Category Archives: New York, New York

“Just Twist and Believe in Yourself”

Last night, I traipsed around Greenwich Village in the faux-dark that is Manhattan after sunset, something I used to do exactly 20 years ago when I lived on Bleecker Street and thought I was interesting because I listened to John Coltrane. It was technically evening, but lights were on everywhere and people were out in this light, like some Arctic white night block party. Many things have changed around the Village, and, thankfully, some things have not. It’s still a tart-mouthed, whimsical, oddly-shaped neighborhood with sidewalks suddenly twisting and ending like they do in European cities. No matter how many Chipotles, Staples, and Starbucks move in—and they keep coming because they’re the only ones who can now afford the real estate—the Village will always be Manhattan’s punk sibling who kept a nose piercing past middle-age.

Lamp post banners promoted the upcoming Village Halloween parade, a Mardi Gras-like event where men in drag rule the street. I went in 1995 and loved it. I was happy to learn the parade is sponsored, among others, by the Village Voice, Brooklyn Brewery, and a company that makes cannabis energy drinks (which seems like a paradox, but hey, whatever), and not the companies you find in a suburban mall, the ones with all the money dominating the view at Union Square. The artistry and puppetry of the Village Halloween parade is worth the cold and crowds, and if we didn’t have the tradition of hosting a suburban backyard bash after the kids were done trick-or-treating, I’d nudge the family into the car for the schlep into town.

I was back in the Village to listen to my friend Robin give a reading from her new collection of short stories “Reptile House” at Cornelia Street Cafe, another Village institution. We met last year at a writers’ retreat in the Berkshires and it’s good to wave the pom-poms for one another. I joined fans and readers downstairs. We huddled in a narrow basement beneath the restaurant while Robin and Jim Story stood on a very small stage in front of a velvety red curtain and read from their books. Tabletop candles glowed, and for $8, we got to try the house wine, which was included with admission. It was such a beatnik, underground poetry kind of evening I seriously thought we would start snapping our fingers. But no one snapped and no one smoked. This is 21st century New York, which means you can’t smoke anywhere anymore, no matter how good your poetry may be. Instead, I saw people eat green salads.

Afterwards, I wandered. There are cities I’ve always liked more than New York. London is a longtime favorite. Seattle is prettier than most cities deserve to be. San Francisco will always feel like the home I should have had. Washington, D.C., has that commanding, manicured, white-marbled exterior that I always loved seeing from a plane window. The New York skyline is fierce, a warning as to what really roils below, at street level. It’s a city addicted to competition, and this plays out in neighborhoods. Prada and Dean & DeLuca have taken over some prime street corners, but there were still insanely small bistros with kitchens the size of broom closets, tattoo parlors, specialty shops of every interest, someone selling goat milk soft-serve, puppies ricocheting off a window at some fancy schmancy pet store, someone selling vintage cookbooks, two very good violinists rocking their portion of the sidewalk, another reading happening at McNally & Jackson, and a cupcake shop with swings for seats. The cupcakes grabbed my eye so I walked in and asked the girl behind the counter (who wore a nose ring and was probably a diapered tyke when I lived in the neighborhood) if she had gluten-free cupcakes. She seemed excited I asked and explained the different flavors. I was pulling out some cash when someone asked nose-ring girl how to unlock the bathroom door. “Just twist and believe in yourself,” she said from behind the counter, and her tone suggested sincerity.

I smiled. New York City wears people down. It’s an exhausting, crowded, expensive place full of cranky folks who all dress like they are heading to funerals, not cubicles, and who all talk too loudly into their smartphones. But for a moment, I sat on a fake swing eating a purple cupcake and forgot all about that.

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There’s No Pill for Being Bicoastal

Being bicoastal refers to a dual allegiance to East and West coasts, specifically, New York and Los Angeles. The running joke is that one is so bicoastal, she “doesn’t know whether to root for the Yankees or the Dodgers.” Furthering this bifurcated thinking is a recent New York Times article that appeared in the Style section (you know as soon as it appears in the newspaper’s style section it becomes instantly uncool) lamenting on the exodus of New York City’s creative class to Los Angeles (we hope to be among them in a few years). Following that article was a really funny, snarky reply to that piece, as if being being acknowledged by The Gray Lady and The Big Apple was akin to being liked by the cool kid at school.

Let New York and Los Angeles duke it out for popularity. My state of bicoastalness isn’t so urban-centric and runs deeper than that, and I’m willing to guess it does for other folks, too.

This past weekend, I felt like I had a foot on both sides. I attended a pool party and was passing around photos of my trip to Big Sur where we stayed at the giant human nest at Treebones, a glamping resort. Fellow pool party attendees were not the camping, outdoorsy type. (I’m not very good at being outdoorsy either despite having slept in a yurt in the Adirondacks, some camping on the beach in California and Maryland and in the woods at Shenandoah National Park—I stunk at all of it and was either eaten alive by bugs or froze my butt off at night.) Friends made jokes about being in a nest and how I got to the bathroom and why would I want to be exposed to the elements like that. At Treebones, we met some of the folks staying at the yurts, and they commended us for nesting. The yurts there are heated and beautifully furnished so by comparison, they were glamping while we were actually camping, one Californian native said to me. I hate pitching tents and cooking food over campfires, so the nest was perfect, and in late August, we didn’t have to worry about cold. Shelter was already provided and I could drag myself uphill to the main lodge for frittata at breakfast or sushi for dinner (yes, Treebones has a sushi bar). I did tell my friends that Mike and I didn’t sleep well in the nest, which is okay because we weren’t paying $150 a night to get a good night’s sleep but to experience the outdoors in an entirely different way. That was the intent of artist Jayson Fann, who builds nests for resorts, zoos, children’s hospitals, women’s shelters, and private residences.

And we did experience our surroundings like we never had before. Cocooning in a nest by a tree overlooking the ocean is not like balling up in a tent in the forest or on a beach—you lose the view once you go inside your tent. From the nest, you see everything. I wondered, “Do birds really have it this good?” I never saw moonlight move over water like I saw while in the nest, that late-summer gibbous moon and its intense white light gliding over the Pacific. It was incredible beauty. It made me think this was how the world looked before governments and television and smartphones and corporations. Sky and sea cycling through a rhythm that predates most of what fills our days now. I was witnessing something very old and sacred, something many miss out on, and all because I had to use the bathroom at three a.m. The Big Sur sky was so clear that moonlight filled our nest and it felt like a light bulb was on. Later in the morning, tendrils of fog circled between the branches of the nest and we watched minke whales breach nearby—observing whales from a tree! A bucket-list first and I don’t even believe in bucket lists.

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(Watching whales from the nest)

My Labor Day weekend poolside party chat might not have happened in Seattle, where I used to live, or perhaps in California or Oregon either. During my three years in Seattle, I learned that everyone camped. Everyone hiked. Everyone mountain-biked on trails at the base of actual mountains. It’s no exaggeration to say I’d come into work on Monday morning and people would talk about where they camped that weekend. Co-workers camped the way I went out to the movies; you just got in the car and did it. I felt like the outsider lacking cool REI gear and tales of reconnecting with nature. I even noticed this from some of my West Coast friends’ and colleagues’ social media feeds—over the Labor Day weekend they were hiking and camping all over the place out there, posting to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook lovely shots of trails and campgrounds and other magnificent scenery. And I get it. Why wouldn’t you constantly camp and hike when the world looks that goddamn awesome 24/7???

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(The nest at Treebones in Big Sur)

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(Morning view from the nest)

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(Big Sur country)

Nature-loving East Coasters do exist (we’re related to one who happens to be a tree scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, but he lives in rural Vermont). And there are parts of the interior Adirondacks that is deep mountain country and off the grid (we discovered this when almost running out of gas and being 16 miles from the nearest gas station). However, nature lovers don’t exist in abundance in the greater New York metropolitan area or along the Boston-New York-Washington, 1-95 corridor. New Yorkers—who often believe Manhattan is truly the center of the universe—spent Labor Day weekend by chlorinated pools, not mucky lakes. I sat by a pool recounting my two nights in a nest, and had to explain to folks where Big Sur was located. Unless you visit Big Sur, you have no frame of reference how truly wild the United States once looked. Yes, there’s a highway there thanks to convict labor, but some East Coasters have never seen a vacant, pristine beach like the ones in Big Sur, the empty kind where the surfers like to go; every inch of oceanfront from Maine to Florida is pretty developed (New Jersey is among the worst in terms of development whereas Maine still has some gorgeous, rocky, wild coastline left but you don’t have to go far to find a hotel or lighthouse). I imagine there are some places in Big Sky country that share that same, somewhat-unadulterated look as Big Sur, but again, that’s out west. The East Coast is quite built up. For a number of East Coasters, you say beach and they think Asbury Park or Ocean City. Vermont is an exception to the rest of the East Coast because the Green Mountain State has such strong zoning regulations and a fierce protection of its landscape—they outlawed billboards. New Jersey doesn’t seem to care about environmental protection and zoning, having said yes in the name of economic growth to anyone with enough money to build; just look at Atlantic City and all the countless billboards along the roads it takes to get there.

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(Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, a favorite among surfers, where there were more seagulls than people that day.)

The West Coast learned from East Coast mistakes. And when I think of being bicoastal, this is what I think of: a love for the natural world coupled with colonial settler ambition; a need for open space coupled with the Northeast’s cycles of four distinct, sometimes harsh, seasons; a preference for taking things slow coupled with an eagerness to do more. I feel that same sense of awe every time I see Mount Rainier peak through the clouds or the Manhattan skyline light up the night, both showing off their own distinct towering glory. Bicoastal is not a New York versus L.A. thing—it’s more nuanced. It’s finding different elements of America’s two very different coasts, realizing you belong to them both, and wishing you could physically be in two places at once.

A Short Meditation on New York City Dog Pee

New York City smells of dog pee. This is a cyclical event and very similar to the time when it’s ok for women to wear white pants, usually beginning around the Fourth of July festivities and wrapping up around Labor Day weekend. Everyone who lives and works in this area knows this. There are who-knows-how-many-dogs being walked across the Big Apple at this very moment, pissing everywhere, not caring whether it’s Fifth Avenue or some unlit corner in Alphabet City. And while dutiful dog owners have their little plastic baggies in hand, ready to swoop and scoop poop, there’s nothing anyone can do about dog pee. Even long after hot city sidewalks soak it up, the heat hits—and it hits hard—followed by the stickiest humidity the Northeast can deliver, and before you know it, you can’t smell anything but dog pee even if you’re back home in your own house, your own yard, feeding backyard chickens.

Anyone who can afford to leave New York City during peak summer months goes somewhere else. They go to the Hamptons or Fire Island or the Jersey Shore, where a third of the male population is named Anthony. We go to California.

Is the dog pee smell really that bad, you ask, that you have to go 2,700 miles west just to escape it? I think we lose the dog pee smell by the time we drive over the George Washington Bridge, but really, the yearly summertime schlepping to California goes beyond getting away from too much urine, not feeling safe wearing flip-flops around the city, or seeing too many people wearing black even when it’s 90 degrees out. Perhaps it’s more about what we want rather than what we don’t want, that coveted California lifestyle, the freedom to wear flip-flops anywhere as Californians do, the predictability of knowing it will be sunny just about every day, where avocados are priced at seven for a dollar and are so plentiful, Los Angeles bartenders mix avocado cocktails and guys in aprons scoop avocado ice cream.

Next month, for two weeks, I get to pretend I’m a Californian. I’m stupidly excited about this. I’ll be in San Francisco buying groceries, taking the BART, eating sushi here more than once because it will be near my apartment, perusing the shelves at City Lights, ignoring shuttle buses teeming with Google or Facebook employees. Yeah, I’ve been reading about how San Francisco is changing. Money has a tendency to ruin things: relationships, childhoods, cities. Since my 20s, I had a thing about living in San Francisco, and then the job opportunities brought us to Seattle, then to Washington, D.C., then to New York. To know a city deeply, you need to know its smells. Seattle always smelled of fish and coffee to me, which isn’t that bad as far as urban scents go. D.C. always smelled of dry-cleaning and power. Really. Power has a smell. It’s very musky. In a few weeks, I will have the chance to figure out San Francisco’s smells. I’m hoping it’s baked sour dough, although that could just be optimism talking. Maybe after all these years, I dodged a bullet. Maybe there’s a San Francisco smell and Mark Zuckerberg is financing the cleanup right now. I haven’t been to San Francisco since 2012 when I froze my butt off one late-August day, but perhaps the city has gotten too classy for me and lingering smells of any kind just aren’t tolerated anymore.

It’s just as well. I find myself more drawn to SoCal dreaminess anyway. My eyes have shifted to Los Angeles, which, like New York, is a place where a crappy coffee shop can peacefully coexist with an amazing coffee shop, where the mediocre and the really effing-awesome can be found on the same street, just perhaps with less dog pee in L.A. I haven’t quite figured out L.A.’s smells yet (feel free to enlighten me), but I’ve always liked its energy. New York City is the wrong kind of kineticism, there’s a stress addiction here I find exhausting. When you stack eight million people on top of one another, things get tense, which leads to pet therapy to alleviate stress, which leads to dogs being walked and peeing everywhere. Spread folks out on a beach like a blanket, surround them with salty sea air and mountains, and, well, maybe things slow down a bit, long enough to enjoy a crappy cup of coffee or some avocado ice cream.

Whales in the Mountains

My first clue was this goofy-looking, very dated, blue-and-white parking sign showing a smiling whale with wheels. We were figuring out where we could legally park and my initial thought was “What the hell is there a whale sign doing in the Catskills???”

Goes to show what I know. Turns out Hudson, New York, was an old whaling town. And I call myself a New Yorker.

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There are dozens of towns dotting the Hudson Valley, that fuzzy green space north of the Big Apple that has some of upstate New York’s rust beltness with a touch New Englandy pastoral independence. I’d never heard of Hudson, New York, until we wanted some custom-made furniture and after Googling “Hudson Valley cabinet makers” I found Jason, a tree-to-table artisan who maintains a shop called Fern Handcrafted on Warren Street in Hudson.

“What’s with the whale signs?” I asked him after drooling over all the beautiful stuff he makes from trees.

“This was an old whaling town,” he replied.

And I wondered, but didn’t want to say aloud, “Shouldn’t the Atlantic Ocean be involved?” Mystic, Connecticut, was an old whaling town. Nantucket was an old whaling town. But a riverside community a hundred miles from open ocean and just 30 miles from skiing? I had to know more.

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Long before Brooklyn hipsters moved north and the farm-to-fork scene became a scene, Hudson was the first Hudson Valley whaling town in the late 18th century, later followed by Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, all towns that hug the Hudson River and now siphon commuters south by train to offices in Manhattan. In 1774, when the Continental Congress decided to break off trade with Britain, Britain retaliated by taking over the colonies’ primary seaports, New York and Boston. That choked off whaling, which was in full swing after someone off the coast of Nantucket harpooned a sperm whale in 1712 and realized the commercial potential of what he just did.

Fast forward to 1783; two Nantucket brothers—one being an experienced whaler—went property-shopping around the Northeast for a place to keep the whale business afloat, perhaps not confident that the Revolutionary War would actually end that same year after eight long years. The two men, with the stout New England names Seth and Thomas Jenkins, went upriver about 120 miles from Manhattan, and stopped at what was then called Claverack Landing, a farming town of about 150 people. What caught the Brothers Jenkins’ eyes were two bays deep enough to accommodate whaling ships. Two years later, the brothers literally drew out a planned city that could support the whaling industry, and renamed Claverack Landing, Hudson. By 1790, Hudson boasted a population of about 2,500.

Around this time, Boston and New York were beginning to recover from the Revolutionary War and ports hummed with merchant ships again. Hudson continued to contribute, dragging dead whales upriver that had bled out along the way, and processing them in the valley refineries for oil, blubber, meat and bones for corsets. Whaling remained a vibrant industry for those first few decades of the nineteenth century and then kerosene began to take over in the 1840s, which is about when the Hudson Valley whaling companies stopped sending out ships. So now there was a town, and no industry, a story that would hit upstate New York farm towns over and over again for decades to come.

Two hundred thirty years after taking its current name, what is the city of Hudson doing now? It has a population of just under 7,000, which was its population at around 1850 when whaling was sputtering out. But its population is now more urban refugees with a fair share of Brooklyn hipster transplants, including my furniture guy, who decided he needed more space to carve sixteen-foot conference tables that he ships off to places like Miami and Japan, not to mention an easier time sourcing the trees that make the furniture that appears in Elle Decor and The New York Times.

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Guys like Jason restore my faith in small town America. And walking Hudson, I could see it. Outside, a thriving downtown lined with independent businesses, some painted a bright tangerine or a soft, buttery yellow or a deep hue of claret. Everything was old yet still full of purpose; one faded brick building in need of a paint job dated from 1805 and had served as a jail, a meeting house and a printing shop. Also outside: people not beeping at me to get the hell out of the way, which happens in suburban New Jersey, a vortex of patience and civility.

Inside these historic Hudson buildings, decorated tin ceilings, which were popular during the Victorian era, and countless shelves of fair trade goods or homemade goods or things designed to make you feel good, to reassure you that not everything was manufactured in China or assembled in the cheapest way possible. Hudson epitomized the shop local movement. There were tea shops, ice cream parlors, Jason, restaurants, books and tons of antiques—a word losing its shape. When I was a kid going on family vacations across New England, including Mystic, Conn., “antique” meant something fancy made in the 1800s; now it seems to mean anything not recently bought on Amazon. Hudson had several of these shops pushing “vintage” and “antique” wares, objects that too often looked like the same things your aunt wasn’t able to unload at a garage sale, such as a giant papier-mâché taxi. Yet even Hudson proprietors organized their junk in thoughtful, visually alluring ways, and Mike and I were both charmed.

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We didn’t have time to walk down to the river front or explore further because we had to get back on the road, but we’ll be back to pick up our bathroom vanity from Jason, and, likely place another order with him. And maybe I’ll snap a photo of that whale sign that sparked it all, an item that truly looked like it came from an “antique” store. Our relationship with Hudson is just beginning.

But what does all this mean? Ok, so I learned that a rustic town with urban flair had a brief, but colorful past in the whaling industry that came to be because of the Revolutionary War. So what? Well, this day trip got me thinking again about America, because America is a strange place, really several mini-nations recognizing the same flag. Before our drive to Hudson, what it means to be an American when America was pretty new had weighed on me, because it seems very different than what it means to be American now. The Northeast feels completely different from Texas. The West Coast feels completely from the Midwest. And then there’s Hawaii and Alaska. Different is good. National identities should evolve with the times, but there’s an undercurrent of anger and narcissism that’s palpable across America that troubles me. Racism, rampant obesity and sedentary living, the have-and-have-not socioeconomic subcultures, constant legal challenges against Obamacare, chronic political bipolarity, incessant consumerism, an inflammatory American media allowing no room for more nuanced points of view or discussions because it just doesn’t make for good TV (CNN and FOX are equally guilty here). All have me thinking what it would be like to perch somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading up about the Revolutionary War lately, and it wasn’t a picnic then either—obviously racism, poverty, starvation. Infections we consider innocuous today, such as flu and strep, sent families to their graves. I also read that George Washington had dysentery so frequently that he sat on a pillow when on horseback, something that freaked out his subordinates because it heightened their leader when he sat on the saddle—and he was already a tall guy—making him an easier target for anyone armed who disagreed with him.

But was there this anger and narcissism I sense now? Ambiguity, yes. History books teach American kids that everyone grabbed the flag and told Britain where to stick it, but we all know it’s more complicated than that, that people struggled with their choices, that many felt terrified of losing Britain, that many questioned colonial leadership. Yet, that entrepreneurial American attitude persisted even when choices remained unclear. You don’t get on a boat and strike out for the unknown unless you have an entrepreneurial spirit; it’s in America’s DNA. This can-do attitude has weathered wars and economic setbacks, and was on full display in Hudson this past weekend. What got lost along the way over the centuries, I could not say, but walking Hudson and reading about the formation of this community, I discovered that the best of what it meant to be American flourished there and still does. All that promise, not just capital potential in whaling, but in developing an identity, influenced the greater good and influenced a community and a culture. It was there in Hudson and remains there, though as I roadtrip the United States more and more, I question whether it’s everywhere.

My Quixotic Search for Small

Maybe it’s because I live in the shadow of the Empire State Building or that I’ve been in a car accident during rush-hour commuter traffic on the George Washington Bridge or that a homeless guy in the West 4th subway station peed on my foot (I was wearing flip-flops, a no-no in New York), but lately my travel interests have shifted to anything that feels smaller, more green, less crowded, and reflective of the past because my day-to-day can be too big, too gray, too busy and sometimes too 21st century.

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(American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930)

It’s a tall order. Small, green, uncrowded and old are hard to come by in this sprawling, metropolitan, monochromatic area of millions where too many people dress in black year-round. History lives on every block, but New Yorkers themselves don’t seem to have an awareness of these places. Ask strangers passing through the subway where George Washington threw a party to bid farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War and you’ll likely get a quizzical look (it’s the Fraunces Tavern, a great place for charcuterie and live Irish music). Washington’s name is all over the Big Apple, but 21st century New York City doesn’t seem to remember its 18th century self after so many face lifts. The Fraunces Tavern down in the Financial District near Battery Park is a great example of old, but it can get crowded. Heading north of the tavern to Chelsea, the High Line is a great example of something green, but it’s always crowded. Continuing north, I suppose Central Park is somewhat old and usually green but it’s way too crowded. Long story short, occasional bouts of green and vintage can be found across the city, but nothing uncrowded, even if I were to inch my way up to the Bronx and into Westchester where there’s a lot of green.

So where in America can a gal stretch her legs and quiet her mind?

Plenty of places, but not many that I find super-inspiring (with exceptions of our national parks; I’m talking about unprotected land). I’ve driven coast-to-coast three times so far and have become increasingly turned off by what I see, the “golden arches,” rampant obesity, billboards for Walmart, malls, malls and more malls. Yes, there are many Americas in America, but the one I just described is the one that’s most obvious from the highway, and it makes me wonder what the United States looked like before corporate consumerism swallowed us whole. I’m looking for something very particular, old like a random 19th century farmhouse on a slow road, not manicured Colonial Williamsburg-old. Or something not golf course-green, but an uninterrupted forest green like Vermont (it’s in the state’s name after all), where billboards are illegal and the farm-to-fork movement isn’t a movement but daily practice.

Ok, so farmhouses are often smallish—at least smallish compared with McMansions—uncrowded and green and old, right, so maybe I’m on to something there? I can already hear my 11-year-old’s eyes rolling with this one (though she does like my idea of AirStreaming through Canada into Alaska and picnicking on salami and salmon along the way). I do like farmhouses, so maybe I drive around America checking out old farmhouses and taking pictures of them the way photographer Robert Dawson and his son Walker traveled America photographing public libraries. Nearby in Brooklyn is a Dutch saltbox farmhouse built in 1652 that has successfully weathered urbanization as well as generations of hippies, hipsters and the craft beer revival. It’s called the Wyckoff House and it looks like a fun day trip, but it’s also spittin’ distance from a BJ’s, so not very green, and definitely not uncrowded. I could meander up the Hudson into the Catskills, back into Vermont’s verdant valleys, around New England and find some old farmhouses in sparsely populated towns there. Maybe that will quell this urge. We’ll see.

My quest for smaller, quieter space is undoubtedly a Quixotic one, but I’m convinced these places, these old farmhouses and less developed nooks in America exist, though they are getting harder to find because so many are being encroached by suburbanization. (Suburbanization is simultaneously ruining cities; stand in the middle of New York’s Union Square as I recently did and every store front can be found everywhere else: Children’s Place, TGIF Friday’s, Barnes and Noble, Staples. Yes, Union Square has a bustling farmers’ market but those veggie stands are besieged by Corporate America.) Lately, I’ve been wondering what Washington would think if he could see America now? Would he applaud our entrepreneurship or mourn the loss of land and landscape?

My need for these quieter, unvarnished slices of Americana is in direct reaction to the suburban affluence that surrounds me. As I write this, construction workers are hammering away at a couple McMansions; two are going up right now on the next street over. I jog or bike by them daily. Mid-century homes are getting bulldozed left and right while my husband and I work to renovate our quirky 1926 Colonial. We’re getting backyard chickens this spring, and, yes, while Brooklyn hipsters are also doing this, I know my interest in raising hens is to create at home what I am losing in my community, something small and sweet, hopefully green, not too busy, with some age to it—before someone knocks it down.