Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Six): The Mill

I wrote the following poem, which is titled “The Mill,” on May 4, 2004:

The old mill burned down last night.
You could see the flames from far across town.
It was really quite an awesome sight.
The firemen were helpless, just standing ’round,
while that eyesore burned down.

Built in eighteen ninety four,
they made shirt collars and fancy pressed cuffs there.
It had survived countless floods and storms,
but last night it disappeared into the air,
with not a timber spared.

The mill had been closed for years.
Fashions changed, starched collars became obsolete,
one by one all the jobs disappeared.
By the late ’40s, the shutdown was complete,
and they blocked off Mill Street.

But folks wouldn’t stay away.
It became a place where hoboes crashed and drank,
sometimes dying there, old, spent and gray,
in death, as in life, lying there, foul and rank.
The old mill really stank.

Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.

Teenagers found the mill next,
swarming toward it like waves of horny bugs.
Teachers and parents alike were vexed
as we went down there to make-out or buy drugs
from unsavory thugs.

Yes, I went down there a lot.
I was there yesterday, as it comes to pass.
Terre had scored some really fine pot.
We held hands and giggled as we smoked her grass,
then doused the mill with gas.

This was a completely fictional character study (of both a building and a boy), but it has gained a new resonance for me, based on this week’s Hidden in Suburbia adventures.

A few nights ago, I set out on Trusty Steed, planning to explore and photograph an area around an active cement plant and its quarry. Unfortunately, before I could even get the camera out, I was spotted by some of the plant’s employees, so I quickly pedaled on, looking for a new adventure, away from prying, police-calling eyes. I decided to ride up to a new housing development that sits mostly atop what used to be one of the better backwoods biking plots in my area, trying to see if I could locate any of the old trail heads behind the development.

With a little bit of poking around, I found a solid trail that dropped steeply down the slope, through the woods, toward the industrial areas I’d photographed a couple of weeks ago in Part Four of this series. It was a good riding trail and I was able to work up a decent amount of speed as I rumbled down the hill. As the slope began to level off, there was a sharp turn to the left, which I successfully navigated . . . only to find myself pretty much smack in the middle of what appeared to be a large, active, multi-person camp in the woods.

The one thing I don’t ever, ever, ever like to find in my suburban woods explorations is other people, since odds are that any other humans (especially adult humans) that I encounter in the woods are not likely to be taking photographs, nor are they likely to want to have their photographs taken. So without missing a stroke, I pedaled through the camp, put some distance between me and whoever was in the vast network of tarp tents in the clearing, and powered down the hill to the point where the trail disgorged into a particularly swampy stretch of abandoned dirt road that I’d ridden and photographed last month.

The reeds in the abandoned road had grown taller than me since I was last there, so there was no way I was riding through them. I shouldered the bike and started pushing my way forward through them, knowing I had maybe 200 yards to advance before the muck and reeds gave way to a paved road in front of an old mill building.

I couldn’t really see much in front of me due to the tall reeds, but I did hear noises from up near the mill, and as I got closer to the pavement, I could see some trucks and other vehicles in the road. Now, normally, I would have turned and gone another direction, but given the choice of surprising whoever was living in the tarps in the woods, or surprising whoever was in the trucks in front of the mill, I decided that the latter group was the safer bet.

When I cleared the reeds, I put my bike down and walked it toward the trucks. When I passed the first truck and had a clear view of the area, two things surprised me: (1) most of the vehicles were Town police and fire vehicles, with policemen and firemen in them, and (2) the mill was gone, with a pile of burnt rubble on a slab where it used to stand.

Oh boy . . . here I was walking a bike, coming out of the woods (likely private property), strolling right into a crime scene (had I come at it from the road over the railroad tracks where people were supposed to be, I’d have seen the yellow tape barrier), looking, no doubt, like a perpetrator returning to admire the scene of his crime, especially since I had photos of this very mill, before the fire, saved on the camera in my backpack!

I decided that confident obliviousness would be the best approach to defusing the situation, so I approached the nearest fireman and asked what had happened, made appropriate clucking and “oh, that’s a shame” noises, then slowly, casually, saddled up and went on my way, as though nothing was wrong. I then rode back home via an odd route involving lots of turns, looking over my shoulder at each intersection to see if the police were following me. Twice, when I looked back, I actually saw patrol cars . . .

So I must admit that I experienced a deep sense of personal relief after a quick Google search revealed that three teenagers had already been arrested for burning the mill to the ground. They used a bottle of gasoline with a rag wick in it. Two responding firefighters were injured as a result of their actions.

Once my sense of relief passed, it was replaced with a feeling of sadness, both for the building, and for the boys who burned it. I suspect they acted with the same degree of unthinking nonchalance and lack of concern for consequences that the protagonist of my poem did. There was probably a girl to impress in the story, somehow. That’s a pretty endemic mental state for adolescent boys, and it’s never a good thing when you inject fire into that hormone-addled mindset.

I wish these boys had shared my adult respect for these old buildings as objects to admire from outside, rather than as things to actively enter, violate, and destroy. Nature will do that eventually, so there’s no need for us to hurry that natural process along. This senseless act of destructive acceleration is going to have life-altering consequences for the perpetrators, though hopefully they’ll learn the lessons they need to learn, be given the chance to make some serious acts of restitution, and be able to move on with their lives.

Likewise, here’s hoping that the injured firefighters recover quickly and fully. Bless them for their work.

Last night, I went back to the mill, this time approaching it via public roadways. The firetrucks were gone, and an amazing amount of progress had been made in clearing away the debris. I got close enough to snap a few photos, then turned to head back out via the only paved access point. As I saddled my bike, though, I felt a heavy rumbling in the ground, and looked up to see a fast-moving freight train approaching me from the south.

When the train reached the at-grade crossing, I was essentially trapped on that short strip of pavement in front of the fallen mill, with the tent-dwelling woods people and a quarter-mile of muck blocking the only other escape route. It was kind of a creepy feeling, since it represented the sort of improbable combination of unrelated factors that script-writers use to build suspense in horror movies. I was glad to wave goodbye to the train and head back up the hill to home once it had passed.

You can see the before and after photos of the mill by clicking here.

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


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 . . .

Click here for the photos.

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

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Four): 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.  Click here for the photos.

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!

Click here for the photos. Trains in the Woods kick ass, just for the record.

To see other 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.

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 here for the photos.

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 here for photos . . .

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


Full disclaimer up front: I know that there are few things lamer on the internet than blog posts about blog posting. So what follows here, in this post, by definition, completely sucks. I know that. I absolve you if you want to leave and go read something else, somewhere else. I probably would do so myself, if I was you. So to you folks with taste and common sense . . buh-bye! See you next time, when I have something actually entertaining and not self-indulgent to write about! Thanks for stopping by! Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out! Ciao!

Okay, then. For those few of you who remain, and who clearly are masochistic souls who want to keep reading the most self-indulgent variety of blog posts possible, this is for you: I wrote a poem six years ago that contained the following two stanzas, among others:

Look and see the pundit on the TV screen:
desperately he gibbers, spouting bile and spleen.
He’s shouted right down, by all the other monkey-suit wearing clowns,
as the networks clap with glee.
We’re entertained by screaming, don’t bother with the meaning,
why does he have to yell at me?

Look and see the blogger, honesty his pledge,
making news in real time on the cutting edge.
His facts are all wrong, he doesn’t care, ’cause his convictions are strong,
though he makes no guarantees.
Quote him today for others, confuse your friends and brothers,
why does he have to yell at me?

I don’t remember what annoyed me enough at the time to write those lines, but I find the sentiments they contain becoming ever more common for me again in 2011, when more often than not, my time online results in me getting up from computer, shaking my head and walking away annoyed. And what, I ask all three of you still reading, is the point of spending time doing that? My life is filled with so many good things involving so many people with whom I share a strong, real emotional bond. I am so, so incredibly blessed in that regard, all things considered. So what do I gain from spending intellectual or emotional energy being annoyed by people I barely know, or don’t know at all? A: Nothing, duh.

I’ve written before here (and elsewhere) about the pleasures associated with destroying things that I once worked hard to create. And I must report that over the past couple of months, my enjoyment of the act of creative destruction has grown exponentially. I’ve had a website since 1993, but I blew it up, and it’s gone, and that feels good. I’ve had a blog since 1995 (though I did not know it was called a blog then), but I vaporized it, and it no longer exists (except for the pieces being held hostage by a corporate entity that I regretfully got into bed with), and I am pleased. I used to have 550 Facebook friends, but now I have 45, the vast majority of the survivors being folks from my high school days with whom I have no other means to communicate, and this feels appropriate.

Those of you who I e-mail or see or talk to regularly, or those of you who have never communicated with me since you befriended me, or those of you who befriended me in the hopes that I might review your concert or album . . . well, sorry, and no disrespect intended, but I’ve deleted you, since you don’t need to read my routine piffle and tripe updates any more than I need to read yours. Let’s interact in the real world someday, alright? Cool.

The sense of liberation associated with these acts of creative destruction is profound. It’s similar to the sense of freedom I felt when I stopped hosting a television show, or when I finished my Masters Degree, or when I gave up my byline in a local newsweekly. Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I had no public persona at all. But then, for a variety of reasons, some sound, some not, I worked very hard and I built a fairly powerful personal brand in our local market. And that was cool, for a while. But now, in 2011, I find myself increasingly wishing to be free of the bonds that such a public persona imposes. I’m ready to return to a place of greater anonymity, where no one outside of my family, friendly and professional circles pays any attention to what I do or say.

I’m vanishing, in other words. Yeah, sure, I know that there are ways to find all sorts of my old stuff online, and my footprints in the internet tubes aren’t that easily swept away, but I intend to be far more judicious and fickle about where and how often and with whom I walk online in the future. Once upon a time, I was an internet pioneer, blazing trails for others to follow. Now, I’m the old guy on the virtual corner telling the kids to get the hell off my lawn. Enough’s enough. Game, set, match. Give me my golden watch, because I’m ready to sit on the porch and rock. But, seriously: get the hell off my lawn. Now.

This website, for now, is going to be my last and only stand in terms of internet presence, unless you were an old drinking buddy, or a former band-mate, or an ex-girlfriend, or a fellow military traveler from ages and ages ago, or a college or grad school chum, in which case I’ll see you in Facebook, more privately, without a peanut gallery of gawkers. For now, anyway. I suspect I may bail on that increasingly annoying platform sometime soon as well.

This site provides me with all the creative satisfaction I require at this point, as far as the general public is concerned. Beyond that, I’ve shared more than enough, for long enough. It’s selfish time now. I have some other “real world” creative endeavors that I’m working on, to which only my family is privy at this point. I also have loads and load of things happening on a professional and community volunteer front, and the folks involved there know what they need to know, when they need to know it.

It’s hard to imagine that, once upon a time, these kinds of social connections were viewed as being more than enough, isn’t it? I’m ready to wax nostalgic. I’m ready to go quaint. I’m vanishing, and it feels so good . . .

In closing, I apologize again to the couple of you who stuck with this post to end, as there are few things lamer than watching a writer using an internet outlet to complain about internet outlets. That’s overflowing with suck, and I know it. But I’m putting this post here tonight anyway, so that when people grumble about being deleted from my Facebook friends list, or about why my Worst Rock Band Ever page is gone, or about what happened to the Hidden in Suburbia photo-essays, I don’t have to expend any intellectual energy on replying, but can just cut and paste this link instead.

Because I’m vanishing. Poof. Pow. Gone . . .

Sprawl Sad

I’ve spent most of my adult life (and all of my time in New York’s Capital Region) living in the suburbs. I am perfectly happy and comfortable with this situation, and will never, ever apologize for this particular life choice, though it has become trendy and fashionable in some of the social and media circles in which I move to denigrate the suburbs and those who live within them.

I find much of this sort of anti-suburban sentiment to be heavily freighted with a distasteful intellectual elitism, as though my choice (and the choices of millions of other like me) to commute to the city where I work, rather than actually living there, was made because I wasn’t smart enough to make a different one. I’m not stupid, and I’m not materialistic, and I’m not a cultural Philistine, so if your social critique of the suburban lifestyle involves you looking down your nose at me in a patronizing fashion while listening to NPR in your little downtown apartment, then I’m really not at all interested in hearing from you.

Your scorn and/or pity are meaningless to me, because I love my home, and I love my yard, and I find just as much value, culture, history and opportunity in my suburban neighborhood as you do in your urban one. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to exploring the bits of suburbia around me that many folks never see, in fact, as documented in my occasional (and probably ongoing this summer) Hidden In Suburbia series. There are just as many mysteries, secrets, surprises and fascinating stories to be found in the woods around my suburban house as there are in Albany’s Center Square, if you’re willing to invest the time and energy to look for them. And I am.

All of that being said, I did appreciate an article by Peter B. Fleisher that ran in the print version of the Times Union a few weeks ago, called “Sprawl Without Growth Is Ruining Too Much of New York.” Fleisher’s logic is sound, and he offers an economic argument against additional development that’s predicated on something other than an ivory tower distaste for people who choose to make their homes in the suburbs. I accept his intellectual and moral positions on the matter, and appreciate the way in which he frames them.

The point of Fleisher’s article was really hammered home to me a week or so ago when I had some time to kill in the car before picking up my daughter from an appointment, and noticed a new development going into a formerly-wooded area where I’ve spent a lot of time on my bike in the past. I turned into the development, and was dismayed to see just how much of the forest, and just how many pretty little streams and gorges had been destroyed to put up home stock that doesn’t seem to be needed, based on population trends in our market. Essentially everything I wrote about in this particular Hidden in Suburbia report is gone now, including the incredible deep woods racing oval that must have supported generations worth of kids and their bicycles. (Former aerial view of this great, lost hidden treasure above).

I suspect, frankly, that a big part of the rationale for this development going in is that it is in one of the increasingly uncommon undeveloped regions within the Loudonville Zip Code, and there is a social cache associated with that address that makes such properties desirable, thereby leading developers to develop them, never mind the toxic waste dumps in the valley just down the hill from many of them. I don’t damn or condemn the folks who will buy these houses, because I believe that they will be just as happy with their lives there as I am with mine here, but I do wish that our local town government would perhaps step up to the plate a little more aggressively to ask why we need more housing stock when our population is stagnating or declining.

If they build it, we will come, and we will be happy to have done so. So the solution to the sprawl without growth conundrum isn’t to denigrate or deny happiness to suburban homeowners, but rather to have the many, many layers of local and regional government that exist hereabouts more actively involved in trying to ensure some realistic correlation between development and population trends. I’m not sure that the tax dollars generated by this new development will provide a greater good to the community than the bicycle loop in the woods did for generations of kids who once lived around here, and it makes me sad to think that the kids who grow up in this development won’t have the opportunity to love these woods as much their predecessors (and I) once did.

Though I would never condemn their parents for making the choices they make to live there. We all chase happiness in our own fashions, and none of us deserve to have our happiness sneered at by snobs or elites.