One of the most unusual and insightful sources we used for our book Croton Point Park: Westchester’s Jewel on the Hudson, was a slim green volume published in 1931 and entitled East of the Hudson.
A Henry David Thoreau-esque paean to the great outdoors, it was written by the then-unknown but soon to become extremely influential New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson.
In it, Atkinson outlined his arrival in Manhattan as a dewy-eyed newspaperman wannabee. He describes the hustle and bustle of the city, its characters and its buildings, its modernity and history crushed side by side.
It’s written floridly, with hyperbole and self-consciousness cheek by jowl – to wit, please enjoy the opening paragraph of the chapter entitled “We Were Rivermen”:
For unnumbered centuries nature had been sorely tried to give New York a heroic setting. Volcanic welding, glacial scouring, vast elevation of the land, a stupendous fracture in the Earth’s surface and wind and water erosion had wrought the Palisades and the Hudson gorge. We were rivermen. We lived in river weather and in the midst of river bustle.
Atkinson goes on to sketch the history of the Hudson River Valley, and gradually travels upriver to satisfy both his desire to research the area and to surround himself with the nature he craves. It seems he would regularly take the train north and immerse himself in all the river had to offer:
Within convenient distances of New York City there were several villages where the Hudson’s jurisdiction was uncommonly strong. Piermont, for example, grew scarcely a breath that was free of Hudson vapor. It was Alpine scenery. The single track railroad hugged the Ridge and leaned timidly uphill; so defiantly had the Village dug its heels against the grade that I imagined there must be more altitude than breadth in the Piermont mind . . .
When I went there, I was plunged into the country as soon as the train rolled around the curve, for wood thrushes, orioles, catbirds and vireos lived close by the station and sang in the elms that dripped their branches over the track. 600 feet above the river, a bridle path on the brow of the ridge connecting Piermont with Nyack and Hook Mountain ran almost all the way through woods and open pastures and through one fine hemlock grove beside a stream. There the hooded warbler lived every summer singing vigorously and flitting like a flake of gold through the trees; the yellow breasted chat, the indigo bunting, and the black-throated green warbler imparted their own characters to this region.
But the most interesting chapter to me is the one titled simply “Croton Point.” If you can get past the striving prose, Atkinson paints a nice picture of what Croton Point looked like in the 1930s:
The footing was firm on Croton Point. With a lever long enough, I could have moved the world from there – if I had wanted to. But the tranquility of the noon times I spent loitering on the tip of that bit of land did not suggest heroic enterprises; It drew me unaccountably into the grand harmony of the Hudson country . . . Especially in the winter, I loved to sit in the lee of the bush-woven bank while the ice crunched along the shore and the sunlight glittered on a great ice barrier and the river tossed into pitiless foam. I was a contemporary. The glacial boulders were my colleagues . . .
Probably the charm of Croton Point lay in its isolation from the main shore. You came to it over smoke-belching railroad yards at Harmon, passing a stinking public dump and a miniature beach resort. Once you had gone through the fence, you were as far from the city as need be. Stretching a mile and 1/2 into the Hudson, Croton Point marked the north of Tappan Zee and the south of Haverstraw Bay. Between the Point proper and the shore was a great reed swamp in which, at high tide, broad creeks round a graceful pattern and bore on their placid surfaces the evanescent impress of the sky.
Vivid as were the facts of Croton Point, they did not lay hold of my affections. What drew me to it most strongly was the sense of mystery pervading every beach and bank, and I fairly ached to know all about it . . . Croton Point had an individual culture; like the country to which it was attached, it had gone through innumerable incarnations of which the more recent were easy to read. The fine Italian villa on [Teller’s] Point, surrounded with lawns fringed by oaks, elms, birches and maples. The three brick wine cellars dug into the hill; the rotted posts of a crumbled dock; the two brick tenements; the overgrown causeway through the swamp; the worn clusters of bricks strewn across the beach to hold the sand in place — were remnants of the last period when Doctor Underhill lived there and the brickyards were firing up day by day a mile over the swamps to the north. The game warden, who was born on the Point, who had farmed in the central fields and fished with seines in Ossining Bay remembered those rural and industrial days; and the records of that culture were numerous all through the land – weatherbeaten, overrun with wild honeysuckle — a pale record of humanity.
Not that life on the Point had always been so pale . . . You could walk hardly a rod in any direction without crunching Indian relics under your heels. For once it was not Croton Point merely, but Senasqua where the Kitchawans lived in a large village perched on the sandy pine-clad plateau on the neck. By the vast numbers of oyster shell heaps strewn thick and deep all along the riverfront, I judged that Croton Point must have been the liveliest when the Kitchawan inhabited it.
He continues on for several more pages (of which I will spare you), giving a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Point from the time of the earliest people, through Henry Hudson’s voyage upriver in 1609, through the Revolution, etc.
But what I find most fascinating is how similar things are today – okay, so there isn’t a “miniature beach resort” or “Indian relics” crunching under your heels, but I can see today’s Croton Point in this little chapter.
My favorite thing about it, in fact, is how he chooses to end the chapter – “When I was desperate for companionship, I came to Croton Point to be alone” – a clear nod to his idol, Thoreau, and really, how I came to love the Point in the depths of the COVID pandemic.
And Brooks Atkinson is once again in the news, since it has been announced that the Broadway theater that has borne his name since 1960, will be renamed the Lena Horne in November 2022.
Now, the naming of things – streets and theaters for example — encapsulates a moment in time and tells us who and what a society thought was important.
But as with literature, painting and music, there’s a time stamp on those we admire. Tastes change, attitudes evolve, and things are forgotten and so become meaningless. Think about the name of the high school you attended, or the name of the street you grew up on – if it was named after a person, did you even know who they were? I’m sure this is not going to be a popular opinion, but I think once names have passed from relevance and the accomplishments of the person have been forgotten, it’s probably time for a renaming.
Today, most people don’t know what an influential theater critic Atkinson was, or that he was a reporter in China during World War II, or that he won a Pulitzer in 1947 for his work as correspondent in Moscow, or that he wrote for the New York Times from 1922 to 1960.
Most people don’t know that he was a champion of experimental theater, interested in off-Broadway before that was fashionable, traveling all over the eastern seaboard to see the exciting, the new, the unusual. Atkinson was one of the first critics to appreciate Eugene O’Neill, Orson Welles, and others who were upending the old ways and bringing in a fresh new perspective.
And even the hardest core theater person likely has no idea that a young J. Brooks Atkinson wanted to be his generation’s Thoreau and traversed the lower Hudson Valley looking for inspiration and the meaning of life.
So, though I find it a bit bittersweet, it’s time to move on, and for the Brooks Atkinson Theater to be renamed the Lena Horne.
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