The future looks a little like Poughkeepsie
Eighty-five miles north of New York City, 212 feet above the Hudson River is the unlikely nexus for small-city urban planning.
Until recently, there wasn't much reason to give Poughkeepsie, N.Y., any thought at all. It's like any number of post-industrial Northeastern cities -- Torrington on the Hudson, basically.
The river is its one selling point, and it's a big one. But with the end of major industry, the attraction is recreational more than anything else.
The city's central location on a relatively narrow stretch of river made it a natural choice for the first bridge to span the Hudson. For decades, the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge carried passenger and freight trains from New England to points west by the thousands.
By the time it burned in 1974, the bridge had fallen into disuse, and it marked the end of any freight rail crossings of the Hudson south of Albany, another 75 miles upriver.
That meant anything that needed to be shipped overland to the Northeast was going on a highway -- I-95, in particular. The trend was far in the direction of trucks anyway, but the bridge fire made any other option virtually impossible. That long-discussed multibillion-dollar freight tunnel under New York Harbor is not happening in this lifetime, and feeder-barge service appears dead. So it's all about the highway.
In Poughkeepsie, with a nonfunctioning bridge that would cost millions of dollars to tear down, the region had itself a river-spanning eyesore. The idea to turn the span into a pedestrian pathway took years to gain momentum, but it eventually led to the opening three years ago of the Walkway Over the Hudson.
Rail lines turned to trails are great things. In addition to the recreation, they give a sense of just how wide a railroad network we had in this country before tracks were torn up on the advance of automobiles. Not far from my house is a path that once followed the route of the New York and New England Railroad's Western Extension, which was billed as the only direct connection between Waterbury and Brewster, N.Y. Why anyone would want to go to either of those places is another question altogether, but we can assume there was a certain appeal at one point.
So today, with money from public and private sources, Poughkeepsie and its cross-river neighbor, Highland, have themselves a world-class attraction. The economic benefits are just beginning to be felt. The bridge trail is free, but people have to eat, and history proves people will shop if the opportunity presents itself. The gain for local communities from the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors will be substantial.
Other cities in similar straits, like Bridgeport, can only take so much from this. Not everyone is lucky enough to have an abandoned bridge offering priceless views just waiting to be restored.
But there is that voluminous body of water just to Bridgeport's south, with a few tributaries poking north into the countryside. Long Island Sound and the rivers that feed it offer by far the best chance for the city to use what it has and build toward what it could someday be. There are miles of waterfront to be transformed.
And maybe a new slogan, one that not long ago no one would have thought to take seriously: "Be like Poughkeepsie."