Tag Archives: New York

Woodstocks Nation

When we vacation, we tend to overpack the car, point it in the direction of compelling, sometimes overlooked places and make our way with a stack of printouts as our guide. That is how we found one place we keep going back to – a place that so immediately and completely and naturally became “our place”  that it was like discovering that you‘d been adopted and now you’ve met your biological family and, from the get-go, in some weird pheromone-ish way, simply “know”” them; it is our Brigadoon, arising out of the heather mist, periodically, in our time but of its own; a spot that lies nestled at the foot of mountains named Guardian and Overlook – how can you not love the protective hug of that? It is Woodstock, New York.

There is, for us, only one Woodstock, but, we have found out that there are, indeed, other Woodstocks – a bunch of them: two in Canada, at least five in the U.S. alone, three clustered in the northeastern portion of the country. Having visited none of the others, we wondered what they were like, and how they compared to our/”the” Woodstock: Was there another Woodstock that we would prefer or be more enchanted by than the one we’d come to hold close to our hearts? Would the others be home to the same kinds of characters and outliers and land’s-enders as the New York Woodstock? Would any or all be a colony of the arts, as ours was? Might there be something common to all, and if so, what – besides the name? And by these wonderings, and with a bit of vacation window open in front of us, we hatched a plan and devised a route, a circuitous trail of mostly back roads, a few highways, mountains and valleys, inns and b&bs, sculpture parks and natural wonders, but all with a central purpose: to arrive at our Woodstock, eventually, by way of other Woodstocks, the ones we could reach in our allotted time. What would we find in our quest of Woodstocks?

Woodstock(s), Conn.

Connecticut, like New Jersey, can be seen by outsiders as a pass-through DMZ, a bedroom-community corridor between New York City and New England, a freeway ramp to Boston. Really: What pops into your mind when you hear the word “Connecticut”? It has a reputation for insurance (Hartford) and the first native-American casinos (Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods). For us, in Bridgeport, is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country: Bloodroot. The fifth state in the union has no major-league professional ball teams. There is no love song written to it. It has a Woodstock, though – actually, six of them. And, coincidentally, we have a good friend in the town in New York who grew up near (if not in) this town, having attended the Woodstock Academy, in Woodstock, Conn.

But wait, six Woodstocks? The way we understand this is that six villages –  South Woodstock, Woodstock Hill, North Woodstock, East Woodstock, West Woodstock and Woodstock Valley – make up the town of Woodstock. Just as an aside, the New York version is a town made up of twelve hamlets. But with New York, the other hamlets don’t have variations on the same moniker.

country

They call the northeasterly part of Connecticut the “Quiet Corner,” especially in contrast to the roaring and belching interstates and the denser urban pockets to its south, and it is here where Woodstock is. And Woodstock is, as the regionalized name indicates, quiet. Farms and vineyards, antiques and b&bs (we stayed in a sweet and quaint place, Taylor’s Corner B & B, along a country road, although, truth be told, every road there is a country road, really). There is not, to the underinformed visitor, much or any of a town, but rather just rolling green acres and homes and occasional shops.

fair signWoodstock is a rural enclave and the people have fought hard to keep it from being over-developed. In this town you are more likely to find frogs and fireflies than lattes – and that is a good thing. It celebrates its history, with one of the original town homes now housing its historical society – and behind it is a nice arboretum/garden with a strolling path – and its agriculture, evident in the large millstone standing upright at the town center and its annual fair.

millstoneBut it also has a notable landmark in Roseland Cottage, a pink-painted Victorian gem that once hosted the rich and famous, and is now a tourist attraction. It was influenced by the designs of Andrew Jackson Downing, has a lovely formal garden, and sticks up like a shard of gingerbreaded coral by the road.

roseland

(It would seem that if you want a town with more commerce and centrality, you need to make the brief slide over to Putnam or Pomfret. An eatery called the Vanilla Bean, in Pomfret, appears to be the popular populist gathering place for the area, and provides a bit of local color – you’re as likely to find biker gangs as suburban families there.)

With Woodstock flowing into Pomfret, and with not much of a town center to Woodstock at all, it is often difficult to know just where you are (of course, there a lot of people in the New York Woodstock who aren’t quite sure where they are, either), and this is compounded by the fact that it is a divided Woodstock, with its six sections, each flowing one into the other, with occasional signs but without definitive borders. We tried, as best we could, to visit all its parts – we may have, but couldn’t quite tell for sure. Like many New England towns, it is cute and historic, and this one is a good reminder of our early American roots. It is its own Woodstock, albeit, to our eyes, with nothing like the placeness of ours, but an original nonetheless.

sign & house

Next installment: Another state, another Woodstock, and scaring moose.

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Wrack & Ruin

There it is, still standing, a vestige, sturdy and upright beyond all odds, remarkably vertical despite the forces of horizontality, concocted of sinew and bone as any other living thing but built of natural stone or manmade versions thereof – a singular wall or, perhaps, a forty-five degree angled pair of walls forming a kind of solidarity for the ages. Time was when there was more to this, when its solid mass made its structure less visible than now. Such remnants, considered ruins, sit in isolated overgrown places: open meadows or wooded lots, near abandoned train tracks, in brownfields. They stand as reminders of what once was or what might have been. They are in slow demise, left out to fend for themselves – abandoned, both structure and site.

Confession time: ruins speak to me. There is something about a partial built structure, in combination with nature on the ascent, that excites something primal in me. It is not only the aesthetics of it, the textural interplay of hard and soft, or grays entwined with greens, or straight and sharp edges in counterpoint to curves and wiggly organic lines – it is all of that and more – and there is some energy felt, too, rather than merely visual delight. Ruins are like a breach or tear or glimpse into other time periods – a kind of limbo of unclarity where convergences of past, present, and future gather. And it is uncertain, for an instant, as to which one you are occupying. I am not a science-fiction aficionado. For me, ruins represent time travel in real time. They provide one of the few instances when we are made aware that there was something before us and our here and now.

Such partial structures are often walls, masonry walls. The most beautiful are stone or brick. Occasionally, there is one of cinder block. Rarely are they wood, since wood doesn’t stay self-supporting for very long. Often, they are house walls, sometimes with chimneys. Others are former buildings of commerce or industry. Occasionally, they are false starts, buildings unfinished as opposed to structures in aging dismantle. They cling to life, they are fighters: against the elements, against human whim and greed, against physics and even probability. They are survivors.

When I first met my life partner, it was because of a ruin. I was in upstate New York, in the woodsy rounded mountains of the Catskills. I had walked through a thicket the day before and spied a ruin, cloaked in its site as they often are. In the morning’s bright light, I wanted to test out my new camera, but headed out hastily in search of the hidden treasure, forgetting the camera. I doubled back, almost at a trot, and literally bumped into this guy who (apparently) had followed me into the woods. We started talking, I explained my mission, he enlisted, we walked together to find the crumbled structure. I photographed the site from various angles, we walked more; in fact, most of the morning, and watched a deer amble across our paths, mere yards ahead – it was the most silent of moments. A deer and a ruin – it was magic and it was fate. Ironically, those pictures never “took” but something else did that day.

It is said that fairies live in the woods. Maybe they inhabit the ruins of man. And maybe their gentle spirits enliven and protect them and infect us, those of us that find them. The partial structures suggest something other than what we witness on a daily basis: that land is to be “improved” and used and modified. Sure, there was once some structure on this piece of ground, but it has been given back, rejoining nature in a dramatic tango, a creative tension and parity. Excuse me, could I cut in? Maybe it has something to do with life, an all-at-once illustration of growth, change and death found in a ruin and its site.

 

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Remembering the Future

Whatever happened to the future?

There is every reason to be confident, at any given moment, that it will happen, but we no longer embrace its promise and possibilities the way we used to, certainly not in the long-term: Our future is measured, it seems, in just weeks or months, the metric being the release dates of upcoming new electronics or software upgrades, or the disappearance of ozone or ice. These days, we more easily dwell in that foreign country of the past, finding comfort even in its anxiety, and vice versa. The past is soothing to us because we have made it through it more or less intact, and that’s where our loved ones will always be alive. The present demands choices, and the future is not predictable, and often, not even imaginable.

Philosophically, now – this very split-second – is all that is real, and yet, in early 1939, the future was just as real, and, in one specific location, past, present and future were all lived at once: a temporal convergence not seen before or since and likely never again, that resulted in an explosion of pure optimism or, at the very least, great pleasure. It was a grand place to be; in imagination, it still is.

That the 70th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair slipped by most of us last year around this time is something of a shock, considering its place in American history, its signal influence on invention and design, and its symbolic balancing on the precipice of hope and war’s crashing bleakness: In terms of the road of faith in progress’ benevolent patrimony, it was the last stop before tolls.

Twenty years ago, for the Fair’s 50th anniversary, a celebration and memorabilia sale was held at the site of the ’39 exposition, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. In the existing park, there wasn’t much left of that fair, or the one in 1964 put up on the same spot: just the huge globe called the Unisphere from ’64; the time capsules set in place in the ground at each fair, 25 years apart, to be opened by our descendants 5 centuries from now; a few recreational facilities; and what was once the New York City pavilion used for both events, but which is now the Queens Museum, home of a spectacular room-size, 3-D replication of New York City, and, in 1989, ground zero for the anniversary festivities. Attended by some who built the Fair, others who’d attended it, and most who only dream about it, are moved by it and curse the unfortunate timing of their births that caused them to miss the experience of it.

Being there, as we were, despite the near-barren grounds, one could try and succeed (squinting a little helped) in envisioning this Oz within view of the larger Dream City just beyond to the west, this now-ghostly Fair: the Promenade, and all the excited folks strolling down it (in the past, people strolled – it was a favorite form of perambulation, not a waste of time); the dancing waters of the Lagoon of Nations; all the streamline moderne and kitsch corporate buildings, some looking like the products they were pushing (although it was progress, not sales, that they claimed to be espousing). And, of course, the Fair’s theme building and centerpiece, the continually seductive, classically inspired, and still-ahead-of-its-time symbol of the new age/space age/scientifically enlightened age to come: the elongated pyramidal Trylon soaring to the sky, and the grounded, bulbously tactile Perisphere. Today, none of it there, yet magically present.

That was 20 years ago. Last year, for the 70th anniversary, what passed for a celebration took place in an airport hotel near LaGuardia. A comedown, certainly of style — and, after all, wasn’t style what 50 percent of the Fair (and, generally, life) was all about? As the fair recedes in time, and living memories die, the dream of this Camelot, this congenial spot of happy ever-aftering, made legendary by its programmed impermanence, devolves — except in the hearts of a few loyalists — into little more than fluctuating price lists for collectibles.

And now we are approaching the 70th anniversary of the fair’s second season, one of the most disappointing of sequels. Perhaps a more direct harbinger of the real future, much of what made the Fair a joy in ’39 was gone in ’40; the focus shifted to the amusement park and sideshow areas that had once been the secondary, seamier but popular side of the enterprise. By spring of 1940, when what remained of the ideal future reopened to try to squeeze more money from the curious or idle to help defray the losses incurred by Season One (who said art pays?), the Nazis had taken Poland, Europe was descending into fear and darkness, and the moral and political undertow of involvement was dragging us out beyond safe shore. In bitter irony, the metal substructure of the Trylon and Perisphere would soon be melted down to make the stuff of wars. Also ironic: even as our symbols of great expectation became scrap, we were never so unified as a nation as in our war efforts.

A place in the mind is as much one dwelled in as any other, and maybe more so, because it is what you want it to be, or need it to be, and you can walk it, and smell it, and taste it, and be there with whomever you want to be, whenever you want. We are not in such dark times now, as then, but we are not in such bright ones, either. The 1939 World’s Fair was, by its own reckoning, The World of Tomorrow. We could use one today.

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