HGTV Comes for New York’s Already-Gentrified Hudson Valley in "Small Town Potential"

The new eight-episode series plays into a fantasy of "country living" rooted more in ideas of the region than the place itself.

Welcome to Home Watching, a column about the wild and wooly world of renovation television from a self-proclaimed expert in the genre.

In the 1987 film Baby Boom, Diane Keaton plays a high-powered Manhattan business executive who inherits a baby and gives up her city life for a simpler and more bucolic experience, deep in the woods of Vermont. The house that she buys, sight unseen from a listing in the New York Times Real Estate section, is a real fixer-upper—a giant farmhouse desperately in need of work that is also the perfect vessel for a city dweller’s fantasy about life in the country. Unsurprisingly, the reality of the lifestyle collides with the fantasy; and while Baby Boom is fiction, it’s prescient, foretelling the great migration of well-heeled New Yorkers during the early stages of the pandemic—herds of potential homeowners booking it up north in search of more space and a lifestyle where the Blundstone boots they wear to drink craft beer at a bar actually serve some practical purpose.

The trend of this great migration has actually reversed now—some people who ditched the city to live upstate in search of space, community, and an easier life have hightailed it right back to Manhattan and other environs, as highlighted in this schadenfreude-laden New York Times article. But the real estate market in the region is still very competitive—so much so that HGTV has finally cottoned on, with Small Town Potential, a new series that plays into this fantasy, with middling results.

In HGTV’s new eight-episode series <i>Small Town Potential</i>, real estate agent and designer Davina Thomasula and her partner Kristin Leitheuser, a contractor, help potential homeowners find and renovate houses in upstate New York.
In HGTV’s new eight-episode series Small Town Potential, real estate agent and designer Davina Thomasula and her partner Kristin Leitheuser, a contractor, help potential homeowners find and renovate houses in upstate New York.

Designer and real estate agent Davina Thomasula and her partner, Kristin Leitheuser, a contractor, are the stars of the show, who, like in any other series of this ilk, help potential homeowners find their dream houses in a market that’s generally unfamiliar to the buyers. Instead of Waco, Texas, or Laurel, Mississippi—two cities that have effectively been renovated and rehabbed into sanitized iterations of their former selves, thanks to HGTV’s influence—the target area is New York’s Hudson Valley, a region that’s been so inundated with short-term rentals that there are now laws that limit them. And the show’s potential homeowners are all flocking to the region specifically to pursue some wackadoodle notion of country living. In the three episodes made available to me for review, each family’s desires are similar: everyone wants a house with character and charm, with outdoor space, and that suggests modern farmhouse without actually being on a working farm—enough space to have chickens and the attendant coop, because now you live in LaGrangeville instead of Park Slope. The other common thread that runs through the episodes is the insistence that a "relaxed lifestyle" and "tight-knit community" are two guarantees of small-town life. Granted, those two things exist in some ways in many small towns, but to really dwell on that is just playing into the fetishization of upstate as a Kinfolk-adjacent fantasia of weekends spent mucking around in an apple orchard and making passable sourdough from scratch.

The houses featured on the show play into this fantasy a little bit; in the second episode, one of the homeowners tells Thomasula outright that he wants a house with enough land that he can justify owning and operating a tractor. (They view an old farmhouse in Barrytown, a newer split-level ranch in Woodstock, but ultimately settle on a 1960s ranch in Gallatin that, were it situated in a suburban housing development, wouldn’t warrant a second glance.) I imagine Thomasula is a bit hindered by the available stock in the area; in one episode, she walks a couple through a new build that’s styled to look like a farmhouse, but is actually just part of a housing development somewhere near Poughkeepsie. Occasionally, an older property is available, and often, that property needs renovations—unlike Fixer Upper and Home Town, though, the work required is relatively small-scale. The houses in question aren’t in need of a complete overhaul, and even if there is demolition involved, it’s usually to add charm rather than to, say, shore up the foundation, or completely replace the HVAC. In this way, the renovations feel more attractive: Move upstate, buy a house, add a cased opening between the living and dining rooms, and you can do it all for the amount you’d spend on a Manhattan studio with a joint bathroom-kitchen.

Thomasula and Leitheuser are affable, capable hosts who, unlike many of their clients, have some roots in the area: Leitheuser is from Pleasant Valley, a town in the Hudson Valley, and she and Thomasula own a bar in Poughkeepsie and live in Kingston. These credentials lend some legitimacy to their operations, and any issue I take with the show has nothing to do with them, and almost everything to do with the premise, as there is a personal connection here that feels imperative to discuss: I grew up in Rhinebeck, a small Hudson Valley town best-known for Samuel’s, a coffee shop cum candy store now owned by Paul Rudd and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the Dutchess County Fair, and also being the place where Chelsea Clinton got married. Of the small towns that comprise Dutchess County, Rhinebeck always felt fancier—the village is full of big Queen Anne Victorians with hitching posts still standing on the slate sidewalks, and is, in general, a decent place to grow up, if safety and being able to ride your bike in the streets without a helmet matter to you.

The sense of community so desired by the homeowners on Small Town Potential does exist in some capacity. But the main issue here is that the version of upstate New York the people on the show are moving to in droves already caters to expats from New York City. Bread Alone, a cafe/bakery in the center of town in Rhinebeck, recently underwent a renovation so that it now resembles an overpriced coworking space—white walls, blonde woods, and matte black fixtures as far as the eye can see. In 2023, Soho House announced plans for a Rhinebeck location. Many of the shops and restaurants that line Market Street embody an aesthetic that can only be described as "upstate"—but it’s an aesthetic rooted in the idea of a place rather than the place itself, and is therefore so easily replicable that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Top photo courtesy HGTV

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