Saturday, October 20, 2012

At Home in Albany, NY

For a long time, I had an ambivalent relationship with Albany.  I loved the little house we bought in 1983 when Thomas was 9 months old; I had made friends, and we had good neighbors next door, but it took years for me to get used to living in the "city" (pop. 90,000).  Bill, the real country person of the two of us, immediately embraced the convenience and benefits of being in town.

(our house)

At different times over the years, we put our house on the market and looked for properties with acreage, where I envisioned our kids playing in our own stream and cutting Christmas trees on our own property.  And then, for different reasons each time, we would take our house off the market.  Each attempt at moving, and then deciding to stay, prompted a few home renovations and a new thought process, planting us just a little deeper into our community.

What fun, on a recent September weekend, when new friends, Roger and June, came for a visit and wanted to "see Albany."  As we shared downtown with them, I thought about the various aspects that had made Albany, admittedly a city with pluses and minuses, the place where we now plan to stay.
(Roger and June on the Empire State Plaza with the Egg in background)
When I told my Co-op friends that we had visitors coming to see the city, one of them said, "Be sure to show them the sculptures on the plaza!"  We intended to walk the plaza, both to see the Egg and the south side of the Capitol, but the sculpture? I hadn't given it much thought.  June especially liked this one, below.

(Plaza sculpture)
And who can resist the Egg?  I had chaperoned school field trips, and gone to concerts and special events there.  For years, Thomas had called the skyline of Albany, "the greatest city known to man."  Despite the hyperbole, the Empire State Plaza has a lot to offer.

(architectural detail on Capitol Building)
I had thought that the focus of our excursion downtown would include a tour of the Capitol. A dozen years of restoration has made the Capitol an even more fascinating destination with newly re-opened skylights and cleaned sandstone.  I was disappointed to discover that the building is closed to tourists on weekends. Filling in as tour guide for the outside, I remembered to tell June and Roger about the 17 steps on the West side of the building and the 76 steps on the East.  Symbolism abounds. 

(New York State Capitol)

I find it interesting, also, that Governor Teddy Roosevelt, over 100 years ago, had halted construction on the Capitol because it seemed never-ending and an ongoing huge expense; and just last year, Governor Cuomo had called for an end to the restoration of the Capitol for the same reasons.  Now with the cranes and scaffolding gone, our guests could better appreciate the architecture. They'll have to come another time for the inside tour.

City Hall is also striking.  Bill described the weekly carillon concerts which send music across downtown.  I remembered battles fighting for our neighborhood park, when I attended many Common Council meetings at City Hall.  A proposal had been made to develop the park in the early 2000s.  Although it created tension across the city, now I look back at how our neighbors worked together, meeting at one another's houses, pooling our skills, eventually winning and saving the little park for ourselves and for future generations.  I almost hate to admit that this battle, so negative and literally fighting "city hall," made me feel more connected to my greater community. 
(Albany City Hall)
In addition, the battle to preserve green space not only confirmed Bill's and my lifelong environmental leanings, but became a catalyst for me to become a Sierra Club member and environmental activist.  The Sierra Club had gone to bat for us when we needed it.

We headed down State Street, where Roger, who had grown up in Schenectady, recognized the SUNY Central Building, and we talked about its Belgian architecture.  From there we continued on Broadway to the Riverway, walking across the bridge to the Hudson River.  And what did we find?  Sculptures of Dutch shoes that we could sit in!  Bennington has its moose, and Saratoga has its horse sculptures--how totally fitting for Albany to celebrate its Dutch heritage with these.
(Virginia and Bill in the Dutch clog--notice the Egg in lower right)
Since the Capitol was closed, our afternoon focus was a visit to the Albany Institute of History and Art which had just that day opened an exhibit on American Impressionism.  I knew June and Roger loved art and we spent a couple of hours in the museum.  This weekend was also Larkfest, which we took in for a few blocks on Lark Street and then headed down a side street of historic row houses.
(1851 house on side street)
I came to know almost all of Albany's neighborhoods through our kids' various school friends.  Acquaintances used to raise their eyebrows when I said my kids went to the public schools.  "Middle School?" they would ask.  "High School?"  It wasn't all good, but it sure wasn't all bad.  Like anyplace, we had our great teachers, and our mediocre ones, a number of frustrations and lots of satisfaction.  Bill, who had had a rural high school graduating class of 34 students, was amazed at the variety of courses and opportunities our kids had. 

(Madison Avenue houses)
Working together with other parents and teachers to make things better took time and energy.  In the end, our kids did well and now have multiple degrees, but it wasn't always an easy path. As residents of New York City, they credit Albany High with their comfort living in a big diverse world.  

Showing off these row houses (above), that were once featured in Architectural Digest, is always a highlight for me. Our guests noticed the windows, balconies, and entryways.  The more interested the tourist, the better tour guide I become!  Only time constraints kept me from spouting off an entire dissertation.

(Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception)
I knew that Roger and June, practicing Catholics, would want to go to church, so I chose Albany's premier Catholic institution, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  Bill's sister had gotten married here in 1991 when the cathedral was a dark dreary building.  Now it is restored both inside and out (see my blog post "Cool Places for a Hot Day").

(Washington Park)
We were hungry by the time we passed through Washington Park and were thinking about dinner back at our house, three miles west.  Still, I was curious to see the fall plantings and flowers, as I regaled our guests with stories of Albany's glorious tulip display.  These autumn gardens made a nice showing. 

Do I sometimes still wish for a home in the country and a view of rolling countryside out my kitchen window?  Of course, but times have changed and so have we.  We like being able to ride our bikes to work, the library, and the food co-op, and we find plenty of excuses to make excursions out of town, as evidenced by many of my previous blog posts!  Besides, it would take a couple more decades to make another place feel like home.

When June and Roger were leaving, I waved them off saying, "there's still more to see in Albany for future visits!"  And then Bill and I went inside to read the newspaper on the porch, one of the additions we made to the house in 2005, the last time we had debated whether to move or not...and had decided to stay.


  1. A good accounting of a nice visit with friends with the added bonus of a trip down memory lane

  2. Such a lovely post about a city I love and am s glad you chose to make your home as well for all these years! The photos are telling me to get out and walk the city more-not wait for garden or historic home much to see as the seasons change, and much to remember- the good definitely outweighing any negatives!

  3. What a lovely vacation destination! Imagine the continued fun you could have with the New York State Museum and Cherry Hill!

  4. Virginia, This is a lovely post. I am sipping my coffee and allowing your wonderful writing to take me on a journey. My experience has been opposite. Lots of moves. Thank you for sharing this.