The magic of Chautauqua, New York

I’ve lost track of how many times Esteban and I have driven to Chautauqua — he grew up there, so we’ve gone back often to his beloved summer home.

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The view from the dock Esteban’s family used to own. His grandma’s house once stood on the site of the pink-and-peach monstrosity you now see on the far left.

But no matter how many times I see this sign, the effect is always the same: My body relaxes, my mind seems more awake, and I feel happy.

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Yet no matter how many times I go to Chautauqua, I still struggle to explain why it’s so special.

Chautauqua was founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent as “an educational experiment in out-of-school learning.” The echoes of that distant purpose still reverberate through the grounds today as more than 100,000 students and visitors gather each year for the nine-week season.

But there’s something deeper there for me — an intangible magic I can’t quite pin down. So, during my visit in August, I decided to walk every street of the 750-acre grounds to see whether the place itself would yield some answers.

Chautauqua map IMG_1263 BLOG

Yes, I missed a few streets — which I’ll explain in a bit. But I also picked up some important clues into The Chautauqua Experience.

First, there’s of course Chautauqua Lake. It was (ridiculously) foggy during the week we were there, but it was still beautiful.

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Then, there’s the architecture: Walking along the narrow streets — and among the charming cottages that line them — you feel like you’ve been transported back in time.

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Another thing that makes Chautauqua unique is that, until recently, walking and biking were the only ways to get around (especially walking).

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I love that the sign reads “angled parking only,” so all of the bikers parked at an angle.
But what I realized during this visit is that though all of these elements may contribute to the magic of Chautauqua, what truly creates its spirit is the commitment to community and shared space.
Chautauqua shared space IMG_1264
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Everyone was invited to join in this birthday celebration. (Lucky kid!)
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But although I greatly admire this effort to promote a shared space, I still came home a bit worried about Chautauqua.
That’s because, in my quest to see every street of the grounds, I discovered a new enclave of large homes where people seemed to view me with suspicion, and where I was routinely nudged off the road by speeding SUVs. I didn’t feel welcome, so I left those streets off my personal map.
Are the new neighbors a harbinger of The New Chautauqua, a gated community that serves mainly as a playground for the rich? Or will the spirit — and the magic — of this shared space prevail?
I can’t wait to go back and find out.
If you liked this post, you may also like my Memories of Chautauqua.


    • My goodness, your instant thoughts are prolific, Tom! (Not at all surprising, actually.) To your last point: I couldn’t agree more — but at least in the case of Chautauqua, the governing body has the choice of not permitting the razing of any more cottages for the construction of multimillion-dollar “summer homes,” and cracking down on residents’ use of cars. Sadly it seems they’re choosing money for the time being. I fear the end they’ll end up sacrificing the soul of this unique institution to preserve the place. And that will be very sad indeed. *Sigh.*

    • I hope they wise up before it’s too late too, Deborah — it’s too wonderful a place to lose! And thanks very much for coming along on my stroll with me. 🙂

  1. What an interesting account, H! I hope the New Chautauqua doesn’t prevail. Your photos capture such unique charm and beauty. Esteban is lucky to “be from” there. I hope you can return there often, and find it stays on a good path!

    • Isn’t Esteban lucky to “be from” Chautauqua? Though I think the specter of a “New Chautauqua” is even harder for him to bear, because he remembers it as the utopia he knew in his youth. Oh, well … as the French say, <>

  2. Oh my, what a charming place. How lucky for Esteban that he grew up there. Your photos are amazing, I love them all but my favourite is the first foggy one with the lonesome yacht. So peaceful, I could imagine myself on it…

    • Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up on a yacht on a morning like this one? Especially if you were moored someplace as lovely as Chautauqua. So peaceful, indeed …

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