Saturday, March 27, 2010

Empire State of One Mind

Kids and I are back in my old hometown for the weekend, visiting with my father and his wife.

Whenever I get down out of the Vermont hills, I am always gobsmacked at how different my adopted Vermont home is from this world, which I think of as "the Rest of America" or "ROA". So many retail establishments! So many cars, suburbs, ethnic groups, big highways etc. Also, so much history, most of it industrial, lots of it cultural.

My but those New Yorkers of yesteryear were vigorous and earnest! Think Roosevelt, think Rockefeller and all their ilk. Their legacy is much on view all around this part of the world.

We went to the New York State Museum this morning which currently has an exhibit on Woman's Suffrage (the home base of the movement in the U.S. was Seneca Falls in western New York) and also a collection of photos from Eastman House. (George Eastman was a Rochester boy). Of course Schenectady of a hundred years ago was an industrial behemoth, home to the mammoth General Electric works and American Locomotive. GE, or big bits of it, remain here. The locomotive factory is a giant, brick husk sitting silently on many brown acres above the Mohawk.

They thought big in New York, at least once upon a time. You can see it still here in these upstate cities and towns. The managerial class had their mansions and those are still here. Although many of them have been converted into funeral homes or chopped up into apartments or suffered worse fates, most seem to have survived as family homes. Looking at them today as we drove from downtown Albany to downtown Schenectady on a road laid out perfectly straight during the 18th Century, it occurred to me again Vermont is not and never has been a place friendly to grand ambition. I think an honest state motto for us would be, "it's good enough!" The Vermont soul does not want to spend; it wants to get by with what it has had. It wants to make due. This mentality is part of what has preserved the place, to the extent it has been preserved.

But where would be without that New York spirit? (Which now seems to have blown over to California, or father into the Pacific). I have to say, I admire it and at least some of what it left behind.

Of course, the current reality of the non-Mansion class here is, frankly, depressing. The solid old houses peter out quickly as one departs the old downtowns. Along that straight road between Albany and Schenectady lie all the seedy stores and quasi-slum housing that characterizes the exurbia of the East Coast ROA.

In a few blocks, as we headed up out of Albany, we were riding past tatoo parlors, tax preparation franchises (why so many these days?) car dealers, and cockroachy-looking shops. (My favorite was "Sham Candy and Tobacco." Presumably the real candy and tobacco is available in better neighborhoods). Close to downtown Schenectady were a couple of motels known even in my high school days as dens of iniquity of the prostitutional variety. One was advertising, "special weekday rates", which I assume meant partial day rates. This dreary spectacle goes on for the full 15 miles that separates the two cities.

At the end of our road today, however, was a bright spot, the very oldest part of Old Schenectady, which is old by North American standards. It is the section of town known as "the Stockade," and it was first settled in 1661 by Dutch merchants. My Dad lived down here during my high school years, shortly after the Dutch were routed by the local Indians, and he and I spent many happy hours around this part of town.

Today, I took the kids to see the old house where he had his apartment and also made them march around a couple of blocks. They protested but I persisted. When I stopped to take pictures of a church, St. George's Episcopal, that I had always admired the priest saw me and invited us in. He was an Englishman, and I asked him if he had been brought over to serve here and he joked (I think), "Yes, as a penance".

The church was as beautiful inside as out. It always struck me as a bit of England in New York and course, that's what it is. When they built it in 1735 and then again in 1762, it was still English territory. Since it served as a barracks in the Revolutionary War, it's American credentials are beyond question, but since we're all friends again and we can all admire its Englishness.

If I were being honest, or at least thorough, about the local scenery I would have pictures for you of the Sham Candy store and the Executive Motor Inn. I actually thought of taking pictures, but I was worried about firing the suspicions of clerk/owners with guns under their cash registers. Also, it is the church, that I want to remember and the thing that you can't see along every main drag in the country, so here ya go.