After an absence of six years I recently returned to my hometown of Warwick, New York, for a wedding. A trip from Wyoming to the East coast is enough of a culture shock in itself, but the changes that came to Warwick since my last visit have been astounding.
The exurban New York area (Warwick is about 55 miles northwest of Manhattan) has in that time crossed the line from rural to suburban. Hordes of newcomers unable to bear exorbitant real estate prices and property taxes in Westchester and Rockland counties, or on Long Island or in northern New Jersey, are now migrating up the Hudson Valley. Schools are overcrowded and highways congested. Crime is up. Dairy farms are being subdivided and McMansions are dotting the woods. The new folks love the sight of a quaint-looking dairy farm, but they don’t care for those accompanying barnyard smells.
In town, there are long lines of cars at traffic lights, and early morning and late afternoon periods of commuter gridlock. Former farm pastures outside of town are now paved “Park and Ride” lots, where commuters leave their cars in the pre-dawn darkness to catch buses to the city. There are tall, glaring street lights to keep the parking lots well-lit at night. From a literary point of view, you could say my hometown has gone from the earthy woods and fields of Faulkner to the antiseptic suburbs of Cheever and Updike.
A town that used to have a busy Main Street lined with grocery, hardware and clothing stores now has “Newhards — The Home Source.” “Port of Call” has “Antiques and Fine Home Furnishings.” A blue-collar diner called “G’s” has now been replaced by a ritzier restaurant of the same name. There’s also the “Samaya Café,” which features “Georgian” cuisine (as in Tbilisi, not Savannah — you can get borscht at the Samaya Café, but not grits and collard greens), and “Ten Railroad Avenue,” a chic bistro in a building that used to house “Kelly’s,” a former seedy neighborhood saloon and poolroom, where I misspent a large portion of my twenties back in the 1970s and ’80s, and a place never very conscientious about restroom cleanliness. I have wonderful memories of friendship, camaraderie, heroic drinking and rusty urinals.
Warwick does have a much more extensive history, of course. In 1703, a Delaware chief named “Chuckass” sold the Warwick Valley to some British and Dutch colonial settlers for a handmirror and a few other trinkets. The town was a busy place during the American Revolution. The “King’s Highway” passed through (still does; paved now) and was used by troops of both sides on the march. On it at the north edge of town is “Baird’s Tavern,” built by one Francis Baird in 1766, a lovely stone house now housing an attorney’s office. George Washington dropped in in 1781 as the Continental Army made its way north to winter quarters at New Windsor, New York, following the final victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The joke in Warwick is that the Father of Our Country never slept at Baird’s Tavern, but he did have lunch. The bounty of his table was probably apparent to the General, for throughout the coming 19th and early 20th centuries, Warwick Valley farms were renowned for supplying fresh meat, produce, and dairy products to the markets and hotels of New York City. The valley boasted some of the most productive farmland in New York State. Now it’s mostly paved over, and it’s not so much what’s produced, but recycled.
Recycling has become a big deal in the seventeen years since I last lived in Warwick. Thanks to a lot of new local liberal do-gooderism, my mother now carefully separates her cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, and cardboard cracker and cereal boxes. These are then placed in the appropriate bins behind her apartment complex. If she failed to do this, she would be duly warned by the municipal yuppie-scum recycling police, and continued noncompliance would result in a $1,000 fine.
Coming from Wyoming where we don’t suffer a lack of landfill space, I find all this laughable. In Wyoming we have whole counties that would qualify as landfill. Millions of acres of scrubby sagebrush home to nobody and nothing but prairie dogs and rattlesnakes. Don’t get me wrong, I myself recycle. I take the newspapers to a recycling center here in Cody about once a week. But it’s voluntary, of course, as it should be. Unlike Mom, I don’t have to worry about a knock on the door from the Recycling Gestapo.
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