America On The Hudson

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Where large bodies of soldiers gather, camp followers appear. The camp followers flooding Hudson encamped in Diamond Street, and there they and their successors prospered, serving makers of cement, farm equipment, steam and fire engines, railroad wheels, blinds, and doors, whose doings boomed when Pennsylvania crude oil ended whaling. There were also pleasure seekers coming down from Albany during legislative sessions and others up from Manhattan on the Hudson River Day Line steamers advertised as floating palaces, sports headed to play the ponies at Saratoga, and, once college boys acquired flivvers, young gentle- men from Yale visiting Vassar girls in Poughkeepsie and then going upriver for brief Hudson halts. The city’s destiny was set. (The most recent book on Hudson is Diamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District , by Bruce Edward Hall.)

A few New Yorkers discovered they could buy a house for peanuts that would look at home on Beacon Hill. Bang!

These were no elegant bordellos or carriage-trade sporting houses. It was mass-market stuff, and by 1887 Hudson was being called the most lawless city on the river. What Hudson’s police commissioner denounced in 1912 as “disorderly houses … running openly and flaunting their vice” today look very much as they did in the crinoline days, and in the flower-tray hat and bustle days, and in the cloche hat and bobbed-hair days, and in the housedress days: drab, mean, dreary. The Street, as it was known, or the Block (actually it was five or six blocks) had none of Hudson’s furbelows, its varying lintels, cornice trim, detailed doors, eyebrow windows, fanlights, mansard roofs, dormer windows, gables. … ( The New York Times a few years ago declared the city a “treasure of architecture,” and practically half the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.)

The women who were Hudson’s “most valuable assets,” as the author Bruce Edward Hall terms them, lived lives apart. You never saw them in upper Warren Street’s multitude of stores; the shopkeepers went to the houses to take orders. A Hudsonian named Mary Wallenbeck remembers asking her mother why there were so many out-of-town cars at night with men asking directions. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” she was told. When Mary was in New York City studying nursing, the papers headlined stories about one of her hometown’s periodic anti-vice campaigns, with mass indictments of cops and officials; like every other respectable young woman for five or six generations back, she never said she was from Hudson (“I live near Albany”). Hudson boys of both world wars got used to being asked if they were from the “whore town.”

In the years during and just after World War II, the city was as prosperous as in the whaling days. You could barely make your way along upper Warren Street during Christmas week for all the other shoppers from town and the surrounding countryside. The Block expanded into gambling and drinking to go with its primary activity. There were horse parlors and roulette wheels and 65 saloons to 20 churches. Then everything fell apart. A great New York State Police raid garnered national attention, the famed broadcaster Walter Winchell castigating a “little Las Vegas,” while teenagers kicked out of their homes by families unable to feed too many kids were learning in the postwar prosperity that there were better ways to earn a living than on the Block.

The houses shut down. And Hudson went into a decades-long decline. It wasn’t just the end of large-scale prostitution. As in a thousand other little cities, the suburbs began draining people away; factories transferred operations to the South; strip-mall discounters out in what used to be cherry orchards forced the closing of generations-old shops; people went to the big Wal-Mart.

So there came a time when a car could shoot down dilapidated Warren Street at 60 miles an hour with little chance of a mishap, for there was no one with whom to collide. Houses went unpainted, and the interiors of the boarded-up shops were wreathed in dust. I remember visiting junk stores for fifth-hand stuff to furnish a little for-rent summer cottage I owned in the mid-1970s, and stuffing an ancient green velvet couch into my station wagon along with battered chairs and a speckled mirror. I gave a pass to eating at a dreary lunch counter or in a dubious-looking fried-chicken joint. Hudson was dead. The occasional tourist dropped by to visit Olana, the artist Frederic Church’s Moorish-Victorian fantasy just outside town, or, less frequently, a museum of firefighting.

Then came a change no less phenomenal than when the Proprietors had taken over little Claverack Landing. A handful of New York City people discovered they could ride the train up along a river of unparalleled views in all seasons and for peanuts buy Warren Street houses that when fixed up would look completely at home on Beacon Hill, in Georgetown, or in Greenwich Village. To keep busy, and no doubt for tax reasons, the buyers began to set up little downstairs weekends-only antiques stores. The first one, Alain Pioton’s Hudson Antiques Center, started up 20 years ago. It rented out booths to dealers who soon began opening shops of their own.