Monday, October 25, 2010

'PROGRESS' AND A PLAYWRIGHT


     There is in my county – Rockland – in what just a short 50 years ago was mostly rural land, a slice of leftover heaven. Though within 25 miles of New York City, the absence of interstates and direct rail had until the 1950s kept growth on the other side of the Hudson River. To this place, this country of apple farming since the 1700s, came many artists and writers, who could keep in touch with business/career matters in Gotham and then escape to create in soulful respite. One of these gifted people was John Patrick (Goggan), playwright of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” screenwriter of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and other notable properties.

The author guarded his privacy, and he could do that well, living on more than 200 acres of God’s land in the woods, hills and marsh of the Town of Ramapo, off old State Highways 202 and 306. For a very long time, even as “progress” filled in surrounding acreage, Patrick was able to keep his retreat, and, presumably, his quiet so that “Some Came Running,” “High Society” and “Three Coins n a Fountain” could be written. His lavish parties at the estate, which included stables and farm animals, attracted well-known neighbors like the actor Burgess Meredith.

In time, Patrick would leave, as would Meredith, playwright Maxwell Anderson of South Mountain Road, New City, and so many others. The assumption is Rockland’s loss of innocence had something to do with the exodus.

What seemed heaven-sent, so much open and wooded land, in a place where seasons changed, where long country walks in great quiet could be had for free, was replaced with too-many-to-count housing developments, strip shopping centers, then low-rise and high-rise apartment houses, indoor shopping malls, traffic, congestion, noise and high taxes, all made possible by two interstates and a bridge called the Tappan Zee.

This “progress” surely was that for many, just as 1800s growth on the island of Manhattan gave us part of New York City, enormously influential, enjoyable yet teeming in great emotion with all the elements of human living. Paved over was simplicity, nature’s sounds and the awe of masterful creation, there for the taking by eye, ear and heart.

Now, the same “forward” movement of growth is set to gobble away John Patrick’s farm, which, amazingly, has not yet been developed. And it would not be today, in the stress of the challenged and changing economy. There is little money for more housing, even in such a bucolic setting as Patrick’s retreat. Too many homes are already for sale, too many through foreclosure alone.

The equation here for “progress” is a different formula. Ramapo government is trying to accommodate a religious group that contends it needs God’s bucolic acres for its interpretation of God’s work. So, the acreage, once zoned for homes on two acres, with much of the land held back as flood plain, has been rezoned, and the town Planning Board is probably going to approve 87 single-family homes and 410 multi-family units. Guarding the marsh areas in the aquifer will mean heavy, urban-like density, quite unsuitable for this relatively country-like section of Rockland.

Government is failing to balance the quality for life for all in this rezoning, and the religious group is not seeing the wisdom of building a smaller complex so as to be a better neighbor.

Such a script is part of the “progress” play, for old-time Rocklanders could argue that too many developments replaced the apple farms, or early Manhattanites could contend that their neighborhoods were blitzed for growth. Or our Native Americans could justifiably claim that sacred land was taken from then for the white man’s “progress.”

An old story. One even worthy of a John Patrick theme. Certainly fodder for Maxwell Anderson, whose play “High Tor” detailed growth and consequences, too.

Ironically, it is for the sake of God, or, more exactly, for one people’s view of His call to life on this earth, that “heaven” will transform into what would others would term its opposite.

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