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Transit Zones

What we speed past on the way to somewhere else.

View of Albany from Renssealer. Inside my "100-mile home." Photo: Susan Petrie

I learned the phrase "transit zone" from Robert Macfarlane in his book, Landmarks. In the chapter, Bastard Countryside, he describes his own home in a place meant to be traveled through then left behind:

"I am an edgelander. I moved in my late twenties to live in a house at a city's fringe. Disruptive of the pictureseque, dismissive of the sublime... an aesthetic flexible enough to accommodate fly-tipping, dog shit, the night glare of arc lights at the well as the yapping laugh of green woodpeckers..."

Albany and Rensselaer had always created an unsettled feeling inside that I couldn't put my finger on. I was curious to understand the area but also repulsed by the street-level ugliness. The reality was I'd been living in a transit zone and never knew it was a transit zone.


I remember moving back to #Albany, with optimism, 20 years ago. I also remember hearing people describe it as the perfect place to live because it was so easy to leave and get to better places - Boston, the Berkshires, Manhattan, Montreal, Vermont, the Catskills, the Adirondacks. To an extent, they were right. Before long, though, my optimism turned to resentment because my life didn't enable me to escape to those better places and soon, I felt trapped in a region I did not love.

What We Speed Past

It took a little while, but I eventually made a friend who shared my frustrations, who also felt trapped, and together we started to explore the region as if we were tourists. We started looking at the mishmash of things around us, the dirtiness, the neglect, going into it, facing it, and then asking: "What is it? Why is this here? What was here before?"

By taking our time to ask and see, the region slowly began to reveal itself to us. Before long, we found evidence of a lot of wonderful things mixed in and hidden by the ugliness: Dutch settlers, Mohican tribes, and an almost too-good-to-be-true series of accomplishments, firsts for the nation. #Steamships. The #ErieCanal. Joseph Henry and #electricity. #EmmaWillard. A huge but now silent and invisible #brick industry. The Civil War horse shoes turned out by the #Burden Iron Works. The first long-distance flight made by #GlennCurtiss, down the Hudson, from Albany to Manhattan. And a fabled river, the #Hudson, that --like everything else -- was kind of hiding in plain sight. It was all here, but most of us had been too busy to slow down, or too busy leaving on weekends to get to those better places. The landscape was dense with history, but it was also almost completely illegible because it was so jumbled up, so disrupted with industry, and not assembled in a way that had meaning. It was easy to see why everyone sped past Albany on their way to some place better.


Drosscape, crapola, bastard countryside, hotchpotch, messy limbo, asphalt noose, scrappy bit, mixed-up landscape, soft estate, edgeland...”

In #Landmarks, #Macfarlane collects terms that have been used by artists and writers to get around these awkward, curious places. Graciously, he acknowledges "none of them attractive." He writes about the jittery ground where infrastructure and utilities and substations and canals and railways and marshes and heron and woodpeckers converge. It reminded me of living in Albany, of being down by the river, of heading south on 144, toward Coeymans. On 144, in under a mile, there is a bike trail, wrecking yard, school bus garage, housing projects, the port, Waste Management, Air Products, a radio station, Historic Cherry Hill, and the #Normanskill tributary. In one sentence he described a frustration I'd been carrying around for years: "This was a landscape that required a literacy I did not possess." (p.237)

Unseen and unperceived

Getting to know and understand the nature of the transit zone has occupied much of my past ten years. Now that I know what it is, how it works, what the pieces and parts are, and have learned to stitch a narrative from the seemingly disjointed parts, I've come to an understanding with the region. Is it love? No, not really. But it is a level of regard. I've learned how to ask before judging, how to see before turning away, how to perceive then decipher the places I've always wanted to get away from. It's also challenged me to find poetry, a little beauty in a terrain that is neglected and disregarded.

Here's an excerpt from a prose poem I wrote inspired by the convergence unique to South Pearl St, Route 144S:

Come to Jesus in the Pastures Morton & Pearl

So she canes across cobblestone, the woman toward the cat & the Dollar Store toward the pick-up & the sumac & the awkward boy with the jumprope near the girl with leopard leggings who is striding toward Platnym Motor Sales as men are splaying across wooden stairwells as every red light is fizzing the way JESUS SAVES is fizzing above the bus shelter as spring is arriving in the streets like children in the playgrounds backlined by boxcars...

To check out my wanderings around the region, visit my Instagram - spetrie_100milehome

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