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.

Gone.

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.

 

Before...
Before…
After...
After…

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.

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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.

Gone.

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?

What do we owe to those for whom we labor?

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, a profile of a Canadian engineer, (now there’s a doubly invisible category!) who designs bridges:

If his work didn’t keep him up so late, he would probably wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it. He points out that the catastrophic 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis—which he wasn’t involved in—happened during construction work.

Mr. Johnson shows off a gray ring on his right pinkie: “It’s called the iron ring,” he says. In Canada, civil engineers wear the iron ring on their drawing hand as a symbol of their oath to protect life and limb. “We have to make sure everything we do is infallible,” he says.

I love the physical reminder, worn every day after graduation, that a civil engineer has chosen to create things that millions of us rely on every day to be functional and safe.

English: A Canadian Engineer's Iron Ring, Stai...
English: A Canadian Engineer’s Iron Ring, Stainless Steel Version. This is a picture of the author’s personal iron ring, received at the University of Waterloo, Camp 15, on February 17, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I really like this tradition of making a public (and/or) physical vow of responsibility.

My first husband was a physician. I attended his graduation from McGill medical school and watched his class, aloud, recite together the Hippocratic Oath, which begins with “First, do no harm.” It was powerful, moving and unforgettable. Every graduating physician says these words.

Even if they do do harm, and it happens to many of them in the course of a career, they all know they made a vow now to.

We seem to live now in an era of the deke, the dodge, the “I have no knowledge”, the denial, the shrug. We’re left to watch, in New York, the miserable, unending parade of elected officials being charged with fraud, theft, deception, bribery and corruption.

Wall Street? Don’t get me started.

I wish — how I wish! — there were similar public, shared, hallowed rituals for every profession and field of endeavor. Especially finance, politics and journalism, three fields whose decisions can profoundly alter the lives and fortunes of millions of others, people who depend on them for wisdom, good faith and honesty.

Here’s blogger/author Seth Godin on the need for great public design.

What do you think of this tradition?