Every trip up to the Hudson Valley for the last three years, we sped past the sign at 65 mph, never slowing. The sign for Walkway over the Hudson became a marker or sorts – a landmark, but also, a point of contention between one who wanted to stop and one who didn’t. It was looking as if that sign would be as close as I would ever come to experiencing the actual site. The sign was small, smaller than the tension in the car that was palpable.
One of us has a problem with heights and would not be a party to a stroll over a 212-foot-high “gangplank” suspended over a wide and deep (50-60 feet) river – a defunct railroad bridge, now a pedestrian path, which began its conversion in 2008 and was completed in 2009.
At last, my opportunity presented itself with the visit of a non-height-averse longtime friend this past week. Yippee! A chance to soar in the Taconic region of the Hudson River and to follow the elusive sign.
Let me see: I have walked the High Line, which is not really high. I have climbed three mountains in the past year. All these encounters have provided placeness in the way that they create a sense of place in their settings, enhancing the experience accordingly. There is a give and take between the venue and the view. Sadly, I hesitate to say that I did not find placeness at the Walkway. The Walkway, despite offering pleasant views of the Hudson that are not usually available except in a car or train, doesn’t seem involved with its site; rather it seems like a platform for viewing a site. Yes, it is high. Yes, it allows one to look up- and downstream from the center of a large body of water. Yes, it is a wonderful connection between the east and west banks for two-legged, four-legged and two-wheeled pedestrians.
I guess the reservation I have about it is that it has no intrinsic beauty in and of itself to add to the experience. It is a wide sidewalk with thick and high railings – functional and plain – in contrast to the river, not in harmony with it; very distinctly separating the human-made and the nature. At this point in time, it is a big bare plaza; hard and cold and not a little bland and monotonous. Not having seen the original, I would guess that the old railroad bridge with tracks and creosote-soaked ties and opportunistic weeds and grasses poking through the cracks had way more character and placeness. Although this is a pedestrian byway, it resembles more so a highway.
I don’t want to denigrate the Walkway, because I think it is a noble effort, especially since I think that we need more such efforts made for pedestrians. But there is something missing, some connection and integration. I have the feeling that an engineer, not an architect, designed the look and feel of it – heavy and practical, like Soviet-era buildings and U.S. interstates.
The bottom line, though, is that there are very few enjoyable ways to cross the Hudson River on foot, and this one bridge is dedicated to that purpose. I have to give bonus points for that. Until Walkway opened, the options were: the George Washington Bridge, where you can be overwhelmed by speeding traffic right beside you – one would have to be on Valium to get through this trauma; the Bear Mountain Bridge, which is cute and smaller scale, but you get to walk or ride on the shoulder of the road with big expansion-joint gaps; the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, the longest pedestrian span across but its floor is textured metal and can be slippery; the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, high and on the narrow side, and you get to be right in amongst the traffic with no divider; and the Rip van Winkle and the Dunn Memorial bridges, both of which have pedestrian walkways much like the George Washington Bridge’s lovely nerve-racking offering.
I am grateful for the existence of this one-and-only pedestrian bridge. I am hopeful, though, that things will improve in an aesthetic way for the Walkway. It has potential, it has good bones. What it should have is a sense of place, arslocii.