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.
(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.