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A Winter Tour of the Hidden Corners of a Little Town in Upstate NY

I moved here in November and have been exploring it through this weird, snowless winter of 2012.

 Greenwich NY, 19th Century

Greenwich After the Civil War. Before the war its name was Union, NY,
and before that it was called Whipple City
after its founder, Job Whipple.
After the Civil War, the name Union was deemed politically incorrect for a nation
wishing to heal its internal injuries.
(Click here or on map for much larger, navigable image.)

 

Battenkill at Greenwich NY

View of the Battenkill River from Salem Street, upstream of the town. A renowned trout stream,
this stretch of the river is about five miles from where it joins the Hudson River.
There were a half dozen factories along it in the village at one time. No active ones remain.

 

Greenwich NY on Kunstler.com - industrial desolation

Grain elevator and railroad yard. All defunct. The abode of feral cats and furtive teenage drinkers.
It’s sobering to imagine what this part of town was like when all this stuff was up-and-running – and new!
Generations now living have only known decline and sclerosis in their home places.

 

Greenwich NY on kunstler.com - abandoned rail yard

Back in the 1990s a lone gentleman was running a remnant of the Battenkill Railroad along this track. It amounted to weekend excursion trips along the river in summer. That venture evidently went bust and the condition of the tracks and equipment has been deteriorating ever since – except for a depot building (painted green in background, left). 
People still park expensive pickup trucks outside of it, but there is no evidence of any ongoing enterprise.

 

Greenwich NY - Railroad ruins - at kunstler.com

Another view of ruined railroad infrastructure. We’re going to have to fix the American railroad system 
if we want to get around this big country in the years ahead. 
The American people have no idea how soon their Happy Motoring adventures will be fading away.

 

Greenwich NY – Abandoned Factory by the Battenkill -- at kunstler.com

These buildings started as a linen mill, then went through other incarnations, one as a cardboard carton factory.
Closed for good in the early 1970s. The Battenkill River runs behind it.

 

Greenwich NY – Facotry turned into apartments - at kunstler.com

Here an old factory building has been converted into apartments
for an increasingly under-employed and impoverished former-working-class. 

 

Greenwich NY - RR station turned into bar - at kunstler.com

This was the passenger rail station until the 1960s. Now a tavern. Drinking is one of the town’s remaining industries.
Imagine being able to catch a train here and be in Grand Central Station, NYC, three hours later.
It was possible once.

 

Greenwich NY - Factory ruins with trash - at kunstler.com

This was the concrete foundation of another factory along the river. Little remains but assorted plastic trash.

 

Greenwich NY - trestle ruins - at kunstler.com

I don’t know when these railroad trestles date from – probably late 19th century – but they are all that is left of infrastructure 
that was in good working order one hunded years ago. 
There are 2000-year-old Roman bridges in Europe in better shape (and still usable!) today.

 

Greenwich NY - Empty Factory - at kunstler.com

Back in the late 1970s I bought some used office furniture out of this old factory. 
The building, with some quietly graceful features, has been abandoned about fifteen years.
It’s still a candidate for adaptice re-use… but not for long.

 

Greenwich NY - Row of renovated factory housing - at kunstler.com

Row of factory housing. It was renovated some years ago and contains apartments, 
not fancy but maintained in good order.

 

Greenwich NY -- the old downtown at Main and Saem Streets - at kunstler.com

The building directly ahead used to be three stories, with nice details, but it got sawed-off
in the aftermath of a fire. Commerce has migrated to two strip malls outside the west end of town.

 

Greenwich NY - the east end of Main Street looking west - at kunstler.com

Some struggling businesses hang on, but the majority of storefronts are empty.
The building stock decays a little each year. 
Too many buildings burdened with nasty plastic cladding materials. 
Some of the buildings are just not good enough for the town’s Main Street.
The chief characteristic of small town America these days is a lack of visible decorum.

 

Greenwich, NY, The White Swan Hotel 1961 - at kunstler.com

The White Swan Hotel, 1961. If you look at that shot one photo back, 
the hotel was located just beyond the traffic light, where the drive in bank is now.
The hotel had a bar, a restaurant, and a movie theater in it, and was literally the heart of town.
It was never a great building, but it was good enough, and the exterior 
could have been detailed and decorated better, the ground floor in particular.

Demolished a few years after this photo was taken.

Weep for yourself, America, and for the bad choices we have made.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

25 Responses to “A Winter Tour of the Hidden Corners of a Little Town in Upstate NY” Subscribe

  1. Klaus Neuschaefer June 8, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    Very nice Jim. Your new web site has a nice clean look. I have been looking forward to the transition, just as we all have been looking forward to the next installment of World Made by Hand.

    I hope your recovery from surgery is progressing well.

    Happy Summer!

  2. Pete Doughty June 9, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Good redesign, Jim. Very clean. I especially appreciate the “My Garden” and “My Town” categories; I hope you’ll find a bit of time for updates on both, however brief.
    A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon looking around Washington County for the first time. Not much time, of course, and WC is a long way from home in MN. What gorgeous country, though, as you show in your top photo of the river. Alas, going north on Rt. 40 out of Troy, somehow I missed a turn and missed Greenwich, but stopped in Argyle and Salem before heading south on Rt. 22. I loved the look of those foothills of the Green Mountains and could certainly imagine big cats up there.
    While sipping a sarsaparilla bought at the reopened corner shop in Salem, and after hearing from the proprietor about difficulties in acquiring high-speed Internet, I picked up a copy of the Hill Country Observer, which I found to be a quality journal on a very intriguing area. Maybe there are one or more topics there for podcasts?

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    It hurts our children when they hear one of their parents put down the other.

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  5. Mike June 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    I see you’re subjected to as much spam as I am James…. love the new site, and those photos are impressive (I’m a retired pro BTW…)

    The rot really has set in. We in Australia are a few years behind you guys, but I fully expect the shit to hit the fan soon as Australia totally runs out of oil over the next six or eight years….

  6. Scott June 24, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    Yes I also like the new website and the addition of your garden and my town. It would be great to see regular updates of your progress (and the town’s if it happens?)

    The comment section font size is a problem though and it seems that I can’t make it bigger (?) as is done for the main blog.

  7. Ric June 24, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Let me see if I’ve got this right. Greenwich is a deteriorating town full of hapless drunks, teenage wastrels, and no-nothing good-old-boys who haven’t a clue why they’re in the state they’re in, let alone what’s about to smack them even harder upside their collective head.

    Given all the noise you and others make about the centrality of strong community, one has to ask: Why did you move there?!

    Granted, I’ve always found the landscape in that part of the state to be drop-dead gorgeous, and it has a lot of natural features which bode well for survival; but if the people cannot shake themselves out of their peculiarly American somnambulism, then forming a community that will pull together to weather the coming storm seems problematic, to say the least. But I’m sure you have your reasons. Might be the basis for an interesting blog!

  8. This Web page June 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    I am really enjoying the theme/design of your website. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility issues?

    A small number of my blog readers have complained about my blog not working correctly in Explorer but looks great in Chrome.

    Do you have any advice to help fix this problem?

  9. Peter L June 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    Jim, you’ve inspired me to make a trip up there to check it out. I still live here in NYC but even now I see the evidence of your (and others’) forecast. Boarded up big box stores, gas stations, partially abandoned strip malls, and an overall reduction in economic activity. When I tried to point this out to someone recently they reacted very badly to me personally and criticized me as a doomsayer and incorrigible pessimist. Some people would rather keep whistling in the dark than confront reality, difficult as it may be.

    • WD July 18, 2013 at 9:12 am #

      James does not portray even a 100th of what Greenwich is really like. We have plenty of booming business in the parts of town he failed to even show you in this article.

      If he had painted the full picture of our town for you, I’m sure you’d change what you’ve just said.

  10. Thoren steve July 3, 2013 at 7:07 am #

    JIm / Other s ”
    What the photos show is really what we have to work with to salvage actual communities of human scale activity. The books Small Is Beautiful and Guide for the perplexed come back to mind . In the shows of youth I’d drink myself silly as a start ;
    The coal depot /rail yard and river ( the old linen mill is where I’d start to tap what ever hydro power can be used. Interestingly upstate New York saw the first public gas lighting back around 1815 or so . Locaiized power and gas generation could be done there. Assuming modest rates to haul stuff by rail . Am I wrong to assume some ambient wind s ? Community power was done out in Ft Morgan ,CO til transmission lines came along . ( I see used plastics as ‘ trashure ‘. What we piss away these days of delusional nostalgia .)
    Unlike the earlier respondee I see potential in the town. LOCAL power is where much must be focused in human actiion . All in all a salvageable town . Write about local zoning there as that is the cultural arthritis to be dealt with . In Chicago I see alley garages popping weasel like to sell stuff and to make small kitchen tools . Lots of tall buildings are potential wind farms in an area of ample wind energy . Garage ‘cobbling is where to reinvent local monies / currencies . ( In my former home of Detroit Arab immigrants often recycle garages as ‘ family gathering areas . )
    MORE photo details PLEASE !
    Manure bed gardening is coming back . I spent Summers on a dairy farm near Lake Superior. MY grand folks garden was utterly productive .
    The rail service in your area may depend on a ‘innovative ‘ loco and ‘cars ‘to inter town rail transport ( EG : former school busses on rail / track trucks can haul cargo and people in a pinch BTW former street cars of Detroit showed back up in the 80s as a ‘trolley’ service drew tourists. . Mexico City had them for years for it’s service . Also I rode the last Mexican passenger service -inter-city in the 90s .Small factories using rail hauled shipping containers can help ( see Chicago Center for Green Technology ).
    Local hydro / wood gas generation could make a connected green house feasible for produce Dairy farms nearby ? Potent stuff manure !
    health

    Garden on
    Thoren S.

  11. FUCKYOUJIM July 18, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Jim, I do not know where you get off calling Greenwich “Your Town”. You have pissed a lot of people off that are born and raised here in Greenwich. You might be looking at old mills that yes are run down but you fail to look at the community as a whole! We all love this town that is why we are still here. If you do not like it then LEAVE! We do not want you here talking bad about us! You really have pissed a lot of people off with this article I suggest you keep it to yourself! Have a great life! Watch out for them hoodlums of Greenwich they might get you!

  12. bartdawg37 July 18, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Hello. This article was shared on facebook by some of the town’s 20 somethings. Some of them seem a little angered by your critique of the town we grew up in. While some of your comments have merit, the article in itself seems slightly one-sided and offensive to those who call the town home. I am just curious what you are putting into the community? I can see that you made a garden in your back yard, but why not make a community garden for the town to share? Hopefully, after living in Greenwich and seeing a town that is hurt, you are putting substantial capital and development in the area. I am sure some of the towns youth would love to join in to revitalize with your backing and direction. Please give back to the community instead of solely criticizing, if not you are no better than all those community members that let it (and the community’s youth) go to waste

    -Sincerely a former furtive teenager that burned down one of those factories on the river

    • WD July 18, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      Well said!

    • Cindy Lemaire August 9, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      Criticism is Step One to giving back. You can’t improve a situation unless problems are identified to be avoided in the future.

      I have been reviewing the historic resources inventory of my city, done some 30 years ago. It’s remarkable how much damage has been done in that time: fully 28 percent of the historic buildings have been demolished and another 25 percent have been remodeled to the point that they are no longer recognizable.

      These photos illustrate a city in a better period in its recent past. The mistakes that have been made since have badly degraded the quality of life. Defending those mistakes neither fixes them nor prevents them from happening again–it’s more excuses. We need to acknowledge the problems and chart a better course.

  13. WD July 18, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    First things first, I just wanted to say that this article is a bit insulting to those of us who call this town home and especially to those of us who grew up there.

    You made some decent points, but most of it just sounded like you were ragging on our town for being what it is. The part that gets me most is that you don’t talk about any of the good locations we have in town. You say you live in Greenwich now, so certainly you must know Greenwich has some beautiful scenery and very nice areas to offer. Why did you choose to straight up bash the town with your article? What do you have against Greenwich? And lastly, if you don’t like it, I hope that you just leave and go back to whatever smug town you came from, maybe somewhere that has a little more “decorative decorum” for your tastes.

    We love our town how it is. Those small business’ on Main St. and those rundown factories are a part of our history. Most of us grew up with them around and it was a big part of our lives, aesthetically. It may seem like an eye sore to an out of towner like you, but to us, this is what we call “Home”.

    Go find another town if you don’t like it, because I have news for you buddy, Greenwich is just “A small town on a Saturday night”, and we will stay that way until we are swallowed whole by something bigger than you, me, or any of us.

  14. Karah July 30, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    Wow…now you can add “town full of cowards”.

    :o)

  15. RB August 5, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    The photos are mesmerizing and could be in so many places across the fruited plain. Comments from the locals are also, I think, representative of most people who call America home. They are content with slovenly living; with just getting by; with their latest hit of meth. There is no sense of shame anymore. No pride in anything except our tattoos. You won’t find this sort of crap in much of Europe though it isn’t without problems. But Americans raise the standard of crappiness and wallowing in slop to a new level. We are doomed. Further, we deserve it.

    Get out Jim while you can before the bunch with pitchforks show up and burn you after lynching you.

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  17. BackRowHeckler August 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Hey Jim that town must have been around for awhile because I’ve just read a biography of Washington Irving (a wonderful writer by the way) and his sister lived in Greenwich, NY. He used to visit there in the early 1800s.

  18. craig August 19, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    This article is meaningless, it is written by a guy that has never lived here he has no connection or ties to the area. JIm’s entire career has been built around this make believe, we’re running out of oil, everything sucks fear mongering bull shit.

    In a 2001 you wrote that in the wake of 9/11 the “age of skyscrapers is at an end”, that no new mega-towers would be built, and that existing tall buildings are destined to be dismantled.

    Then the Freedom tower was built. And just 48 such mega towers have been completed since 2001.

    So Jim was only wrong about 49 times but i am sure his statement in 2001 annoyed some people and got him a couple clicks on his website.

    Don’t fret Greenwich this is just another sci-fi writing flatlander trying to be cool in the country.

  19. DanielOney August 28, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    Beautiful and haunting photos. I grew up in a declining railroad town sixty miles north of Dallas. The ruins are very similar but now the downtown has apparently become an artist colony. Close enough to the Metroplex to attract patrons. When I Ieft there was not much for young people unless you were going to work in dad’s law firm or a medical worker in the regional hospital. Katy railroad once employed thousands. I remember falling asleep to the sounds of the workers in the boxcar repair barn. Boom, boom, boom.

  20. eafinct December 8, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    There is a real language issue here, I think. Those of us who admire the architecture and resources available in the small towns built in the 18th and 19th centuries read admiration for the existing infrastructure and grief and sorrow that they are not being utilized to their fullest. Those who are living the current American lifestyle in town read contempt and scorn for their very real struggles to live and raise a family. Is it possible to bridge the gap in the same blog entry? I think Mr. Kunstler believes that strong community ties to the area in which one lives are the only way to survive and thrive in the coming years. So, how to do that, and support the community in positive ways, as one poster suggests above?

  21. Cindy Lemaire August 9, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    I was through there a few years ago when I visited Saratoga Springs. It’s a bit down at heel, but there’s a lot to recommend these places. My husband is from Vermont and I hope I can convince him to retire there, where we can make a real, community-based life.

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