An Instant Community in the Catskills
One family decided to buy a second home in the Hudson Valley. They told their friends, who told their friends, and so on.
Congregating in the Catskills
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When Kirstin and Jason Frazell head to their weekend house in the western Catskills, they don’t leave their city friends behind anymore. They don’t have to.
Since they bought their Sullivan County home in 2014, the Frazells have convinced five other families or couples in their social circle — including their next-door neighbors — to follow suit.
The pair never intended to start a minor migration, said Ms. Frazell, 37, who works at a big technology company, as does Mr. Frazell, 41, who also has an executive coaching business. “This just organically happened.”
But the Frazells’ enthusiasm for Narrowsburg, N.Y., the tiny hamlet where they settled, and the prospect of having a built-in community, convinced their friends to investigate the area. And while each family was looking for something different — one longed for a large piece of land, another for a solid investment and a third for an inexpensive fixer-upper — they all found something that satisfied them.
More, in fact: Almost everyone in the group said they have richer social lives and deeper bonds as a result of having bought homes in Sullivan County.
“No lie, we are busier up here than we were in the city,” said Katie Carpenter, 32, who works for an ad software company and bought a house in 2015 with her husband, Matt, 34, near the Frazells’ place. Getting together in the city, she added, is “a pain with the subway, with work — now we’re all within five to 15 minutes of each other.”
For a second home to really feel like a home and not just a place where you hole up for the weekend, owners need a sense of community. Importing a subset of your city circle may seem like cheating, but it can also ease the transition to a new area and provide a base from which to build additional connections.
The ripple effect for the Frazells and their friends began six years ago, when Ms. Frazell decided it was time to look for a weekend escape from their apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Beach towns were too expensive, so the couple started looking north of the city. Eventually, they decided to browse in Sullivan County, because it was just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the city and had slightly lower taxes than nearby counties.
The couple made an offer on their house before they even saw downtown Narrowsburg. “It happened to be in the most perfect town for us,” Ms. Frazell said.
Tucked into an elbow of the Delaware River, where it forms the border between New York and Pennsylvania, the hamlet has only about 340 residents, according to census estimates. But it punches far above its size in creative and commercial terms.
In just a few square blocks, Narrowsburg has a rustic-chic coffee shop, the Tusten Cup, and a bookstore, One Grand Books, owned by a former editor in chief of Out magazine, where each shelf represents the tastes of a well-known person; Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rene Redzepi are among those featured at the moment. There are two destination restaurants: The Laundrette, a wood-fired pizza place overlooking the river, and The Heron, where Marla Puccetti and Paul Nanni serve buttermilk fried chicken and roasted bone marrow. And Sunrise Ruffalo, the actress married to Mark Ruffalo, owns a housewares and gifts boutique there called Sunny’s Pop.
“It’s kind of an enigma,” said Joan Santo, the owner of Narrowsburg Proper, the hamlet’s “not-so-general general store,” which stocks a range of things, from Italian specialty foods to men’s clothing. Ms. Santo and her husband, Ron, both 52, moved to the area full-time 12 years ago. Five years later, he opened Narrowsburg Fine Wines & Spirits; she opened her shop next door in 2017.
“If you were looking to open a business there and looked at the demographics, you’d say, ‘Don’t do it!’” she said. “But it’s country with a city-neighborhood vibe.”
Homes in Narrowsburg are a relative bargain. The average sale price is around $139,000, said Barry Becker, a real estate agent who represented several of the families in the Frazells’ group and also owns an art gallery and home store in Narrowsburg. By comparison, in Rhinebeck, a better-known town in the Hudson Valley, the current median listing price of a single-family home is $559,000, according to the real estate website Zillow.
One of the most expensive homes on the market in Narrowsburg at the moment is a four-bedroom log-and-stone house set on 13 acres, listed for $1.3 million. One of the least expensive, a 1,300-square-foot house on a third of an acre, is priced just under $60,000.
Renovations are also relatively cheap, compared to what you would pay in New York City, Mr. Becker said. “Everybody comes up here and thinks a new bathroom is going to be $20,000,” he said. “If you’re not buying Ann Sacks tile at $50 a square foot, you can do a bathroom for $5,000, easy.”
When the Frazells bought their house — a new but traditional-looking two-bedroom cottage on five acres, which they later enlarged — Ms. Frazell mentioned it to a friend at work, Christy Liu. Ms. Liu, 37, lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and she and her boyfriend had been looking in the Hudson Valley for a home that would double as a weekend retreat and an investment property.
“We had that sort of dream of getting an old barn or something like that and renovating it,” Ms. Liu said. “We quickly realized that we didn’t have the know-how or the time, and that it would end up costing us a lot.”
Ms. Frazell’s excitement inspired Ms. Liu to visit Narrowsburg. “You could just feel that something fantastic was going to happen there,” she said. “The area is sort of more up-and- coming, so from an economic standpoint it’s an easier entry into purchasing.”
By late 2014, Ms. Liu, her boyfriend, her sister and a friend had pooled their money to buy a three-bedroom, midcentury-modern ranch on five acres for around $375,000.
Around the same time, Matt and Katie Carpenter were pondering a move from Washington Heights to the suburbs; Ms. Frazell suggested they check out Narrowsburg first. The Carpenters made their first visit in January 2015, and by April were under contract to buy a home there.
“We definitely came up here with the intent of buying a fixer-upper, because of budget and to have a creative outlet,” Ms. Carpenter said. Their 1931 Sears kit house cost $90,000, and they have spent four years renovating it, doing much of the work themselves.
Next came Erin and Marcus Smith, who were among the Frazells’ first overnight guests in Narrowsburg. Before they visited, they knew nothing about the area, said Mr. Smith, 37, who works in finance technology. (Ms. Smith, 35, is an attorney.) But they enjoyed it so much that they started hankering for a home of their own there.
After briefly exploring other parts of the Hudson Valley, they returned to Sullivan County. “You could get more land,” Mr. Smith said of the area. “It was something that we could grow with, as opposed to stepping into a place that had already maybe reached its peak in city dwellers.”
In July 2015, they bought a new barn-style house on 30 acres and now spend most weekends there.
Julie and Doug Eisenstein, a speech pathologist and attorney with two young sons, were next. The couple own the apartment next door to the Frazells in Brooklyn Heights; the families share a wall. The Eisensteins had also considered moving to the suburbs, but weren’t ready to commit to commuting. When the Frazells bought a house, they started thinking about a second home instead.
“They were always going up to Narrowsburg,” Ms. Eisenstein, 48, said. “But I wasn’t sold on it.”
For one thing, the hamlet was very small. And as a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she longed to be on the beach. The Frazells encouraged the couple to borrow their house and explore the area, and Mr. Eisenstein, 48, quickly warmed to it.
Eventually, Ms. Eisenstein did, too. “I turned around and looked at the Delaware River and said, ‘O.K., if we can find a place on the river I’ll do it,’” she said. They found a four-bedroom waterfront house in August 2015. Built in the 1980s, it needed a lot of work, but over the next two years they fixed it up, bought kayaks and a canoe, and installed suburban amenities, including an indoor playground. A basketball hoop is coming this spring.
“We all host various events,” Ms. Frazell said. “Jason and I have a July 4 pool party that everyone is invited to. Erin and Marcus host a pig roast every September. Somebody always does something for New Year’s.”
Some events coincide with local happenings — in the case of the pig roast, with the Narrowsburg Honey Bee Festival — to help support the hamlet. The friends say that far from being treated like interlopers, they’ve been embraced by the locals. Their Facebook group has expanded to include dozens of full-time residents.
Those who settle in Narrowsburg tend to be “an eclectic group of people who respect the area,” Ms. Santo said, “and want the area to thrive and want it to become vital and sustainable.”
She is encouraged that more people seem to be relocating full-time to Narrowsburg — among them the Carpenters, who made the move late last year, when Mr. Carpenter took a job with a local nonprofit.
Around the same time, a fifth set of friends bought a home in the nearby hamlet of Eldred. And yet another couple recently made an offer on 15 acres a mile away from the Frazells.
“There will be more, we’re assuming,” Ms. Frazell said. “The only downside is, we probably do less relaxing than we should. We’re constantly going to parties.”