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On the Road to Skaneateles

The drive from Ithaca, New York, at the southern end of Lake Cayuga to the old-and-new money town of Skaneateles at the northern end of Skaneateles Lakes takes a little less than an hour, but traverses two worlds, the one affluent (at least in parts) the other rural and poor.  As a member of an excellent baroque band of seven players based in Ithaca but with musicians from around the country, I’d been invited to play last weekend at the Skaneateles Festival, a series of concerts that takes place over four weeks in late summer in and around this exclusive 19th-century resort town with its stone houses and lake-front churches, spas, and steamer tours.

Ithaca is a university town, home to Ithaca College and Cornell, by far the biggest employer in Tompkins County and beyond. Politically, it’s Obama-blue in a sea of red, liberal sentiment quickly giving way to evangelical conservatism beyond the malls that ring the town.

In the 19th century the surrounding area grew rich from agriculture, the fields presided over by Greek Revival mansions, not as grand as those of Skaneateles, but impressive enough in their own right. The byways along and between the lakes were punctuated by prosperous little towns with houses and stores of clapboard or brick, many with elegant neo-classical libraries. Ninety per cent deforested and dedicated to farming around 1900, the landscape is now ninety per cent forested and most of the towns are ghosts. The young oaks and sumac quickly reclaim the fields, many of them fronted by rows of for-sale signs  advertizing the present owners’ vain hopes for suburbanization. Many of those Greek Revival houses are abandoned by the descendants for a nearby extra-wide—the “green” alternative to the spacious and drafty rooms of the ancestral home that would either freeze or bankrupt the owner.

Between the universities of Ithaca and the leisure of Skaneateles, the main industry is incarceration.

Beyond the village of Lansing on Ithaca’s northeastern flank with its malls and subdivisions and a few miles of semi-rural sprawl one comes to the Rogue’s Harbor Inn, built back in 1830s, and said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Via a tunnel, escaped slaves shuttled from the inn to Lake Cayuga and then made the relatively safe forty-mile trip by the water to Seneca Falls at the north end of the lake. From there it was only another thirty miles to Lake Ontario and freedom.

A few miles beyond this historic junction sits the Louis Gosset Jr. Residential Center, a medium security “correctional/detention” center for males between thirteen and seventeen. With its long, barn-like structures the architecture of the place evokes the agricultural past it has supplanted. Two-thirds of the residents are black, and especially in winter they make for an unforgettable image patrolling the snowy grounds in formation in their prison-issue blue hooded coats. As we drive by on the way to Skaneateles the boys were nowhere to be seen in the green fields of summer. They were probably seeking refuge in the air-conditioning. A quarter of these teens are in for burglary, the rest in equal ten-percent proportions for robbery, weapons charges, drug offenses, and criminal mischief. A few years ago there were charges of excessive force at the facility—almost entirely unfounded, according the official report from the Tompkins County District Attorney. There are 130 residents and 130 employees. In this way the rural economy subsists.

Lou Gossett clearly accepted the honor of having the facility named after him. That gesture strikes me as one of optimism in the possibility of renewal for wayward youth. But every time I go by this place, I can’t help thinking that there should be another way to honor a distinguished, Academy-Award winning African-American actor than by naming a reformatory after him.

A dozen miles or so farther up Route 34 one comes to the next prison: this one for cows. At King Ferry, the Fessenden Dairy has remanded a thousand head of cattle to mass confinement. Beyond the concrete walls, chain link fences, and the light standards that illuminate the beasts’ round-the-clock labors of ingesting, lactating and defecating, milk is produced in large quantities. Through the barricades and great mounds of silage, other feed, and manure one can just about make out the stamp of a hoof or the switch of tail.  Perhaps the cows might have a sense that the sun is shining outside, but I doubt it. One is more likely to see a kid from Gossett roaming the fields surrounding his facility, than one of these bovine inmates grazing the rolling hills on work release.

Another twenty-mile stretch of graceful, if impoverished, countryside brings us into Auburn, at the north end of Owasco Lake, the Finger Lake between Cayuga and Skaneateles. Route 34 becomes South Street with its statuesque brick mansions. Further on into town is William Seward’s 30-room house, now a national historic site. His famous Folly as Secretary of State (buying Alaska) brought Sarah Palin here last Summer for the city’s Founder’s Day celebration to revel in empire and doubtless entertain her own folly of winning the next New York Republican Party Primary.

In spite of the vestiges of former grandeur, it is clear that Auburn’s most prosperous days are long behind it. Many would say that at least it still has the Auburn State Prison. On my way to Skaneateles, I took a detour of a few blocks over to State Street to see the massive ensemble of buildings. In contrast to the many other rural prisons in this region, this one is in the heart of downtown. New York State’s first prison, it was built on a former Cayuga Indian Village, and hosted the first execution by electric chair in 1890. Among the infamous figures put to death in this high voltage Arts-and-Crafts armchair, perhaps designed by Gustav Stickley himself, was the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley in Buffalo, and Chester Gillette, the literary model for Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser’s, An American Tragedy. Atop the Art Deco building stands Copper John, a brightly painted statue of a Revolutionary War soldier. Why he’s there I’m not sure, since the obvious message that freedom is worth fighting for would seem to be the wrong one to inculcate the prisoners with, especially those serving life sentences.

(I recommend Marcus Rediker’s gripping CounterPunch account of teaching in the Auburn State Prison.)
Getting back in my car, its plates made just across the street in that very prison, I return to Genessee Street (U. S. Highway 20) and head east towards Skaneateles. The countryside thins out again before the road slopes down towards the next lake. The dilapidation of Upstate New York gives way to the sheen of money. According to the 2000 census, Skaneateles was more than 99 per cent white. I don’t expect that will change much this time around. Just down the lake standing watch over the leisure of summer from the midst of a large and picturesque park rolling down to the water is the ante-bellum Nicholas Roosevelt mansion. This Ionian temple provides village and its lakefront perimeter with a backdrop of aristocratic majesty.

On either shore of the lake dozen of places are for sale. While some of the roperty owners are apparently ready to give up their position in the upper classes of Skaneateles, others seem to be pouring money into their large houses.  For me the downtown is summed up by the fact that the gray stone building in Italianate Style that was the Masonic Temple now houses a real estate agent.

The Clintons famously spent their summer vacation in Skaneateles exactly a decade ago, foregoing Martha’s Vineyard for a bit of holiday carpet-bagging in their newly adopted state of New York, as Hillary made her bid for the Senate in 2000. Just around the corner from the Masonic Temple and across from the fur, chocolate, antique, and expensive trinket shops of Genesee Street is Doug’s Fish Fry, whose owner said he wouldn’t serve Bill back in 2000 for his Lewinskian dalliances and subsequent lies. Bill didn’t test Doug’s claims, and I’d say Bill didn’t miss much, though the industrial-grade fish and grease-saturated fries would probably have been just to the President’s tastes.

As in so many musical journeys, both close to home and to far off places, I am reminded of the greatest of musical tourists, Charles Burney.  On his visit to hear the most famous orchestra of the later 18th century in 1772 in  Mannheim, he wrote that “The expence and magnificence of the court of this little city are prodigious; the palace and offices extend over almost half the town; and one half of the inhabitants, who are in office, prey on the other, who seem to be in the utmost indigence.”

The lakefront villas, with their sweeping lawns, weeping willows, clay tennis courts, and docks with Chris-Craft boats, along with the people who service them, made me think of the rich-poor divide noted by Burney in Mannheim, and of the court’s summer residence in Schwetzingen, where Burney, in spite of the renown of the orchestra, complained of a “want of truth” in the oboes.

No truth was wanting in our band’s oboist, Cleveland-based Debra Nagy, one of the the great virtuosos of that fiendishly difficult instrument. She plays a baroque oboe without the technological aids of the modern instrument with its many silver keys affixed to its black body. Hers is of blond wood with only finger holes, as on the recorder and three small keys. Playing in tune and dealing with passagework require supreme control and endurance, both of which Nagy has in great abundance. Before a sold-out audience in Skaneateles’ Presbyterian Church, she triumphed over every difficulty including those of the closing piece in the program, a reconstructed version of Bach’s B-Minor Orchestral Suite, transposed down a step for the oboe.  Nagy leapt gracefully over every hurdle Bach threw in her path, showing along the way not only her speed and agility, but an aristocratic refinement that cloaked a profound expressivity.

Nagy not only has speed, but also the finesse and taste to build lovely legato lines, shaped by an artful sense of timing, and the ability to add to the most compelling ornaments, both poignant and rapturous. She showed all of these attributes and more across the many movements of this suite, unmatched for its erudition and elegance. The suite’s closing Badinerie is a courtly sprint, something like doing the hundred-meter dash in ten seconds holding a full tea-cup in one hand with the pinky extended: graceful deportment must be maintained at maximum tempo. Nagy’s performance of the Badinerie was pure fun at blinding musical speeds, so impressive and joyful that it brought the audience immediately to its feet.

Next time we take this concert to prison.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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