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Tenacious Troy: A Rebirth in Totality

PREFACE

At least one person at each stop along my “Upstate New York Small Cities Blog Tour” asked me the same question.  “Have you checked out Troy yet?”  Like Utica, Schenectady and Binghamton, my only knowledge of Troy was that it was an economically and structurally run down city with some really good universities.  Suddenly however, person after person was telling me about the exciting things happening there, so it seemed like the perfect fit for blog stop #4.

More than any other blog I’ve written, this entry focuses largely on business owners and their takes on the incredible success of Troy’s downtown revitalization.  I discovered in the first hour I was there that the small locally owned businesses, their “tenacious” owners and a pro-business environment has created this stunning comeback.

The photography in this post is in the “HDR” style.  I thought it fit the vibrant, colorful, funloving and artistic experience I had in Troy New York.

TROY

On a sunny Saturday, I hopped an Amtrak train to see what people were talking about.

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Since Amtrak doesn’t travel directly to Troy, I disembarked at Schenectady and caught a CDTA bus.  While I met many locals that disagreed with me, the Capital Region has a tremendous resource in the CDTA, as I rode from one city to the next for just $1.50.  I myself was very impressed.

As the bus crossed the Hudson River and meandered through some of Troy’s downtown streets, I received a very comfortable first impression of The Collar City (nicknamed for Troy’s history in shirt, collar and textile production).  Unlike many of the other cities I had visited, the “entrance” to this city made me instantly feel like I was in a healthy, bustling urban neighborhood.

The bus stopped and I stepped onto the pavement for the first time.  Teams of people were walking toward River Street and the farmers market.  I could hear the crowd of people from a block away… laughing, children, street musicians.  I took a couple quick pictures of the intersection, then followed the crowd to the market.

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Let me be totally honest.  I was blown away at the first sight of the market.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, vendor tents that stretched as far as I could see and then some… everyone was enjoying the beautiful day and the wealth of produce, foods, arts, flowers and even alcohol being sold.

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And the party didn’t seem to stop.  The booths, the smells, the people and the music just kept going.  As a shopper, I would have been giddy!  But as a blogger, to take this all in, to tell the story of this extraordinary collection of people buying, selling, eating and enjoying was almost overwhelming!  No matter how good it sounds, no matter how much you enjoy the photos or the interviews from here on out, I encourage you to check out the Troy Farmers Market for yourself!

A vendor selling a beautiful assortment of flowers caught my eye, so naturally, I stopped to talk to her.

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“This city is on the up and up.  It’s been called the Brooklyn of Upstate New York.  We have eclectic little places, small stores and the best farmers market in the region… maybe one of the best in the New York State.  I’ve only been at this market for 4 years now, but I do know there’s a lot of buzz about the fact that younger people are choosing to live here.  I’m sure that has a lot to do with the colleges.  The local support here is incredible.  There are thousands of people that show up here from all over the region each week, rain or shine, and they’re all about buying local products.  They understand that the money they spend here stays in our community.  That’s so important.”

Moving on, I spotted what booth with what looked like some interesting crackers.

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“These are an all-natural homemade cracker.  My boss wanted a healthy snack for her kids, so she started baking these, but it sort of got out of hand because everyone wanted them!  So it turned into a business.  We’re located in Saratoga actually.”

I asked her what she thought about coming to Troy.

“It’s definitely a nice blend of people.  Especially coming here for the farmers market.  I really like the atmosphere that I’m exposed to here, especially in comparison to a lot of other cities.  We do a lot of other farmers markets, and this is always a nice friendly one.”

Continuing on, I stopped at the next tent.

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“When I was younger, (Troy) wasn’t exactly the best place, but as I’ve grown up, downtown has become a lot nicer.  The market is really great because it brings people from Troy and from outside to the downtown.  All the people that come down here go to the little shops and stores, and it keeps them going.”

The message that I was getting was that this wasn’t just a farmers market.  This was an event that rallied the community around local vendors, and just as importantly, brought visitors from the surrounding areas to Troy.  It was a place of fun and enjoyment, but also an economic channeling tool for small businesses in Troy’s now vibrant downtown.  People come in, they shop local vendors, then move outward into the shops, restaurants and local businesses.  This market was a rare socioeconomic, cultural and arts anchor for this community.  The woman in the photo below said it best.

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“It’s not just a farmers market… it’s a festival that happens every weekend.”

I spoke to a young woman from Tidy Thyme who talked not only about the increased awareness of people and their local community.

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“Over the last five years or so, there has been such a beautiful influx of local makers and small businesses in Troy, and people are supporting that movement.  For me personally, I’m an environmentalist and my products are very environmentally friendly, and I think our community at large is becoming more aware of the impact of buying locally, not just for economic reasons, but also environmental ones.  There is more of an awareness of sustainable living and all this is a result of that awareness.”

My next stop was something I was very curious about… The Arts Center of the Capital Region  Luckily for me, it was right on River Street!  They even had a booth open for the festiv… I mean the Farmers Market.

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“I’m one of the instructors.  This Center is kind of an art making as well as art viewing space.  Art is pretty expansive for us… we offer culinary classes, Yoga and dance, and of course fine arts as well.  We offer a lot in the digital arts too, we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve there.  I teach mostly painting and drawing, but we have lots of wonderful instructors.  We also have a gallery if you walk right through those doors.”

She pointed directly behind her.

“We feature a lot of regional artists, as well as solo shows for people who are trying to establish themselves.  It’s just a really supportive environment, that’s why I love teaching there.  The Center just tries to foster creativity in all different mediums.”

I stepped into The Arts Center of the Capital Region and was immediately impressed.  A gorgeous, clean gallery beckoned me to the left.

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After looking around, I headed upstairs.  Hearing voices down the hallway, I peaked into a decent sized workshop room where people were working with stained glass!  The instructor was kind enough to invite me in.

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“It’s great having a centrally located arts center here.  People are drawn to the community, and then they see an arts center like this and they say ‘ooo, let’s try that!’  Or, they come for the arts center and they might take one of these Saturday classes and they see all the festivities going on.  Maybe they try something here and realize it’s not for them, but maybe they meet a friend, or find a great place to go to dinner after.  It’s just a place that brings people in the community together.”

The instructor touched upon a very simple but powerful point.  A successful community must have places where people can feel comfortable to try new things and meet new people.  When you have an arts center that brings local residents together who might not otherwise meet, you create a synergy that goes beyond the classroom… it moves into the community and beyond.  Centers for learning and socialization like this one are not just a resource for school aged children, they are destinations for folks that have long since graduated from college.  It gives people of all ages a chance to try something new, keep their brains sharp and meet new and interesting people.

When I stepped back outside, the farmers market was still in full swing.  People were enjoying the beautiful day, the good food, the local vendors… people playing music, tables to eat sitting in the street… it was just an amazing atmosphere, like an explosion of creativity, a volcano of human spirit.  I was hooked.

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I always have to talk to people with a dog.  I don’t know, it’s just a thing.

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“There’s a huge demographic shift.  People want to live in urban settings.  It’s easy, it’s cool… there’s a lot to do.  That’s why we like it.”

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I stopped to get a juice at Collar City Hard Pressed.  I can’t recall what was in it but I think one ingredient was kale.  It certainly didn’t taste like it, because this was absolutely delicious and refreshing on what turned out to be a hot day.  I talked to the ladies who served me.

“Troy is a very inspiring place.  All the restaurant owners, all the shop owners come together and they talk about what they want for their community.  For example, our boss is very vocal about what she envisions for her business.  The partnerships between the business owners, the collaboration is really what’s driving all of this.  There’s a couple key players, like this gentleman right here…”

I tuned around to see a lean, energetic man approach the tent.  He introduced himself as Vic Christopher, local business owner.  I asked him about Troy, and his thorough response and incredible enthusiasm showed just how much he loved what was happening.

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“You have young people with energy, and it’s based on momentum.  But you need a catalyst, and when you have that catalyst, it creates an attraction and people get on board, and before you know it, vacant buildings are being re-purposed.  We have seen an unbelievably creative adaptive reuse of beautiful historic properties that have long been forgotten.  That creates a revitalization and we are seeing that in Troy.  Over the past couple of years there has been such dramatic growth.  Downtown Troy is adding a business a month, maybe more.”

He continued.  His energy and tenacity was palpable.

“This happens when there’s freedom, when things are loose.  It doesn’t happen when you have an over regulated environment like our sister city across the river, Albany.  We are very pro business, and we are very pro arts in Troy.  I can’t recall any business or any idea being confronted with obstruction in Troy from the local city government.  They seem to enjoy the activity and the work being done here.

I can tell you that’s not the case in many of the neighboring municipalities.  I think Troy’s growth can be attributed to a number of things.  One, it’s got a beautiful grid layout, and the properties are all beautiful.  Every block you walk down feels like you’re time traveling.  Number two, the surrounding areas are vastly suburban and very boring, so Troy is really the cool neighborhood.  When people talk about Troy being the new Brooklyn, they are talking about a Brooklyn that no longer exists.  I’m from Brooklyn, and guys like me have to come to Troy because that’s where the opportunity is.  You can no longer live the American Dream in Brooklyn, but you can do it in Troy New York!”

Just then Vic turned and introduced me to another gentleman walking our way.

“This is maybe the incoming Mayor over here.  City Council President, Rodney Wiltshire.”

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Rodney gave me his take on Troy as well.

“We have a diversity in this city that needs special attention.  We have historical buildings, an aging infrastructure, a lot of businesss that have a legacy and others that need help.  I understand that, I’m a business owner myself.  I try to surround myself with forward thinking visionaries like Vic and Heather.  You know, they took a building that was slated for demolition, and they proved that it could be salvaged.  They proved it could be done and we know it can be done!  Troy is a place the is ripe for reinvention, and all the things that I’ve been doing since I’ve been on the council have been about that.  We are very progressive when it comes to environmental issues, we have a sustainability committee, we have a solar farm going up in south Troy, we have a water treatment facility, we’re going to lower our taxes by a point and a half next year because of that… these are a lot of things a lot of cities like this needs.”

Talking with Vic and Rodney really gave me a sense of just how serious this city was about continuing a positive upward momentum.  It’s rare that you talk with two people that are so fired up about the inspirational direction their community was moving towards.  They spoke with a level of confidence that was contagious, an assuredness that what they were doing was working and would continue to work.  It was refreshing to say the least.

I continued to peruse the market and stumbled upon a couple eye-opening vendors.  I stopped in on AMC Jewelry.

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“This is a city that will go out of it’s way to make small businesses thrive.  The people here, they are so supportive of the local product, they would rather shop here than go to the mall or across the river.  And the best part is, artists are working together here for the greater good.  That’s the real key.”

A booth or two down was Greymount Paper, and the young lady there had some very important input.

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“If you go to Albany, everything is geared toward state workers, everything closes at five o’clock, there’s not much of a nightlife anymore.  But Troy loves growth.  Troy wants to blossom.  It’s going out of its way to invite small business owners into the fold.  People like Vic Christopher, Troy is saying ‘hey, come on in and do your thing!’  And that’s why Troy is growing!  Vic Christopher gets all the credit.  He goes on Twitter and he checks in on other businesses in the area, and he creates such an enthusiasm that’s contagious.  He loves what he does.  Another person you have to talk to is Theresa at T&J Soaps… she got her starts doing these markets and now she has a store…she’s someone you have to talk to!”

She continued, and said something that I decided to include in my title for this blog.

“Troy has tenacity.  They are determined, they’re gonna make it happen.”

On an educated hunch, I headed for T&J Soap and talked with Theresa.

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“With any kind of revitalization, what you see is the artists move in first.  To make a revitalization successful, you need a creative energy, and that’s what’s happening right now.  Troy was sort of dying, and it’s such a beautiful city.  But the artists and crafters moved in and we all started taking up the storefronts at the same time, and we played off of each other.  Once you’re in a creative group, that creativity kind of feeds together.  As a result, we are a destination now.  We aren’t a place like this, we are this… Troy is the place now, it doesn’t aspire to be anywhere else because it doesn’t have to.”

And my whirlwind tour of River Street shops continued as I stopped into the independent bookstore, Market Block Books.  With small, intimate bookstores becoming a thing of the past thanks to monsters like Barnes and Noble and the advance of digital books, this was a refreshing oasis of knowledge and fun, blending a store of old with a feeling of today.

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“Bookstores are more the just bookstores, they’re kind of a center for the community.  I think a bookstore can create an anchor for a community.  When we opened 11 years ago, there wasn’t much happening in downtown Troy.  Literally, there was nothing else on the block.  Some local entrepreneurs wanted us to move in and gave us some incentive to move in and it’s been great ever since.”

I stumbled into the River Garden, one of the most uniquely gorgeous little shops I’d ever seen.  Aesthetically perfect displays of beautiful plants, terrariums, all of which made me feel like I wanted to buy everything in the store.  It was truly a visual marvel and the kind of unique retail experience that I was discovering made Troy a destination.

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Down the street was Naturally Grown, and the woman at the counter told the story of why this store was so important.

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“There is a growing trend toward a more sustainable, eco-friendly environment… we care a little more now about what our babies put in their mouths.  People that come here are looking for products with fewer chemicals, are made in the USA… this idea of natural products is definitely growing.  So in a place like Troy where businesses are growing with growing families, it seems like the right fit.”

The store I spotted from the street that I really wanted to check out was FunCycled.  I stopped in for a look and absolutely fell in love with the idea, as well as the furniture!

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“People go to the malls to shop, but I prefer a hand made product with a good story behind it.  We found that there are so many people here that feel the same way!  We started the business out of our home, and we found that this was something people really wanted.  Last weekend alone, our store sold nearly half of its inventory!”

I really liked this place, not only because they had the coolest furniture ever, but because this shop was a sort of metaphor for Troy’s rebirth.  Re-purposed buildings, taking the old and making it new… this was the theme throughout the city.  Blending the classic style of beautiful architecture, adding a little old fashioned grit, ending in a seamless synthesis of a brilliant past and a bright future.  The spirit of this store and it’s owners harmonized perfectly with this concept.

I stepped into Anchor No. 5 Boutique and spoke to the young woman behind the counter.

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“Businesses like mine, and Troy Cloth and Paper where they make everything on site allow you to build a relationship with everyone who comes in.  You don’t get that online.  No matter how many times people say the prefer to do their shopping online, people always want some form of human interaction.  At some point, you’re going to need that.  What a better way to get it than in a retail setting.  You just build so many relationships with your customers, and when that is at the root of what you do, the result is amazing.”

At this point I was just about shopped out, but I wanted to make one more stop at Troy Cloth and Paper.  I walked into a colorful shop that looked like a large studio with a storefront display.  Tshirts galore caught my eye, most highlighting Troy.  Walking in here was like walking into your favorite sports team’s store and looking for that one piece of clothing that made represented the love for your team best.

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“The history is pretty awesome here.  People come in and want to know why they call Troy the Collar City.  Uncle Sam was here.  The old warehouses and buildings along the river… there’s just a lot of history and I love that.  And then there’s RPI, the oldest engingeering school in the country and Russell Sage is still an all women’s college, so those are very unique things we have here.

It’s just such a walkable city too, so many people live here and work here too, so you really get to know everyone.  It’s just like a little, tightly knit community.  There is really a strong Troy pride.  There are a lot of people that have lived here all their lives, with generations still living here.  They remember what Troy was like in their days.  Troy was the wealthiest zip code in the country at one point.  I think the young people want to take it back and do it themselves.  I think there’s a little bit of that in our DNA.”

It was time for me to head south and see some of the historic neighborhoods that I had heard so much about.  But first, it was a time for a break so I headed for the Psychedelicatessen for a cold drink.  The pictures tell the story of this place, filled with rainbows, tie die, a phone booth filled with books and a spirit to match it’s interior.  So groovy.

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I took a short walk behind the wonderful old buildings on River Street and stood on a path bordering the beautiful Hudson River.  What a nice place to enjoy a cold soda on a warm day.

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Oh yes, my Micro Pedalflow folding portable seatless bike looked great in front of the Hudson 😉  Portable transpo is the only way to street blog the right way!

Finally I headed south, quickly discovering why they called Troy “The New Brooklyn.”  It wasn’t just the shops, markets and local flavor, it was the streets, the buildings, the historical backdrop to this rebirth movement.

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I ran into a group of young skateboarders and had an interesting conversation with an intelligent young rider.

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“It’s cool that the economy downtown is good, but I don’t think people from outside Troy really understand what’s going on here.  While gentrifying the city, it takes other people and pushes them toward the outskirts.  That’s the other side of this. There were a lot of people who enjoyed cheap rent downtown, and they liked being there.  Now that people are buying buildings up, all of the sudden it’s not cheap anymore.  So there’s always good and bad to stuff like that.”

This young man articulately touched on a pattern I touched on in my Binghamton blog post.  As our cities make the move to a more vibrant downtown, it pushes another population that may not be able to cope with the rising cost of living out.  It raises the point that often gets overlooked… the fact is with every urban rebirth, there must be a concerted effort to continue to improve the community as a whole and focus on the issues of poverty and near poverty living.  We must be careful of the cultural and socioeconomic consequences on all members of a city population when making such a drastic shift.

Moving on, I stopped at the Rensselaer County Historical Society building and popped inside.  I received a nice little tour from the lovely woman there.

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“We are approaching our 200th anniversary as a city next year.  The community really began as a small village right after the revolution, and one of the key aspects of this area is the Hudson River.  This is one of the narrowest places to cross the Hudson.  It’s also where the first bridge over the Hudson was ever built in 1804.  You not only had the Hudson, you had a lot of streams that came off of that, so you had a lot of water power, so this became a major center for manufacturing by the time the Erie Canal opened.”

She spoke about Troy today.

“There is now a new generation that is coming to appreciate the amenities of a walkable city.  I would say also there is a group of people that are older who are coming back into the city for some of the same reasons, because they want to be able to get around and do the things they want to do without being so reliant on cars.  There are a lot more opportunities for this population to get out and do things in the community.  I think various cultural organizations, of which we are one, have really benefited from this.

There’s always been an element of pride here.  It suffered a setback when things were bad, but it’s coming back.  I think the young people see what Troy and this region used to be and there’s a hunger to bring it back to the way it used to be.”

I thanked the nice lady for her time and moved on.  One more thing of note… though there is no way to confirm, Troy is storied to be the home of “Uncle Sam.”  There is quite the lighthearted exhibit in his honor at the RCHS.  If you enjoy history, this is a must visit!

I biked as far south as Washington Park, a fenced off landmark that is one of only two privately owned urban parks in the state.  It was just beautiful… another gem in this Brooklyn-like residential neighborhood.

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I also stumbled upon the beautiful Russell Sage Campus.

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All the interviews, all this biking and all these pictures were making me hungry, so I locked up my bike and headed into the Illium Cafe.  Perhaps the best choice I made all day.  The young lady who served me was as welcoming as could be!

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“This area right here is just the best… there is so much to do, and it’s really safe.  It’s kind of a college vibe, but also it’s people who live and work here in Troy, everyone is just enjoying all that’s here and that’s really awesome.”

OK let’s talk food.  First of all, the server brought out an appetizer on the house.  The photo is good, but it doesn’t begin to describe how amazing it tasted.

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And then the burger.  Just when I thought the appetizer was good, bam!

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Yes, it tasted even better than it looked.  Wow!

The owner was kind enough to come out and talk with me.

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“We’ve been here six years.  When we first opened, downtown Troy was a ghost town.  Even with that, it was still cool.  There were people, obviously not like it is today, but they were here.  Vic and Heather who run Lucas Confectionery, they had a big part in really making this part of the city a cool place to be.

I think the success here is driven by the fact that the community is really involved,  There are a lot of people pushing for this city to be revitalized.  They’re building a new city hall, and they’ve revitalized the old theater a few blocks away… the community has come together to not only make it happen, but to make it happen quickly.”

If you get a chance to visit Troy, the Illium Cafe is a must visit.  The food and the service are just incredible, I can’t say enough!

All day I had heard about the work of Vic Christopher, the young Brooklyn transplant that had done such an amazing job getting folks excited about downtown Troy.  Finally, it was time to visit his re-purposed building that had become an anchor for this downtown area.  In this building, four businesses (The Grocery, a place where you can get cheeses, sandwiches and the like, Lucas Confectionary wine bar, Peck’s Arcade casual fine dining and The Tavern Bar above Peck’s, where mixologists pour amazing cocktails for the enjoyment of everyone) exist symbiotically, feeding off a downtown population hungry for an upscale shabby chic eating and drinking experience.  And let me tell you, it didn’t disappoint.

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Talked to this gentleman at The Grocery.

“I’ve been here about two years, I tell everyone that comes through that they should move to Troy.”

I popped upstairs to the cocktail bar.  I had two amazing bourbon based cocktails.  Maybe that was a mistake, but it’s one I would gladly make again. 😉

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I told the mixologist behind the bar about my blog.  He laughed.

“My parents live in Utica.  They sent me your blog.  Your first drink is on me.”

I thought that was pretty cool to be honest.  After my drinks, I headed downstairs to the Confectionery.

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“I came back recently, about five months ago and I was just shocked at the energy here in Troy.  I think a lot of that has to do with the college population isn’t leaving Troy to find jobs.  They’re leaving school with the ability to work and they’re opting to stay.  They’re being courted by other technology hubs, but now all that young talent is actually staying here because of this revival, because of the opportunity here.

I think people just started talking to each other.  A lot of it is because of social media, but basically people discovered that their friends were having a great time going to events, new bars, new restaurants… all these people realized that there was a lot more things out there to do than was initially thought.”

This statement hit a bell in my brain.  It took me back to a conversation I had with Ken Smith in Utica earlier in the year.  Ken made the point that in a small city, it’s difficult to find the cool things that are happening on a given day or night.  The advent of social media has put a clear face on all that is going on at any given time.  Paradoxically, perhaps a web-based tool that has globalized our lives has actually facilitated the growth and appreciation of all things local.  An interesting concept for sure.

I thanked the good people at Lucas Confectionery and stepped outside, but not before capturing a photo of Peck’s Arcade.

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I walked down the street only to see two young ladies literally hanging out their window.

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The rest of the night, I hopped around to a few of the amazing places that make Troy’s nightlife so vibrant.  I started at Slidin’ Dirty, a great place to eat some good food, catch a game and of course, enjoy a delicious adult beverage.

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I moved on to Footsie Magoos… and who can argue with a bar that has skeeball?

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Finally, my last stop of the night was The Ruck… again, a place where anyone can feel welcome to watch a game and enjoy a cold one 🙂

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After a fantastic sampling of the Troy nightlife, I hopped on my bike, rode 9 miles to the Albany Greyhound station and headed for home.  The whole way, I thought fondly on my day trip.

Utica, Schenectady and Binghamton are all at different points on the path to the goal of a vibrant urban revival.  With all due respect to all of them, from what I saw in a 12 hour visit, Troy New York is already there.  Nobody turned me down for an interview all day.  Everyone I spoke to wanted to talk confidently about their city, their town that has come so far in such a short time.  The people of Troy credit arts, a loose and lightly regulated business environment and collaboration as a source of growth and prosperity in their community, and they seem to be wielding these tools with a level of mastery that is unmatched in Upstate New York.  If you live in Troy, bravo, you’ve done it, and you’ve made it look easy to this outsider.  To those who don’t live in Troy, this is a tenacious town that has done more than revive a once dying downtown… they have turned their community into a destination for everyone in New York State to admire.  Cheers Troy, you deserve it!