Reflections on Albany, Part 2–Challenges and Problems

A couple of weeks ago I wrote Part 1 of this series, reflecting on Albany’s assets and positives as a place to live and an American city. After considerable ribbing from friends and family and questions about whether I’m working for the Albany tourism bureau (I’m not, and in fact I’m now interning for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, where you should check out my debut blog post), I’ve finally found the time here for Part 2, a breakdown of Albany’s challenges and problems. It’s certainly not all rosy out there–in fact, it is arguably more cloudy than rosy–so here we are.

Albany’s Problems and Challenges

1) Economy dominated by state work

This is the flip side of #5 (“Stable Economy”) on my list of positives. Despite the efforts of the Cuomo (and several previous) administration to create a high-tech hub in the region, the basis for the Capital District’s economy, and especially that of Albany, remains civil service. That provides a stable baseline for employment, but it’s not the most dynamic sector of the economy. Civil service is also incredibly hard to break into, reliant on a completely archaic system of pen-on-paper tests given at specific, obscure, and infrequent times. The cemented civil service structure brings needed stability for workers, but it also makes recruiting specific talent to government service–and to the Albany labor market generally–very, very difficult.

2) Provincial feel, perception, and self-image

The moniker “Smallbany,” used both earnestly and ironically, says a lot about Albany’s self-image. Like many such words it was initially an insult but has been reclaimed by some as a term of endearment; nevertheless, it says something real about the city. Government jobs mean a constant flow of people between Albany and New York City, so there is always a snooty New Yorker around to remind Albany natives about how backward their city is and to kvetch about being stuck here. Of course, Albany (and especially its Irish community) has long cultivated a provincial feeling of its own, captured well in William Kennedy’s novels.

3) Hard to find interest groups and people to identify with. Social life largely revolves around alcohol.

Maybe I’m just snooty relative to other students, but I don’t enjoy loud, crowded bars, and I’ve found it hard to find ways to socialize that don’t involve such things.

4) Hardened relationships between African-American community and governing class

Though I recently had to walk through a boisterous, crowded celebration of Black History Month (complete with an exhibit honoring ’60s militant group The Brothers) while leaving City Hall, Albany’s black community still largely occupies the place the O’Connell-Corning machine put it in, shut out of the city’s power structure. The black community in Albany, as in several other Northeastern cities, was not large until the postwar era, by which time the O’Connells’ iron grip had already descended. In political identity Albany is still very much an Irish-Catholic town, and for the black community that has meant decades of mostly being ignored and trod upon. Things are, I think, beginning to look up some, but for now Albany’s black neighborhoods remain vulnerable, decaying, and suffering from a legacy of exploitation.

5) Lagging on National Trends

The stereotype of second- and third- level metros is that they tend to be behind the times, and Albany is no exception, particularly in the field of planning and urbanism. Most people around here are still chasing the dream of free parking, huge lawns, and social isolation from their lessors, and, to be honest, this isn’t the kind of region that punishes that pursuit with horrendous traffic congestion or anything of the sort. Albany’s waterfront is marred by a horrendous, expensive, and unnecessary freeway, but the movement to get rid of it is barely in its nascent stages. Any movement towards better urbanism, parking policy, etc is vigorously opposed by the suburban (and near-suburban) lobby, which usually includes the state employee unions (see the next point).

6) Neglect by, and difficult relationship with, the state

Related to #1 and another flip side of #5 on the list of assets: the city’s domination by state work and state land has decided downsides. With up to 60% of the city’s land off of tax rolls–and much of that owned by the state–the city has been left with property taxes at unsustainable rates. Though the city recently got $5 million in assistance from the state’s Financial Restructuring Board, there is still need for more. The state has generally been an unsympathetic and unreliable partner, which is particularly stinging given that construction of the Empire State Plaza wiped out 98 acres of productive, dense neighborhoods and replaced it with freeways and (non-taxed) state buildings.

Institutionally owned properties in Albany, from the Albany 2030 comprehensive plan.

Institutionally owned properties in Albany, from the Albany 2030 comprehensive plan.

The state has often contended that its presence brings needed vitality to Albany and that its workers bring in more economic activity than could possibly be replicated in taxes. Of course, the vast majority of state workers drive into Albany in the morning and out at night, tearing up city-maintained roads as they go, and forming (with the help of their unions) a potent lobby for turning the city into one giant parking lot. And though the Empire State Plaza might have kept tens of thousands of state jobs in downtown Albany, it is a nearly entirely self-contained environment with its own food court, post office(s) and, soon, supermarket, all of which add up to limit its positive spillover effects. For Albany to have a bright future, the sclerotic New York State political establishment will have to stop treating it like a dump and start realizing that a livable state capital city is necessary for bringing in a talented state workforce. Of course, they’ve got little incentive to realize either of those things right now.

7) Competes both with suburbs and with other Capital District cities for immigrants and talent

This is the flip side of #8 in my previous post. True, the three major Capital District cities provide a unique mix of assets and play off of each other nicely. But Albany, though the most prominent of the three, also has to compete not only with the suburbs but with the other two cities for the immigrants who are so crucial to urban vitality and for the picky young talent that will form the basis of the next urban generation. Schenectady, though very much a suffering city economically, has attracted a significant immigrant population. Troy has been proclaimed the Next Brooklyn so many times that it’s become an eyeroll-provoking cliche.

8) Legacy of urban renewal

The tragic truth is that Albany came thisclose to avoiding massive urban renewal projects altogether. The O’Connell machine, suspicious of outsiders and in particular those squeaky-clean feds with all of the strings attached to their money, avoided taking federal dollars for urban renewal in the postwar period. That situation (which extended to housing projects as well and had negative ramifications for Albany’s black community) meant that Albany did not see large-scale slum clearance until the 1960s, as the momentum of urban renewal was starting to slow in other Northeastern cities.  I-90 missed the city to the north and the New York State Thruway to the south.

When “renewal” did come, it was provoked not by local officials but by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose insistent pushing–and backroom deals with Mayor Erastus Corning–eventually did wipe out the proverbial 98 acres of central Albany. The slider images from the University of Oklahoma’s Quality Communities project demonstrate the devastation nicely. I can’t embed their Albany image here, but click on the link. And the Plaza opened the floodgates for highway construction as well.

via All Over Albany, the Mid-Crosstown Arterial would have run two doors down from my apartment.

via All Over Albany, the Mid-Crosstown Arterial would have run two doors down from my apartment.

Though Albany avoided being dissected by urban freeways and having an interchange embedded under Washington Park, the (entirely unnecessary) South Mall Arterial spur leading into the Plaza and I-787 along the waterfront did more damage than arguably the Plaza had done all on its own. Although, to be fair, Albany has always been cut off from its waterfront by industry, 787 sealed its alienation from nature, and cut the approaches to downtown’s Union Station, forcing intercity trains across the Hudson to Rensselaer (see #10 below).

9) Tension between machine legacy and progressive good-governance streak 

Like all capital cities, Albany has its fare share of liberal, middle-class, managerial households; indeed, they formed the nucleus of some of the most important opposition to the longtime machine. And yet, it is only with the 2013 election of Mayor Kathy Sheehan that this technocratic class can really be said to have gained control of Albany city government. The last round of elections, in November 2014, led to several open conflicts between the progressive, reform wing of the Democratic part and the conservative wing that can be fairly said to be the legacy of the old machine.

In many ways, the legacy of the O’Connell-Corning machine still thrives. Snow removal is still ineffectively contracted out; our streets get swept every week despite a budget hole; and there is remarkably little tradition of political activism in the city. For the most part, “apathy” appears to be the predominant mode of relation to local politics in Albany. Where the old machine succeeded in suppressing voter interest for decades, the challenge of Albany’s political culture in the decades ahead will be to create an engaged, caring, educated citizenry.

10) Disjointed, incomplete, and expensive intercity transportation

A while ago I wrote about the sad situation of Albany’s gorgeous-but-inaccessible Amtrak station. The removal of the approach tracks to downtown’s beautiful Union Station meant the transfer of passenger operations across the river to Rensselaer, probably never to be restored.

Union Station, 1948  Albany NY 1940s

Union Station in happier times. Via AlbanyGroup Archive on Flickr. 

Albany’s Greyhound station, situated in a sea of parking lots in the shadow of the South Mall Arterial, is an absolute dump, and poorly integrated with other transportation options. Megabus stops at the Amtrak station. Flying out of Albany’s airport is extremely expensive and inconvenient, with limited schedules and virtually nonexistent transit connections to downtown (there’s a local bus a few times per day). Though CDTA has been on-the-ball about advocating for a new, integrated downtown bus terminal, that may or may not happen, and still wouldn’t draw in Amtrak. The disconnection of Union Station means commuter rail, a topic that gets broached every so often in the region, would likely be entirely unsuccessful since there’s no conceivable downtown Albany terminal. For a capital city, it can be awfully difficult to get to Albany.

11) Struggling schools, or perception thereof

Schools were another area neglected under the O’Connell machine. Albany’s Irish Catholics–though for most of its life the machine was less ethnically identified than others, it still had a distinct Irish tinge–sent their kids to parochial school, and the public schools were left to rot. I’m not sure the system has ever really recovered. Albany has essentially one large public high school to which most students, regardless of background, go. That could work well, but from what I’ve heard from kids who attend, it basically leads to extreme class and academic segregation. The other schools have typical urban school struggles. This is hardly a problem unique to Albany.

12) Old city problems: high property taxes, old infrastructure, regulations on small business

Albany’s an old city, and its history is one of the best things about it. But that also means that a lot of the city’s infrastructure is crumbling, and too often the city can’t afford to repair it. The roads are heavily potholed. Streetlights and traffic lights don’t work and go weeks without repair. Water main breaks are common. All of this is (not) paid for with high property taxes on the relatively small proportion of city land that actually gets taxed. It can also be a drag to do business in Albany, even (especially?) for small businesses.  Mayor Sheehan, a former city treasurer, is selling herself as a budget whiz, and seems to be making progress so far, but it seems that nothing short of a comprehensive bill of reparations from the state for the Empire State Plaza (which cost $2.2 billion…in 1970 dollars. That sounds like a nice amount, doesn’t it?) will allow the city to stop playing catch-up and finally get ahead of its challenges.

13) Perception of Albany as a place to work and little else

This is, perhaps, the biggest challenge Albany has to overcome. Though it is the dominant city in the region, it isn’t that much bigger than next-door, sprawling Colonie (~97,000 to ~82,000), and struggles to be taken seriously by the suburban hordes. Certainly the state’s actions in creating the car-oriented Plaza and giving most state employees free parking have much to do with the suburban perception of Albany as a drive-in, drive-out city, but Albany has also struggled to take itself seriously as an urban place. Most suburbanites and state workers react with horror to the idea of raising their kids in the city, if it’s even on their radar at all. I suspect that will change with evolving generational preferences. But it might take a while; Albany, after all, isn’t the most trendy place.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Albany, Part 2–Challenges and Problems

  1. Hello,

    As a New York expat trying to find a way back to his home state, I’m really enjoying your insights on transportation/urban planning and Albany in general 🙂 I’m also thinking about doing a graduate program in transportation/urban planning; what are your thoughts on the program at SUNY Albany?

    • Hey Adam,

      Glad you’re enjoying! Shoot me an email at sjohnston (at) albany (dot) edu and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have…and I do have many thoughts 😉

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