Sunday, August 8, 2010

Local identity

    It’s Rockland County, this place from which I write, this land north of New York City. It is not the Carolinas. Not Boston. Not San Francisco. Not Europe or Asia or South America. Or the Bronx or Brooklyn or Manhattan. Not even New Jersey, our closest relative.  It’s this special, unique place, defined by and for the individuals who live here. Whatever each of us finds pulling about this county is in that mix of emotion, personal attachment, gathered history and the sinew of having so far survived suburbia.
    
 Rockland helped define suburbia. As with Long Island’s famous Levittown, this county quickly built suburbia’s framework – in hundreds of housing developments since 1950; in civic associations that gave voice (sometimes loud) to former, once-living-in-anonymity Gothamites; in greater diversity in a region known for its varied mix since the 1600s; in added national infrastructure like the Thruway, Palisades Interstate Parkway, and, of course, the Tappan Zee Bridge; and in the growth -- the constant growth -- of everything, from government to schools to the tax load.
     
Has the trip been worth it so far? Yes … and … no. There are few Rocklanders who do not pine for some of the so-called “good, old days,” who would not take less traffic; a generally friendlier attitude from people; no air, visual or noise pollution from the Palisades lnterstate; more green space; fewer-filled in floodplains; our farms returned; downtowns restored; unlocked doors; less government; simplicity.
    
 It’s the nature of things to look back
wistfully, and even a Rocklander of a few
years’ residency can and does that. Take a
countyite of 75 years' duration or one
whose family dates back to the I600s, and
you really intensify the feeling. But we all
know that “progress” stops for no one,
and no change is entirely welcome.
     
That said, I would not trade my existence here in Rockland for any other spot that I have visited. This is a county of great variety in its people, groups and geography, and you have only to reach out
to touch some of it. Walk South Mountain
Road on a foggy morning; climb High Tor in
the fall; take the Hook Mountain path in the
summer; sail the Hudson; traipse through
downtown Suffern with the Ramapos in the
distance; look at the beauty of some of the
old custom-built homes on South Madison
Avenue in Spring Valley; hike the Dunderberg; bike through Tomkins Cove; spend an early morning on
Camp Hill Road in Pomona.
    
 Attend some function sponsored by our many caring agencies; go to an art show; hear and see
local performers; recognize the work of our many volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps people and others; realize how, in a pinch, even complaining Rocklanders help each other.
     
Yes, we are a busy place, sometimes too
fast-paced, too impersonal, too abrupt, even arrogant and cold. But this Rockland is also a mix of many interesting people with varied outlook and diverse background.
     
That is how it is in Rockland today; that is it was in
1798, and is one of the reasons more sedate, more countrified, Iess slower-paced Orange County was willing to let us go that year as we formed this county of Rockland.
    
 Our die was cast the moment the first
settler realized we were close to the great
port of New York. We are not the city by far, but
we are influenced by it, then, now and forever. We also exert influence, and even the most brusque former urbanite gets his edges polished and becomes this different breed called Rocklander.
     
Here’s an example of a Rocklander couple, Betsy and Jim Miller. They wrote me at The Journal-News to tell us of the old days in this county. “Many years ago,” they said, “when we had goats, chickens, etc., the schools used to make the property their yearly trip. 
We taught children to feel a warm egg, freshly laid, and they learned to get a squirt of milk from a goat and about nature.”
    
 Such description of an earlier time in Rockland speaks to the “quiet” of those days. Once, the close, personal family touch was more evident. 
    
 In my own youth, the Rockland neighborhood of the 1940s and 1950s, there was Spring Valley's John Romaine, a radio and TV expert, running projectors at the Hillcrest Firehouse during holidays so the area
youths could see cartoons and other films. He also had a small theater in his Locust Street home. There have been and are individuals in Rockland who care enough about their neighbors to do something for them. They should continue to be heard, for they speak eloquently.
    
 You define someone who lives in Rockland as either a countyite -- a “Rocklander” actually --  or someone who is just passing through, who may pick up some of our mannerisms but who simply wants to move on, who never really invests faith and emotion in this county. Make your choice. And be proud of the town, village or hamlet where you reside if you stay.
   
  No “community” can be called such unless it has residential interest. I’m old enough to have lived in pre-Tappan Zee Bridge, Thruway and Palisades lnterstate Parkway Rockland, and in those semi-rural days you were damn happy to call yourself a Valleyite or a Nyacker, Stony Pointer, Haverstrawite, Piermonter, Suffernite or whatever. Even in really countrified areas like Stony Point, there were geographical subsets, and termed yourself a Tomkins Cover or a Grassy Pointer.
     
The late James Farley, the famous organizer of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two presidential campaigns and the former postmaster general, never forgot that he came from Grassy Point. Rockland, yes. Stony Point, yes. But Grassy Point in particular. The air is a bit different there, you see, by the high tide and the lowlands on the Hudson River. A little different, you see, than living up in the hills off Franck Road.
     
Now, in this busy land we call Rockland, in a new century, so many residents just pass through. They are transferred here. They move from urban areas to seek a quieter lifestyle. They plan to reside here for a time and then retire to the Carolinas, along a golf course. That’s OK, and may they have a beautiful life, but while these people are here they ought to get to know their host. Rockland is the host. Specifically, a town, village or hamlet is the host. Live on Germonds Road? Then don't say you reside in New City. You exist, for a time anyway, in the hamlet of Germonds. Go to school at  Rockland Community College? That's not in Suffern; it’s in the hamlet of Viola. Call the Clarkstown police for information? Well, you are calling the police department, not the “local police precinct,” as one
Journal News reader put it to me. Likewise, it’s village hall, town hall or the county seat at New City, but not “city hall.”
    
 And, speaking of New City, though that's where the courthouse, Legislature and many executive county offices are located, it is merely a hamlet, not 
even a village and certainly not a city.
     
lf you run a business, put the name of your community on the truck. Tradesmen were once quite proud to include the community location. Now we see merely a cell phone number or an e-mail address.
     
 Why harp on this loss of identity? Because if we do not make an effort to know the area in which we live, we become disconnected automatons. We might as well be living anywhere. We work, come home to sleep in a development, go to malls (which are about the same everywhere) and never realize that each of Rockland's areas has uniqueness.
     
This Rockland is different, just as any area has its characteristics; revel in them. Our county is chock-full of history, far example. It is where the plan to end the Revolutionary War at Yorktown was hatched by Gen. George Washington (at Tappan); it is where this nation received its first gun salute from the British (at Piermont); it is the site of the first national railroad, the old Erie out of Piermont; it has figured in every major war; and its karma is such that no matter what happens in a big way nationally or internationally, there is usually a Rockland connection.
    
 People ought to live where they want and for as long as they like. And you do not have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Rocklander, shouting “rah, rah” every time the name is mentioned, but if you live here, even for just a few months, get to know where you are, who you are.
     
You are a Rocklander; you are a Dutchtowner or Montebelloite or Garnerviller or Snedens Landingite or Pearl Riverite or (fill in the blank). You are not just someone who lives “upstate” or “near New York City.” 
     
Cherish this Rockland.

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