On the banks of Lake Champlain, the scars of floods and fires

lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-nyPLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
Lakeside Apartments was already drowning. Hurricane Irene just held it under a minute to finish the job.

The brown, concrete complex on the edge of Plattsburgh was built in 1960 and has the open, geometric elements that are a hallmark of that time. One corner points toward Lake Champlain, looking for all the world like the nose of a ship at the edge of the beach. Only it has run aground.

I don’t know what it was like in the 1960s. No one talks about its heyday, if it had one, in which perhaps families arrived in slick, metal cars full of beach umbrellas and archaic societal attitudes.

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The units were occupied by low-income, mostly short-term tenants when Lake Champlain flooded in May 2011, washing away the beach and flooding the property. Lakeside Apartments was evacuated of about 200 people who were told they’d be able to move back later that summer. But that wasn’t to happen.

First there was a fire, in the weeks following the flood, that damaged several units when a squatter is alleged to have left incense burning in a shrine.lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-ny8Then, in August, Hurricane Irene. 

The Category 3 storm tore up the Caribbean, and eastern United States, killing at least 53 along the way. She flooded Long Island and devastated the Catskills. In the Adirondacks, she caused landslides on her way to Canada, where power lines and buildings were damaged as far inland as Montreal.

And, of course, the Lakeside Apartments would never recover.

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“Right now it really is a distressed property,” Mayor James Calnon told the Press Republican last year. “We  want to get it out of distress, and we hope that will happen.”

“That” is a development project proposed when the land was sold in 2014 by Montreal businessman Collin Nieme, according to the Press Republican. If all goes well (though “goes well” is a matter of perspective), the land will be gentrified, with long-term leases and fancy hair salons.

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The Lakeside, at last, might be out of distress. For now, it is broken and smells of ash and worse things. Though police are said to drive by when they think of it, no one stopped me from wandering around the property, though I had to avert my eyes when I turned the corner to the lake side and made eye contact with a woman carrying out some delicate business in the back seat of a car.

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The not-quite ghost town of Venosta, Quebec

VENOSTA, Que.
We were inspired to spend a weekend in the municipality of Low when an opinion piece on the importance of saving Quebec’s ghost towns came across my desk. We have gone ghost-town hunting in Pennsylvania and in Texas, but searching in our own back yard had never occurred to us.

Venosta, the ancestral town of the writer, isn’t strictly a ghost town, as many homes are obviously lived in and the lush land is still farmed. Settled primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, this region in the Gatineau Hills about 50 kilometres north of Ottawa is an agricultural and logging area, and so has benefited and suffered from the historic highs and lows of those industries.

We got more than we bargained for with our rented cottage in Low, and a little less than we expected in the ghost town, a collection of picturesque falling-down buildings surrounded by high grass, and fields and trees beyond.

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venosta quebec ghost town

Walking the abandoned rail bridge of North Anson

NORTH ANSON, Maine
Sometimes you have to put off spontaneity.

Like the time I rounded a corner and there was the most amazing rocky river and around the next bend was an overgrown, abandoned rail bridge.

The timing was off and there was no way we could stop, but that damn bridge wouldn’t leave my head. The next morning at our Airbnb, which we’d made a disaster of dishes and laundry, Melani did one of those things that keeps us together after so many years: She gave me a pass and told Trevor and I to go find that damn bridge.

We knew it was about 20 minutes back up the road, but we couldn’t remember exactly where. Our perspective was off, nothing looked right, and we knew for sure we’d gone too far when we came to the community hall in Anson.

We turned the car around and tried to jump-start our brains: “Remember there were those antique cars for sale? Did we pass those?”

“Oh, there’s the ‘Blind Person Ahead’ sign. I remember seeing that last night and thinking, ‘Damn, I hope he hears us coming’.”

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Then there it was. The Carrabassett River was smooth and glassy on one side of the highway bridge, but showed a completely different face when approached from the south. Fast-running water rushed over hundreds of small boulders, sounding like static and looking like oblivion, pooling in basins that were deceptively calm. And there — crossing this menacing, narrow river — were symmetrical rusty lines against the bluest sky.

We pulled off the road directly across from the mouth of the bridge. There used to be rail where I parked the truck, but it was paved over sometime in the late ’70s, when the bridge was abandoned.

Beyond the static of the river below, the town was Sunday-morning silent. We stepped onto rail, and bounced lightly on a couple of the crossties. They were dark and veined and gave slightly under our weight. There were places farther ahead where plywood was nailed over ties to cover spots where it was rotted through.

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Before this iron span was built, there was a covered rail bridge here, erected in 1888. There are marvelous pictures of it, and more modern ones, in a book by the Anson Bicentennial Committee. That bridge, not as impressive as this beast, was tough enough to withstand a tornado, if a letter to the editor in an 1890 edition of Engineering News is to be believed. Mr. Thompson referred to peculiarities in the bridge’s architecture and noted that iron plates on the structure had slipped.

“After the storm,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “the ends of each span were in place but their centers had been sprung about 18ins out of line so that the track formed a series of reverse curves while the top of the bridge roof and all was tipped so that the trusses were at least 4 ft out of plumb.” However, damage was quickly repaired and trains were running the next day.

On our clear day, we started a slow unsteady walk across. Trevor kept to the centre, close to the rail, while I walked on the outside edge because I could see thick reinforcement beams under the ties. The wood was spongy and invited caution.

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This bridge was built 109 years ago. The Somerset, Maine Central, and Pan Am railroads carried lumber, agricultural goods and people over the Carrabassett to the end of the line here at North Anson.

Locomotives that had roared across the track upon which we walked so gingerly were named things like Black Dinah, Moxie, and Bombazeen.

Just past the halfway point was a strange metal beast we have since learned is a buffer stop, meant to prevent locomotives from rolling farther down the end of the track. It wouldn’t stop more than ghost trains now, but it stood at attention, cool metal under a hot sun, unshaded at the centre of the bridge where even the most hardy of weeds haven’t ventured yet. Past that was the high bank of the Carrabassett and more rail, so overgrown we lost our footing more than once as we peered through the brush back over the bridge and ran our fingers over the rusted dates on a switch to the side of the track.

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We were steadier on our trip back, and bold enough to venture under the bridge, where we found the water wasn’t as scary as it sounded or looked from above, and where Trevor discovered a rope attached to the ties above.

“Mom. Mom mom mom. Mom.” Back when he was little, this used to drive me nuts. “Mom has one syllable. Don’t waste all that breath.” I don’t mind so much any more. “Mom mom mom. Let’s swing on it.”

I gave him that look and he, eventually, let it go, and hardly laughed at me at all when I halfway fell into the river anyway.

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The puzzling house on Beatons Bluff

BEATONS BLUFF

When I was a little girl, my Barbies’ Dreamhouse was made of shoeboxes and toilet-paper rolls held together with Scotch tape.

On the edge of Nova Scotia, our little Airbnb, which slopes toward Northumberland Strait, is a dreamhouse like that: one shoebox taped to another, added to a cereal box as soon as the Cheerios were done and the prize claimed. We spent our first day imagining how this cottage began, made up as it is of three unique little boxes, and whether it’s finished.

What’s clear is that it’s a house inside a house. The door to the kid’s room used to be an entry from outside. It still has the porch light, and there are tall narrow windows on either side. If that room and the kitchen beside it represent the 1970s, then the long dining room with painted floors, fat woodstove, and faded flyswatters are the ’80s, and the polished living room and master suite, with its right angles and cleanly caulked windows, are the 1990s.

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Once we realized it was a Barbie construct — none of the pieces being original to the other — we tried to stop figuring out how the cottage came to be (though I dreamed about it) and started thinking about it like a puzzle.

If you glance at the puzzle, laminated and framed and hanging about like a regular piece of art, you’re just fine, but it’s unnerving for a moment when you realize it’s full of cracks and curves and patterns that are hard to appreciate when you weren’t part of the assembling.

We have nothing but respect for the industriousness of the architect. We’re spending a week in their dreamhouse, surrounded by hay fields and ocean and rosebushes and wandering each shoebox and cereal box with delight and wonder. 

The door to the kids' room clearly used to be an outside entry.
The door to the kids’ room clearly used to be an outside entry.

The Bessborough Hotel and the man in the grey suit

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SASKATOON — There is a man in a grey suit who smiles freely and greets guests on the banquet level some late evenings. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but there’s time yet.

He and I are at the Bessborough in Saskatoon, one of the last of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

The nation’s tradition of rail hotels began in Montreal, the home of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Cornelius Van Horne. The Windsor went up in 1878 and the CPR and other companies followed with the Hotel Vancouver, the Banff Springs Hotel, Quebec City’s extraordinary Château Frontenac, and other beasts of brick and stone along thousands of kilometres of rail. Fourteen hotels later, Regina saw the rise of the Hotel Saskatchewan in 1927.

It’s not like Regina didn’t deserve a grand hotel. It was a vibrant, growing city that had been built by the railway. But so was Saskatoon, and this city wanted one, too.

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The CPR went through Saskatoon, 300 kilometres north of Regina, and had since 1908. The city boasted an elegantly long and tall rail bridge with a pedestrian walkway as well as a sleek little railway station.

The earl and countess of Bessborough.Called the Hub City, Saskatoon also hosted track for Canadian National Railway and the Grand Truck Railway. All it was missing was a grand hotel, and CNR stepped in to make that happen. 

So within a year, ground was broken for the 10-storey Bavarian castle-inspired building that overlooks Saskatchewan River. Designed by Montreal architects, it integrated turrets, heraldry, gargoyles and other stonemasonry under a copper roof. Sir Vere Ponsonby, the ninth earl of Bessborough and 14th governor-general of Canada, consented to have it named in his honour.

It was 1932 when building was completed, and the Depression was hitting the Prairies hard. The doors of The Bez wouldn’t officially open for another three years.

It has aged elegantly. The gardens with their ironwork gates and heart-shaped flower gardens lure lovers and the river just beyond keeps the castle separate from the rest of the world and dampens the noise of traffic and passersby.

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Bellmen rush to open doors before a guest has the chance to reach out their chilled hands. In the wide hallways, carpets muffle the sound of dress shoes and high heels. Chambermaids stop what they’re doing to say hello and ask after one’s day.

The high-ceilinged banquet area features palatial windows with luxurious curtains, dark wood accents and chandeliers. It was once a quiet space for gentlemen to sit and sip coffee, read their newspapers and gossip, as men do.

bessborough stairsHere is where one might see the man in the grey suit. He is an older gentleman, and he is wearing a fedora.

His countenance is so still and friendly that people who meet him often don’t realize till after they’ve returned his greeting that he isn’t there at all.

No one knows who he is or when he was.

A legend that sticks is that of a hotel employee who was tasked with asking a group of guests to settle down one evening. Two men at the party did not take kindly to the admonishment and threw the employee over a railing. He fell several storeys to his death.

That tragedy is marked by a crack in the ballroom floor. And perhaps by a man in a grey suit and fedora.

Devil’s Night came of age in Detroit

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DETROIT — Devil’s Night wasn’t born in Detroit, but it came of age here.

Beautiful and broken are the only ways I can think to describe Detroit, a city I thought I understood because I’d done some reading and I’d seen some pictures. I had no idea.

Fresh off my adventures in Los Angeles, I planned this tour carefully and arrived via Tunnel Bus from Windsor early on a Sunday morning. I had written directions in careful block letters the day before. My plans were stark blue on a white sheet of paper, except this: that I’d be awed, and afraid, and heartbroken.

Cass is a wide boulevard that hesitates every block or so over half-hearted construction and road repair that looks like revitalization but smell likes despair, my first indication of a city that means well but can’t quite keep up.

Detroit’s decline has been slow and painful. It has been punctuated by riots in the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s. Street gangs took over in the ’70s, when heroin was king. Crack came later. Detoit became the arson and murder capital of the nation. Throughout the ’80s, setting fires was a favourite Devil’s Night activity, with hundreds of abandoned homes being set alight. In 1984, according to Wikipedia, 800 fires were set that Halloween-eve. Finally the community fought back with Angel’s Night, but the damage had been done. And besides, Devil’s Night was never more than a symptom. Crime, fires, and economic devastation had taken its toll. The auto industry was in freefall.

Detroit had been scarred.

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I wasn’t alone on the streets. Almost, but not quite. Two security workers climbed into a golf cart with their company’s name emblazoned on the side.

“You got a coffee!” one of them hollered good-naturedly. “Ain’t none of us got coffee yet. You watch out for that!”

“You betcha,” I laughed back. “It’s dark gold right here.”

The other men I met—it was mostly men out on this clear Sunday—were of the same sort. Black, in their 40s and with a lovely, drawling accent that was almost Southern. I made eye contact and smiled at each of them. Each of them smiled back and said, “Mornin’.”

The people aren’t heartbreaking. They’re wonderful. But everything else: This is a ghost town that still has people living in it. Building after building—houses, high-rises, storefronts and duplexes—are crumbling back into the earth, most with windows blown out, some with plywood half-heartedly nailed up. It goes on for blocks and blocks blocks. It’s not that there are abandoned homes: it’s the scope of this thing. The enormity. There’s no way to prepare for this.

But the people. In a coffee shop two miles up Cass, in a city with a history of brutal, deadly race riots, two veterans, strangers, one black, one white, struck up a conversation. “It’s a blessing we both got up, got a little sunshine on us,” one said. The other answered with a “mmm-hmmm.”

I won’t lie: I didn’t feel completely safe in Detroit. Most of my walk was a lonely affair and if I’d been jumped or straight out shot I’m not sure anyone would have come to my rescue. At one point, while I was the only awake human for about there blocks, a man in a giant black SUV drove real slow behind me. I eventually turned and he, maybe realizing I was just a middle-aged lady who doesn’t look like money or much of anything, drove away. At another section of road an unkempt man with tangled red-blond hair watched me hotly and with narrowed eyes from across the street, sizing up the situation. That last one had my heart beating with real concern.

And then, on Woodward heading south, a man with long, heavy dreadlocks, coming toward me in his electric wheelchair, suddenly stopped and took out his earbuds. “Do me a favour,” he said to me, and I stopped walking. I took out my earbuds, too. “Can you do me a favour?” I nodded. “Stay beautiful!”

I don’t know about the devil, but I can tell you this: There are angels in Detroit. Stay beautiful.