Sally Baker, Cofounder and Executive Director of Philmont Beautification Inc.
A Valleyite creates a nonprofit to revitalize her down-trodden town
By Alia Akkam
It was the purchase of a now-antiquated fax machine that changed Sally Baker’s life. “It was $1,500, and I thought, ‘If I buy one of those, I can move anywhere,’ ” reflects the cofounder and executive director of Philmont Beautification, Inc. (PBInc). “Before that, you were locked into where you lived, a product of your own environment.” New gadget and nine-month-old son in tow, Baker left New York City for the Hudson Valley in 1987, where she continued to pursue her career as a curator of contemporary art.
After living in Millerton and Red Hook, the native Brit settled in Philmont, the village once dubbed “Factory Hill” for its plethora of wool mills. Baker says she was drawn to the town’s friendly, engaging residents. “When I drove through it, it was desolate and boarded up; yet the people, a high number of whom are activists working in fields like education and science, were interesting,” she explains.
By 2000, when Philmont teemed with 75 vacant buildings and housed a population of just 1,480, Baker and her neighbors were meeting informally to help rejuvenate the village.
“As we walked the streets and got to know the community intimately, we became embedded in the real life of Philmont on a daily basis,” Baker explains. Soon this ad hoc group, with the mission of “rebuilding a community within a community,” became PBInc.
Since its inception, the organization has helped implement an artist-in-residency program at Taconic Hills High School, and the creation of a colorful mural in a neglected parking lot. “Revitalization is different from gentrification,” Baker says, and PBInc’s goal is the former. Attesting to this are the numerous New York Main Street program awards, funded by the New York State Housing Trust Fund Corporation, that the organization has received. A shining example of the village’s transformation of public space is Local 111, a restaurant located in an old auto shop. Across the street is the Philmont Farmers’ Market, which Baker helped establish in 2009. A curbside café in an old Stewart’s has increased local access to wholesome food. Baker hopes the space will grow into a culinary hub with the addition of the Kitchen, an incubator for emerging food businesses, for which the group is currently fund-raising. Baker’s time is also occupied with efforts to restore the Summit Reservoir, a waterfront development intended to spark new life in abandoned mills.
Baker’s impassioned spirit has been evident since her youth in England, when she often took part in community service activities. Her art career further expanded her awareness of issues like climate change and income inequity. “The same conversations were happening here. I realized I wanted to be in the trenches working to address the challenges and make them into realistic opportunities,” she says. “Our community is the smallest in the state to receive a grant because we are so active. We get recognized for turning up and following through.”