Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Mat Zucker is a self-proclaimed “cidiot,” the kind of born-and-bred urban/suburbanite who is drawn to rural living but recognizes that he has a lot to learn about the practical, social, and community aspects of rural life.
In 2018, he launched a podcast (also called Cidiot) to document his move from New York City to the Hudson River Valley and talk candidly about his experience as a newbie. With a number of podcast awards under his belt, an advice column in a local paper, a new Cidiot anthem, and a fourth season of the podcast underway, Mat has been working hard to get his perspective out into the world. He’s not a homesteader—and he readily admits that he and his husband Brian started out as rural weekenders—but he’s recording the trials and tribulations of someone with little context for life outside a suburb or city figuring it all out, often with amusing results.
At 61 episodes and counting, Mat has learned a lot already: which cars are not suited for snowy driveways (Mini Coopers), the wide range of chicken breeds (many more than he imagined), and that local small-town Pride celebrations not only exist, but can be just as fun and affirming as the big city variety.
In the about page on the Cidiot website Mat addresses listeners with two main categories of interest: “Curious what the transition [to rural] is like? Or are you a local and want to see a different side of the folks who’ve invaded your land?”
From my vantage point here at the Yonder I was interested in what Mat had to say about some of the harder questions around rural gentrification, concerns from local residents about city people moving in, and the fresh ideas new faces can bring if they’re willing to check assumptions, listen sincerely, and admit they still have plenty to learn.
Caroline Carlson, The Daily Yonder: You started your podcast Cidiot, which carries the tagline “learning to live and love life in the Hudson Valley” in 2018 as a way to talk about your experience moving from New York City to a small town called Red Hook in upstate New York. At the time you and your husband were coming in as outsiders and weekenders—not even fulltime residents of this community. How has your outlook on rural living changed over the last four years? Has the intent of your podcast changed?
Mat Zucker: In the first years, we fell in love with the beauty of rural living—the pastoral views, the graceful movement of animals, friendly farmers at weekend markets. It was from an appreciative angle, a bit of a distance because we were so new. As we started to spend four, five days a week here, and then moved full-time, we became so much closer to what we had been appreciating. We started to understand the history of those views, the role of different animals on a farm, and got to know the farmers as neighbors and friends, understanding the rigor and sweat of what it takes. I’ve tried to always approach it humbly, with curiosity, leaving city biases behind and trying to learn as much as I can. Definitely naive, but hopefully never judgmental and always the sincere student.
DY: For the latest season of Cidiot, you wrote and produced a Cidiot theme song (with a little help from some friends). It addresses the bumblings of people new to country living in a charming, tongue-in-cheek way. I think it’s hilarious, but I also wonder about the kernels of truth it alludes to. How do you confront justified concerns from local residents about urbanites moving in?
MZ: Yup, it’s (almost) all true! The song is based on raw material from my life and that of my co-writers, the musicians. You’ll be on the side of the road admiring a view and someone will drive by, annoyed at the idiot blocking the road. Some of what’s for sale at farmer’s markets is ridiculous stuff catering to weekenders versus staples you need. And driving back on Sunday is the worst. Local concerns about rising real estate prices, heavy traffic, and some bad behaviors are real. Calling it out with humor is a great way to recognize it and teach others. I hope the song brings local residents and urbanites moving in closer together to share the laugh. We live together in this amazing place.
DY: You mention getting involved in local politics a number of times and you dedicate episode 53 to the subject of county-level government. What has the experience of civic engagement in a small town been like for you? What sorts of issues are important locally in Red Hook?
MZ: There’s so much to learn about how state, county, and town governments shape your day-to-day life in rural America. What’s confusing is who is responsible for what and who can best answer your questions. New York state’s system, for example, is fairly byzantine and I was surprised to learn how powerful the county governments are (“the arms of the state” the legislator explained in that episode). I recently became embroiled in a fight over regulating short-term rentals (Airbnbs). It was a first-hand look at how backroom deals can result in an unnecessary law, the challenges of organizing local activism, and how intimate an issue can be among neighbors who still must get along after the topic is resolved. What also stood out to me this time was the crucial role of local journalism. We have a new newspaper, The Red Hook Daily Catch (in which Cidiot has an advice column), and its depth of coverage of the regulation was critical to shine a light in the dark spots, surface facts, track the progress, encourage participation in town meetings, and put the issues in context. Few towns still have this local coverage.
DY: Some of the things you talk about in your podcast speak to a fairly specific audience, i.e. people who keep two residences and hire gardeners. Do you have concerns about presenting rural as a playground for wealthy people?
MZ: The podcast is primarily a welcome wagon for newcomers and prospective arrivals, which are definitely more than just the wealthy. I certainly do not want to present rural as a playground for the well-to-do; that would really undermine the whole mission of cidiot. While weekenders are part of the audience, at least a third are full-timers and many are small business owners and long-time residents. I’m trying to interview a greater variety of people for sure, and share more of our shared history, culture, and interests. In addition to gardening and house management, I recently interviewed an expert mountain hiker, a local barber, and that local music team.
DY: Are you familiar with the concept of rural gentrification? How do you see the kind of urban exodus you’re encouraging affecting the communities around you?
MZ: Cidiot is about acclimating city and suburban folks to rural life, not the other way around. I’m no expert but clearly there are positives, negatives and things that could go either way. A negative I’ve seen isn’t just the cost of real estate but the availability of affordable housing. Some positives can be modernization of services, support for local businesses, as well as an influx of new ideas. I wish more towns would actively plan on how to make newcomers welcome so the impact would be more intentional rather than left to just market forces. One thing I think I can encourage is that newcomers, including weekenders, move their voting here and participate in local elections, school issues, community volunteerism and support local business.
DY: What value do “cidiots” bring to their rural communities?
MZ: While it’s common to talk about the good and bad impacts on economy and infrastructure, newcomers also bring fresh ideas to adapt into the local conversation. My friend Allison talks on an upcoming episode about the diversity that she’s seen in the last few years and as a multi-racial family, that’s pretty important to her and to me as a gay man. Another contribution is ideas for local business and commercial use. So many village downtowns are stuck in plans from decades ago (mine included) and perceptions of themselves that haven’t changed with the advances in technology or how people spend their time. The trick of course is how cidiots introduce their ideas to those already here. Do they come across as crass outsiders telling someone what to do, or as authentic and sincere community residents vested in what happens here as new locals.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.