Spotlight: Little Falls and Canajoharie, New York

NY's Mohawk Valley. Source: Google.

More than a dozen small towns dot the countryside of New York’s Mohawk Valley between Albany and Utica.  In most, compact urban neighborhoods give way at their edges to farmland and forests:  That is to say, the towns of this region still furnish the contrast between efficient development and pastoral nature that was blurred by the sprawling postwar model.  Internally, a few are near perfect examples of artful, practical town plans.

I like the physical layouts of Little Falls and Canajoharie, in particular:  Both are river towns, built on steep banks, with winding streets worked into the rough topography of the land.  Both have very good surviving stocks of Victorian architecture–  including factories, simple houses, and showcases– arranged around the common spaces that traditionally organized settlements in the Northeast.  And both are, essentially, walkable time capsules.  On a recent drive home from from the Adirondacks, I took some photos of these towns.

A slide show, here:

The Mohawk Valley has been settled for as long as nearby parts of New England.  Visually, the region’s mountainous terrain casts a haunting daylight shade over certain twists in the river.  The valley is largely forgotten by its former industries, and remains mostly undiscovered by sprawl developers or New York City vacationers.  Notably, an Amtrak line that runs through the valley skips over the entire stretch between Amsterdam and Utica without a stop.

The development patterns of the smaller, most isolated Mohawk Valley towns reflect the old urban elements of the early-industrial, pre-automobile constellation.  In particular, the influence of traditions, building codes, physical restraints, and market forces can be observed through the architecture, street layouts, and walkable accommodations of both topography and transportation routes in both towns.  Historically, the the instrumentalities that linked these places with the wider world were the Mohawk River, Erie Canal, and N.Y. Central Railroad (in that order).  From the maps of Little Falls and Canajoharie, it is apparent that the nodes of development were sited in proximity to these routes, and to meet the challenges posed by the rough topography on either side of the river.  Similar evidence could still be found today in more developed regions, but the persistence of the Mohawk towns in the original matrix of a rural countryside allows much evidence of the early functionality of their patterns to be preserved.  (Note the similar street patterns of the river towns along the lower Hudson, here, as they existed in 1906.)

A Google satellite map of Little Falls is here:

And one of Canajoharie:

One tradition worth noting in both towns is the presence of an open public space near the town center.  In Little Falls, two separate greens characterize the upland neighborhood just north of the river, in the tradition of English town planning.  Interestingly, the geometric convergence of several streets around a wide swath of pavement in Canajoharie is (in its current form) more reminiscent of a Continental plaza.