My Town: Piermont & New York City

Illustration by Doug Davis

Editor: This is the sixth in an eight-part series of “My Town” personal essays by NEW MOBILITY readers and freelancers.

Most afternoons you can find my girlfriend, Karen Brown, and me taking Lulu, our 4-year-old standard poodle, for a walk on our village’s pier. It is a glorious place with eye-filling views in every direction.  Because of that pier, they named our hometown Piermont.

The pier is more a peninsula than a wharf, part man-made and part natural, jutting out almost a mile into the Hudson River, which is three miles across here. The Erie Railroad lengthened and widened it in the 1830s and made it its terminal. For thousands of GIs during World War II, it was the last bit of American soil they touched as they boarded ships for the battlefields of Europe.

Walking Lulu there is only one reason we love living here. Another is that we are a mere 15 miles from the George Washington Bridge, our portal to New York City. Like many New York suburbanites, we think of the city as our second hometown.

That’s partly because both Karen and I have lived in the city. She moved to this area as a young mother in the 1960s. I moved to Grand View, which shares a border with Piermont, in 1949, the year I started sixth grade in the Piermont Elementary School. Because my family bought a house a little further north in Nyack, I went to high school there.

College and the service took me away and I lived in city for a while. When I got a job as a reporter on a suburban newspaper, I rented an apartment on Piermont’s Main Street over the now long-gone drugstore. I felt as if I had finally come home. Life moves on, and before too much longer I was married and the father of a baby boy.

We lived in a number of apartments in the area, finally buying a house just to the west of Piermont. I commuted to my job as a reporter for a New York City paper. When it folded, I continued to commute to my new writing job in the city.

Living in the suburbs makes me an aberration. My family has always clung to the city. My great grandparents, grandparents, parents, sister and, until recently, my son, have all lived there. My parents could barely wait until I was out of high school so they could move back into a Manhattan apartment. The sidewalks I roll on there today are the same ones trod on by my ancestors.

Because of a gentle bend in the river, you can’t see New York City from our pier. That’s just as well. We don’t want it intruding on our gentle little community of 2,600. Most of our streets are quiet at night and crime of any sort is rare. On weekends though, especially in warm weather, tourists jam our small downtown.

They come for the same things Karen and I enjoy about the village — river views and art galleries and restaurants. We have at least 10 of those, ranging in style from an Irish pub to a French bistro. One has a downstairs nightclub. Several offer waterside dining and two are gourmet quality, regularly winning top marks from Zagat. On good weather weekends, hundreds of bicycles pass through our village. Many riders start their journey in the city.

It wasn’t always like that here. Until 1981, when I joined the wheelchair world, I was often Piermont’s lone adult bike rider. Our village was a mill town then, with a sprawling cardboard carton factory looming over Main Street. Shortly after I came out of rehab and moved into a new Piermont house, the factory shut down.

Things were bad. Empty stores lined Main Street. Then a remarkable thing happened — Woody Allen decided to shoot his next movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, here. Some wise guys claimed that Woody had to spiff us up to make us look good enough for his Depression-era film. I don’t know about that, but he did pay owners to show the exteriors of their buildings. Most used the dough to make long-delayed improvements.

Meanwhile, the village was developing plans to replace the hulking shuttered factory buildings — and the taxes they paid — with a mixed-use development. The arguments about this raged, but after an election decided the issue, we wound up with a new library, a new river walkway and village square, 227 town houses and condos and 21 affordable apartments.

I got involved in this giant rhubarb through the Piermont Civic Association. Today, I am its president and Karen is its treasurer. I also write articles and take pictures for our newsletter. We go to twice-monthly village board meetings and send news by e-mail to residents. Piermont is not just our hometown; it also is our hobby.

Officials think of me as the village’s unofficial accessibility advocate. I have forced some improvements, but this community never will win any awards for accessibility. That’s because they built much of it on a hillside overlooking the river, and many of its buildings date from the 19th century. Despite all that, it is surprising how many homes of our friends I can visit.

As crazy as I am for Piermont, when I’m rolling through New York City streets in my power chair, I long to live there, too. Maybe it is in my genes, but I can’t seem to get enough of the city’s hurly-burly energy and excitement. No place else has its mix of museums, theaters, concert halls and ballparks. And we use them all.

Both Karen and I love art. We go in to see exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum, the Modern Museum and at other of the big town’s stellar venues. Early on in my crip life it struck me that I was enjoying looking at pictures more from my chair than I had on foot. You can take your time studying a painting sitting down because your legs never get tired.

To my surprise, I found out that it is easier, and often cheaper, for crips to get theater tickets than it is for walkies. Because of that, Karen and I usually see about eight to 10 shows a year. We also go to concerts in Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and never miss a summer performance of the New York Philharmonic in Central Park.

I’ve been a Yankee fan forever, but lately I’ve been avoiding Yankee Stadium. The problem is that from the better crip seats, standing fans block your view when something exciting happens. In the cheaper ones, an overhang blocks your view of pop flies. Things aren’t much better at Shea Stadium, where the Mets play. But I’m looking forward to next year when both teams open new ADA-compliant ballparks.
They’re also building a new football stadium, to be shared by the Jets and our Super Bowl-winning Giants, in nearby New Jersey. The current stadium has a huge wheelchair section with excellent sight lines. What’s more, they give the tickets away to crips. I usually see one Giant game there a season. The new stadium will have integrated accessible seating, and I’ll bet they’ll be charging plenty for those seats.

Although I often fantasize about moving to the city, I know we never will. Part of the reason is that it is very expensive, but even if we could afford it, we would have a very tough time giving up the pleasures of Piermont. And, after all, New York City is just 20 minutes down the road. There’s nothing wrong with having two hometowns, is there?

Bob Samuels is a longtime NEW MOBILITY contributor, having written travel stories and profiles for the magazine since the mid-1990s.

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