Born and raised amid the highrises of Harlem and Queens, there was a time in my younger years when I thought that New York City was the center of the world, that one could only be happy amid the jarring, smoky, cacophonous heavy metal clamor of dense street life, its concrete playgrounds, an insistent jazz pumping in the veins. We were by default the greatest; we were daily survivors of Megalopolis. I believed that non-New Yorkers were some mere vegetable form of human, agreeable and sappy, too dulled or made inferior by non-urban living. This is urban provincialism at its worst; ignorance of small town/rural life made New Yorkers like me arrogant and full of ourselves.
But, had I allowed it to seep into consciousness, parallel to my identified city self there existed a wildly different version of me, an Anne of Green Gables, who might walk miles to school on a country lane, and know absolutely everyone in the town. I’d known nothing of life in small town communities, so I lived on children’s literature and fantasies. As a girl, I entertained extremely romantic notions of country life. I longed to be Dorothy of Kansas, if only to sit on a haystack, tap a branch against a picket fence as I walked, fall into piles of autumn leaves, and have a dog. I had this child’s notion that horses (male) married cows (female) and had sheep for children. My girlhood fantasy was to marry an English professor in a small village, who wore tweed jackets with elbow patches, who thoughtfully held a cherry-scented pipe and taught poetry in a nearby college, and he lived with an Irish setter on a rural lane in a bungalow, – neither an elevator nor parking garage in sight.
Then at 17, I went to college over 200 miles from NYC, far enough from the magnetic tug of Gotham. It gifted me with an irrevocable change of perspective. And though I returned to the city for a time, the pastoral and small town experience never left me. What had seemed so exotic became a living dream for the other part of what I wanted in my life. I longed for broad and green fields, the rhythmic chirping of evening crickets, and the astounding possibility of knowing one’s neighbors.
I became a New York city escapee. It was my pleasure to move to Amherst 35 years ago. And while I didn’t start life as a New England small town girl, much of the pleasure and deep satisfaction I derive from living here come from tapping into those early dreams. I love the hybrid, balanced quality of urbane and pastoral, book and plow, the gift of eclecticism and intellectual stimulation in arts and sciences, polyglot exchanges, and yet still have the ability to know brooks and trails and town common, experiencing almost everything at ground level. More than that, Amherst is not a figment of my girlhood imagination, but a real place.
I am concerned about the high-rising of Amherst, the manic addition of obtrusive new structures in tight spaces, and the fading of clear-cut democratic processes in which these changes have been taking place. I worry that Amherst has begun to lose its special character, and may continue to lose its way, undermined by too much ambition, or the profit motive of some. In a large city, one must strain to look upward to encompass the whole of it. In Amherst now, I see a 5 story structure, and it seems out of place, rude, like a tall, hovering bully at a child’s playground. If I wanted to live in the vicinity of a WTC Tower or a Trump Tower, I need not have ever left New York! It is not a mere skyline which changes a place, but how we experience our place in that skyline when we think of home. Let the university build its monoliths, so reminiscent of the municipal low-income high rises of my youth. May we in Amherst avoid some pituitary accident of shooting mindlessly skyward, without rhyme or reason! I hope to see Amherst remain thoughtful and self-aware on matters of aesthetics, balance, tradition, and identity, respecting the qualities we long to preserve in this place which we love.
Dinah Kudatsky is a resident of Amherst