explain why it has required large carrots and even bigger sticks for the state to convince towns that they must find ways to cooperate that reduce the costs of local government. Old habits of independence are hard to break. Residents of Ghent are proud of their town and its history, and celebrating this bicentennial reminds them of the reasons for their pride.

One of the highlights of this week’s celebration in Ghent has been the release of a new 90-page publication called “The Town of Ghent 1818-2018”. Written by Town Historian Gregg Berninger and edited by Ghent Councilwoman Patti Matheney, it contains over 50 pages of town history with clear reproductions of historic photos on nearly every page. As all good history does, this publication relies on the work of previous historians as well as original sources. You could mark a bicentennial without something like this work, but Ghent’s celebration is enriched by its presence.

Among the things it reminds us is that the good old days were better for some than others. Ghent was the site of the county Almshouse, a large county facility for people who found themselves homeless and impoverished. Some were mentally ill, confined to cells and beaten, according to a contemporary account. In 1857, the poorhouse had 187 “inmates,” including children. That’s more than the homeless headcount the county identifies as homeless now, when we house these folks in motels.

There were people in Ghent who kept others in slavery at least until 1827, when the practice was outlawed. Keeping black people in bondage was common in the county. It is worth remembering.

As much as a big anniversary allows all of us to marvel at what’s changed it also offers opportunities to assess the edgier topic of where the town is now and where it’s going. Two of the speakers Tuesday, former Congressman Chris Gibson and Assemblymember Didi Barrett referred to the successful effort by Ghent residents to reduce the impact of a high voltage power line through the town a few years ago. They held the protest and negotiations up as a community success not a political fight. They were right.

Let’s hope there are folks around 200 years hence and when they look back at the early decades of the 21st century they’ll appreciate the town we’ve left them.

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