If you’re new to The Urban Phoenix, this piece is reflective of posts I’ve written featuring occasional trips I take to small cities across New York State. If you’re a regular reader, this “city tour” differs from my tours of previous cities. My intention was to visit the new Riverlink Park and pedestrian bridge in the hopes of seeing how a project like this can be a catalyst for future growth. If you’re expecting to see one of The Urban Phoenix’s classic city tours, this one’s a bit different but every bit as important!
I stared across the mirror-still Mohawk River on a sunny December morning, sipping my coffee as my train sped vigorously down the tracks at 80 miles per hour. The reflections of the barren trees, like gangly silhouettes against the bright sun, created a sort of “spent” look about the upstate landscape after a summer and fall of beautiful weather. With wedding season over, it was time for me to explore New York again. Today’s destination would be Amsterdam, a small city of just under 18,000 people. While my journeys have usually caused me to set aside entire days, this would be a short stay of under 5 hours, just enough time to get a feel for the “bones” of the city, and maybe a couple spontaneous conversations with local residents. But the real reason I was traveling had a little less to do with the city and more to do with a new feature of this former industrial paradise… a piece of public space called Riverlink Park. In a city where the last gasp of real prosperity fell with a mall that promised the moon and subsequently failed, the first steps toward healing the deepest wounds lie in a brand new public space that has the potential to tie this community back together.
Whenever I visit a city, I develop a very rough plan. Rome, Geneva, Hudson… these very small cities allowed me the pleasure of being able to map out an experience of shops, restaurants and attractions before I visited them. The trick with Amsterdam, quite frankly, was that I struggled to find anything online that really seemed to have a story behind it. I knew I wanted to visit the park, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find much else in the city that looked like a gem.
When I physically arrived in Amsterdam, I was surprised at just how much traffic was moving through it. The key word here is “through” and at generally higher speeds. So many 4-lane highways, nonsensically criss-crossing what used to be a rich urban landscape.No one was stopping because quite frankly, there wasn’t much reason to stop. In virtually every other small upstate city I’d visited, there had been at least some initial flickerings from a rising flame of life… usually in the form of a new cafe in a long-vacant building, or high-end restaurant in a repurposed warehouse. Sadly, that did not seem to be the case here. Even in a short stretch of adorable storefronts with on-street parking, most of the shops were empty and decaying with the harsh hand of time. The manikins in the windows gave a certain cynical finality to the decaying scene.
Indeed, it was obvious there were still architectural elements of the city that survived the horrors of Urban Renewal in the 1970s.It was easy to see that the structural bones of the city still had strong potential. With that, I made my way to Riverlink Park.
Since the park was built on the Mohawk River, getting there wasn’t exactly easy. Downtown Amsterdam is separated from the water by fast moving traffic on Route 5, as well as the CSX/Amtrak mainline. The only way leap these obstacles on foot is over a pedestrian bridge with an almost invisible and horribly unattractive entrance on the roof of the old Riverfront Center Mall (more on the mall later).
I trekked across the bridge and took the stairs down to the beautiful new park that unfolded around me. Even in the cold December wind, it welcomed me in with style and comfort. Circular and full of nuance, this creative injection of public space suddenly gave me hope.An open space for family walks and entertaining performances, a cafe that served food, trees, greenery and inviting benches… A playground, a gorgeous view of the river and a general feeling that this was a wonderful place to be. This space was designed beautifully and it made me smile.
I continued walking down the path toward the bridge itself. Some interesting sculpture work and a 9/11 Memorial greeted me as I made my way.The path took me under the extremely busy bridge across the Mohawk. I was certain the noise and fast moving traffic made this a less-than-enjoyable bridge to traverse on foot.On the other side of the highway, the Riverlink Park walking path began to rise toward a much friendlier bridge across the river.The most important element of this park, I quickly learned, was a magnificent walking bridge the spanned the Mohawk River, allowing pedestrian and bike access to two sides of a city separated by water. But to my astonishment, this wasn’t just a bridge… it was a beautifully designed outdoor museum, paying homage to the history of Amsterdam and the direction for the future.The stunning view of the river and the ability to connect residents on foot to both sides of Amsterdam, as well as to summertime events at the park made this bridge special. The countless plaques, attention to detail and uplifting spirit of the message and design of the structure made me feel like I was instantly a part of a story of local history that I never knew existed. This was no bridge… it was a journey through time and space, a magnificent window into the heart of this once thriving community.
The best urban revivals are ones that allow present generations to connect to their past, while still moving toward the future. This bridge did exactly that for me.
On the other side of the bridge, a much calmer, slower community opened before me. Narrow streets, very little traffic… and a sort of quiet, pleasant neighborhood feel came over me as I made my way around.As it was approaching mid afternoon, I decided to pop into Herk’s a bar in the “center” of this side of town. While there, I had a great conversation with the bartender and a patron about the city of Amsterdam. Both of them talked about how urban renewal devastated the city’s landscape in the 1970s.“Then there’s that mall,” one of the men said. “They’ve gotta tear that thing down. It ruined downtown, all the small shops and businesses left when that thing went in.”
I had a similar conversation with the ladies at MaryJane’s Market, as well as with a gentleman on the street.The consensus seemed to be that the Riverfront Center Mall promised to be a boon of vibrancy and commerce in downtown, but had the opposite effect, sending locally owned shops and businesses to their ultimate peril. The message from the locals I talked to throughout the day spoke loudly to the belief that the mall drove any chance of an organic revitalization out a city that had lost so many jobs already.But many people believed that the new park and the bridge were welcomed additions, featuring summer concerts and a connection to the city’s rich history.
I crossed the river back to the city’s northeast side. Up the hill I walked, exploring market street. I passed Kirk Douglas park, a small greenspace and playground on a hill next to a beautifully flowing creek.Further up the hill, I encountered some of Amsterdam’s industrial skeletons, waiting patiently for their potential new future. Cities across the country are slowly turning former industrial giants like these into loft apartments, offices and mixed-use retail, staying true to the past while repurposing space for the future. While I had seen evidence of this in so many other cities, this seemed to still be a dream for Amsterdam.Finally, I took a different route back to the train station down Guy Park Avenue and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. It was difficult to see so many of the most beautiful homes in such a difficult state. The struggles of this city, sadly, showed most in the decay of what I’m certain used to be stunning residential neighborhoods.Before heading home, I popped in to Russo’s, a restaurant and bar along Route 5. While there, I enjoyed perhaps the best pasta with vodka sauce I’ve ever had. I WILL stop there again for the food!While there, I had the pleasure of speaking with Katherine, the bartender. To be honest, she was the first young person I had spoken to while in Amsterdam, and she had some positive things to say about the surrounding area.She talked about the wonderful summer concerts in the new park and the efforts by young people in the nearby areas to make a difference in their communities. She had high hopes for what Amsterdam could be, and it was lovely to hear that kind of enthusiasm. It left me with a very positive feeling as I headed back to the station, full and happy.
In under five hours, I was able to get a strong idea of what Amsterdam was… a city that formally enjoyed one of the wealthiest industrial strongholds in New York. But with the rise of automation and the plague of urban renewal that hit this city as hard as any I’ve seen, Amsterdam fell to a depth, the rise from which has not been realized. Higher speed roads that act like moats, making any kind of pedestrian experience unfriendly, have replaced what used to be a bustling hub of shops, offices and walkable streets. The Riverfront Mall, now filled with the occasional office, swept the last gasp of local vibrancy away, and for decades the city has been silent, waiting for a breath of life.
In so many other cities I’ve visited in New York State, these small life forces have preceded change… a cafe in a struggling area, a new restaurant in a vacant part of town, or a group of young people dedicated to take their downtown back have been the rallying cry, signalling a new beginning. But Amsterdam seems to be stuck in the middle as it floats between strong urban revival efforts in nearby Schenectady and Troy to the East and Utica to the West. Riverlink Park and its gorgeous new “bridge through history” gives hope for the future, a sort of starting point of public space and a gesture of connection to the community. In as city where organic growth has stagnated, often a project like this is just the thing to bring a community together, as well as open the eyes of investors and developers who might be seeking the next ground-floor opportunity in New York State.
Amsterdam might be down, but it has plenty of beauty, charm and hard working people to imagine a bright future. It often starts with one effort and Riverlink Park might just be the thing. A beautiful raised decorative compass on the bridge says it best:
“What once was home is home again. My Amsterdam.”
The quote speaks to a connection with the past as fuel for a future generation that yearns for a rebirth of the glory our small cities formally enjoyed.
While not yet fully realized, the future of this little city just got a twinkle in it’s eye… I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.