Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Old City

Albany was first seen by Europeans in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed the Dutch ship Half Moon up the river. Of course, the Mohegans and the Iroquois lived around the area for centuries before the white guys showed up.

Jack's Oyster House, established in 1913.

The city was officially chartered in 1686, making Albany one of the oldest cities in the nation. As the city grew around its river port, it was mostly huddled close to the waterfront and the fort that stood there. A steep river bank rises westward from there, and the city expanded up the hill in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Maiden Lane looking east toward the river.

The streets in this older part of town are short, forming a loose grid around the main streets that parallel the river: Quay, Broadway, and Pearl Streets. Unfortunately, not much remains of Quay Street; what is left is now a freeway ramp. State Street rises westward up the river bank, beginning at what was known until recently as the Plaza, a large "square" that is framed by the D&H Railroad building. The Plaza was where all the city's trolleys (now gone) started their runs. After the trolleys were replaced by motorized buses, the Plaza was the terminus for most of the lines.

The dome of an old bank building at State and Broadway.

When the D&H building was renovated to become S.U.N.Y. headquarters, the Plaza was turned into a grassy park. I think the city lost something there, but who am I to say. The park is pretty.

Albany rooftops pointing skyward.

I wandered around the streets for about an hour last week reacquainting myself with buildings and streets I grew up with, and some new buildings that have been built in the last ten or so years. It's nice to see the new buildings rising downtown; many of them are state offices that were once dispersed on the western edges of town. There is also a relatively new sports arena downtown that hosts the local ice hockey team and serves as a venue for concerts and other events.

St. Mary's church, founded in 1797. The current building dates from 1867.

The only thing missing from downtown is some serious residential neighborhoods. There are vestiges of the old neighborhoods on the fringes, and of course the poorer areas in the South End and on Arbor Hill. But, as I said before, the bulk of the middle class moved out of the downtown area to the suburbs long ago. Huge freeways move people from their spacious comfortable homes to the offices and back again. They shop in suburban malls and eat in big chain restaurants. They're like most Americans; can't blame them for that.

An older building, renovated for new life.

I've always wished that my little home town could bustle again, that people could find a way to be closer to the river, to live among the beautiful monumental architecture of the state's capital, and to preserve the little neighborhoods with their brownstone and brick row houses. And to build new neighborhoods and new buildings in the city center and bring back some of the urban vitality that the city lost so long ago. I think that's a tall order in this day and age. The suburbs are firmly established and many have developed their own charm. Not many would give that up for city living.

Some modern buildings and parking garages.

But I can still dream.


  1. Jack's Oyster House, brings back memories of my RPI days. We had our WRPI (Radio Rennselaer) Annual Dinners there in the 1970s. A blast from the past, even then. They had red plastic drink stirrers with lobsters on the top. Thanks for the photo!

    And, regarding bring life back to old upstate cities, keep dreaming, that's the first step ...

  2. Lovely pictures and very interesting. I had no idea where Albany was before you went back there for your hols.

    Around us there has been a lot of city regeneration in that factories and warehouses have gone to make way for smart apartments and small town houses. This has definitely brought new life to town centres and lots of younger residents. The cost of motoring into town from the suburbs and parking, plus the inevitable traffic jams, has made town dwelling popular again. Maybe it could happen in Albany, too. Just double the price of petrol and make cars in towns unwelcome, like we have !!

  3. Richmond (va) has a gorgeous river (the james) running right thru it but the city has never managed to properly capitalize on there r some new residential places in old warehouses downtown & by the river and the powers that be are hoping more restaurants & boutiques will locate there should have been done 30 yrs ago & it would have been a, it's very slow going

  4. Albany seems so much nicer through your eyes. I'm such a bad local.

  5. I was impressed by the efforts of St. Louis to entice people into living downtown. They spruced up the riverfront, made an effort to preserve the old building and repurpose them, had good public transportation, and were building condominiums all over the place. There were precious few places to shop though, especially for food. We were there pre-crash, in 2007. Wonder how it's going now?

    It does appear that Albany is making a good effort (if you forget that awful freeway) to keep things looking nice.

  6. Sadly, it's too expensive to build places with any real 'character' these days. I like 'modern', but it's just not the same feeling.

  7. Chrissoup, are you talking about MY St. Louis? The one in Missouri? Have you lived here??


  8. Judy, we visited St Louis for 5 days in September of 2007, just because we wanted to see it. We didn't rent a car and stayed at a hotel near the Arch. We were quite impressed; the city is beautiful (or you can see in spots how it *could* be beautiful) and looked like civic leaders were trying hard to stay viable. We enjoyed our stay.

  9. Chrissoup, glad you enjoyed it! I think that our downtown is in good shape these days, but, still, it's not very residential (lofts have been big in the past few years, but all real estate is suffering right now), so it's true that there aren't little grocery shops available. What's cool to me about St. Louis is that the boundaries of the city are wide, and so there are many little neighborhoods outside of the downtown, especially South, that are thriving and have lots of character. When you know where to go, there are lots of neighborhood restaurants, and we like that :)



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