Benjamin Swett’s new book takes a personal and poetic look at the historic roadway that traverses the eastern Hudson Valley
One day, while driving along Route 22 in New York State, photographer Benjamin Swett had a sudden realization. There was a startling difference between the 21st-century landscape he saw from his car, and the romanticized image of the state that he recalled from childhood trips and the stories he’d read by authors like James Fenimore Cooper. Swett decided to rediscover the region; with no particular plan, he set out on a sporadic journey (undertaken between 1998 and 2000) to explore Route 22, a 350-mile highway stretching from New York City to Montreal, on the east side of the Hudson River.
The resulting book, Route 22 (Quantuck Lane Press, $35), is more than just a standard road-trip guide or memoir. Juxtaposed with 90 of his evocative black-and-white photos, Swett’s text rises to the level of poetic narrative: It touches on history, the essence of change, nature, modern society, and even his own midlife journey. With humor and tenderness, the author describes the sometimes quirky, sometimes inspiring, people and places he comes across. “In some ways, yes, it was a journey of personal discovery as much as discovery about Route 22 itself,” says Swett, a Manhattan resident and former director of the Parks in Print program for the New York City Parks Department. The upstate adventure was documented using two cameras: a 35-millimeter as well as a medium-format Hasselblad.
During his sojourn, Swett spoke with farmers and artists, waitresses and business owners all along Route 22. “I definitely had the theme of change in my mind when I started the project,” he says. He was intrigued, he explains, by “the enormous changes that have taken place along Route 22 over the past 300 to 400 years. I saw both the good and the bad of contemporary society.”
Sadly, some of those changes weren’t for the better: “I felt a sense of loss for some of the towns that fell on hard times long ago and still haven’t recovered.” But on a brighter note, “Route 22 travels through some absolutely beautiful rural areas,” Swett notes. “And a lot of the people I met who live there are doing creative things. They have a sense of possibility. There’s a lot that’s positive.”
The following excerpts from Route 22 recount some of Swett’s stops in the mid-Hudson area.
At Bijan Mahoodi’s sculpture yard, in Austerlitz, I stopped to photograph Bijan polishing one of the whimsical steel structures that amuse drivers as they pass. I had called Barbara Arpante, Bijan’s girlfriend, to make the appointment, and I spent a long time with him. It was strange seeing the place in the broad afternoon light after having seen it before only at dusk. The light was too strong but the grasshoppers were going like mad and the air had that searing brightness of the time of day when people become sleepy and there is still possibility.
Roughly two-thirds of Route 22… follows a longitudinal furrow in the New York landscape known from Dutch times as the Harlem Valley. Down this indentation drovers prodded herds of cattle to New York City for the slaughter… Cattle not only helped create this southern stretch of Route 22 but also contributed, in a different way, to the economy of the region through which it passes. While New York State as a whole seems particularly well suited to dairy farming, the extension of the train line north through Brewster in the 1850s and Gail Borden’s invention, at about the same time, of a process to condense milk commercially opened up immense new markets for Harlem Valley milk and helped turn the region into a kind of mammary gland for New York City and the nation… To this day, at least along the northern parts of this southern section of Route 22, traffic is still stopped by boys herding cows for the evening milking.
My grandmother, who still lived in northern Westchester, just off Route 22 in Goldens Bridge, was expecting me for lunch. She sat at her usual end of the table, with its view down the field to the pond, and fed me her usual meal of raw hamburgers, Dubonnet, and salad. She was eighty-nine, and had recently been told by the man to whom she had sold the house after my grandfather died that she had to leave… She had lived in the house for thirty-three years.
At Wingdale, I pulled in to the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center but the place was empty… DANGER. KEEP OUT. HAZARDOUS AREA, read a sign on the door of one of the buildings. The paint on the door was flaking off, Queen Anne’s lace shot up from cracks in the steps, and untrimmed bushes smothered the railings. Except for the cars passing by on Route 22 all was silent. As a child driving by, I had wondered what went on behind those barred windows, beneath those overhanging trees. It was one of the places you passed on Route 22. Now I would never find out. As it turned out, the state of New York had closed the psychiatric center in 1994. A developer bought the property in 2003 and planned a new community for empty nesters and young couples without children. There was to be a new main street, stores, and a golf course, all within walking distance of the Metro-North train line.
I… got back on Route 22 and continued north to the Watchtower Education Center in Patterson. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had recently completed this new facility, designed to promote global Bible instruction and train missionaries. When my wife and I had driven by a decade earlier, it was still a farm. I parked in a clean new lot and crossed a bright turnaround where a couple of tour buses idled. Inside the lobby, Austrians of all ages mingled in family groups… I picked up some brochures for further study, made use of the bathroom, and headed back to my car. As I was crossing the turnaround, one of the Austrians… noticed the doors of one of the buses closing. Panicked, apparently, at the thought that the bus might drive off without him, leaving him alone so far from home, without a ride in the vast midday of Patterson, he broke into a run.