How Concert Culture Choked the Campus

On a sunny spring afternoon, the SUNY New Paltz Athletic and Wellness Center (AWC) shines in the humid air. Against the breathtaking backdrop of the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge, two curved bands of glistening panels and clear windows sparkle as students and athletes filter in and out the front doors. 

The AWC equips the school with much needed facilities: an 1,800-seat basketball arena, six-lane, 25-yard swimming pool, athletic offices and strength and conditioning room, to name a few. The building finally provides the proper facilities to allow the school’s sports teams to excel in competition, giving birth to a slew of championship titles.

Before the AWC, Elting Gymnasium & Pool was the only athletic hub on campus. Around the same time of the gym’s construction the school drafted additional plans for what would become the AWC. However, it did not come into fruition for another 42 years. 

A series of stiff state budget cuts created major speed bumps towards the athletic department’s expansion. But what’s far more intriguing are the setbacks sparked by the once-raving music scene that engulfed the sleepy Village of New Paltz from the mid-1960s through the ‘80s.  The cosmetic development of the current campus came from the school’s desire to shed its party-crazy reputation and evolve  into the respected state school it is today. The school has undergone a major makeover over the past few decades, and retired college athletic faculty member and coach Allan Dunefsky saw it all. 

After graduating, Dunefsky was hired by the school in 1972, where he served as the coach of the women’s volleyball and softball team, as well as the Director for Recreation and Intramurals, before retiring in 2005. As a student and faculty member, he saw how the college’s music culture impacted its future development.  

The New Paltz concert era bloomed during the anti-Vietnam War movement, with all the free-love, hippies and rock-and-roll that came with it. Beginning in the mid-60s, the pinnacle of the concert was the campus’ “Spring Weekend” festival.  Far before W. Hawk Drive was paved, or any of the west-side campuses were built, the plot of land behind Elting was home to the infamous “Tripping Fields.” In a Hudson Valley One article, the author fondly describes the area as a “California-shaped tract of somewhat swampy multipurpose grassland at the southern tip of the SUNY-New Paltz campus, probing into the lower Moriello Orchards.” 

Spring Weekend was easily the biggest party of the year. In addition to the student body, thousands of strangers from all over the East Coast came on motorcycles and Volkswagen minibuses to camp out for a weekend of raging occasions. During this decade long period, Tripping Fields were graced by some of the biggest names in music at the time including Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Dunefsky fondly remembers The Dead occupying a room in the bottom floor of Elting and bringing cooking stoves, kegs of beer and pizza to share with the students. 

“Over the years it became a self-fulling prophecy to have this concert,” Dunefsky recalled with a hint of pride in his voice. 

In the aftermath of Woodstock in ‘69, Spring Weekend attendees wanted to raise the stakes, making the party bigger and better every year. However, these misguided ambitions lead to the overall degradation of the event. As the late ‘80s approached, the parties became too much for the students and local residents to endure. In fact, Elting Gym’s current floor came courtesy of a band whose smoke machine burnt a hole in the wooden floor, forcing the band to pay for a replacement that still stands today. Needless to say, Spring Weekend was getting out of hand. 

Dunefsky was unfortunate enough to coach a double-header softball game on the Saturday of Spring Weekend, 1986. Joan Jett was headlining the weekend’s festivities and the performance took place adjacent to the softball diamond. He vividly remembers motorcycles ripping through the center of the field during the game, while people loitered in the bleachers, slugging on beer cans. The University Police were overwhelmed and unable to control the chaos. Dunefsky also held a more disturbing memory of young woman, near comatose, sprawled out on the grass as two men funneled gin and vodka down her throat. 

“It got to the point where the students would go home whenever we threw these weekend festivals,” Dunesky said. “We had to ask ourselves, who are we serving here? Is it the students or the strangers?” 

The student government, who funded Spring Weekend, scrapped the festival after 1986. Although the festival was gone, the apprehension towards the college concert scene remained. Ugly memories of Spring Weekend’s past placed a blemish on the Elting Gym area and led the school to focus future construction on academic buildings.

During the time when concerts raged on in the Tripping Field, Dunefsky says all SUNY schools were in the process of receiving new field houses from New York State. The field house would have offered an ice-rink and competitive swimming pool among other amenities. To the college’s dismay, the governor iced the project and snuffed the college’s first attempt at athletic enhancement two weeks before shovels hit the dirt.

As the early ‘90s progressed, the athletic department continued to suffer. Vice President of Enrollment Management David Eaton says state budget cuts derailed the second attempt at a field house. Eventually, the school couldn’t afford to maintain their physical education program, forcing the school to fire a majority of their athletic staff and forfeit numerous wellness classes. With no money for the athletic administration or expansion, various varsity and club sports died off as well. 

SUNY New Paltz has always been revered as a teacher’s school, especially for founding the state’s first art-education program.Vice President for Administration & Finance Michele Halstead explained that steady decline of high school graduates over the years lead to the dismantlement of state “strategic initiative” funds used to construct new buildings. The school was forced to “vote with their feet,” and prioritize expansion of the academic areas that are utilized more frequently. These concerns were coupled with the village’s fear that a field house would give birth to another problematic music venue.

Villagers became increasingly unnerved by the traffic complications and general disturbance of a festival weekend. Anyone driving through New Paltz in the spring loathes the traffic; imagine dealing with the hippie hordes who congested roadways down past the thruway on a weekly basis. Tricor Avenue, now a quaint residential road, was once a bustling corridor for concert-goers headed to Elting Gym. The college agreed to disconnect the roads with a sidewalk and landscaping to appease the town’s concerns. 

For a long time, the SUNY New Paltz student government controlled the funds allocated to the athletic department. Depending on the members’ thoughts on athletics, the department’s budget varied greatly, making it difficult to maintain the department. After immense pressure from athletic department, the school opted to create the “student athletic fee” in 1985 (still active), and the department secured a consistent budget with tuition dollars. Finally, in the 2008 “Five-Year Plan,” the college received enough money enact serious additions to the campus, including the AWC.  However, this cocktail of state and local pressures against new athletic facilities stalled its construction up until 2006. 

The college’s neglect for student athletics created a major obstacle for recruiters for many years. Many students fit the academic demographic of the school, but wished to pursue their athletic passion, and were dissuaded by the lacking facilities. 

Although the school is still far from equal to its sister schools, it has come a long way from the tattered locker rooms and laughable collection of loose free-weights they called Elting Gym. A new field house may not be a reality in the near future, but for now the Athletic Department has the tools to succeed more than ever before.

Max Freebern
About Max Freebern 91 Articles
Max Freebern is a fourth-year journalism major who’s going into his fifth semester working for Oracle. He worked his way from a contributor, to copy editor and has served as the News editor for the past few semester. While he normally focuses on local government his true passion is writing immersive work and human profiles.