Archive for category Places

Nashville: First impressions

IMG_2455One of the perks of writing about cars is getting invited to different places by car companies to go and drive them. That’s what got me down to Nashville last week.

Nissan held an event in one of the Music City’s nicer suburban neighborhoods, but I also had enough down time to explore some of the city itself.

Visitors often harp on the contrasting elements of cities, and Nashville is anything but homogenous. However, that doesn’t really add much to its charm.

Home base for my two-day stay was the Omni, a brand new hotel abutting a brand new convention center, a new-ish sports arena, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. You’ll never see sidewalks as free of gum and urine stains as the ones that surround this block.

This seems to be the image Nashville is trying to project. Almost everywhere I went, I saw new construction or vacant lots ripe for development. It’s a landscape of avant grade restaurants improbably wedged into industrial ruinscapes.

Yet just a block from the Omni and its pristine sidewalks is Broadway, the heart of Nashville’s tourist district. This is where you’ll find all of the honky tonks, novelty Elvis statues, and cowboy boots you’d expect of the home of country music.

This area is definitely not pristine. Everything’s chintzy, worn in, and a bit dirty, as a stereotypical tourists district should be. It’s also hermetically sealed off from the rest of Nashville.

Tennessee State CapitolHeading further downtown, there wasn’t much else to see. It’s full of buildings, all in good repair, but there’s nothing really there. Maybe I missed something during this admittedly brief visit, but I couldn’t find a reason to stop until I reached the Tennesse State Capitol.

This may have actually been my favorite part of Nashville. The building sits high on the hill with great views, and there’s an epic statue of Andrew Jackson standing over a small memorial containing the remains of James K. Polk, his presidential protege. The symbolism was fantastic.

So while there were many postcard views, Nashville just didn’t seem like a real city. It was decidedly urban, but it’s hard to imagine what people actually do there when the tourists go away.

Or do the tourists just never go away?

Elvis statue in Nashville

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Are you happy, Mitt Romney?

Well, it’s finally happened. Even the unlikely tag team of Eminem and Clint Eastwood, equipped with an unlimited supply of Chryslers, couldn’t stop Detroit from going bankrupt.

The fact that the Motor City is filing for Chapter 9 protection isn’t too surprising, but the fact that things were allowed to get this bad is.

Many factors contributed to Detroit’s decline: the globalization of the auto industry, a shrinking tax base, and corrupt city management. The result is a city that doesn’t just look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it is one.

Detroit has become a city fit for the Road Warrior. Hundreds of buildings are abandoned, authorities can’t even afford to keep all of the streetlights on, and a major international border crossing is owned by some random guy.

How did people let things get this bad? When the photos of eerily abandoned buildings started showing up online, why was no one motivated to do anything? When reports showed that Detroit citizens were waiting almost an hour for police to respond to 911 calls, why was no one shocked that something like this was happening in the United States of America?

Of course, people have thought about it. There have been so many urban renewal projects proposed for Detroit that Popular Mechanics once collected them into a lengthy cover story. Titled “Detroit 2025” it proposed redeveloping the city around its waterfront and building an epic curved bridge to Canada.

However, like most things featured in Popular Mechanics, none of this is anywhere near happening. That would require motivation and money, two things Detroit, and the rest of the country, is short on.

Instead, Detroit is down to weighing the costs and benefits of more basic things, like it’s employees’ pensions.

Saving a city isn’t easy, but it’s still surreal that the story of Detroit is an American story. Who could imagine a city in this great country being reduced to sacrificing basic services, and the contract it made with its employees, just to put together some cash?

This scenario doesn’t require imagination anymore. Maybe it’s finally time for someone to do something.

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A little blue caboose in Grand Central

Metro North cabooseI love finding old things, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this caboose sitting on Track 14 at Grand Central Terminal as I was catching a rush hour commuter train out of New York.

It’s easy to recognize a caboose from children’s books and model train displays, but they’re actually quite rare. They were mobile offices and living quarters for freight train crews, but these days most trains run with two-person crews that can easily be accommodated in a locomotive cab.

Hauling around an extra car that doesn’t produce any money for the company may be romantic, but it doesn’t make business sense.

That makes this caboose a survivor. Perhaps it was forgotten in this dimly-lit corner of Grand Central, or left because it was too difficult to move it through the terminal’s web of tracks to a scrapyard. Maybe it’s been sitting for years, like a time capsule.

Actually, there’s just no point in throwing away something that you still have a use for. Metro North, the commuter rail agency that serves points north and east of New York City, keeps this caboose for physical plant maintenance.

The letters MNCW on the side of the car are the “reporting marks,” basically official initials, used for Metro North’s maintenance equipment. That explains why this caboose isn’t in a museum, and why this freight car is sitting on the platform of one of America’s most famous passenger rail terminals.

It was coupled to some flatcars with garbage dumpsters on them. Apparently, it’s part of a train that hauls trash out of Grand Central.

This old caboose won’t become a subject for moody urban explorer photos just yet, and that’s fine with me. There’s nothing wrong with admiring historic objects for their oldness, but they were designed to serve a purpose, not to be gawked at.

Countless buildings, railroad cars, and other artifacts have outlived their usefulness, but this caboose hasn’t.

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A visit to Governors Island

Governors Island juxtapositionWhen I found out that there was a secret military base within a mile of downtown Manhattan, I couldn’t wait to check it out. Governors Island served as a Revolutionary War fort, a prison, and the headquarters of the U.S. First Army and the regional Coast Guard command. For over 200 years, the Island was closed to the public. A few weeks ago, I finally got a chance to visit. It was not what I expected.

Governors Island became a part of American history on April 9, 1776, when soldiers from the Continental Army arrived to fortify the Island (located at a strategic choke point in New York Harbor) to retard the British attack on New York. Those fortifications evolved into Fort Jay (later renamed Fort Columbus), which still stands today.

The Army also stayed. Governors Island remained a military base from the end of the Revolution through the 19th century. Elihu Root, Secretary of War under President (and native New Yorker) Theodore Roosevelt, ordered the expansion of the Island using fill from the IRT subway system, and it eventually became the headquarters of the United States First Army.

The First Army left in 1966 for Ford Meade, Maryland and Governors Island was taken over by the Coast Guard. The Captain of the Port of New York and command staff for the Coast Guard’s Third District called Governors Island home until 1996, when budget cuts forced the government to leave.Fort Jay

Since it had been continuously occupied by the military since the Revolutionary War, Governors Island was off limits to civilians for over 200 years. That changed in the early 2000s, when the National Park Service rechristened the former base Governors Island National Monument.

It seemed like a great opportunity: a chance to explore a virtually unknown patch of land in the middle of America’s busiest city. I was expecting a combination of earthworks and Cold War-style military buildings, all left just as they were when Governors Island was an active base 16 years ago.

Indeed, Fort Jay and the fort/prison Castle Williams still stand. Many of the old buildings from the Coast Guard era are still there too, but are in the process of being torn down. Some had scorch marks on the windows, and were apparently being used in UL testing.

What was surprising was the crowd. I had underestimated New York’s art and hipster cultures’ ability to rapidly colonize. A unicycle festival and a graphic design exhibit were being held the day I went. People lounged in droves on former parade grounds, in the shadow of Fort Jay’s guns and some contemporary sculptures.

One wouldn’t expect tourists to be that interested in military history, and there are other parks in New York that don’t require a ferry ride to visit. There’s a good reason for that, though: the views.

Governors Island is practically in the middle of New York Harbor, and paved trails encircle it. Walking around the Island, you can see all of Manhattan, along with Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. That alone makes Governors Island worth a visit.

Anyone who isn’t interested in great views of Manhattan had better hurry. Most of the buildings are being demolished to add more park space, so Governors Island will soon lose its military feel. Historic buildings like Fort Jay and Castle Williams will remain, of course.

A prime urban exploration site might be lost, but the unique vantage point of Governors Island is the real story, even if it does attract hordes of unicycle-riding tourists and hipsters. It’s also free, so if you’re in New York and evenly mildly curious, you don’t have much to lose.

The ferry (about a 10-minute ride) leaves from the Battery Marine Terminal, the old building next to the depressingly modern Staten Island Ferry terminal. The latter might be more famous, but Governors Island is much more pleasant.

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History isn’t boring, people are

FDRHistory isn’t boring, unless you make it boring. Last week, I went to FDR’s home in Hyde Park, New York to learn more about America’s only four-term president. I thought it would be cool to see the place where so much history happened firsthand, but that’s not what any of the other visitors seemed to care about.

Most of the people in the tour group were probably old enough to remember Martin Van Buren’s presidency. They must have slept through World War II, because all they cared about were mundane details. Are the palms in front real? (Yes, but they go inside during wintertime). What did the King and Queen of England eat when they visited? (Hot dogs on paper plates). How big was FDR’s stamp collection? (He had 1.2 million stamps).

It saddens (and angers) me when people miss the point of history like this. Yes, FDR was a person like anyone else, but why so much focus on the minutiae of his life? This house is where one of America’s greatest presidents met with world leaders to organize the largest war effort this country has ever undertaken. Who cares about the bloody hot dogs?! Biographers think it’s important to humanize their subjects, but this is ridiculous.

In school, people are taught that there are no such things as dumb questions. I disagree. If you’re in a group of people eager to see a historic site and suddenly have the urge to ask whether the large bell on the porch is the “dinner bell,” maybe you should keep it to yourself.

That’s why I’m proposing what the ad men call a “movement.” We should replace the older tourists at historic sites with young people. They won’t care about minutiae; they’ll be too busy texting. So if anyone comes to one of these sites and actually wants to see it without being bogged down by trivia, they can.

That is the choice we have: hyper-interest or no interest. No wonder people think history is boring.

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Poughkeepsie’s lost railroad

Hospital Branch bridge

The Maybrook Line (future Dutchess County Rail Trail) used to cross the Hospital Branch (below, foreground) on this bridge.

People like to talk about the downfall of American industry, but few of them realize that the remains of its glorious past are still among us. Poughkeepsie, New York used to be a major railroad hub; today it’s a hub for urban decay. While trains still roll north and south along both banks of the Hudson River, there used to be more going on.

The most obvious relic is the Poughkeepsie Bridge, now Walkway Over the Hudson State Park. It used to carry the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad’s “Maybrook Line” from New England across the Hudson to points west and it’s a pretty spectacular hike. However, the Maybrook is not is not the only abandoned railroad in Poughkeepsie.

Poughkeepsie was a meeting point for two mainline railroads, but there was a third, much smaller line sharing the city. The “Hospital Branch” wound its way from the river, up a switchback and through city streets, to the Hudson River State Hospital. The hospital’s power plant received coal by rail, giving the branch its nickname.

The line was constructed around 1873 to connect the Poughkeepsie & Eastern Railroad with the Hudson River Railroad. It ultimately served their successors, the Central New England Railway (later New York, New Haven & Hartford) and New York Central, respectively.

With the Poughkeepsie Bridge, the New Haven already had a heavy east-west freight line, with a lucrative connection to Pennsylvania coal-hauling railroads at Maybrook, New York. The Central New England’s connection with the New York Central at the small riverside yard (still known as “CNE Yard” today) couldn’t compete, and was gradually marginalized.

Nonetheless, Hudson River State Hospital still needed coal, and local industries kept shipping small amounts of freight. The line hung on after its namesake hospital closed, surviving into the 1990s under Conrail.

When Conrail’s New York state lines were taken over by CSX in 1999, the new management wanted to divest itself of the Hospital Branch. There was a short-lived attempt to revive the line as the New York & Eastern Railroad, but political opposition killed it before any trains could run.

Maybrook Line roadbed

The Maybrook Line roadbed crosses over the Hospital Branch just east of the Poughkeepsie Bridge.

CSX received permission to abandon the Hospital Branch in 2005, and the rails were lifted. The City of Poughkeepsie is currently seeking funds to turn the four-mile line into a rail trail.

Downtown Poughkeepsie isn’t the most scenic place to ride a bike, but the Hospital Branch should attract plenty of ghost train hunters. No visible work on the branch has been done, but the roadbed is still intact and walkable.

The Hospital Branch forms a large “T,” running north-south from Smith Street to the Hudson River State Hospital. It crosses under the former New Haven Maybrook Line (soon to be Dutchess County Rail Trail) just east of the parking lot for the Poughkeepsie Bridge/Walkway Over the Hudson.

At the Hospital, the line goes down a switchback to reach the river. The spot where the roadbed diverges from the active Metro North/Amtrak line just north of Poughkeepsie station can be seen clearly from the bridge.

Amtrak and Hospital Branch

An Amtrak Empire Service train heading southbound into Poughkeepsie. The Hospital Branch curves to the right just above the locomotive.

The last mile or so of roadbed between the bridge and the current end of the rail trail is being paved, and when it’s finished it will cross over the Hospital Branch just as the Maybrook Line freight trains once did. For now, the roadbed is still passable, and the former connection with the Hospital Branch is only a short hike from the Walkway parking area. A wye track used to connect the two lines, but modern explorers will have to climb down the embankment from the former Maybrook Line and walk under the bridge to reach the Hospital Branch.

Those willing to make the trek will find a forgotten piece of history. It’s still an overgrown railroad right-of-way running through some seedy neighborhoods, so if you go, keep your wits about you. Also, watch out for broken glass: teenagers and homeless people like to use this secluded site for late night drinking.

Local police probably won’t appreciate trespassing, but the former railroad is pretty well hidden. Hudson River State Hospital is a historic site in its own right, but it is heavily surveilled.

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A visit to Nuclear Lake

Nuclear Lake Pawling NYChernobyl is now a tourist destination. Tour groups escorted by Geiger counter-wielding guides can explore the ghost city of Pripyat, which has been empty since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. However, you don’t need to fly to Ukraine to see the site of a nuclear accident (albeit, a much smaller one). All you have to do is walk the Appalachian Trail in upstate New York.

Nuclear Lake in Pawling, NY was the site of a small laboratory run by the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC). The facility was built in 1958; it was privately run but licensed by the government to work with weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. It included a “Critical Building,” which housed a reactor, and a “Plutonium Building” where tests were conducted.

In 1972, a chemical explosion released plutonium dust into the air, ultimately spelling the end for research at the site.

With the whole area contaminated with radioactive dust, the facility closed in 1973. Inspections of UNC’s records also raised fears that the corporation was dumping radioactive waste into the lake. A 1975 cleanup effort rendered the site safe, according to federal inspectors.

In 1979, the National Park Service bought Nuclear Lake and 1,100 surrounding acres for $1 million, with the intention of rerouting the Appalachian Trail through the site and away from local roads. Tests of the site in 1984 indicated only background levels of radiation.

Today, Nuclear Lake doesn’t look like a mini Chernobyl. In fact, the lake is one of the most beautiful sites on the Trail in New York. I saw plenty of flora and fauna, and none of it appeared to be mutated.Nuclear Lake Pawling NY 2

Urban explorers looking for an abandoned nuclear plant will be disappointed; the buildings were demolished during the 1980s trail construction. The only indication that this beauty spot was anything other than a placid lake is a small patch of concrete where the “Plutonium Building” once stood, and a clearing.

Nuclear Lake is a short roundtrip from the small parking area where the Appalachian Trail crosses Route 55 in Pawling (follow the trail from the parking lot side of the road). The undulating terrain makes for an interesting but manageable hike. Just watch out for mutants.

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Cape Cod oddities: Jenny Lind Tower and North Truro Air Force Base

Jenny Lind TowerVisitors to Truro, one of the towns on the outer edge of Cape Cod, are in for an unusual sight, if they know where to look. If they’re not too distracted by the view of the Atlantic Ocean, they might notice what looks like a giant chess rook and golf ball standing in a field near the Highland lighthouse.

The stone tower, which stands 70 feet tall and looks like it was taken from a European castle, is actually part of a train station. It was one of two towers from the Fitchburg Railroad depot in Boston, and is known to Cape Codders as the Jenny Lind Tower.

Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” gave a concert in the auditorium above the station in 1850. Legend has it that Lind sang from the top of the tower to quell an angry mob of people who couldn’t get tickets.

The story may be fake, but it was enough to convince one of Jenny’s fans, Henry M. Aldrich, to save the tower when the station was demolished in 1927. The tower was transported stone by stone and reassembled in Truro.

The land the tower sits on later became part of the North Truro Air Force Station. Constructed shortly after World War II, the site was part of the Air Defense Command (ADC). North Truro’s radar units (including the large golf ball-shaped array next to the Jenny Lind Tower) scanned the skies for incoming Soviet bombers, an important task during the paranoid Cold War years.

With the Cold War over, most of the base was decommissioned in 1994. However, the radar installation still functions was part of the Federal Aviation Administration/NORAD Joint Surveillance System, routing information to FAA and Air Force control centers.

The radar unit is unmanned, so the rest of the base has been abandoned since 1994. It sits on the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the National Park Service is trying to develop it for community use as the Highlands Center. Until then, the old buildings will be a great spot for urban exploring.

To get a closer look at these architectural oddities, take Route 6 to North Truro and look for the Highland Light exit. Turn right onto Highland Road, make another right onto South Highland Road, and then make a left onto Old Dewline Road.

The Jenny Lind Tower and North Truro Air Base radar can also be seen from the Highland Lighthouse, especially if you climb to the top of the 66 foot tall tower!

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Finding Kurt Vonnegut’s Saab dealership

Kurt VonnegutGreat minds sometimes need not-so-great jobs to pay the bills. Herman Melville worked in a customs house, Einstein in a patent office. For Kurt Vonnegut, this cruel practicality came in the form of a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. I’m a huge Vonnegut fan (this blog is named after the fictional city of Ilium, New York, where many of his stories take place), and as a writer on all things automotive, I had to know more.

Vonnegut started selling Saabs in 1957. He thought the dealership would be an easy way to make money while he concentrated on his writing. Unfortunately, the cars were difficult to sell, as Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country. 

“The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two door sedan, but with the engine in front, It had suicide doors opening into the slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas, you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.”

Since no one could remember to add oil to their Saabs’ fuel, the cars had limited appeal. Running the Saab store also cost more than Vonnegut expected: Saab forced him to buy his inventory and pay for ads in local newspapers. Consequently, the dealership closed the same year. Vonnegut said that he would never win a Nobel Prize because of his hatred of the cars.

Saab was still in business when I started looking for Vonnegut’s store, but there were no dealers on Cape Cod. The trail went cold, until I found this link, which shows the exact location of the former Saab of Cape Cod.

Vonnegut used to sell Swedish cars out of a small stone building with a curved roof, off Route 6A in Barnstable, the next town over from Hyannis and the Kennedy Compound. The building sits unused amid a small cluster of other buildings on a relatively quiet stretch of a road that carries thousands of tourists every year.

I made the pilgrimage to Vonnegut’s Saab dealership last year on a family trip to the Cape. After almost missing the nondescript building, my brother and I jumped out of the car, touched a copy of Player Piano to the wall, and took a few photos. We’d been coming to the Cape for years, and had probably passed the former Saab store many times, but we had finally found it.Saab of Cape Cod

If you want to visit a car dealer owned by a literary legend, find your way onto Cape Cod via the Sagamore Bridge. After crossing the bridge, you’ll be on Route 6, the main highway that runs the length of the Cape. Exit to get on 6A heading toward Barnstable and points east. As you drive through the West Barnstable, the building will be on your right, just past the intersection of 6A (Main Street) and Parker Road.

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A (railroad) bridge to nowhere

NY&NE bridge piers Southbury, CTYou never know where you’re going to find industrial ruins. A narrow road winding along the Housatonic River in picturesque Southbury, Connecticut seems like the last place to look, yet some man-made construction still mingles with the scenery. If you drive down the appropriately named River Road, you’ll find two stone piers rising from the water. These towers hold a phantom railroad bridge.

This is where the New York & New England Railroad once made its way from Providence, Rhode Island to the Hudson River.

Today, I-84 is the most direct way to get from New York to points east, because it cuts diagonally across Connecticut. In the 19th century, railroad builders sought an east-west route across the Nutmeg State for the same reason. However, Connecticut’s topography got in the way. The state is full of rivers that run north-south, creating hills and valleys that are difficult to cross.

That didn’t stop the builders of the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad from trying it. Construction began in 1847, but the extension from Waterbury, CT to the Hudson wasn’t finished until 1881. By that time, the HP&F had been taken over by the more impressive-sounding New York & New England.

The hilly route, including a very steep grade out of Waterbury, was never profitable. The NY&NE was absorbed by its arch rival, the New Haven, in 1895. The latter controlled most of the rails in Connecticut, and almost immediately bypassed the Waterbury-Southbury portion. The New Haven only used the westernmost portion (Danbury-Hopewell Junction and Beacon, New York) of its former competitor, so it could reach the massive bridge over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, NY.NY&NE Southbury bridge from River Road

The rails from Southbury to Waterbury were lifted in 1937; the rest, including this bridge, went in 1948. Today, that’s not very surprising. Even with I-84 less than a mile away, this site is pretty rural. The road that runs underneath the bridge’s east abutment is so narrow that there’s hardly room to pull over. It’s hard to imagine a freight train sailing over people’s houses and disturbing the peace in this neighborhood.

The stone bridge piers probably couldn’t support a modern freight train anyway, but they have weathered time pretty well. The fact that they are so out-of-the-way is probably the only reason that no one has tried to take them down. Sixty-four years after the trains stopped running, the bridge is still here (sort of). Sometimes it’s good to keep things hidden.

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