Hidden in Suburbia (Salvage)

This version of my website was established in mid-2014, and includes posts from a variety of my other websites dating back to 1995. When I set this one to be a central clearing house, I closed most of the older domains.

There are two downsides to this sort of consolidation. First, pages that had long been Google search favorites now have new addresses, so they’re a little harder to find, and generate a little less traffic than they once did. Second, internal links get hashed up as articles move from one domain to another, while their images or related pages either no longer exist, or remain on other servers with other addresses. These are both annoyances, but I decided that they were acceptable inconveniences, given the content density that comes from having twenty years’ worth of the best bits from a dozen websites in a single (virtual) location.

For most articles, especially standalone pieces, these structural inconveniences really don’t have any lasting impact. But for long-form, multiple chapter entries, or pieces with significant inline imagery, they can be catastrophic to understanding or appreciating what I originally intended to communicate. Unfortunately, one of my most popular online pieces, the “Hidden in Suburbia” series, was particularly hard hit by changes in hosting locations and addresses. I ran multi-entry “Hidden in Suburbia” series in 2005, 2008 and 2011, and they were widely read, and still generate significant search interest. Alas, much of the incoming traffic generated by that interest now results in “404 Page Not Found” entries.

Here’s the original premise of the series:

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. All of the photos and all of the stories in this series are taken and told from within a circle with a five mile circumference, my house smack in the center. It doesn’t seem like a lot of space . . . until you really start exploring the spaces between the space . . .

While working to clean up some archives for another project, I decided to see what I could do to salvage the original three Hidden in Suburbia essays. The 2011 one was pretty easy to clean up and recover, since it was posted to WordPress on the defunct Indie Albany page, which was formatted very much like Indie Moines, and so could be exported and imported with most links and references intact, and because the images were hosted on a Flickr account that I still have. Clicking the link below will bring the series up — plus a related piece called “Academia (After the Apocalypse)” — with both words and images available as they originally appeared, with the last post first, and first post last, per normal blog convention. (The post you are currently reading will appear on top at the new window, since it shares a coding category, but you can then scroll down and work back up to read them in proper chronological order, if you want; note, too, that you will need to hit the “older posts” link at the bottom of the page to see the first two pieces):

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2011: Complete

The 2008 and 2005 articles, on the other hand, are damaged beyond viable repair in terms of re-knitting narrative and images together again, so the best I can do for the two of those series is to delete the damaged pages and upload the imagery into its own Flickr set, so if you’re interested, you can see it, and I can answer any questions about it, but that’s about it. Interestingly enough, though, I have found that going through these images as a slideshow is actually oddly fascinating . . . the lack of context, and the unrelenting oddness of the spaces where woods and civilization meet, creates quite an evocative experience. Click the link below to see the whole set:

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2005 and 2008: Photo Archive

I hope that these pieces will inspire you to explore your own woods and share what you’ve found. While these images were captured in and around Latham, New York, they truly could be just about anywhere in North America where stands of old trees abut suburban and exurban development, and the universal nature of these images is what has given them their appeal over the years.

Upstate Scene War: Rockets Over the Pruyn House

Albany: Oh man, did you see this week’s concert listings? Someone messed up big time. On Friday night, they’ve got Wheel Dio, Stake Knife and Cake Gobbling Merkin playing up at Ting’s Tavern in Saratoga, the same night that we’ve got Gassy Veal Kittens, Space Chubby and a Drunknard poetry reading at Mister Larry’s Music Space here in Albany. This is a problem! Why would anybody book another big local show on top of ours? This seems to happen every single time we get something big lined up! Why, dammit? Why?

Saratoga: Oh, there’s no problem here, really, Albany. We can just combine the two shows into one at Ting’s Tavern, see? I mean, six bands isn’t so bad considering Stake Knife only plays for 10 minutes. Plus, you can’t drink at Mister Larry’s, or at least not legally anyway, so why not just take this whole gig out of Albany and move it up the road to Saratoga and have great night out for the whole scene? I’ll give you 10% of the door and 5% of the bar and you can buy some nice little art for your nice little nonprofit music space. Or a pizza. What do you say?

Albany: How come Saratoga is always messing with Albany, huh? You think you’re better than us? Well, I think it’s time that we come up there and hapkido your ass, Saratoga! Then when that’s done, we need to drag your pretentious, horsey-loving, plaid-stretch-waistbanded-fancy-pants-clad asses back down here to Albany to have a little sit down under the bright lights to let you know what’s going to happen if you book another unapproved out-of-town gig for our local Albany artists again!

Clifton Park: The head of the dojo we take our kids to says that hapkido is only for self defense. So Saratoga would have to attack Albany first, or it would be a violation of the rules. We’ll bring it up at school tonight when we’re meeting with the principal and the guidance counselors to make sure that all of our kids get into all the talented and gifted and advanced preparatory courses they need to make us all proud, so we don’t have to disown them and ship them off to Catholic schools in Waterford or Troy should they fail to make (and start on) the cross country, basketball, and lacrosse teams. There will be no average kids in our houses, no way!

Saratoga: Oh, I’ll attack first, Albany, you bet! Your thin, anemic blood will be spilt by psychic fire from Saratoga before you even get your Toyota Tercels out of your driveways! Bring it, little Capital City! We superior horse-folk will crush you with our fabulousness and complete and utter disregard for the less-than-wealthy people who populate your badly-furnished little swamp along the Hudson. For Mary Lou! Onward! Huttah!

Waterford: Oh, no, watch out! Upstate Scene War, with us in the middle! It’s on! Call the gang! Call the cops! Call Troy!

Troy: Troy represent! Ain’t nobody can take on Troy and be able to walk away! This Friday night, Troy will draw blood from both Saratoga and Albany simultaneously with a show by The Fearsome Furniture Fondlers at the Pretentious Arthaus Klownplex! Take that, you backward-looking, government-loving sissy towns! And, uh, now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a City Hall to sell so that we can send our kids to school. Later.

Albany: Yeah, that’s right, Troy, you just shut your collar over there! Everyone knows you’re just Albany’s little side-kick city, where we stick our community colleges and minor league ball clubs. The stuff that’s not nice enough to go into the suburbs.

Latham: Yeah, we get all the nice stuff. Sam’s Club. Latham Circle. Latham Circle Mall. Hoffman’s Playland. Latham Farms. We look down our noses at Troy.

Loudonville: Oh my heavens, will you look at this? Mindy Muffinstuffer and Heather Loudonvillian are holding a fundraiser for NPR this Friday at the Starbucks in Loudonville! Bring your tote bags and coffee mugs, everybody! Six dollar grande skim soy lattes, dust of nutmeg, vapor of cinnamon, stirred with cruelty-free, sustainable recycled wooden stickie thingies, for everybody! Yay!

Latham: Oh, shut your pie-hole, Loudonville! You don’t even really exist. What the hell’s a “hamlet,” anyway? You’re just a Bantustan for rich wingnuts. Latham is where it’s at! And we mean that literally, in the case of that Starbucks. You just like to say it’s in Loudonville to make the coffee-snob wingnuts who hang out there feel special.

Guy Who Esplains Thins: Latham is correct. The Starbucks in question is north of Newtonville. It is therefore impossible for it to be in Loudonville.

Loudonville: Latham is where we send our more marginal residents (and sometimes children) to work. It’s also where we feed.

Newtonville: Please don’t fight, Latham and Loudonville. Every time you do, I’m the one caught in the middle! Think of the children!

The Children of Newtonville: We live on Maxwell Road, right on the bitterly contested Latham-Loudonville border. At night, we fall asleep to the sound of rockets flying over the Pruyn House.

Newtonville: See? There’s the problem: most of Maxwell Road is actually in Newtonville. In fact, the heart of Newtonville is the intersection of Maxwell and Route 9. It’s us innocents who continually get blasted in the internecine war between the Loudonville and Latham Bantustans, with the trust funds on one side, and the wannabes on the other. We’re like the Kurds of Suburbia.

Osborne Road: We got it the best: blue collar neighborhoods with a Loudonville mailing address. Jacks the property values up like crazy, yo!

Pruyn House: We are the Switzerland of the northern suburbs, a little forested enclave filled with chocoholics, frolicking in the flowers. All people are safe in the neutral Pruyn House. Although we do have quotas for the number of Newtonvillians we will let in.

Old Niskayuna Road: Psych! I’m not in Niskayuna! I’m a Bantustan within a Bantustan! The slightly-rich Loudonvillians all pine to live on me, with the fabulously-rich ones who actually do!

Something-Shaker Road: We can’t even keep ourselves straight. All we know is that having the word “Shaker” in your road name means “higher traffic, lower property values.” Damn you, Old Niskayuna Road, Maxwell Road and Fiddlers Lane, how we hate you!!

Watervliet-Something Road: How do you think we feel?

Watervliet-Shaker Road: Is it any wonder I have an inferiority complex, given my parents’ low self esteem?

Spring Street Road: I have the best name of all times! I am a street and a road!

Troy-Schenectady Road: Well I guess I’m screwed, but good.

Watervliet-Shaker Road: Yeah, our motto is “Thank God for Troy-Schenectady Road!”

Latham: If we sealed our borders, all of the northern suburbs would starve and run out of hardware. Don’t push your luck, Loudonville. And by the way, Newtonville: we consider you to be our Sudetenland.

Loudonville: Yo, Latham, you are aware that Latham Farms isn’t really a farm, aren’t you? You’d starve if we isolated you from Albany!

Latham: Latham Farms honors our agrarian past. Now we don’t need farms. We have Sam’s Club, Target and Allstar Wine and Liquors. All of our needs are met within our borders! Plus, we’ve got the best water towers in the region. Dig those checkerboards, yo!

Menands: I think I can lay claim to the best water towers, actually.

Latham: What?! How can Menands claim better water towers than Latham?! Menands is nothing but a historical anomaly, like San Marino or the Vatican City. It is only a matter of time before it fragments, with its richer folks joining Loudonville and its poorer folks joining North Albany. What a silly, useless little town it is!

Colonie: Menands is ours, you fools. And, really, don’t you all realize that you all effectively live within Colonie anyways?

Latham: Shutup, Colonie! You’re always trying to lord it over all of us that “Oh, look! I’m the township! You’re just hamlets!” Well, piss off, you! Because the only part of you that matters is the strip between Route 5 and Sand Creek Road, that none of the rest of us want. That’s nothing to be proud of, fool!

Colonie: Look, facts are facts, and if you don’t live in Albany, then you’re pretty much in Colonie. Unless you’re in Troy, in which case you’d be wise to keep your mouth shut.

Latham: See, Colonie, it’s just that attitude that makes us set up our own little hamlets. You’re like the Holy Roman Empire, with a little self-satisfied government sitting in Town Hall while the Huns and Goths from Watervliet and Cohoes are terrorizing the hinterlands. No wonder Loudonville and Latham have to take care of our own affairs. We sneer at you, Colonie. And The LORD is clearly on our side, because we are home to the largest evangelical church in this region. It’s a big box church to go with our big box stores. We’re a big box kind of hamlet. But we’ll be all set when the Day of Judgment comes, all self-contained and happy while all the heathen Loudonvillians roast in their own rich juices.

Heather Loudonvillian: Did someone call for me? I could certainly use a little roasting in my own juices, if you know what I mean, after all those crantinis and wine coolers I just had down at the Club with Mindy Muffinstuffer. Who’s on first? It’s tee time! Hee hee! Hic! Urp . . .

Tommy Cohoes: Hey there, Heather Loudonvillian. I think I got just the baster for you!

Heather Loudonvillian: Urp!! Hic!!! I don’t feel so good, all of sudden. I think I need to . . . bleeeurrghhh! Bleeee-ARRRRGGHHHHH. Bleeuarrgh-uh-peck-a-wretch-a-kopf!

Guy Who Esplains Thins: Peckawretchakopf was a brilliant composer and laptop player. I saw him at the Pretentious Arthaus Klownplex in Troy once, before he died of consumption and ennui.

Vrolobad Peckawretchakopf (in Hell): Zank you, Guy Vot Esplainses Zins. Ich bin gut to be remembert. Das Sigh.