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Tour the Most Equal Community in America: Country Knolls, New York

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Melissa Ehler in the kitchen of the house she grew up in, which she and her husband bought from her parents in 2001. (Tracey Samuelson for WNYC)

Nestled in rolling hills of Saratoga County about 30 minutes north of Albany, the development of Country Knolls is dotted with traditional colonials and long, low ranch-style homes. Its winding roads are lined with soaring maples and pines. There’s a busy community pool and an 80-acre woodland reserve through which the local boy scouts cut a series of trails. 

In a time when the concern about growing income inequality has found outlets in the Occupy Wall Street protests and made its way onto the presidential campaign trail, this community doesn’t have to worry about the wage gap between its residents. The median income here is a comfortable $107,000 a year, according to analysis by U.S. Census Bureau.

In fact, Country Knolls is the place with the greatest income equality in the nation. No one in Country Knolls lives below the poverty line, but the super wealthy don’t live here either.

Much of Country Knolls’ income equality can be attributed to real estate developer Robert Van Patten, who began construction on the development in 1964. After the Adirondack Northway, Interstate 87, was expanded into the region, he saw a business opportunity in building homes on land that had previously been remote wooded hills and some farmland.

Over the next 2-1/2 decades, he built roughly 1,300 houses in Country Knolls and thousands more in other nearby developments. 

“Van Patten’s a self-made man,” said Glenn Valle, a lawyer, head of the Country Knolls Civic Association, and an unofficial area historian. “He starts out as a radio repairman for Sears Roebuck.”

Originally, all Van Patten’s houses had white siding and sold as fast as he could build them. Each house had a least half an acre of land and yards heavy with old-growth trees.

There are five types of housing models throughout the development: three styles of ranches and two colonials.

“You notice a certain sameness about the housing stock, that creates a certain sameness in the people who move into them,” said Stephen Schmidt, an economic professor at Union College, a small liberal arts school in nearby Schenectady. “They have enough money to afford these houses, but not enough money to go to something snazzier.”

Over the years, residents have replaced the traditional white siding on their homes with beiges, blues and grays. They’ve added porches and porticoes, extra bays to their garages and expanded kitchens. But the homes, often set back from the road in heavily wooded lots, have largely retained their original character.

(Photo: Real estate developer Robert Van Patten began construction on the development in 1964 after the Adirondack Northway was expanded into the region of remote wooded hills and some farmland. Tracey Samuelson for WNYC)

That character and sense of community drew Dawn Coletta and her family to Country Knolls in early 2011. Their new colonial is twice the size of their old house on Long Island. It has original Van Patten light switches and a mural of the sky in an updated kitchen.

Coletta’s husband makes $90,000 a year as a repairman for Verizon (“We’re under-average,” she said, laughing, referencing the census data.) This fall, she started driving a public school bus, a job that that allows her to be home with her three boys after school and will bump her family’s income up to be around that of her neighbors.

“We really are like Stepford wives,” she joked, noting that her neighbor is a retired Verizon worker. “Everybody’s the same.”

But, in reality, Coletta said her neighborhood doesn’t feel all that uniform: her neighbors are lawyers and teachers, young couples and retirees.

Many people here commute to work in nearby Albany or Schenectady; they have jobs with General Electric, Verizon, New York State, the nearby regional public school. Global Foundries, a semi-conductor manufacturer, is currently building a $6.9 billion facility just outside Country Knolls.

But residents do have some striking demographic similarities: 95 percent are white, 77 percent are married and nearly 98 percent own their own homes, according to census data.

But it’s not unusual to see people grouped together by income or background at the neighborhood level, experts say.

The share of neighborhoods across the U.S. that are predominantly middle class or mixed income fell from 85 percent in 1980 to 76 percent in 2010, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people living in majority lower-income or majority upper-income neighborhoods have both ticked up.

“Only in an old city where there are pre-established housing patterns do you see housing for rich people and poor people right next to each other,” Schmidt said.

He added that income segregation means more tax dollars for one town over another, which can mean better services, better schools and better opportunities for children who grow up in those towns. (Technically, Country Knolls straddles two towns).

Additionally, when kids grow up surrounded by people just like them, they tend to think everyone else is just like them, too, he said.

Schmidt sees this firsthand when he asks his economic students how much money they think a typical U.S. household makes.

“If they grew up in a wealthy suburban neighborhood, they guess $100,000, $150,000,” he said. “If they grew up in a really tony neighborhood, they guess $200,000, which are way off.”

Median household income is the U.S. actually just over $50,000.

Two doors down from Dawn Coletta is the white colonial Joanne and Fred Dickman bought in 1970 for maybe $40,000.

The Dickmans moved to Country Knolls when Fred was transferred to the area for his work with General Electric, about 30 minutes away.

The neighborhood “had a lot of couples with young children,” said Joanne. “[They were] the ages we were, about the same places in their life career-wise that we were, and that's the kind of neighborhood we wanted.”

In 2001, they sold the house to their daughter, Melissa, and her husband. He works for the state lottery; she works part-time at local public school.

“Maybe [Country Knolls is] boring to some people, but it’s all pretty much the same,” said Fred Dickman. “And I like it.”

Tracey Samuelson
Most homes in Country Knolls are the same five designs -- two styles of colonials and three styles of ranches.
Tracey Samuelson
Over 2-1/2 decades, roughly 1,300 houses were built in Country Knolls.

Tracey Samuelson

Originally, all the houses had white siding. Each house had a least half an acre of land and yards heavy with old-growth trees.

house, subdivision
Tracey Samuelson
Nearly 98 percent of Country Knolls residents own their own homes, according to census data.
Tracey Samuelson
The median income here is a comfortable $107,000 a year, according to analysis by U.S. Census Bureau. Median household income is the U.S. is just over $50,000.
Tracey Samuelson
Construction of the Country Knolls development started in 1964.

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Comments [15]

bARB

iM AN ORIGINAL OCCUPANT--wE HAD DIRT ROADS--DROVE 12 MILES FOR GROCERIES--BUT IT WAS A GREAT COMMUNITY TO BRING UP CHILDREN.tHEY COULD ACTUALLY WALK ALONE SAFELY TO THE NEXT STREET. vAN pATTEN LIGHT SWITCH--2 MASTER SWITCHES WITH # 1-12--eACH # WAS LABLED WITH AN AREA OF HOUSE--EX bASEMENT-SO YOU TURNED TO THAT # PRESSED THE DIAL IN, AND VOILA--THAT ROOM WAS LIT. a VERY eXPENSIVE PROPOSITION WHEN YOUR GRAND CHILDREN CAME--AND THEY PUNCHED THE DIAL FOR HOURS.

Apr. 18 2013 07:10 PM
birdielmw..

Great neighbors. I live in ck.

Oct. 30 2012 11:55 PM
Shona

I grew up in Country Knolls, and it was a safe, quiet place to live. However, this community is way out of touch with how most Americans, and most people in the world, actually live. By living and going to school with people who are very similar to ourselves, we aren't exposed to other ideas and values. We don't notice that racism, sexism, and homophobia are still very real and alive in America, even in our own community. We think that how other types of people act on TV is really how it is, and we may not be as empathetic as if we were actually friends with people who look or act different than us.

Living in such a homogeneous place perpetuates the status quo, and often people in Clifton Park don't realize that there is more to life than having a green lawn, a pool, and a new SUV.

Also, I think the author is confusing the word "equal" to "homogeneous".

Sep. 27 2012 11:32 PM
Moira J. Park from Rexford, New York

We didn't live in Clifton Knolls, but a mile up the road. We had a lot of friends who did. My husband taught at a nearby university with an international faculty and quite a few of those connected with the college settled in Clifton Knolls. Van Patten offered decent, affordable homes that young families could afford. Anyone who moved into the neighborhood regardless of race or religion was accepted into the community. Everyone appreciated the opportunity to bring up their children in a safe environment. I do resent the assumption that they grew up as "racially-insensitive kids". Putting that tag on them is totally incorrect. Growing up in Clifton Knolls or any other community like it, doesn't make one a racist. These kids went out into the world and contributed to the needed social changes that their generation demanded without resentment. It was and still is a lovely community with an even more growing diverse population that WORKS because we celebrate each other's differences.

Sep. 26 2012 08:45 PM
CatherineO from Country Knolls, Ballston Lake, NY

To Jennifer from NYC: Van Patten light switches are more shallow, with square, chunky buttons. Nothing fancy, just unique to these houses. And a pain in the neck if the plate cracks because they're 30 years old and can't be replaced.

I agree with the posters who felt the article had a somewhat pejorative connotation. I, too, grew up in Country Knolls in the '70's and '80's and it was a great place to be a kid and still is. We bought a house here in 2005 right around the corner from my mom; same style "executive ranch" that I grew up in. Sure, there are only a handful of styles of houses but again, there's no crime, quiet streets where the kids play, mature trees on every lot. For the area, these homes are spacious and a great value to boot. There's a lot to be said about that and not being saddled with enourmous housing debt, particularly in this economy.

Sep. 19 2012 11:17 AM
Kathy from Massachusetts

I grew up in the development right next to this one. Clifton Knolls. I LOVED it there, wouldn't change a thing. I have great memories about being a child growing up in a great neighborhood. I know that is has changed a bit since the mid 70's and 80's but if it is anything like what it was when I was a kid, then there is nothing negative to say and if you don't like that kind of living....then don't live there.

Sep. 18 2012 07:52 PM
rem from Albany

I live in Albany and biked through this area last weekend. I certainly didn't notice any radical sameness in this area. What distinguishes this suburban neighborhood is only that the development was big enough to become it's own census area undiluted by homes built in other eras by other builders. The fact that this suburban neighborhood happens to be more similar than any other in the nation is just a coincidence of census boundaries and not because of anything particularly interesting about the urban planning or social dynamics of the community. As a result, this report rang disingenuous to me.

By relating this story to Occupy, you made it seem that no income diversity in a neighborhood is good. However, current thinking in urban planning is to create more balanced mixed-income communities. Also, the fact that the average income in this development is twice the national average made the lead-in link to you made to Occupy feel false.

Sep. 18 2012 06:27 PM
Spectator from DaBigCity

"Hmmm, criticizing a community that works."

You sure it's criticism? The reporter said everyone there loves it and wouldn't change a thing, and even young people want to stay around where there parents are. No crime, no drugs, no grime. That's unflattering?

Sep. 18 2012 06:05 PM
Jennifer from New York City

What the heck is a van patten light switch?

Sep. 18 2012 06:00 PM
M A

Country Knolls is a residential development with around 1000 houses. It isn't a town. There are two parks, one of them has a community pool - both have baseball fields... It is a pretty nice little development. But again, not a town. If you want to buy a pack of gum, you have to leave Country Knolls. It isn't the extent of the community, it is a development within a community. The town of Clifton Park is small but has around 35000 people and all of the kids who grow up in Clifton Park go to the same school which graduates around 700 each year. This article makes it seem like the people who grew up in this development grew up in some cultural vacuum - which isn't the case. Clifton Park isn't New York, we don't have 200 languages spoken or really any good brunch spots, but it isn't the Stepford Wives either.

Sep. 18 2012 04:18 PM
B.J.

As someone who grew up there in the 70's and 80's, I can say growing up in a mostly white neighborhood does not make you racist. However; in my case, I grew up thinking there was no racism anymore. We learned about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement and I believed that everything was perfect. It was only when I went to college and had African American friends did I learn that gross inequality still exists.

Sep. 18 2012 12:45 PM

"Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but the middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium."

--Cyril Connolly

Sep. 18 2012 11:20 AM
Lawrence smith from clifton park, ny

I grew up in this area, and take my word for it, we don't want you NY city people around here anyway discussing how we live are lives....because to you we are a bunch of hillbillies up here anyway

Sep. 18 2012 09:57 AM
JJ Smith from NYC

Hmmm, criticizing a community that works. Oh, and Samuelson has to point out (Effectively criticizing) it's 95 percent white. How shameful - cultural Marxism at its finest (a specialty of NYC NPR - how diverse is your pools of journalist and mgmt - highly jewish). Why doesn't Samuelson criticize the numerous and heavily populated Hasidic and orthodox communities? Suggest they should diversify. before closing, white (European) is actually a very diverse racial group: including British, polish, irish, German, Greek, Italian, French, etc. This group has suffered a severs decline in representation in our country - 90 percent in 1960s to 65 percent today, projected 45 percent in couple decades.
Folks, the decline in this group is actually by design - a divide and conquer/control technique by introducing diversity in a popn (nope, not paranoid about this, just reporting facts and observations). To understand who was behind this read academic paper authored by dr. Kevin McDonald (Jewish involvement in shaping American immigration policy 1881-1965: a historical review. There are other reports he wrote that are very interesting.
Enough for now. Hope listeners now understand what's really going on and not the propapganda spewed from NPR/NYC.

Sep. 18 2012 07:30 AM
Kayla from New York City

What does it say about us as a country that, in the "most equal town in America," 95% of people are white?" There are about 14 black people in the entire city. The article identifies one problem with this without necessarily meaning to, "when kids grow up surrounded by people just like them, they tend to think everyone else is just like them, too." This translates not only into a tendency to lack economic empathy for the average American family (side note, the median family income in America is half of what their parents make, but the median income of a black family is one third of what their parents make, $34 k) it also means that, because they never encounter any meaningful racial or ethnic difference (or religious difference, I'm betting), they never have the opportunity to question the prejudices of their families and community. I grew up in a majority white town (90%+) and it's a delightful, hard-working community of people who never have to think about race and, as a result, send lots of racially-insensitive kids out into this world.

NOTE: I'm not saying that the people who live here are (necessarily) racists, or that de facto segregation the residents' fault. I'm just taking pause to think about the implications of the racialized structural inequality that lurks beneath this story.

Sep. 18 2012 06:43 AM

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