A Whole Lot of Somewhere
by David McCarthy
the unique local character that adds up to a wonderful place to visit and a great place to live
In his classic 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler eloquently described the sad decline of the American landscape into a faceless maze of superhighways, shopping malls, and suburban sprawl. Since then, if anything, things have gotten even worse in this country of ours. There’s a whole lot of nowhere in America, and it is pretty much all over.
That’s all the more reason to celebrate our Hudson River Valley, because it’s really somewhere. Or perhaps we could say it is a whole lot of “somewheres”, places of unique character and quality that add up to a region that’s both a wonderful place to visit and a great place to live. What makes a place like this somewhere? Let’s take an eagle’s-eye view (yes, they live here) of the Hudson River Valley, from both a natural and a cultural perspective.
Get up high in this region—and there are plenty of places to do that, even for humans—and the first thing that strikes the eye is the tremendous amount of tree cover and green fields. It helps that we’ve got the 700,000 acres of the Catskill Preserve sprawled across four counties. But smaller segments of natural land also abound, such as Mohonk Preserve’s magnificent holdings on the northern Shawangunk ridge, and Scenic Hudson’s more than 50 properties open to the public, strung like jewels the length of the Valley. This slice of human settlement that runs with the Hudson from south of Albany to the gates of the New York Mega City has got land in its natural state, lots of it. RESPECT FOR THE LAND runs deep in local culture. In fact, the American tradition of land preservation—and later, the modern environmental movement itself—have their HISTORICAL ROOTS right here in this valley. John Burroughs (1837-1921), one of the great pioneers of environmental ethics and expression, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Emerson, Muir, and Thoreau, was born and lived here (you can visit his home, Slabsides, in West Park). Environmental values aren’t something new for us here and they aren’t on the fringe. They are part of our history, and at the core of what brings us here and keeps us here.
Speaking of land, we’ve got GREAT FARMS as well—lots of them. Though they are always under pressure from “development”, they at least have a fighting chance here, with increasing support from farmers’ markets, CSA (community supported agriculture) programs, and burgeoning demand for local food from our many fine restaurants.
As for the cultural side of our region, we are blessed with an immense RICHNESS OF THE ARTS. Again, the roots run deep. The Hudson River School of painting, in which the artistic expression was all about the beauty of the land, and which took on distinctly spiritual overtones, was founded by Thomas Cole, who first came here in 1825. Countless visual artists (now including photographers and filmmakers) make their homes here and continue the tradition of artistic expression in a setting both natural and cultural that encourages such work. Arts colonies also took hold here. Cragsmoor in southern Ulster County dates to the 1870s, a few decades before the launch of the more famous Byrdcliffe in Woodstock, which remains to this day as the oldest continuing arts colony in America. From Olana, Fredrick Church’s house near Hudson, to Dia:Beacon, an amazing museum of modern art in a converted Nabisco box-printing factory (you can’t make this stuff up), we’ve got the must-see sites, friends, and we’ve got the working artists as well.
As for MUSIC, we’re rotten with that too. The Woodstock Festival—which as everybody knows wasn’t really in Woodstock—continues in spirit throughout the region and tangibly at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a museum and music venue at the original site of the Woodstock Festival in Sullivan County. The Maverick Concerts, which is in Woodstock, exemplifies the classical side of the music spectrum with a long-running summer series of world-class musicians performing outdoors in a rustic forest setting. As for jazz, perhaps the timeliest expression of the vibrant legacy of that tradition is the wonderful Falcon in Marlboro, where top jazz artists are heard and respected in a setting that is really tailored to the music. By the way, it’s in a converted 19th-century button factory.
Post-industrial riffs like these echo across the region and point to a pattern that is still unfolding. What is to become of a region that was once one of the most industrialized places in the world and isn’t any more? What about jobs, jobs, jobs? Well, economically, we’re a work in progress, but the businesses you see represented right here in VISITvortex are examples of the RICH MIX OF LOCALLY OWNED AND SMALL COMPANIES of all kinds that are charting a new course of economic development. Think small is beautiful, and toss in local is beautiful while you’re at it. Your support for such businesses, ventures that build and sustain the local economy, makes you part of a trend many of us would like to make a conscious movement.
What makes a place “somewhere” are the things that make it unique. We’ve talked about some of these. We could also talk about other features of our Valley, like the tremendous variety of SACRED SITES, spiritual centers and traditions, and the complex historical legacy all around us that we so often take for granted. In some sense, when you ADD IT ALL UP, AND PLOP IT ALL INTO THIS MAGNIFICENT NATURAL SETTING, THAT’S YOUR WHOLE LOTTA SOMEWHERE. A sociologist might call it a post-industrial, culturally diverse regional subculture. I call it civilization.