Traveling Up The Hudson River

A common lament of those of us who were raised in the northeast is that “while I love California, I do miss the fall”. And I certainly have uttered that phrase many times, although lately, I have found my love of California wavering, its been more tough love given its current dysfunctional state. Last month, I spent a wonderful 10 days in New York State. The bulk of the time was spent in New York City with friends, and near Syracuse upstate with family. This post concerns itself with the journey in between, a marvelous meander up the Hudson River, at  the height of its autumnal splendor.

The Hudson with Catskills beyond

A Bit of History

Anniversaries are afoot this year along the Hudson. Exactly 400 years ago, English explorer and the river’s namesake Henry Hudson sailed up the river on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. And 40 years ago, a bit west of the Hudson, there  was Woodstock.

The Hudson is an impressive river. It flows south from the state’s highest peak in the Adirondacks, gradually widening through the Hudson Valley, and its the valley’s defining hills and mountains which put on the great October show. I took the train up to Syracuse, stopping in Poughkeepsie, and the train rolls right next to the river. The trip on that sun-splashed perfect October day was spectacular.

The Hudson River Valley is rich in history. It played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War, has had many noteworthy residents such as the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts, it was home to  the establishment of the first great American Art movement, and  of course, some stunning architecture. And its a scene of great contradictions, in places  severely depressed economically, yet at the same time these down at the heels places lie within the shadow of grandiose institutions that line the river.

Books, Bombs, and Beignets

I am not sure you can find 3 institutions of greater contrast than the 3 I visited on this trip; West Point-the military college, Vassar College, and Culinary Institute of America.

West Point, founded after the Revolutionary war, is an imposing gray gothic castle that sits at a critical point along the Hudson, hence its name. It is the army’s military school. Appropriately, it was a cold and dreary day when I was there, and  this only added to the aura. After a multiple level security check, you are taken on a 1-hour bus tour, and of course, access is greatly restricted. The tour guide was a fiery 50ish woman, a civilian devoted to the academy. She referred to us as ‘her cadets’, and I thought at one point was going to ask us to drop and give her 20, and that would have been a problem for the largely elderly Japanese  tourists, not to mention yours truly.  Our guide regaled us with tales, the one that was particularly memorable told of students who were there from the south during  the Civil War, and when the war broke out , they had to make a choice, stay or go. Nearly all returned to the south to fight against their classmates. Can you imagine that? It is a place that fills one with admiration for these young men and women who serve. Amazing place.

Military gothic
OK you trees, don't give me any crap or else

Crossing the river and heading north , we come to Poughkeepsie, the home  of Vassar College. Vassar is a classic private, and very expensive, northeastern liberal arts college.  I always dreamed of going to a school like this, lazing under one of its bountiful oaks , reading the classics with my chums whilst plotting our next Oxfordian adventure. I think I watched too many English schoolboy dramas growing up. Me, I ended up at a large bland state university in Buffalo, and most of the year the grounds there were covered not with leaves and Chaucer, but with a thick layer of ice encrusted with chicken wing bones. Anyways, over the years, Vassar has added to its brick gothic core with several interesting buildings by some of the leading lights of architecture . Reminded me of Stanford in that regard.

There's the tree I was talking about!
There's the tree I was talking about!
Eero Saarinen's dormitory
Marcel Breuer's building

Finally, and in most stunning contrast to West Point, at least from the standpoint of waist size, we have  the CIA, or, Culinary Institute of America. Housed is an old Jesuit seminary, it is a beautiful campus overlooking the river, and instead of guns under the trees, there are butter sculptures of cows- (ok, not really, but c’mon. butter sculptures of cows!)

The CIA
A butter cow

Art and The River

There is a great tradition of painting in this valley. In the mid-19th century , an art movement took hold in the valley by a group of landscape painters. Known as the Hudson River School, it embraced romanticism, itself a larger movement that literally romanticized, among other things, the natural world. Thoreau and Emerson embraced it on the printed page, and these painters, drawn to the valley and the river by its beauty, did the same on canvas.

Thomas Cole: "Romantic Landscape With Ruined Tower"

The tradition continues, and now the valley has become a destination to see art and sculpture. Several years ago, an old box-printing facility in the village of Beacon was turned into a museum: Dia:Beacon. The huge factory is perfectly suited to show this collection of XXX large paintings, and site specific sculptural installations. The whole effect is mesmerizing, I can’t recall quite having a museum experience like this. The factory and the works are perfectly suited to one another, and the large space allows one to explore unfettered by the usual museum throngs. In fact, despite the size of the place ,one’s interaction with the works is quite intimate. The museum includes full galleries of works from the likes of Warhol, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Sol Lewitt, to name but a few.Here’s a few photos:

Aerial view of the museum, hiring this plane was very expensive for Urban Ambles.
John Chamberlain- The Privet
John Chamberlain: "The Privet"
Richard Serra: "Installation at Dia"

Town and Gown

We’ve seen great institutions , great art, but how about the towns themselves. Despite being home to such institutions as noted above, and we haven’t even gotten to the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt estates, the towns have struggled. Like most of upstate New York, the boom of the 90’s largely escaped them. There has been some redevelopment, but the towns generally offer a sharp contrast to the august institutions they host. Poughkeepsie, for example, home to Vassar,  has struggled mightily with the usual rust belt woes, factories closing, unemployment, etc. And there are only so many world-class museums that can fill shuttered factories. Many scenes like this:

Downtown Poughkeepsie

And this:

Newburgh, NY

But then there’s this:

Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde park

Whenever I go to upstate New York, I see these contrasts. The rusting husks of the industrial age, sitting next to the shimmering relics of the gilded age. So it is heartening to see things like the museum at Beacon, and all that it is doing for the surrounding community. And in Poughkeepsie, I saw the seeds of promise, in the form of a hot dog and a bridge. As I got ready to catch the train north, after passing a bevy of boarded up storefronts, I came to Soul Dog:

Soul Dog

This place made the best hot dogs, and must be the only hot dog joint that also sells gluten-free and vegan bakery products. But its much more than that, its the classic urban pioneer story, a young couple from New York City following their passion, returning home, and making a business out of a boarded up storefront downtown. The owner said repeatedly in our conversation “there’s nothing wrong with Poughkeepsie, nothing wrong”. Wow- yes!! And then he told me about the old railroad bridge. What old bridge? Apparently they had just opened a new walkway over the Hudson on an old rail bridge,, just around the corner from the restaurant. And there it was:

The bridge
Opening day on the bridge

The bridge has captured and is serving up hope for downtown Poughkeepsie. People are coming to town, and perhaps it will inspire more businesses like Soul Dog.It did my heart good to see this , I couldn’t help but reflect on the pitched development battles I have been involved with in San Francisco, the nimby fueled vitriol that gets spewed whenever anyone want  to do anything here. You go Poughkeepsie, make it happen.

Part 2 (yes reader, I know, after all this, there’s a Part 2?) will look more at this concept of rebirth in my hometown of Syracuse and in the Big Apple.


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