Let’s remember that we’re a Friendly Town


To the editor:  I was in attendance at last Monday’s tense Common Council meeting. Although it turned out to be a victory for a cause I cared about (Save Esther Place), that victory felt bittersweet because I left the meeting feeling unsettled about the friendly sense of community I often talk about on my local social media platform Peekskill Exurbanist.

Aside from the racial and ethnic tensions on display at the meeting — well documented in the Herald report — there was another bit of ugly rhetoric that reared its head that night that the Herald missed.

“These new people who aren’t from here.”

Those words, spoken pejoratively during the public comment period, received no pushback or pleas for respect from our representatives. As someone who was once a newcomer (how long does it take for someone to no longer be considered new to town?) and as someone who definitely isn’t from here (my life journey has taken me from Texas, Kentucky, Florida, California, and ultimately New York) these words did cause a reactionary sting and an instinctual defensiveness. After all, I thought this was “A Friendly Town” as signs proudly communicate this to motorists arriving off of Route 9.

One of my most prized possessions as a Peekskill transplant is the book “Peekskill, A Friendly Town: Its Historic Sites and Shrines” published in 1952 by Chester A. Smith.

Mr. Smith was a Peekskill native who was not only instrumental in turning Peekskill from a village within Cortlandt into its own city, but he was also the man responsible for the “friendly town” motto. His Friendly Town Association was, as Postscipts (an online magazine) described it in their April 13, 2010 biography of Smith, “a one-man chamber of commerce.”

The mission of the association was “to promote friendliness, advertise its benefits, encourage its practice and pay tribute to its accomplishments; to recognize public service in the community and generally promote the spirit of civic pride.”

The Friendly Town Club’s membership card had five rules members must follow:

  1. If a merchant, to make Friendliness a feature of his store: If a manufacturer, to make Friendliness a feature of his plant.
  2. To call upon a new family that moves in the block and welcome its members to the town.
  3. To give cheerfully any information asked by strangers in regard to streets and directions and to take any necessary trouble to assist strangers by supplying them with all proper information possible.
  4. To commend at least one public official or public servant a year who has shown a friendly attitude toward the public.
  5. When registering at a hotel away from home, to place after the word Peekskill, the words “A Friendly Town.”

Maybe I’ve become a rube after living in a small city for six years, but the mission of The Friendly Town Association and its accompanying rules inspire me with their sheer optimistic simplicity. Rule 2 seems an especially apt response to some of the rhetoric I heard at Monday’s council meeting.

It’s also helpful to remember that we live in a city in North America that bears the name of a Dutch settler. Our street names also reflect the influence of outsiders — Hudson Avenue (Henry Hudson, an English explorer), Simpson Place (John B. Simpson, auctioneer from NYC), Beecher Lane (Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist from Connecticut), Kossuth Place (Louis Kossuth, Hungarian patriot). Streets such as Cayuga Drive, Seneca Street, and Iroquois Street reflect the pre-European inhabitants of this area which they called “Sachoes.” And streets named Maple, Pine, and Elm remind us that humans in general are all newcomers here on a geological time scale. Perhaps we should name a street or two after the glaciers that transplanted themselves here from the north 15,000 years ago.

The bottom line: newcomers are nothing new here. Our diverse population of folks with African, Dominican, Dutch, Ecuadorian,English, Guatemalan, Irish, Italian, Jamaican (the list goes on) ethnic backgrounds is proof if this. Maybe it’s time for Peekskill reorient itself around Mr. Smith’s “friendly town” ethos and prioritize friendliness in our interactions with our neighbors new and old.

Frederick Dennstedt, Ringgold Street