Albany, New York: A Comfortably Urban Capital On The Rise

My Uber driver switched lanes and hit the gas as we approached the sea of brutalist-style buildings rising before us.  With a quick swipe of my iPhone screen, I engaged the camera and fired off a burst of photos before we disappeared into the tunnel under the iconic plaza.

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Minutes later, I stepped out of the car to a brutally forceful wind and began my five hour journey around the city of Albany, New York.  I knew I wasn’t able to hit every attraction, but I wanted to really gather the essence of the historic city’s downtown and tell a story that isn’t often told… the fun, approachable, and unquestionably unique experience of this New York Capital city.

I marveled at the 120 year New York State Capitol building that stared back at me, a monument of history in the state that I hold so dear to my heart.

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Spinning counterclockwise, I saw the New York State Education Department Building, which opened 13 years after the capitol building.  The lengthy white structure evaded my cell phone camera’s ability to capture its massive footprint.

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As I spun in the formidable March wind while standing in the park square, mammoth historic structures sprung up around me, capturing my imagination and sending me on a mental journey of a century gone by.

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I made my way to the adjacent Empire State Plaza, a stark but captivating feast for the inquisitive eyes.  The history of this public square stands in contrast to the historic structures I had just visited to the north.  In the early 1960s, Governor Nelson Rockefeller decided that this area of Albany, which was in sharp decline, needed a facelift.  From 1965 to 1976, the construction of the plaza displaced 7,000 residents through the use of eminent domain.  In true mid-to-late 20th century style, a massive public square lined with brutalistic-style structures housing state government departments, as well as the iconic “Egg” auditorium were created, forever changing the Capital City skyline.

The horrors of extreme urban renewal aside, I walked the grounds in full appreciation of what is by far and away the most unique modern urban architecture in Upstate New York.  Despite my knowledge of its destructive creation, I enjoyed walking along this iconic mall, an absolute must see for any inquisitive visitor.

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Truthfully, I had briefly experienced this part of Albany before.  I had seen the plaza, I had marveled at the buildings… but this day, I was interested to find Albany’s organic heartbeat.  I wanted to see beyond the skyline and find the humanity in this architecturally stratified urban center.

One of the elements that sparked my interest when I initially looked at a map of Albany was the dedication to park space.  I always say “dedication” when I talk about park and public space, because keeping and maintaining these elements that make cities livable and breathable is not always easy.  Cities that promote green space as an important piece of the urban fabric understand that even the most staunch urban dweller needs multiple nearby opportunities to take a peaceful walk, have a picnic, throw a ball around or just enjoy nature.  Three major parks form a sort of triangle around downtown Albany, with Lincoln Park to the south, Washington Park to the West and The Corning City Preserve to the east on the shore of the Hudson River.  Many smaller parks speckle the surface of downtown, giving the city’s center a feeling that there’s more to it than concrete and asphalt.  Indeed, compared to other cities in Upstate New York, Albany seems to have a firm grasp on the importance of urban greenspace.

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After visiting Lincoln Park and Washington Park (I didn’t have time to visit the Corning City Preserve), I walked to an area that I had heard very good things about… the Madison Ave/Lark Street area.  As someone with a propensity for small scale urban form and revitalization, this neighborhood had me thoroughly intrigued.  Admittedly, this was a piece of Albany I was totally unaware of, so I was anxious explore on foot.

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The stoop ruled here, a sort of miniature-scale 85th Street in Manhattan, similar to neighborhoods in nearby Troy and Schenectady.  The colorful, unique touches of urban residential density were alive and well.

From the corner of Madison and Lark Streets to the intersection between Lark Street and the busy transit artery of Washington Ave., the rising vibes of Albany’s bohemian small business core was alive and well.  Of course, I had to pop into The Downtube Bicycle Works, which had a small but appealing showroom and even a hallway to the coffee shop next door.

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Andrew met me as I came through the door, and was kind enough to tell me about his city on the rise.

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“There’s really a push toward downtown living here again.  We’re seeing the revitalization of industrial space and former historic buildings.  We’ve always had residential density here, but 4-5 years ago there were a lot more shuttered businesses and storefronts.  Now those are growing again, and we’re seeing people really embrace that small businesses in the area.”

“Albany has always had a lot of state workers, but now the city is trying hard to keep our college students here.  We have so many colleges and universities in the area, and I think the city recognizes the importance of retaining the students that get an education here.”

Andrew went on to talk about how Madison Avenue recently underwent a street diet, taking it from four lanes to 2 and a turning lane while adding bike lanes in either direction.  He noted the importance of this additive, both from a traffic-calming perspective and a bike infrastructure perspective.  College students can now take Madison down to Lark Street for the array of restaurants, bars and shops.

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After speaking with Andrew, who was so delightfully versed in the positives of New Urbanism, I walked the hallway over to 3Fish Coffee and took a couple quick photos of the tiny but mighty cafe.  The photos I took don’t do justice to the creative, multi-level use of the small space.  The cozy and inviting vibe of this coffee house made me smile instantly.

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I moved on to Lark Street, passing quaint shops, bustling cafes, interesting bars, cultural eateries, a vegan deli, small grocers and more.

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I popped in to Bombers Burrito Bar in serious need of a quality afternoon adult beverage.

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With no shame, I sipped on a delicious house margarita while admiring the intimate bar setting, which was packed full of Saturday afternoon patrons.  Two gentlemen were enjoying what looked to be a celebratory birthday margarita, which of course I just had to take a picture of.

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As I moved on up Lark Street, I continued to fall in love with this small scale commercial urban paradise, flanked by seemingly endless streets of beautiful urban homes and apartments.  Brick streets and intersections, slow traffic and people from all walks of life passed me as they fought through the cold and windy day to their destinations.

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Suddenly, Lark gave way to the fast-paced, high traffic intersection of Washington Ave., which had all the feels of a large city main street.  In this particular section, an odd traffic pattern intermingled with a sort of public space and monument in the middle of the busy roadway.

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The Northeast side of the street was delightfully sprinkled with small businesses and several ethnic eateries.  The effect was a sort of humanization of the bustling city street.

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As I walked up and down both sides of Washington Ave., toward downtown, I really enjoyed the views of the historic structures that towered over the landscape.  It actually gave me a sort of compass, telling me where I was in relation to where I had just been.

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I passed a major CDTA bus stop, which was beautiful and functional.  I’ve always been impressed with The Capital District Transportation Authority’s bus stations, with their clean and modern form.  They resemble light rail stations more than bus stations, which I think is tremendous.

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A short walk down Washington led me to a place I was told I had to see.  The Albany Institute of History and Art didn’t look like much from the outside, but its contents did not disappoint.

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The fist exhibit I viewed was “Shape and Shadow: The Sculpture of Larry Kagen,” which featured seemingly random wall-mounted wire structures, the shadows of which revealed incredibly detailed images as shown below.

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The Institute featured a number of small but interesting exhibits, including a nineteenth-century American sculpture room, and a very nice Egyptian exhibit.

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Finally, I walked into a beautifully colored room with high ceilings that opened up in front of me, revealing a over ninety paintings of The Hudson River Valley from the Albany Institute.  I was absolutely floored by the paintings and the way in which they were displayed.  Your eye could move from one to the other as you pieced together this magnificent visual marvel.

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It was in this room where I met Victoria, who kindly told me about The Institute and how important places like it are to local culture.

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“The Albany Institute was actually founded in 1791.  It was originally founded in New York City and then we moved up here in 1797.  We’ve been through a couple different spaces and this is our most recent.  A big part of what we do here is to try to collect and preserve local history, specifically in the Hudson River Valley area.”

“Places like this are very important to a city.  My Grandma remembers coming here.  It’s one of those things where I definitely feel we’re part of the culture here in Albany, and at the same time we try to reflect our unique culture.”

The Institute was indeed a beautiful place, as well as an important compliment to the community.  As a big fan of small city museums and galleries, I highly recommend visiting The Albany Institute.

My time in Albany was growing scarce, so I hailed an Uber and headed for The Warehouse District, an area I had heard so much about.  While riding through the heart of downtown, I captured a few images of more inviting park space, and the Palace Theater, a place I vowed to check out on my next trip to Albany, which I was starting to realize was going to be sooner rather than later.

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My Uber driver dropped me off at an unassuming warehouse structure, a sort of blue-collar chameleon in a sea of other nondescript industrial structures.  Once inside, the scene was anything but nondescript.

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Fort Orange Brewing was alive.  The bones of the old warehouse space gave way to the party lights on the ceiling, a polished concrete floor that welcomed pets, picnic-style seating and an inviting bar space… it felt like a block party in a neighborhood garage.  A group of people were playing Cornhole in one corner, while two women were drinking beers and playing a board game.

Craig Johnson, one of the owners, articulated to me the vision and the community touch that Fort Orange Brewing looked to convey.

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“We’re essentially all about community.  Of course beer mixes into community, it has the power to bring it together.  We didn’t want to make another brewery, we wanted to make a community space.  We moved into the warehouse district in downtown Albany and we opened up in 2017, so we are still very new on the block.”

“Everyone has their own personal tastes and perception of flavor.  Each place compliments each other, so we are bringing downtown back and you have a choice of places to go.  You can hop around here and there… we don’t have food but you can bring food in.  The tables that we have are community based, family style, sit together and make some new friends.”

Craig beamed with pride and gratitude as he looked on to a space that was quickly filling up with people.  His vision for a community space was perfectly communicated with every detail of Fort Orange, and that made me smile.

I made my way south through the Warehouse District and popped my head into The Albany Distilling Company Bar and Bottle Shop.  It was absolutely time for a cocktail.

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As luck would have it, I sat down next to co-owner of Albany Distilling, Rick Sicari and his little guy Ginnaro, who was eagerly perched at the bar.

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“We have our one year anniversary coming up for this bar and bottle shop, but we’ve been in business now for 7 years.”

“Albany is kind of set up in a very stretched out way, but unlike a lot of cities right now, we have a lot of neighborhoods.  There’s a neighborhood about a half-mile to the south, and another one just to the north that are both fun, but there’s kind of a void in between them.  When my partner and I were looking for places to put down a distillery, the choice was to go right in between and be that pioneer while rejuvenating this area.  Many businesses have followed, there’s 150 apartments that are coming in… and we never would have been able to get this project off the ground if it wasn’t for support from Capitalize Albany, Empire State Development, National Grid… they’ve all really seen what we’re doing and they’ve been a huge reason we’re here.”

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Rick continued after giving Ginnaro some attention, and more Goldfish.

“Albany is really moving.  Just like Rochester, we have a ton of college students.  But as soon as they are done with their education, they’re out because there’s nothing here to keep their interest.  So one thing we have pushed for is making Albany a fun place to stay.  Bring in tech [companies], bring in high-paying jobs.  But don’t just build a working environment you can’t enjoy, grow a city where millennials and younger people want to stay.”

“This is an urban city that’s fallen dormant, and we’re excited to be a part of bringing it back.”

Every time I do one of these city tours, I meet someone by chance that leads me to see something I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.  Rick was this person in Albany.  I told him I was meeting a friend for a drink at the Albany Pump Station, and he told me that’s where their distilling was done.  So I headed down to the Pump Station, entered the incredible space and grabbed a drink while spinning and staring at the gloriously restored industrial structure.

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Moments after I arrived, Rick came in and told me to follow him through to the back of the building.

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Through a maze of industrial corridors we walked until we reached the distillery room.  There to immediately greet us was Monty, listed on the website as Albany Distilling Company’s “Spiritual Leader.”

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Rick showed me around the space, the equipment, and even showed me the log book, which I thought was pretty cool.

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Then we moved down the hall to the barrel room, which was quite an amazing site!  It was great to get a sort of private tour through the facility and see where the magic was made.

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After meeting my friend for a drink, it was time to move on my way back to the Amtrak station.  While it’s not quite as conveniently located, across the Hudson River in Rensselaer, the station was stunning with the late day sun bursting through the towering windows.

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I stepped out onto the platform to see my train patiently waiting for me.  I entered the car, sat down in my chair and reflected on the amazing 5 hours and 36 minutes I spent in Albany, New York.  I saw so much in such a short period of time, and met some wonderful people along the way.  There was still so much more to appreciate, and I knew I would be back to see all that I had missed very soon.

Albany, like nearly every city in New York is finding its legs again, wobbling forward after decades of decline and hardship.  Small businesses are reinvigorating neighborhoods, and great food/delicious brews and spirits are slowly erasing the scars of blighted and forgotten industrial vacancies.  Albany is the perfect-sized city, with room to grow and intimacy in abundance.  The parks, the public space, the blend of history, modernity and visions for a better tomorrow make me tremendously optimistic for this state Capital on the Hudson River.  I will be back soon, and to be perfectly honest, I can’t wait to do it all over again. 🙂

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