The Mid-Hudson Valley: Biological and Cultural Estuary

An estuary is an ecosystem where sea water and fresh water meet. The confluence of these waters provides a unique home for a wide variety of organisms that would not exist in either the ocean or fresh waters individually. The Hudson River, whose American Indian name means "the river that flows two ways", is one such body of water, tidal from its mouth to Troy.

The confluence of two divergent influences provides another type of habitat along the river, a cultural and economic estuary where the influences of New York City and of Upstate mix and meld to form a unique set of communities. Rich in cultural institutions such as museums and concert halls as well as natural beauty, the Mid-Hudson Valley, stretching from roughly Beacon/Newburgh in the south and Hudson/Athens to the north is home to an intense mix of people and places that create a unique environment unlike anyplace else.

For four and a half years I have been a resident of Northern Dutchess County, and even in that short period of time, I have seen measurable changes, the ebb and flow, between weekenders, transplants from the city, transplants for elsewhere, and natives. The tensions created over land use, sustainable development, and taxes are just a few of the issues that seem to be escalating before the eyes of residents.

This mingling of city and country is nothing new to the Mid-Hudson Valley. For as long as European-Americans have inhabited the banks of the river, it has been both the homestead of humble tenant farmers and the country seat of the American elite, whose wealth was drawn from pursuits in the city. "The Chancellor" Robert R. Livingston, Jr., a revolutionary era statesman whose country seat was at Clermont is an excellent early example. The Erie Canal connected the valley with the interior of New York State and reaffirmed the Hudson's status as a major commercial artery. Throughout American history, but with a notable boom in the gilded age, the valley provided the picturesque and bucolic setting for an increasing number of country seats and playing host to what James Ackerman called "villa culture." Entire villages sprang up to accommodate the needs of these estates and their workers, all the while living alongside farmers. The gulf between these farmers and estate workers was immense, but as that gap closed in the twentieth century and the idea of the villa, or country home, became democratized and transportation became cheaper and faster, the lower valley surrounding New York City became suburbs.

The Mid-Hudson Valley, meanwhile, continued and continues still to serve the city as a place for weekend homes, while the farmers and natives continue to find livelihoods in this unique environment of wealth and cultural institutions. What is the Mid-Hudson Valley now? What are the unique problems of this biological and cultural estuary, what are their roots in history, and what solutions are the diverse residents of this valley working towards?

These questions cannot be addressed in one post. In Jesse's recent post about what defines Upstate New York he explores the different interpretations of what constitues upstate. Many would be inclined to draw a line, but the character of the Hudson Valley makes such a division impossible. Over the course of many posts, I seek to explore this nebulous fronteir. I will periodically try and take on different topics facing the community in which I now live, everything from "citdiots" to conservation easments to confederate flags to cows. Any readers are as always encouraged to add their opinions on these issues.

Posted by Natalie

Natalie, a Fayetteville, NY native, is a recent graduate of Bard College in Art History who now works at the college and lives in the village of Red Hook. She has spent the last two years academically exploring how the wealthy throughout history
(particularly in the Hudson Valley)
have expressed their values and justified their power through architecture. She likes to drive around Northern Dutches and Columbia Counties looking at buildings.


Al Z. said...

I worked for a few years in the New York City Water Supply Watershed (e.g. Dutchess, Putnam, Westchester Counties). One observation... Despite the unbelievable amount of traffic on what are still essentially country roads (route 22 - sheesh!), it always seemed like there was no real center to many of the towns and villages in this area - at least not in any authentic sense. Of course it occured to me that for many people living in here, the "real" center is the City (NYC) - so this should be of no surprise. Anyway take your time - I'm very interested in reading more of your thoughts on the upstate - downstate "estuary".

Natalie said...

You're absolutely right. Especially in Westchester County, which seems to be very strongly made up of bedroom communities, the center of life is the city. The original centers of towns that once existed along those humble county and state highways have probably just been swallowed up by surrounding development and the borderlands between those villages that would give them a sense of "center" and differentiation have disappeared. I haven't spent much time in that area (I bypass the traffic by taking Metronorth from Poughkeepsie) So I'd love to hear your insights about it, especially since you're profession up there sounds like it dealt a lot with allocating resources upstate for city use in what is an essential interelationship between the city and the Hudson Valley.