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Hudson On My Mind

Rural Intelligence: Community: Passages Image

Photographs by Scott Baldinger

Scott Baldinger is a writer whose work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times and other publications. He has been living in (and taking pictures of ) Hudson for six years. This piece appeared previously in a slightly altered form on Melissa Stafford’s website, Hudson Art Affair.

It’s a chilly winter eve, and I am trudging home from the Amtrak train station in Hudson, New York.  I take a slippery incline path past the gritty gingerbread townhouses and unoccupied mansions of Allen Street and then on to one or another of the town’s alleyways: Rope, Cherry, Prison, named as if to inspire Poe-like thoughts of a last meal before the gallows. It starts to snow—large, glamorous old MGM snowflakes, like the ones that fell towards the end of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner—and they swirl gorgeously around the horse barns and out buildings that tilt and lean toward each other on each side of the road.

A few things come to mind as I walk past the behinds of churches, meeting halls, and closely knit homes, pushed askew by withered vines and moss, and framed by piles of last fall’s leaves. About how Hudson looks as if the buildings from a dozen upstate towns and country roads have been transported and squeezed together into a tight urban configuration, and how this tight squeeze has kept so much of the town standing, despite years of neglect. About how there probably wasn’t anything in the world quite like this picturesque disassembly, magically unique and at the same time so vulnerable to “improvement.” And about how this transitory tableau of pentimento and makeshift repair was being experienced only by me, solitary pedestrian that I was on that night.

Hudson manages, even just from its weary backside, to transfix at these moments, and there are enough of them to keep a person going—or at least edified—in spite of all of the “in spite ofs”: an erratic economy, some really scary poverty, a local population suspicious of all newcomers, the lack of basic services such as groceries or cobblers or dry cleaners, and, until recently, a city government willing to give away the city’s birthright for a mess of potash—or cement, as the case might have been. “I don’t think Hudson will ever lose its dumpiness, ” says David Petrovsky, a local antiques dealer. “Its social and economic fabric was too completely eviscerated during the 70s and 80s and too many vestiges of its impoverished past remain, due to slumlords who continue to profit so much from the city’s disadvantaged.”

Rural Intelligence CommunityThings are a lot better than they used to be though. In Byrne Fone’s ennobling book, Historic Hudson, An Architectural Portrait, phototographer Lynn Davis and her husband Rudy Wurlitzer, a novelist and screenwriter, describe having “an eerie sensation, as if we had slipped through a scrim of time and landed at the tail end of the 19th century” when they first drove onto Warren Street back in 1991. Even though there were “only a few cars and the sidewalks were deserted, except for what looked like a huddle of crack dealers lurking in front of a pizza joint,” they decided to rent and then finally buy an 1835 Federal house across the street from the post office. Soon after moving here, Davis photographed every building on Warren Street, most of them nearly unrecognizable in their unrestored state.

For Petrovsky, Davis, Wurlitizer and so many others who have made their home here over the last decade, it is perhaps that very in-betweeness, a paradox of time and economic status, that continues to compel as much as it does bewilder. Ask anyone, veteran or newcomer, who has found him or herself hanging around on a Tuesday or Wednesday, when the entire place seems to have shuttered like a closed museum. On those days, there is a true disconnect—not between the astonishing sophistication of today’s Warren Street, parts of which equal SoHo and Madison Avenue as a retail experience, and the Appalachian dreariness of so much around it.  Nor is it the disparity between the haves and have nots, disturbing as that is; anyone from any major urban center around the world has gotten used to that kind of polarity.  It is a disconnect between the town as you are seeing it—the visual evidence of Hudson’s miraculous and continuing preservation—and the gnawing sensation that, despite all the apparent progress, and everyone’s best work and intentions, it is, like Generalissimo Franco, still dead.

Rural Intelligence CommunityOK, maybe not dead…but not really moving. And frankly, it is that lack of movement that makes it such a fascinating place for visual artists and other retinal types such as art and antiques dealers, decorators, etc.  James Corbett, a New York interior designer and member of Historic Hudson, recalls making the decision to move here from the city right after he got off the train, after seeing Jeremiah Rusconi’s 1835 Greek Revival house at Front and Allen Street. “I was amazed at how intact everything was. And in fact ten years ago, when I first started coming up, there was a lot more. All along Warren Street you could see the same doorknobs that had been on doors since the 19th century. You could tell because old glass had a purplish color, after it’s been exposed to light for a long time.”

Now Let Us Praise Superficial Men (and Women)

“Is this really happening or is it the hash?”

That memorable Lily Tomlin quip came to mind one evening after coming home and turning on the television set to see, in 1950s black and white, the very same buildings and street corners I had just walked past on Warren Street moments before. The images were so eerily familiar and yet so completely different that the connection seemed at first unconscious: a neon lit luncheonette with a view towards a store window displaying streamlined 50s furniture (in its first incarnation); a neoclassical bank building just like the one at whose ATM I had just withdrawn cash, a clapboard church across the street from that, and a grand Victorian mansion hazily capping the vista.“There are a lot of American towns that look like this one. It just can’t be Hudson,” I thought, as I held my held my head in my hands and watched a shoot out involving Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan (they’re wearing masks but are still somewhat recognizable, just like the location). The Belafonte and Ryan characters stagger away down an alleyway, moodily counterpointed right behind the bank .

The movie turns out to be Robert Wise’s 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow, a downbeat caper about three drifters (played by Ryan, Belafonte, and Ed Begley, Sr.) who decide to journey upstate from New York City in order to execute a meticulously planned bank robbery. And yes, it was shot in Hudson (called Melton in the film), although, having misplaced my TV listings guide, I had to wait until the next day to confirm this fact (with the help of Dan Barton, a longtime resident who recalls the making of the movie and the fact that Belafonte moved to the area afterwards). Wise, in the noir-ish “with it” style he was known for before going on to directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music, presents Hudson as it was at the time—a functioning American town with a normal degree of business going on, small scale yet by no means lost in time or backwards, an everyday place with soda jerks and bank guards and teenage girls wearing cardigan sweaters, shown in stark contrast to the claustrophobic waywardness of its urban protagonists.

Hudson normal? Everyday? Worth planning a bank heist in? Who knew? I recommend a viewing of the movie (decent enough to watch on its own merits) as a strong corrective to anyone who thinks that the town, with its overwhelmingly 19th century architectural profile, somehow stopped in its tracks at some Our Town—not to mention Rip Van Winkle—moment in time. This is documentary evidence, from a Hollywood film of all things, that Hudson was a real town right up until the very last, when the very concept of tight-knit towns was superseded by isolated suburban living and shopping malls, and not so long before that concept was embraced once again by a new generation of intrepid emigres.

Rural Intelligence CommunityThere are still some remnants of that period on Warren Street, in storefronts sitting untouched and unused for what seems like decades. The display window of a place once called Ziesnitz Opticians is an incongruous diarama of Buddhas and brightly colored animal miniatures.  Up the street, viewed through windows badly in need of Windex, the Samuel Sutty & Son luncheonette is a neutron-bomb moment in time, with assorted candies from the 1960s and a Fruits Daily advertisement collecting dust and fading in the sunlight. An orthopedic supply store, H&W Orthopedic Supports, now empty save for a lone American flag, was until recently a Dadaist display of a toy podiatrist holding arch supports, balanced on each side with artificial flowers and a small American flag.

None of these accidental shadow boxes is noticeable if you drive around Hudson in a car, stopping only to go to one destination or another. “I’m always lecturing people about the need to get out of their cars and walk around,” Corbett, an inveterate nondriver, says.  Indeed, even the most appreciative of year-round residents do this and, as a result, are often unaware of some of the stranger wonders of the town.

There is nothing quite like veering from these odd places to the town’s retailers, who are so talented at window display that their storefronts sometimes look like year round art exhibitions. Considering how bleak everything might be without them, a case could be made for giving urban renewal funds to these antiques dealers, gallery owners, and other masters of retinal pleasure who have located here over the last decade or so. Or at least a tax deduction for lighting their resplendent displays at night time, no matter how many or how few might see them. The fact that their focus is an aesthetic one gives people the impression that they are too elite, specialized, expensive or unapproachable. Which misses the point entirely: like Hudson’s architectural master builders, this new generation of entrepreneurs are once again arranging things to make community life a thing of grace and beauty every day and night of the year.  —Scott Baldinger

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 01/04/10 at 05:45 AM • Permalink