Democrat Photo by Dan Hust
THEY LOVE WOODSTOCK, and they want the world to know it. On a recent visit to the site in Bethel were, from the left, Neil Monastero, Ed Watson, Marcy Hill, Bob Parnicky and John Miliano. Miliano owns property near the festival site, which is where the group camped out Memorial Day.
Who's Preserving Woodstock?
Site Owner, Activists
Disagree Over Method
Editors Note: The first installment of this four-part series ran last Friday, June 7, concerning the Gerry Foundation and its plans for the Woodstock site in Bethel. Next Fridays installment will feature an interview with Town of Bethel Supervisor Allan Scott and Planning Board Chair Herman Bressler, who represent the lead agencies for approving the $40 million performing arts center project.
By Dan Hust
BETHEL June 14, 2002 Its only a year and a half old.
Its got about 200 or so members.
Its had a somewhat fractious history, with current talk amongst a handful of members of forming a new group.
It has no board officers (just equal directors), and its not even an official organization nonprofit or otherwise.
Yet the Woodstock Preservation Alliance (WPA) is the veritable thorn in the Gerry Foundations side when it comes to constructing a $40 million performing arts center and related facilities on and around the 1969 Woodstock music festival site in Bethel.
For youll never find a more committed band of Woodstock enthusiasts people who are dedicated to ensuring that the 37.5-acre site of the original festival at the corner of Hurd and West Shore roads stays as open and untouched as possible.
Yet the marks of the sites owner, the Gerry Foundation, are already there, from the split rail fence that encompasses the property to the graded spot for a coming stage at the bottom of the natural amphitheater. Theres a sculpture on the site, dirt roads for access, and a landscaped park that surrounds the monument to the festival.
Come August, therell even be tents in the middle of the field, covering the various vendors in the popular Fall Garden Harvest Market, which lasts until October.
But while WPA members dislike the current modifications, their passions are really only ignited when talk begins of erecting permanent structures on the site.
A lot of people feel its a historic landmark, says WPA member Bob Parnicky, a lighting fixture and web site designer who just moved from New York City to Canaan, New Hampshire. But Im suspecting this whole thing is money-driven.
Its a charge Gerry Foundation officials dont really shrink from, as Executive Director Jonathan Drapkin has said that GF is creating an intelligent business plan that works.
But while Drapkin and GF owner Alan Gerry have said in the past that theyre being sensitive to the historic and cultural value of the site, WPA members feel theyre not going far enough.
I dont think theyre taking the visitors opinion into account enough, says Marcy Hill, a WPA board member and a public school teacher in Canaan, NH.
Whilst resting on a rock at the monuments park on a sunny Memorial Day weekend, Hill and fellow WPA members explain that they believe its mostly locals who are willing to see structures erected on the site even though Gerry owns 1,300 acres surrounding it, 600 of which are zoned for building performing arts center-related facilities.
Their concern swirls around not only a potential violation of the Woodstock site and spirit but a possible lack of visitors to the area itself due to development.
They reference a recent car commercial featuring a tired executive who finds that his brand new vehicle is perfect for getting away from it all by traveling to a pseudo-Woodstock site that shows a field of green grass with trees beyond.
And while the group as a whole supports the performing arts center concept, the peacefulness and free access in that commercial is what defines Woodstock, they say not to mention the idea in peoples heads of an undisturbed farmers field.
There are so many performing arts centers, remarks Downingtown, Pa. resident Ed Watson, a software company technical support person and a former board member of the WPA. What you have here is a ready-made, unique hook . . . and all you have to do is leave it alone.
Last year, the WPA was ecstatic about the prospect of the center, since at the time nothing of significance was planned to be built on the Woodstock site. Then the Gerry Foundation changed plans, tossing the original centers siting for a less rocky, less expensive setting 1,000 feet away.
That move shifted a museum, a performance hall, a visitors center and other facilities onto the southern third of the Woodstock site, and WPA members re-energized their efforts to dissuade the Town of Bethel from allowing the foundation to do such a thing.
Those efforts included 57 letters petitioning the town to not approve the current plan (the town has yet to do so), conducting a media awareness campaign and taking out ads in area newspapers promoting their cause.
Its more than just music, says Hill. This is a monument to peace.
The WPA also met with foundation officials personally to make their plea but to no avail, they say.
We feel theyve been less than forthcoming with us, says Parnicky.
They had their own plans, and thats what theyre going to do, adds Watson.
Not that they question Gerrys stated purpose to build an international attraction that will economically and culturally benefit the area.
Its a question of priorities, says Watson. They believe theyre preserving Woodstock. I feel they genuinely believe that.
But that field is what people come to see, he adds.
The members are unanimous that, as Hill puts it, everyone can have what they want if only Gerry and company shift all structures off the 37.5 acres and leave the field open.
(Plans call for some sort of security fencing around the site and stage area, and visitors would likely not be allowed to access the property without purchasing tickets and/or proceeding through a gate.)
The current fence is a silent reminder that the site is private property, and although trespassing complaints are uncommon, most people stay off the site itself.
Watching from his vantage point in the monument park (which is open to the public for free), Watson says, In the past 45 minutes, no less than a dozen people have come here and if they could, they would go out for a walk on that field.
So why take this part away? asks Hill.
Gerry Foundation officials say that most of it wont be, as the view of the site from the park will remain virtually unchanged.
But the Woodstock spirit might be gone, says the WPA.
If the original festival had gone as planned . . . we wouldnt be here now, says Parnicky. Its because that [original] fence came down that we can commemorate it. Now were going to put up a new fence? Brilliant.
That freedom- and music-loving spirit infects these people, both in person and in their musings online at the WPAs official Internet web site, thewoodstockspirit.org. (Board members normally even meet online, not in person.)
We really do consider ourselves family, explains Watson to the smiles of fellow members. We care very much about this.
Watsons path to activism echoes that of the others: although he didnt make it to the 69 festival (he was five at the time), he attended a reunion in 1999 and got hooked on peace, love and music.
That really touched me, he says.
Parnicky and his band, New Hope for the Talent Free, made it to the area two years prior to Watson, but he found the same spirit inside Max Yasgurs old barn now owned by Roy Howard and Jeryl Abramson, who host a reunion every year on their property along Route 17B.
I was very musically aware, and I was very aware of Woodstock, he recalls of hearing about the festival when he was nine. I knew about it on that level, and I got hooked.
Hill came up with Parnicky to Roy and Jeryls, as its affectionately called, and found out what she had missed as an 8-year-old growing up a million miles away in suburban Rockland County.
I wandered from tent to tent, she says, and I felt at home. That experience was incredible. Thats what its really about for me.
Fellow band and WPA member Neil Monastero of Bergenfield, NJ beat all of them to the Woodstock site, having first come up in the late 70s after being denied permission by his parents to go to the original when he was 13.
I camped on the field and saw musicians joining together and jamming together, he recalls. It was an open environment . . . and I fell in love with that.
John Miliano is the only one among them, however, that can call Bethel his home, having just purchased a house in March near the site. Hes also the WPAs newest board member, having been appointed to that post this past week and you can usually find him at town board and planning board meetings about the coming center.
The 35-year-old has been coming to the site, however, since Bethel 94, an attempt to capitalize on Woodstock that failed as a commercial venture but drew tens of thousands of people who just camped out on the site and played music on a makeshift stage.
He returned until 1996, when Gerry Foundation officials kicked him off the spot where he was camping, sparking concern on his part.
But now hes got his wife and son and a new home to share Woodstock with.
I enjoy it, he says so much so that he still drives two hours a day to work downstate as an electrician.
And despite the fact that he and the other WPA members can still go to Roy and Jeryls every August, theyre adamant that Alan Gerry for the sake of Woodstock and his own project refrain from touching that famous Yasgur farm field. (Theres even a poll at the WPA site that shows that 90 percent of the 100 people who voted so far would actually boycott Bethel businesses if the site was built upon.)
That empty field is going to stay with me wherever I go, says Hill. I wouldnt have a family if it werent for that field.
Its like freedom to come out here and have some space, agrees Monastero as he breathes the fresh air around the green field. I get a lot of energy here. Its peaceful, and I want it developed in a way that wont kill its spirit.
Next Week: Inside the minds of the Town of Bethels planning and town board leaders, who are the final arbiters of what will and wont happen at the site.
Tourist Talk: What They
Have to Say About Woodstock
By Dan Hust
BETHEL So what do visitors to the Woodstock site in Bethel have to say about the performing arts center project and potential development?
The Democrat interviewed a handful of people who stopped by the corner of Hurd and West Shore roads the day before Memorial Day to drink in the sights and sounds of this famous farmers field.
Heres what they had to say about the project and the possibility that the owner might construct buildings on the southern third of the 37.5-acre site of the 1969 festival:
Bill Kelly, Long Island native, summer resident of Narrowsburg: Dont you think the idea of an admissions booth would rub people the wrong way? I want to see the field as it corresponds to the movie [1970s Woodstock]. But I would come if there was a performing arts center. I think it would be a great tribute to what happened here.
Jack McConnell of Rockaway, NJ: They should leave it alone. I wouldnt disturb this. This is too beautiful. Why, if you have 1,000 acres, would you infringe on it? Just move it back a tiny bit.
Liz McConnell, wife of Jack, attendee of original festival: This is about music what better way to celebrate it? Just as long as they dont put up a high fence. [Jack agreed, saying it would look ugly.]
Sean Faust of Crofton, Maryland: I think they should leave the land alone. It represents something thats important to the country and the world. You dont want to alter it from the original event. Once its done, you just cant change that. People come to see the original site, and a lot of them would find it disappointing. (Faust, however, supports the current concept, saying he only views the site as the part he can see from the monument park and he doesnt want people trampling the field either, so hes for controlled access.)
Michael Cohen of St. James, L.I., summer resident of Swan Lake: I think a museum should be built on the site without changing the view from this angle [the monument park]. And Im going to want to see a musical event at Woodstock. Theres a huge positive here, and its going to preserve that memory. Im willing to pay up to $5 to a not-for-profit organization to see the site and preserve it. (He added that admission to the museum, gift store access and a glimpse of the Woodstock movie should be part of the ticket price.)
Cherie Mann of Severna Park, Maryland: Id like to see them put up a viewing tower here.