A landscape forever altered

By Caitlin Kelly

A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River
A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

I’ve lived — which stuns me — for 25 years on the same street, a steeply hilly winding road that has raccoons, deer, coyotes, raspberry bushes and still has a clear view, however unlikely, of the gleaming towers of Manhattan 25 miles due south.

When I moved here, the corporate headquarters for Hitachi on our street, a vast expanse of orchards and green lawns, was ringed by split-rail wooden fences. Those fences are gone now and I miss their rural charm.

Across the street from Hitachi, all this time, has been a thick, impenetrable woods, deep, dark, leafy and green, a lush and powerful natural sight and sound barrier dividing our quiet street from a busy four-lane highway running east-west a block away across our suburban county.

I’ve always marveled at how rustic and quiet it’s kept our street — it has never felt suburban to me because of this — and been grateful for that.


Here are some images of the sudden changes that began this month. Changes that have now forever altered the bucolic character of our street. Now, in an unwelcome change, we can see not only the office buildings on the north side of that road, but clear through to the south side.



The world is intruding.

It’s inevitable. Undeveloped land often holds potential commercial value. Land offers developers profit and the town added tax revenues.

But landscapes unaltered retain their own beauty, silence, natural life and history.

Once they’ve been altered, they’re gone for good.

Here’s a cool way to guesstimate the age of a tree non-invasively — if you see me out there this summer hugging trees with a measure tape, you’ll know why!

I often wonder what our suburban New York landscape was like before the Europeans arrived — as it is, we still have New York State’s second-oldest church a mere 10 minutes north of our home.

Dating from 1685, the Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, NY
Dating from 1685, the Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Who remembers what lay there before?

And there I was recently, in a shiny, new-ish TD Bank in Elmsford, NY, one of the least lovely towns in Westchester, NY, a sadly industrial mish-mash of office complexes, car washes, big box grocery stores. You wouldn’t think, seeing it today, there would have been much very attractive to miss.


And there was a photo mural — here’s a poster they’ve printed and keep in a stack for us to take — of what was there before.

I found this deeply moving and so unusual. A multinational bank caring about what its local customers might have remembered of that landscape, of their town’s history?

I love this Japanese word — yugen – a profound mysterious sense of the beauty of the natural world.

I’m at an age now where too many places I’ve known and loved are gone for good.

In Manhattan, the extraordinary profits to be made in real estate have closed many well-loved spots. One of the most recent was a pharmacy, Avignone, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Bleecker, which was one of the city’s oldest.

The lovely Cafe Angelique, barely a decade old at the corner of Grove and Bleecker, closed this year when the landlord suddenly demanded a monthly rent of $45,000. You just can’t sell that much coffee or that many cupcakes.


20131114134802Here’s Neil’s, on the same corner of Lexington and 70th for 50 years.

If you, like me, are a fan of the TV show Project Runway, you might mourn the loss of this midtown New York City Building.

From The New York Times:

It is only 53 years old, but the cornerstone of a doomed building in Manhattan’s garment district reads like an impossibly hopeful sentiment from a distant time, from a world that can never be recovered.

“Dedicated to the ideal that, through better human relations, understanding and good will among peoples, the supreme dignity and indissoluble brotherhood of man can be achieved.”

This was once Brotherhood House.

At the end, the six-story building at 560 Seventh Avenue, at 40th Street, was barely remembered by that name, or as a crucible of social advocacy in the 1960s.

But it was nationally known as the home of “Project Runway,” a television program in which aspiring fashion designers endure excruciating competition and withering critiques as they try to make their mark. In the series, the building played itself: the David M. Schwartz Fashion Education Center of the Parsons School of Design.

Now, it is vacant. The departure of the last tenant, the Garment Center Synagogue, has allowed asbestos abatement to begin. Demolition is to start this year, followed by the construction of a 29-story, 238-room Dream Hotel, opening in 2018.

In my hometown of Toronto, a beloved landmark, The Coffee Mill, closed this year after a 50-year run. I will miss their goulash and strudel, their cappuccino — and the memory of my childhood visits there when they first opened.

It’s one thing to mourn a lost restaurant or shop.

It’s another entirely when our natural landscape, as it is every day anyway, is forever changed — and possibly destroyed.

The Grand Canyon -- whose profound silence makes your ears ring
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring (photo: Caitlin Kelly)

I fear for one of my favorite places in the world, The Grand Canyon, threatened by major development. From The New York Times:

On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.

Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems…

Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.

The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.

Maybe it’s the result of having spent my childhood summers at camp, canoeing through landscapes unchanged for centuries, possibly millennia — granite outcroppings, wind-whipped pines, dark, deep, cold lakes.

I am most moved, sometimes to tears, by places of timeless natural beauty: Corsica, Thailand, the Arizona and New Mexico desert, northern Ontario.

We’ll soon be renting a seaside cottage in one of the most rural parts of one of the most rural countries, Co. Donegal in Ireland. Can’t wait!

Here is one, of Ontario's Georgian Bay
Here is one, of Ontario’s Georgian Bay

I love the paintings by The Group of Seven, Canada’s equivalent of the Impressionists, whose images of our land, from the Arctic to the crimson trees of autumn, always make me homesick.

Do you have a landscape you’re deeply attached to?

Where and what is it?

Has it changed much?

24 thoughts on “A landscape forever altered

  1. LRose

    For years a friend of mine lived in a fantastic, sprawling studio above a barn out in the country. It always smelled of manure, but it was a really charming, rustic place. Suburban sprawl was nothing new, but one day on his drive home he realized he’d only been driving 10 minutes through the countryside before reaching his driveway. When he moved there it was about 45 minutes of countryside between his barn and civilization. He called his landlord that night and said, “if I’m eventually going to be surrounded by a city, I better just move back to town.”
    The issue we’re having throughout the areas once called, “rural,” are the roads. Because they were not built for the volume and constant use they now get because of all the development and housing, the counties are facing a huge infrastructure crisis. Not only are these old country roads expensive to repair, they’re located along gullies and embankments that, these days, would never have been selected for the construction of high volume roads.

    1. It’s a weird moment when you realize your space is being destroyed/encroached upon. We live in a dense suburban area — after I’d lived 18 months in a small NH town where each town was a good 10 to 15 minute drive apart. I was really disoriented here that towns are barely 5 minutes away from one another.

      The highways here — Westchester County, NY — were built in the 1920s, very narrow, no median, no shoulder and with many curves. Dangerous! Not built, similarly, for the speed, size and volume of today’s traffic.

  2. I’m shocked to hear about the Grand Canyon being threatened. I guess I presumed that the area would have strict preservation/conservation rules.

    And a $45,000 per month rent?! That’s roughly a year’s salary for the average person in the UK.

    Enjoy Ireland. 🙂

  3. Beautiful post. I spent my childhood at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Pennsylvania. Now rooted in California, when I return to New Tripoli I’m always surprised (why?) at the changes. One more old thing gone and one more new thing added.

    But I’m thrilled to hear you’re off to Donegal. A place where I lived eleven years of my life – my “mid-adulthood” – alone, unless you count many cats and two dogs. Visit Beltony just outside of Raphoe.

    Changes there, too, I’m afraid. Yet the ocean is still rough and wild.

    1. Small world! I will seek it out…:-) We are renting a seaside cottage in Dungloe; planning to visit Rathmullan (where my great grandfather was the schoolteacher); Sligo (Yeat’s grave) and Glenveagh…

      The Blue Ridge Mts are gorgeous…you’ve lived in some lovely spots. The place we live now, the lower Hudson Valley, is pretty enough that I miss it. I did not ever miss the beauty of Toronto, although it has some great parks and the Toronto Islands.

  4. Silver_Tongue

    Nice piece. I find our culture views change within the context of development as overwhelmingly positive. All the while, we lose sight of what once was. Granted, life implies change, but, all too often, we fail to step back and reflect on what is now lost. There’s a history in unexplored landscapes and, with each real estate development initiated, the pastoral, the natural is sacrificed. Somehow, somewhere, someday…there has to be a balance. What’s more, territories left unexplored, undeveloped remind us of the promise of the physical world, allowing us to step back and wallow in the awe.

    1. Thanks…Glad this one resonated for you.

      It’s not a subject one can approach without “taking sides” — and yet there are two sides to the endless march to “development” versus the fight to conserve what we have.

      One of the elements I most treasure about living in the Hudson Valley is the feeling of history this landscape still offers; I stare at the Palisades (cliffs) every morning from our window — and they were formed some 190 million (!!!!) years ago. That sure puts any of my tedious 21st century woes into perspective. That’s one of the emotions I love best that these landscapes instils — the awe you refer to. The natural world has such beauty in it and so few people now spend a lot of time in it just looking.

      We need that perspective and, in an era of 24/7 “connectedness” more than ever.

      One of my readers — Michelle who writes the blog The Green Study — turned me on to the writing of Edward Abbey. I loved Desert Solitaire.

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  6. it is a loss, and things on your street will never feel the same again. sad, when places become more important for their monetary worth, rather than the historical/human connections they represent.

    1. Selfishly — and luckily — these huge changes lie at the very bottom of our winding street, i.e. very far from our apartment so we will not be subject to the noise or changed view except when driving past.

      I worry about increased traffic. Don’t I sound all stuffy and suburban? 🙂

  7. When growing up, there was a large field behind our house with woods and a creek. Partially owned by a farmer who had not yet sold (and eventually did to a developer who contributed to mediocre looking suburban sprawl) and partially owned by a nursery, the land was a wonder to play on. Wildflowers, forts, a fallen tree across the creek–so many hours of fun. I miss it to this day. Wish my kids could have played there. I wonder when we will get to the point of valuing beauty and character over cold, hard cash . . .

    1. It sounds glorious!

      We are fortunate to have the Rockefellers (those ones) a 10 min drive from our apartment — who gave the state 750 acres a while back…you can walk there on clean, safe wide gravel paths for hours and hours, summer and winter, and it’s lovely — with open fields and towering shady trees and a creek and stone bridges. But (ooooh, $$$$) you are not allowed to bike there, but you may ride your horses.

      I feel bereft if I’m not outside in nature often, even when it’s cold and snowy; (is there anything more beautiful than walking in a snowstorm in the woods?).

      I feel sorry for today’s children who, as you know, spend too much time with screens and not enough in the outdoors.

      One of the things I value about Canada and having grown up there was spending so much time in nature — Toronto, even now over-run with new glass waterfront condos, still has huge, glorious ravines and great parks. So I think some cities “get it” but so many just chase the $$$$$$.

  8. My life got infinitely more peaceful when I stopped resisting change (of all kinds). Yes, it’s sad to see landmarks fall to the wayside or precious trees literally fall. I just have to remind myself that all things change–what I define as “good” and what I define as “bad”–it all changes. 🙂

  9. Sorry to hear about those woods near your house – that’s such a shame.

    I didn’t realise quite how much I missed the sea and the coast until I went up to Maine to visit family last week – it was glorious, and even more relaxing due to the complete lack of phone signal or wifi!

    Hope you and Jose have a wonderful time in Ireland 🙂

  10. That was very sad and moving Caitlin. I’ve driven along the west side of the Hudson probably a bit south of where you are. The thought of development in the Grand Canyon makes me angry–although I’m pretty sure that was blocked. In 1970, I first drove myself across the country, at age 17, as my parents had a sabbatical at Stanford. In western Wyoming, it started to pour, and it poured fairly steadily as I drove into Utah, having to let up on the accelerator on the long climbs so that the vacuum powered windshield wipers would allow me to see ahead. I couldn’t get the ’62 Falcon over 30 on the climbs.

    I pulled over at a lookout point at the last pass before the descent into Salt Lake City. I could see the entire Salt Lake valley spread out below. It was still pouring, but there were spots where the sun was shining through, here and there, dappling the valley, one of the most beautiful landscapes I ever beheld. Salt Lake City was nestled into a small corner of the valley, occupying maybe 1/20th of it.

    Nevada was also very beautiful–surprising to me because I’d thought it was flat, rather than the basin and range I encountered.

    30 years later, on a reporting trip to Arizona, I did some vacationing in Utah, in the process of which I drove over that same pass. The Salt Lake metro area had filled in 9/10ths of the valley.

    Three cross-country trips by the time I was 8 were formative experiences of my early childhood. At 10, I figured out I could bicycle it in less than a summer vacation, and I did that after graduating college. Next year I’m planning to take a drive again, five leisurely weeks around the country on the backroads.

    Alas, disappointments like yours and mine are inevitable. I’ve worried about overpopulation since I was 9, when the US had less than 200 million. During that year in Stanford, I had a nightmare that Nevada had become filled with people. Now there are 330 mn, and Pew projects another 100 mn over the next 45 years.

      1. I probably read about 50-75 pages of the overstory. I could not get into the book. I need enduring, relatable characters. I did keep the book, figuring I might try it again one day, but I’m not optimistic that I’ll get through it.

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