Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Five): Locks

In Part Four of this year’s Hidden in Suburbia report (linked below), I visited some crumbling industrial facilities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For this week’s Part Five installment, I go further back in time to visit some of the many, many crumbling locks and dams of the old Erie and Champlain Canal systems, which run throughout my little patch of suburbia.

When I was working at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), I used to take students across the river to look at some of these locks. The canals serviced by the locks were considered to be among the greatest industrial achievements of their day, playing a key role in the opening of the American West to exploration, settlement, and commerce. Now they are dry, overgrown, and crumbling, with homes, businesses and woods pressing up against them on all sides, leaving them as slowly healing scars that cut incongruously across the suburban landscape.

Sure, it’s great to dream of changing the world, but it’s also important to have a sense of where the next great “killer app” stands in the grand, long-term scheme of things. In the end, nature always wins . . .

As always, click on the photo below to read the annotated report, or click here for the wordless slide show.

Our region’s greatest natural wonder. Keep out.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Four): Industry

Note: This post and photo slideshow come with a soundtrack today. Click here, with your speakers turned up, to have the mood properly set by the wonderful King Crimson, and their evocative “Industry.”

One of the most impressive things, for me, about riding and hiking into woods around my home is the ability to stand in, on, or near some truly historic industrial artifacts.

The most obvious of these (well, relatively speaking, anyway) are probably the abandoned locks of the Erie and Champlain canals that stand, completely landlocked, throughout Cohoes and Watervliet. When I worked at RPI, I used to take students to look at these crumbling relics, while pointing out to them that these locks and the tiny canals connecting them were once considered to be the most significant industrial accomplishments on the North American continent.

Bodies to ashes to dirt to dust. Cities to ruins to iron to rust. I think it’s good for a prospective engineer to have a sense of humility, and if that won’t do it, nothing will.

Less famously, the lowlands on the west bank of the Hudson River between Albany and Troy (once West Troy, now mostly Watervliet and Menands, with a little sliver of Colonie between them) were home to formidable steel mills and armories. The Watervliet Arsenal and Albany Steel survive as local manufacturing centers to this day, while many other large neighboring businesses (including the Ludlum Steel Company, once headed by Edwin Corning, father of legendary Albany mayor, Erastus Corning 2nd) eventually closed their doors and began the long, slow process of returning their constituent elements to the ground beneath them.

Today’s Hidden in Suburbia post centers on this crumbling post-industrial wasteland. These spaces are so alien to our suburban sensibilities, and yet they are so very close to us, if we’re willing to look into the darker spaces behind our developments and shopping centers. It’s humbling and awe-inspiring to visit them. As always, click on the photo below for the photo essay with accompanying narrative support, or click here for the wordless slide-show version. I’d recommend starting the slide show at about the 2:00 minute mark of the King Crimson song for maximum evocative effect.

Nature abhors a vacuum, but I love a vacancy . . .

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Three): Rains, Trains and Snowmobiles

I managed to swing a couple of trips into the woods on the bike this weekend, after my first accident-infested foray last week, though monsoon season has left many of my normal haunts squishy and stinky messes at this point. Still, I slogged through the mire to visit one of the cooler spots within the two-and-a-half mile radius surrounding my house: the place where trains go to die in the woods. I also sought out, and found, an old friend (well, if you can consider the carcass of a snowmobile to be a friend, anyway), and I checked up on Indie Albany headquarters to see if it’s still sinking into the flotsam that washes up around it. (Answer: yes, it is). Finally, I went to get an updated photo of Miss Indie Albany (our mascot, at right), and received quite a surprise when I returned to her road-side home. Oh, the drama!

As always, click on the photo below to see this week’s photos with narrative text, or click here to just get the slideshow. Trains in the Woods kick ass, just for the record.

The height of railroad luxury . . . IN MY WOODS!!!

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Academia (After the Apocalypse)

My office is located near the heart of the University’s at Albany’s Uptown Campus, a formidable, formal architectural edifice designed by the great Edward Durell Stone. The Uptown Campus is an awesomely scaled, integrated, fully actualized feat of architectural vision, and as such, tends to inspire strong love or hate reactions from those who visit, live, teach, work or study in it.

From a professional standpoint, this campus is challenging to me and my staff, as it is often very difficult to create the sorts of soft, comfortable, community-oriented dining and shopping spaces that we might desire within the austere and regimented order of Stone’s concrete and glass vision. But on a personal basis, I’ve grown quite fond of the Uptown Campus over the years, and I explore it with the same sorts of curiosity that I bring to my suburban woods explorations, never letting a nagging “I wonder where that trail (or corridor) goes” question go unresolved for very long.

As my woods explorations have been largely curtailed of late by this year’s perpetual monsoon, I have spent more time than usual walking the decks of (and tunnels beneath) the Uptown Campus. During the summertime, when most of the faculty and students are not here, such ambles about become somewhat surreal, as the vastness of Stone’s vision, without other human beings to give it scale, evokes some great, fallen city-state of the future, rendered sterile by an apocalyptic agent, with me as the final observer of its slow and crumbling return to the rocks and soil from which it was cast.

I can’t always decide whether I’m a zombie vampire or a time traveler or a doomed astronaut in this scenario, but under the low gray skies of spring this year, that sense of weird isolation becomes ever more palpable to me when I’m out and about. For those who aren’t on campus now, or for those who have never seen the University at Albany, here are some representative shots from recent walkabouts . . .

The Hall of the Mountain Grill

World of Tiers

Electric Tepee

Silver Machines

The Iron Dream

To see similar “Hidden in Suburbia” photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Two): Creeks, Gorges, Towers

When I was a little kid, in the days before GPS and Google Earth and Mapquest and the like, if I found a creek in the woods, and I wanted to know where it came from, or where it went, I had no choice but to follow its course as far as I could, upstream and down, to see what I might find. No matter where the creek led, or what I found when I got there, the trek itself was reward enough, and I have always regarded Creek Walking as one of my favorite summer pastimes. (Marcia will attest to the fact that it’s dangerous to take an unplanned hike with me, since I’m more apt to lead us on a muddy off-trail “adventure” than I am to enjoy a pleasant stroll down a well-manicured trail).

I can remember Creek Walking from my earliest years with my father, racing sticks down Rock Creek in Albemarle, North Carolina or the streams that cut through Naval Ammunition Depot Earle, New Jersey, winding between that military base’s seemingly endless lines of explosive-packed bunkers. When we moved to Dale City and then Lake Ridge, Virginia, I was of an age where I could organize expeditions on my own, and I remember many great days spent carrying canteens and rations into the woods to follow creeks as far as we could get, while still making it home for dinner on time.

When I moved to Latham in the early ’90s, one of the first things that drew me into the woods here was the profusion of visible creeks within a couple of miles of my house. I suspect that most folks never notice these creeks, but I’m highly attuned to culverts under roadways, and marshy roadside basins that must drain somewhere, and I saw plenty of things that intrigued me as I drove or walked or biked the highways and byways around my neighborhood.

Once I actually started following the creeks, I found things that exceeded my wildest woodland expectations, as there’s a stunning series of beautiful, deep, winding gorges between Latham and Watervliet that offer reward after reward as you work your way downstream toward the Hudson. Some of those rewards are natural, and some of them of man-made, with one of the most prominent of the latter category being the drainage tower, in the middle of a deep woods flood-control basin.

I did a Creek Walk this weekend, including a visit to the tower. I was stunned to see how much it appeared to have shrunk since the last time I was down there, as bits of flotsam and jetsam have washed down the gorges and piled up ever higher around its base. See for yourself:

Watervliet woods drainage basis tower, 2005.

Same Tower, 2011, eight feet shorter, at least.

It took me about three hours to travel maybe three miles, as the crow flies, though I suspect I actually walked closer to six miles with all of the meandering. Some of that time was spent walking on the creek banks, but much of it was spent actually walking in the creek itself. I also had to do several scrambles on all fours up a variety of scary screes and slopes, bits of slate and shale crumbling beneath me as I climbed. There were spots in the gorges where I suspect that had misfortune fallen upon me, it would have been a long, long time before anybody found my remains, unless a heavy rain carried them down into the drainage basin around the Tower. The sense of isolation is always awesome in those areas, even though I was never more than maybe half a mile from the developed areas around me.

That’s the best part about the woods: you can lose yourself in them, in both the scary and the wonderful senses of that phrase.

Here’s the photo documentary of this weekend’s walk, including creeks, gorges, towers and a woodtruck. Click on the photo below to get the version with the accompanying narrative text, or click here just to see the slideshow.

How much wood would a woodtruck truck if a woodtruck could truck wood?

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part One): Back to the Woods

One of the more popular features in my earlier blogs was a recurring series of summer photo essays called “Hidden in Suburbia.” Every photo in this series was taken within a ~12,500 acre plot, defined as a circle with a five-mile circumference, and my home sitting at its center. As the weather finally grows decent enough for exploration, I think 2011 is a good year to add to the series, seeing what’s new, and what’s changed, back in the woods around my home. For those who are new to this concept, here’s the little essay I wrote to frame it all back around 2005:

I live in a nice area called Latham, New York, middle to upper-middle class for the most part, well-kept homes in properly manicured and landscaped settings, good schools, good investment value in property, all the things one generally expects in the nicer bits of suburbia. If you draw a circle with a radius of about two and half miles around my house, you will also see that there are lots of woods. This makes the neighborhoods look nice, with backdrops of green and nice, tidy (from a distance) wild areas separating one neighborhood from another.

This is good, because I have a deep fascination with woods. Not forests, mind you, but woods. Forests are the untamed, wild places where nature is still, for the most part, in charge, and where urban, exurban and suburban development are still ages, years and/or miles and miles away. Woods, on the other hand, are the bits of forest that are left when development occurs, stands of trees immediately adjacent to suburban civilization, the dark places where all the things that suburban civilization doesn’t want to think about go to die. Or to thrive, depending on what flavor they are.

It’s shocking to find a piece of trash in a pristine forest. In suburban woods, though, you expect to find trash. People dump in there late at night, so they don’t have to drive all the way to the landfill. Kids steal stuff and take it out there to hide it, then forget about it. Teenagers smoke, drink, make out, break bottles and blow things up in the woods, leaving a variety of interesting detritus. The woods are the places where suburbia’s darkness lurks in wait, like something from a David Lynch movie.

But it’s not the specters and spirits of the woods that interest me, really, as much as it the stuff you find back there, and how the community sort of turns its collective consciousness away from it all. It may be right behind your house, but if it’s in the woods, then it’s okay, as long as it stays there and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. But I like thinking about it . . . and so I ride and walk through muck, mud, weeds and woods looking for the things that no one else wants to.

Here are some of those hidden things (click on the photo below to see the pictures with accompanying narrative, or click here for the slide show version) . . .

Inside the Silo (Click to Enter the Woods)

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.