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Janet Langsam: ArtsWestchester presents ‘Brick by Brick: The Erie Canal & the Building Boom’

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“Brickhead: Please Stop”
by James Tyler.

Ordinarily, one wouldn’t juxtapose the Erie Canal and ArtsWestchester. Yet, there is at least one similarity. They are both, in their own way, good for the economy.

In 1825, the Erie Canal opened and spawned a building boom in New York City, along with the growth of a vital brick industry along the Hudson River. ArtsWestchester will tell that story in a highly anticipated exhibition titled “Brick by Brick: The Erie Canal & the Building Boom.” Brick by Brick opens Sept. 30 in ArtsWestchester’s gallery in downtown White Plains — itself a restored brick bank building. 

Believe it or not, brickmaking was one of the Hudson Valley’s most prolific industries, comparable in magnitude and impact to IBM and the nascent biotech companies of today. The mid-19th century was a tumultuous time in New York City, but also a period of extreme growth across the state. New York rose to become the financial capital of America thanks to the Erie Canal, but it was also plagued by cholera and fires. Brick saved the city from imploding. New fire codes and large-scale public works projects, such as the building of the Old Croton Aqueduct, all demanded brick, and created the infrastructure that shaped New York as we know it today. 

At the brick industry’s peak, some 130 yards operated simultaneously throughout the Hudson Valley, employing more than 10,000 workers and producing more than a billion bricks annually to service the development needs of the New York-metropolitan area. Towns and cities grew to support the brick industry, while the brick industry fed the needs of rapidly expanding towns and cities along the Canal corridor, from Red Hook, Brooklyn to Buffalo. 

Brick became New York state’s defining and unifying architectural material, and the story of the Hudson Valley brickyards is one that hits close to home. After all, ArtsWestchester’s building is a historic landmark built mostly from brick. In our basement, tucked away in a corner, was a pile of discarded bricks stamped with the name SCHULTZ, a family whose brickyard was in Ulster County. We like to think these recovered materials built the bank that would one day become a home for the arts. 

We are proud that Brick by Brick was awarded a major grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and are grateful for the support of the many individuals and community partners who helped bring this project to fruition. 

It is worth noting, too, that ArtsWestchester has also spawned economic prosperity with its support of the arts, with an economic impact in Westchester of $172 million annually. Like the Erie Canal, bringing economic prosperity to every stop along its route, the arts industry also touches hamlets throughout its tributaries, supporting more than 5,000 jobs in Westchester. 

Janet Langsam is CEO of ArtsWestchester. “Brick by Brick: The Erie Canal & The Building Boom” is on view Oct. 2 through Jan. 19, 2019, at the ArtsWestchester Gallery, 31 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains. Visit artsw.org for more information.

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