Opinion: Music Critic and Sportswriter Billy Altman On Living in Washington Heights and Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

Like most things in my life, coming to live in the suburbs wasn’t something I particularly planned on. Neither was living in the country, where I’d resided for the 10 years preceding my family’s move to Hastings in 1998. A native wiseacre New Yorker, I grew up scoffing at people who said they hailed from the Upper West Side; how could anyone on, say, 88th Street, claim “upper” status when I had 100 blocks on them in Washington Heights? I later spent many years in the West Village, where my perspective turned so downtown I feared nosebleeds any time I ventured north of 23rd Street.

Life, of course, takes its unexpected turns, and, in the late-’80s, my wife and I left our noisy little rental apartment, and, for the price of a second bedroom in those co-op-crazed times, we bought a 200-year-old farmhouse on two acres in a sleepy little town near the Bear Mountain Bridge. As freelance writers and editors, we found the working environment terrific; on a given day, sitting at our respective keyboards, we’d be more aware of wildlife than people. And between the river and mountain views, the serene living environment—hay fever notwithstanding—was nothing to sneeze at, either.

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Culturally speaking, there were some challenges. For example, I seemed to be the only person in town who didn’t possess two things apparently fundamental for proper country living: a loaded rifle under the bed and a dead pickup truck in the driveway. We did, however, have snakes, which occasionally made it into the old house, and once our daughter was born in the early-’90s, these serpentine visitors did give us pause—though, thankfully, we never encountered any (paws, that is) belonging to those responsible for Bear Mountain, er, bearing its name.
One thing that we did grow to appreciate during our time in the lower Hudson Valley was the quality of small-town life. And when we decided, for a variety of reasons, to wend our way back downstate, our search quickly narrowed to Hastings where, during visits to relatives who’d been living there for many years, we kept meeting amiable, creative people with whom we had much in common in terms of career paths and leisurely pursuits. Once we moved to Hastings, some of those people became our neighbors and, more importantly, our friends, and in no time, we began to experience the many positive aspects of residing in an involved, caring community that always feels more like a small town than a suburb. Through the years, little has changed on that front, and for that we’re truly grateful.

Having now spent more than a dozen years in Westchester, I’m still struck by the fact that so many New Yorkers have no idea where Hastings is, and are surprised when I tell them how close we actually are to Manhattan. My guess is they’re thrown off by the village’s official name, as Hastings-on-Hudson makes folks think we’re in some idyllic setting more appropriate to the English countryside than a place merely a hop and a skip past Yonkers along the Saw Mill River Parkway. Then again, what do I know? I’m still looking for the Saw Mill River.

Billy Altman is a music critic and sportswriter whose work has appeared in such places as the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire and People. A former curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he teaches in the Humanities Department of the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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