What better picture to accompany a post about Boston than one of the city's classic triple-deckers? Centre and Pond Streets in Jamaica Plain.

An Announcement

I’m aware this blog has been too damn quiet lately, and while I know there’s no excuse for my failure to provide quality content, I’m here now to offer, at least, an explanation: I’ve been spending a lot of time applying and interviewing for jobs, most of which have required travel somewhere, well, other than Albany. It’s been a wild ride and while I’ve had both fizzles and opportunities along the way, it’s taken a while to find the right fit.

Anyhow, now that phase is over.

The Itinerant Urbanist (I keep telling you, the name of the blog isn’t for nothing!) is back on the road—and, what a shock, once again to someplace new to me. Effective January 15th, home base for this blog will be Boston, where I’ve accepted a position as a Transportation Planner and Unified Planning Work Program manager with the Central Transportation Planning Staff, the staff to the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. I’m excited about both the professional challenge ahead of me and the opportunity to move back to a somewhat larger city—while I do wax poetic about the virtues of midsize city living, there are real advantages to being someplace larger.

I’ve had the luck to count on professional and social contacts among Boston’s large and talkative transit/urbanism Internet community, and I look forward to getting to know more of you in real life. You probably won’t see me commenting on Boston-region stuff too much here or on Twitter—because, you know, professionalism—but know I value the perspective on the region you’ve given me and will continue to help me develop immensely. And I will, presumably, get back to writing on other topics in this space more regularly when my life calms down.

A few weeks ago someone asked a series of questions about where people would like to live, among other things, on Twitter and Urbanist Twitter had a lot of fun with it. My answer to the question of my favorite American cities, ironically, did not include Boston:

but rest assured that I am super excited to have found a decently priced apartment a two-minute walk from the Orange Line (Green Street in JP, to be exact), which will be the closest I’ve ever lived to rail transit, or any transit that frequent. My partner’s from Boston and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the area, so in that way it’s a return home of sorts, but there’s enough mystery left that I’m looking forward to discovering yet another place afresh.

That being said, since it became clear that I’m moving to Boston it has felt, in some ways, fated. While home cleaning out my bedroom in Chicago over Thanksgiving, I found a memento that I had not remembered owning—a laminated poster with a 1915 map of the Boston Elevated Railway transit network on one side and a 1912 map of all the street railways in Massachusetts on the other. Bringing it back to Albany reunited it with my copy of this book on a similar topic. The poster will, I think, be going on my cubicle wall. A sign? Perhaps.

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The Boston side of said poster.

There’s also this:

While I have not (yet) traveled all 3,365 miles of U.S. 20, it does feel to a large extent like that road is the axis along which my life unfolds. My grandmother until recently lived only miles from its Pacific Coast terminus in Newport, which is a beautiful little town that I recommend visiting if you ever get the chance. I spent my high school years in Chicago, and the last 3 ½ in Albany; Route 20 runs through both cities. Our Albany apartment, in fact, is a block and a half from Madison Avenue, which hosts 20. So is it such a surprise that I would end up near the East Coast origin of U.S. 20? Perhaps not.

Because this is a serious blog, I’ll wind up here with some serious analysis. There’s been a long-term on-and-off discussion in the econ/planning/urbanist Internet community—starting even before the 2016 election made it a much-talked-about national issue—about what policymakers can do to help rural and disinvested communities and the people in them. It’s not uncommon to hear (and I’ve been guilty of thinking it myself sometimes) “well, why don’t they just move?” And sure, relocation is one potentially workable strategy. But more than anything else, preparations to make this move have brought home to me just how high the barriers can be to relocation in a high-cost area. We’re lucky that in moving from Albany—certainly not the worst off of Upstate’s major cities—to Boston our rent is ONLY approximately doubling, not tripling. And the amount of cash necessary to put down to secure an apartment is incredibly intimidating, even though Gabriella and I are both white-collar professionals with limited student loan debt and decent savings socked away. I don’t have a magical solution (and I might suggest that we shouldn’t necessarily be looking for such silver bullets) but we should have a policy of easy mobility, and we should think about how to make that happen.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, if you care enough about my ramblings to have read this far—my loyal, brilliant, and thoroughly professional partner Gabriella, who I followed to Albany and who is now following me to Boston—is looking for a job. Gabriella’s spent the last several years developing and managing a multimillion-dollar climate resiliency program for farmers in New York State and is open to any kind of environmental work. You know where to find me with suggestions, contacts, etc.

I’ve enjoyed meeting people through this blog for the last several years, and I hope to continue to do so going forward. Thanks for the company, and onwards.

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On The Occasion of the Cubs Winning the World Series

Warning: not the usual content of this blog incoming. 

It’s 12:32 PM on the day the Cubs won the World Series, and it still doesn’t feel real. I literally just pinched myself to make sure I’m awake, and not just because of sleep deprivation.

I’ve been sobbing on and off since the game ended last night, which, I have to say, is I think something G—who has been a wonderfully supportive partner this season and has proven even more adept than I am at Cubs fan neurosis—has trouble understanding. Why does this shit matter so much, to me and many others?

Baseball is about a lot of things. It’s about capitalism. It’s about competition. Often (too often) it’s about masculinity. There’s definitely an opiate-of-the-masses effect in the long run. But in the meantime, baseball (and other sports) is about people. It’s about parents, siblings, children—the kinds of relationships Wright Thompson captures in this amazingly tearjerking ESPN piece.

Baseball’s been a key to my relationship with my dad and my brother—the Warren Park Little League star and current University of Chicago pitcher—but it’s also been one of the primary things connecting me to a broader community of fans.

My family moved to Chicago in August of 2003. I was a shy, quiet 15-year-old petrified to be starting high school with a bunch (ok, only 20-25, but for a former homeschooler it seemed like a lot!) of kids I didn’t know while adapting to a new city, synagogue community and the like. I was a baseball fan but didn’t have a hugely strong allegiance to one team, having mainly rooted for the Mike Piazza-era Mets while living in New Haven. I needed something to anchor a sense of place and to help me connect to Chicago and the people there.

And the 2003 Cubs delivered in the Cubsiest way possible. That wasn’t a great team; it had real talent and real weaknesses, and it somehow wouldn’t have felt right at all for the Cubs to deliver in my first year as a fan. Which, of course, they didn’t. But to this day I feel like that 2003 team—as much as it, and the following year’s squad, disappointed—cemented my ability to grow as a fan and indeed as a person. I learned to enjoy the deep, earnest voice of Pat Hughes on the radio, and even to embrace the unbridled enthusiasm and semi-coherence (at best) of Ron Santo.

I had the benefit of a wonderful high school crew (hope to see many of y’all at—I believe—my first ever Thanksgiving in Chicago!) who were patient with my quirks and helped me come out of my shell more than a little bit. And connection over baseball (and other sports to a lesser extent) was a big part of that. I think, just maybe, being a baseball fan normalized my usually geeky persona a little? Yes, fandom was depressing sometimes—but in another, deeper, way, it was liberating.

There have been ups and downs and some truly dreadful teams in the meantime, but I think I’ve lived through—in my 13 years of fandom—on the average the most successful era in Cubs history. Which is saying something. Playoffs in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2015, and 2016, with a World Series championship in the last year? Yes please! There have been losses—Santo in 2010, Ernie Banks before last season—but in recent years, especially since the hiring of Theo Epstein and crew, those losses have seemingly simply added to a grim determination to end the Curse once and for all. There was a sense it was coming, it was inevitable, it was just a matter of time. That sense only accelerated this season. And so it was.

Perhaps for that reason, perhaps because living in Upstate New York has put me at geographic remove from the chaos and angst of most of Cubs fandom, this postseason has felt somewhat surreal. I’ve listened to—only watched on TV once—every game except for the one that fell on the evening of Kol Nidre. I’ve obsessively texted, chatted, and email with family and friends. But, in the emotional, communal, indeed spiritual sense, I don’t think the championship (I just pinched myself again) is going to really hit until my plane touches down at Midway Airport on Thanksgiving afternoon. Even though Midway’s on the South Side, there will be banners. There will be lots of people in Cubs gear. There will be flags with Ws and flags with cubbie bears and flags with two blue stripes and four red stars on a white background. There will be Chicago. Not my only home—but it will feel like home.

Writing is the best way I have to process events. Often, it’s good for rationally thinking through what’s going on in the world. I hope I’ve done a pretty good job explaining myself here, but I’m not sure G is going to be convinced. And maybe there’s no such thing as a rational explanation. No rational reason I feel the need to prioritize going to Wrigley and laying my head against the bricks and looking up at that sign across the street on Sheffield that says EAMUS CATULI! and now reads for the first time ever (yes, it’s not that old) AC 00/00/00.

Because there is most certainly a spiritual element to all of this, especially for the Cubs and their fans. Even in my generally cynical, academically-minded traditional egalitarian Jewish world, there’s been an unusual amount of desire to believe—perhaps both in the Cubs and in something bigger. How else to account for this?

or this?

Or Jonah Keri, one of the leading baseball writers in the world, placing the chaos of last night’s Game 7 into the framework of the Dayenu. Or the fact that a friend who I don’t know to be much of a baseball fan texted me a recording of Psalm 118—“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be happy in it”—before 7 AM this morning?

Baseball—or maybe, just the Cubs and their peculiar tradition of lovable loserdom—helps us fit the pieces together. For me, that has meant growing as a person and trying to embrace a certain faith that yes, one day, the Cubs will go all the way. Maybe all of that will vanish; I personally think this team is only starting on the path toward being a total juggernaut for many years. But whatever happens now, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my Cubs fandom–and to those who have kept me company and encourage me along that path–for helping me out over a key period in my life. And if some of that debt can’t be quantified or rationally understood, well, that’s OK too. Because after 108 years THE CUBS ARE ONCE AGAIN WORLD CHAMPIONS.

Pic credit: my dad

Thoughts from #Sandyridesthelakeshore

Anyone who follows me on Twitter surely saw that 10 days ago (Thursday night the 21st into Friday the 22nd) G and I rode the Lake Shore Limited (hereafter abbreviated LSL) from Albany to Chicago. When I was an undergrad I took the LSL between Chicago and Penn Station in coach several times; with a massive bag allowance (assuming a few hands willing to help at either end), it’s a great way to move a ton of stuff between home and college. This time, heading out to Chicago for my little brother’s high school graduation, we were lucky enough to be able to book a Viewliner roomette for around $360 for both of us, which is a) well cheaper than flying two people from Albany to Chicago and b) a great price for an overnight sleeper. The schedule, leaving Albany at 7 PM and getting into Union Station (theoretically) at 9:45, works nicely as well. Being me (and having engaged in several educational Twitter discussions about saving Amtrak’s long-distance service in recent weeks), I decided to take some notes on the experience and pass them on in blog form. I’m only now getting the chance to write this up, so forgive that please. Without further ado, Sandy’s notes and lessons from the Lake Shore Limited:

Unbundle the Freaking Food Service Already

It’s well-known (particularly, it seems, to Congressional Republicans) that Amtrak loses money hand-over-fist on food service on its trains. [Quick aside for those who might never have been on one: Amtrak’s long-distance trains (roughly over 700 miles, according to the Congressional definition) usually have both a full-service sitdown dining car and a more informal cafe/lounge car. Meals in the dining car come bundled with the sleeper fare, but coach passengers have to pay per dish if they want the food.] The railroad has cycled through phases of trying to cut costs and trying to make the meals luxurious enough to attract people to the dining car, with the result that the food is both pretty mediocre and very, very expensive. All long-distance trains now serve the same menu, so if you (like the nice older couple from Northern California who sat across from us at dinner) are taking a multi-day cross-country itinerary, the dishes are going to get really old, really fast.

As sleeper passengers, we got two meals in the dining car (except not really, see below). Dinner–served in a vintage-1950s dining car with low lighting and a dingy, Spartan, almost Soviet (I see you, Rep. Mica) feel–was the very definition of “meh.” It featured a green salad with a small amount of iceberg lettuce, and the vegetarian entree was an incredibly insubstantial “trio of stuffed pasta shells” that sells to non-sleeper passengers for a whopping $15.75. To be fair, the meat options did look better, and the best part of dinner was the upside-down strawberry cheesecake I had for dessert. Though the menu explicitly promises that several of the lunch options are also available for dinner, we were told that was no way, no how a possibility, and the waiter, a generally nice guy, refused to account for the kitchen’s refusal to serve the published menu. Meals are served on throwaway plastic plates and cups (though the silverware is real), which undermines Amtrak’s professed image as the “green” way to travel by generating an enormous volume of waste, as well as the nostalgia for the glamorous age of railroad china and dining car meals that Amtrak relies upon to sell its bundled food service. And remember, despite all the cost-cutting and enormously high prices that sleeper passengers have no choice but to (literally) eat, Amtrak is still losing money on food service!

And we didn’t even get breakfast on the train, because the crew shuts down the dining car at 9 Eastern time, a full 1:45 out of the scheduled time into Chicago, and typically even further. Not that that was communicated clearly to us; our attendant told us that it would “be best” if we got there at 8:00, but didn’t specify further. The train switches to Central Time at Waterloo, Indiana:

So we showed up to the diner at 8:00 AM Central Time west of Waterloo, just as it was being shut down–because apparently, the diner functions on Eastern Time for the entire ride. Bad communication and customer-unfriendly practices (do they REALLY need almost two hours to clean out the dining car?) for the win! (loss) Worse, the microwave-centric cafe car shuts down at the same time. The dining car is willing to serve a continental breakfast after 9, but these are unforced errors that just make the rider experience more hostile for no good reason.

So what’s the solution? As with any complex problem, solving the death spiral of food service on long-distance trains is clearly going to be a multifaceted project. The first step is almost certainly to unbundle food service from sleeper fares, as Amtrak is planning to trial on the Silver Star starting this summer. The trial will involve eliminating the train’s full-size diner and restricting food service to the cafe car. Many riders–particularly romantics and the older “land cruise” set who Amtrak seems to target–will surely mourn for the lost elegance of the dining car, but at this point there’s clearly little elegance left. Unbundling food service is expected to reduce sleeper fares by 25-28%–a not at all insignificant savings that should attract plenty of demand, certainly enough to make up for the loss of people who really want bundled sit-down meals (though demand isn’t really Amtrak’s problem when it comes to sleepers). Unbundling is just the first step though; ultimately Amtrak is going to have to open up the provisioning of food to the digital age.The cafe car on our Lakeshore was prominently posted with signs prohibiting non-Amtrak-provisioned food, which is just an obnoxious practice that should stop. Amtrak is also experimenting with at-seat food service, a common amenity in Europe. I also really like an idea that Alon Levy has brought up on Twitter:

Building an app like that would allow Amtrak to replicate the functionality of the 19th-century Harvey Houses, getting riders fresh, variable meals without the bother and massive expense of actually preparing them on the train. Of course, it would require a level of digital literacy far beyond that currently sported on Amtrak trains, where diner attendants still require sleeper riders to fill out a complex paper form rather than using an iPhone to scan ticket barcodes like the conductors. Amtrak’s current food service paradigm may very well be in an irreversible death spiral. But there’s plenty of hope for the future, with some creative thinking.

Timekeeping?

Amtrak frequently, and generally justifiably, complains that the freight railroads and their dispatching are responsible for the chronic lateness of the long-distance trains. If our experience on the LSL was at all indicative, though, there is plenty of room for improvement in Amtrak’s own timekeeping practices. Station stops on the LSL can best be described as “leisurely,” and the crew often seem to have weird concerns–while trying to watch another train pull in on the neighboring track in Albany, I was told to stay well away from that entire side of the (wide) platform by an attendant who told me “You’re freaking the engineer out! He doesn’t know whether you might be suicidal!” For the record, I wasn’t even on the track-adjacent warning strip, and if the nerves of Amtrak engineers are that jumpy, let’s please make sure none of them get hired as New York City subway drivers any time soon!

Anyhow, about those leisurely stops, I timed a few. With the train leaving Albany already 27 minutes late, I figured there would be some attempt to make up time along the way. Not exactly:

Utica: 10-12 minutes

Syracuse: ~15 minutes (and Syracuse has high-level platforms! what could possibly take that long?)

Rochester: 17 minutes

Toledo (where I woke up the next morning): scheduled 30ish minute break, not at all shortened despite running an hour behind at that point.

It’s entirely possible that long stops at these stations were necessary to maintain the LSL’s slot in the parade of freight trains with which it shares tracks. It is, however, more likely that the long stops are because of the LSL crew’s bizarre (and against Amtrak standards) sometimes practice of checking every ticket on the platform, rather than on the train (scroll down to the comments for discussion). What’s clear is that there is plenty of room for improvement in crew attitudes about stop timeliness.

Cost Savings? Halve the sleeping car attendants.

Not literally, of course, but currently Amtrak assigns one attendant for every sleeper. In the roomettes at least, the beds really aren’t that hard to figure out, and we were able to get them down with no help and no trouble. Surely, some riders will need physical or organizational assistance, but it hardly seems necessary to have one attendant per sleeper. Cutting down to one attendant for every two sleepers or 2 for every 3 would not only cut costs but allow the sale of one more room for revenue (alternatively, it could be converted into a full-scale bathroom, which the Viewliners lack). There would be gaps to fill, particularly when it comes to things like signing up for dinner seatings, but the impact of the staff cuts could totally be mitigated by the fact that

Digital technology has the potential to transform the long-distance train experience

I’m not just talking about Amtrak’s ridiculously slow WiFi, which the LD trains don’t have but really should. My attitude about Amtrak’s WiFi problems is that of Bruce Springsteen’s character in Rosalita”–“Someday we’ll look back and it will all seem funny.”

Music Break!

As I mentioned above, Amtrak conductors have recently started carrying iPhones that they use to check tickets. It would be truly transformational for the sleeper experience at least if Amtrak could get a touch screen interface into each room, which could take food orders, make seating reservations (if, indeed, the sit-down diner persists), call an attendant when necessary, and play videos and TV shows like those available on airplanes. WiFi should be the first priority, obviously, but getting a real, easy-to-use digital interface into sleeper rooms (and really, onto seatbacks in coach too) should be a major priority for the long-distance fleet, and might allow significant crew cost-cutting.

Managing Demand and Different Markets

Despite all of the problems I’ve listed here, our experience on the LSL was generally very positive. The roomette experience is cramped but manageable for two people, even when one of them is a jumbo like me. We were 57 minutes late into Chicago Union Station, which for a train that had 30% on-time performance in the month of April is not that bad. The food wasn’t worth either the extra expense or the 3-car hike to the dining car, but we brought our own, so that wasn’t too much of an issue. The staff were generally friendly and kind, which isn’t always the case.

And–importantly–our train was nearly 100% sold out. When I checked the day before we left there were zero coach seats available and only one bedroom. It’s important to understand that for all of its warts Amtrak’s problem is generally NOT a lack of demand for its services. And that applies to the long-distance trains just as much as the corridor services. Not to be cliched, but the challenge is transforming a pattern of service and operation that dates back to the 19th century to a digital age that offers both danger and promise.

This trip was my first opportunity to sample Amtrak’s sleeper offerings since my 16th birthday present, a trip on the Coast Starlight from Salem, OR to Los Angeles, and it was clear that the sleeper attendants and staff weren’t used to dealing with twentysomething travelers who could fend for themselves. And that’s a problem. The land-cruise market of older Americans who are afraid of or can’t fly, and who remember the golden age of passenger rail, isn’t all that big, and is arguably (because of the last condition) shrinking, but Amtrak’s sleeper services remain entirely focused on them, from high staffing levels to mandatory meals.

That doesn’t have to be the case. Sleepers will always be expensive, but Amtrak should be selling them as a budget option competitive with flying from midpoint cities. Take the case of the LSL. Flying between New York City and Chicago is fairly cheap and generally will remain that way. But there are plenty of smaller cities in between with medium-sized airports, and in the current hub-and-spoke configuration of the airline network, it can be very expensive to fly into and out of those places (believe me, we flew back to Albany). Taking coach from Albany or Rochester to Chicago, or from Toledo or Erie to New York City, might suck too much to be worth consideration–but a sleeper compartment might very well provide a happy medium between the expense of flying and the pain of an Amfleet or Greyhound coach seat.

Of course, as currently configured sleepers are a luxury experience that comes only at considerable expense–we got very lucky to book at the price we did. But that’s not necessarily inherent in the sleeper experience. Sleepers will always be more expensive than coach, simple because you can fit a lot fewer people in them. But by reducing staffing levels to a budget-friendly level, streamlining the experience with digital technology, and marketing the train as a budget-friendly, yet comfortable, experience, I think Amtrak could capture a large slice of the college student and young adult market. Remember, indications are that Amtrak might be able to slash sleeper prices by as much as 25% just by allowing people to bring their own food on board. And, assuming your stop has checked-baggage service, you can bring a hell of a lot more stuff on a train than a plane.

Obviously as a fairly tech-savvy, and train-inclined, twentysomething I have a self-centered bias in what I think will work for Amtrak. But the way they’re doing things right now isn’t working for much of anyone, including the political overlords who hold Amtrak’s fate in their hands. Why not try something fresh and new?

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.

Reflections on Albany, Part 1

As Albany is buffeted by snow and cold, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on my time here and what I’ve learned about the city. There are a lot of really wonderful things about living here, but the city also suffers from some serious problems (both self-imposed and external). Albany is, more or less, the 6th place I’ve spent a year or two of my life, so I have a number of lenses through which to examine it–and of course Albany, too provides a lens for looking at other places I’ve been. I’ll do this in several parts, this first is on the assets that, in my opinion, make Albany special. I would certainly not pretend this is comprehensive, and it reflects my interests above all. Enjoy!

Assets:

1) Fantastic architecture and history

This is quite possibly my favorite thing about living in Albany. Though little of Albany’s original Dutch architecture survives (one of the city’s great tragedies), most of Albany’s pre-WWII architecture is truly spectacular, buoyed, in no small part, by the largess of New York State government. Witness H.H. Richardson’s 1883 City Hall, regarded as one of his true masterpieces:

220px-AlbanyNYCityHall

Via Wikimedia

 

A personal favorite  (despite its racist iconography), the Art Deco Home Savings Bank building downtown:

via Wikimapia

via Wikimapia

The residential architecture, too, can be spectacular. Take in the beautiful row homes (where they remain) on Clinton Avenue in Arbor Hill, one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods (albeit absurdly named one of APA’s “Best Neighborhoods” last year):

Even the Empire State Plaza, monstrosity though it may be, shines gorgeously in the setting sun. $2.2 billion (in 1970 money!) may have gone down the drain on that project, but it didn’t all go to waste; the buildings are almost entirely clad in marble, giving the Plaza a feeling of beauty and quality rare among Modernist projects.

Albany, of course, is one of the oldest cities in the country; the 1686 Dongan Charter is the oldest city charter still in operation in the US. Sadly little of the city’s Dutch heritage remains, but history pervades walks around downtown Albany. I live in an 1854 building four doors down from the house where gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond was gunned down, probably by a hit squad of Albany detectives–an event chronicled by Albany’s leading literary light, William Kennedy.  The family of Learned Hand, the most influential US jurist never to sit on the Supreme Court, had a home a few blocks down. I worked until recently right across the street from the original building of Albany Academy, where in 1824 Joseph Henry discovered electromagnetism. It’s pretty damn cool. And the Historic Albany Foundation has done a really good job popularizing with homeowners the practice of putting up little historic plaques on their buildings with information about the original builder and owner.

2) Fine-grained grid, especially downtown

Albany wiped out a lot of its downtown during the construction of the Plaza, especially the southern part, but enough remains to remind us of what once was, and could be again. Among American cities I’ve been to, only parts of Boston and small sections of Lower Manhattan can rival the European feel of downtown Albany.

downtown

Downtown Albany. Observe grid.

 

My favorite block for illustrating this is the north side of downtown’s main commercial drag, Pearl Street, between Steuben and Columbia:

3) Room to grow

The idea of mass gentrification and high demand for urban spaces hasn’t quite reached Upstate New York yet. Albany was home to around 135,000 people at its peak; it is now around 97,000. There are plenty of open spaces and former industrial areas open for development. Albany will inevitably rebound somewhat from its long doldrums, and it would be a shame to see displacement of the city’s long-time lower-income inhabitants when that occurs. There’s no reason for it, and there is plenty of room for the city to grow before anyone gets displaced. The city has been actively trying to encourage residential conversions downtown, an approach that is starting to take hold, and which I think is a hugely positive development.

4) Innovative and above-average regional transit system

Growing with New Haven’s sclerotic bus system, I have been pleasantly surprised by the levels of service provided by the Capital District Transportation Authority. The key routes run every 10-15 minutes throughout the day; not great, but pretty good for a midsize city. There’s a decent limited-stop bus service linking Albany and Schenectady along the key Route 5 corridor, with plans in the works for two more that would link Albany to the university and to Troy; it falls short of true BRT, but it’s a major improvement on all-local service.

CDTA's planned 40 miles of limited-stop service

CDTA’s planned 40 miles of limited-stop service

CDTA still only recovers about a quarter of costs through the farebox, and its on-time performance is just now reaching the 70% range (though improving rapidly!) But it is–from everything I’ve seen–a very responsive and thoughtful agency whose performance is generally dragged down by its mandate to provide region-wide services rather than focusing on productive urban routes.

5) Stable economy

One benefit of being the state capital is that Albany has had a much more stable economic experience than many of the other cities in Upstate New York. Albany never developed the industrial base that Buffalo and Rochester did, but has also been spared the traumatic experience of deindustrialization.  Government expands and contracts, but New York State’s is huge, and provides a very strong regional economic base. Albany’s economy has traditionally lacked the dynamism characteristic of innovative economies, but in the age of Late Capitalism, is that such a bad thing?

6) Out-of-class cultural resources

I’ve already covered Albany’s deep history. But the city is, largely, thanks to state government, home to various museums and performance venues that provide a cultural experience more typical of a much larger city. Among others, The Egg brings in nationally-prominent acts.

The only building on the Plaza not primarily clad in marble, for obvious reasons.

The only building on the Plaza not primarily clad in marble, for obvious reasons.

7) Fantastic natural setting

Albany sits on the cusp of not one but several broader regions with spectacular natural traits. There are, well and truly, few parts of the country better and more beautiful than the Hudson Valley. Back in college I used to buy produce from Samascott Orchards‘ stand at the Columbia farmers’ market; now I live half an hour from the actual orchards, and have had the pleasure of picking tomatoes and other produce there myself.

Caprese salad, with pick-your-own tomatoes from Samascott Orchards, home-grown basil, and fresh mozzarella from Bennington, VT.

A reminder of summer: Caprese salad, with pick-your-own tomatoes from Samascott Orchards, home-grown basil, and fresh mozzarella from Bennington, VT.

 

Hudson River Valley. West Point (US Military Academy) visible

Hudson River Valley. West Point (US Military Academy) visible

Albany is also just an hour or so from the Adirondacks–a wilderness so special protections are written into the New York constitution–and the touristy Lake George region.

8) Relationship with other cities in Capital District

Albany is only one of three primary cities in the Capital District (a name with no legal meaning that has nonetheless acquired some popularity). It’s the largest; Schenectady checks in around 55,000 and Troy around 60,000. Each city has its own brand and image. Schenectady is the struggling post-industrial city, divested from by ALCO, GE and other major employers (though it did just get a casino!). Troy, once a center of clothes manufacturing (among other things), has been on the rebound as an arty, dense river city in recent years, though it’s still grappling with a dysfunctional political tradition (and, if anything, Troy has even better architecture than Albany).

The one-time trolley system connecting Albany, Schenectady and Troy. via http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2013/04/05/riding-the-trolley----everywhere

The one-time trolley system connecting Albany, Schenectady and Troy. via http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2013/04/05/riding-the-trolley—-everywhere

The three cities play off of each other, creating a (mostly) friendly rivalry that provides different options for different living styles in the region. There’s also Saratoga Springs, a smaller (about 45,000) adjunct to the region that lends a distinctly upper-class, touristy flavor to the area. Economic ties between Saratoga Springs and the other cities are surprisingly weak, but it’s still considered part of the region, about a 45-minute drive away.

9) Close to NYC

Shocker: this will appear on both the list of assets and the list of challenges. Albany’s connectivity to NYC isn’t great–trains take between 2:20 and 2:40, buses longer, and driving longest of all if the traffic is bad–but it’s close enough for a weekend or even a day jaunt. Obviously Albany suffers by comparison to NYC in terms of resources, but it’s also close enough to make a decent, much more affordable alternative for creative types fleeing housing prices.

10) 20-minute city

Few trips around Albany take more than 20 minutes by car. Transit trips can be a little longer (the average transit commute in Albany County is around 32 minutes), but it takes me about 20 minutes to get to school, traveling most of the city’s length.  It’s a nice change from Chicago (where I moved from) or NYC.

11) Affordability

Albany is cheap, cheap, cheap (and Schenectady and Troy are cheaper still). The median single-family home sale price in the past year was $164,000, and even in Center Square, with its large, old, elegant rowhomes (many with basement rental units as well) and walkability, listings rarely exceed $300,000. Nor is Albany’s situation comparable to New Haven, which has a relatively anemic single-family sale market and an incredibly tight, competitive rental market. It’s harder to measure average rent, but I’d say 1-bedroom rents in Center Square–generally the most expensive rental area in the city–start around $700 for basement units and go up to around $1200 for really nice units. We pay $800 plus (very expensive, all-electric) utilities for a large, quirky 1-bedroom with in-unit washer and dryer on the third floor of a walkup on a nice corner.

12) Strong higher education sector

University at Albany (SUNY), the College of St. Rose, Albany Medical Center, and others, bring thousands of students into Albany every year; other regional institutions include Siena College (Latham), RPI (Troy), Union College (Schenectady), the Sage Colleges (Troy and Albany) and Skidmore (Saratoga Springs).

UAlbany's Uptown Campus. If the Empire State Plaza is Good Modernism, this is Bad Modernism.

UAlbany’s Uptown Campus. If the Empire State Plaza is Good Modernism, this is Bad Modernism.

SUNY made a poor decision in the 1960s to move its campuses out to remote, self-enclosed areas surrounded by acres of parking, and UAlbany is no exception. But many of the students still occupy the “student ghetto” in the Pine Hills neighborhood–for better or for worse–and contribute much to the city’s vibrancy, as well as its talent pipeline. The Cuomo administration has sought to capitalize on the region’s educational resources with various initiatives, and it seems a natural place to start in creating a more vibrant regional economy.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more…

Small Cities, Big Roads: the Story of American Infrastructure

I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging recently (though I did post my final papers), but the semester’s over now (thank God), so here’s a fun little celebration post.

Chuck Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns, among others, have been doing a good job documenting the absurd overbuilding of American infrastructure. I spend too much of my time daydreaming by zooming around the country on Google Maps, and in doing so I’ve noticed a trend that I think typifies the kind of obscene overbuilding that has so thoroughly screwed up the American transportation system.  As it turns out, many, many small American cities have ridiculous bypass roads that must have been built at great expense to taxpayers. I’m not talking about freeways, mind you; I approve of not destroying towns with those things. I’m talking about much smaller highways, the kind where driving through a small city isn’t going to cost you too much time or make you slow down from 70 mph. And the impact of diverting those highways to save a couple of minutes can be devastating to smaller towns or cities; the highways are often the economic lifeblood of a smaller town, and pulling cars away from Main Street and to a bypass can kill a town for good. (That being said, I should acknowledge that sometimes communities do ask for bypasses, to get traffic off their roads or because they think it will preserve a small-town way of life.)

Without further ado…multiple examples of the genre of “Small American Cities with Big Bypass Roads!”

Westerly, RI (Population 22,787): RI-78

Burlington, WI (pop. 10, 464): WI-36 (bypass opened in 2010 at the cost of $118 million. Remember, this is Paul “fiscal conservative” Ryan’s congressional district)

Bennington, VT (pop. 15,764): VT (actually extends a little into New York too) 279. This one’s special because it bypasses a good bit of countryside too:

Upper Sandusky, OH (pop. 6,596): US-30

Xenia, OH (pop. 25,719): US-35

Those are just a few examples; I’m sure there are dozens more. I’m also sure that some of the citizens of these towns prize these bypass roads, thinking they divert fast cars and loud, heavy trucks from local streets. And maybe they do. But as the Burlington example demonstrates–and I remember seeing the road under construction on a family roadtrip to Wisconsin when I was in high school, and marveling at the vastness of the earth-moving in a totally rural area–the costs, both fiscal and ecological, are enormous. Aren’t there better ways to calm traffic, keep people moving, and keep the economy pumping than these enormously wasteful exercises?

 

 

Albany’s Machine: Last of the Old Breed or First of the New?

One of the really fascinating things about moving to Albany has been educating myself about the city’s complex and often messy political history. The last century of that history has been dominated by the extraordinarily long-lived O’Connell-Corning machine and its legacy, but that legacy is often misunderstood. Though often portrayed as the last of the great ethnic machines (Erastus Corning’s death in office 1983, his 42nd year as mayor, is generally understood to be the end of the machine), the Albany machine in fact evolved into something more complex that can perhaps be understood as a precedent of sorts to some of today’s entrepreneurial, neoliberal city governments.

In a (that I know of) otherwise unpublished paper presented at the 1987 Chicago meetings of the American Political Science Association, “Albany’s O’Connell Organization: The Survival of an Entrenched Machine,” Todd Swanstrom and Sharon Ward make a convincing argument that in its later years the Albany machine morphed from a classical ethnic machine to what they describe as an “entrenched conservative machine”:

The Albany machine evolved from a classical political machine consistent with the industrial growth period of the 1920s to an entrenched conservative machine more compatible with its position in a declining service sector city. The basis of its appeal shifted from poor ethnics in unstable neighborhoods to lower middle class, largely Irish Catholic, homeowners in stable neighborhoods. Its characteristic method of co-optation changed from high levels of service and patronage to low levels of taxation and special tax breaks for homeowners. Conservative businessmen, who did not require active intervention by city government in order to invest, supported the machine for the low taxes and stable environment it provided. (Swanstrom and Ward 1987, 10-11) 

The late O’Connell-Corning machine (Swanstrom and Ward argue that the transition in paradigm was complete by the 1950s) was beholden not primarily to a particular ethnic class, but to an economic class (which did have significant convergence with its Irish ethnic base): homeowners. And it’s that drawing of primary support from the homeowning class that perhaps provides the best link from the anomalous late Albany machine to another paradigm of urban government—the entrepreneurial, “neoliberal” model of mayors such as Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, Albany in 1983 was a very different place than New York or Chicago in 2010 or 2014. Development and gentrification are currently hot-button issues in NYC and Chicago in ways that they certainly were not in Albany then, and really aren’t today either. The concept of City Hall being beholden to homeowners as its primary constituency, though, links the governments of those cities together across time. The image of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty in New York is fixed in the public mind: a new skyline, giveaways to developers, and a tidal wave of gentrification. But for those who follow housing and construction trends, the Bloomberg paradigm is a little different. The Bloomberg administration did indeed upzone several areas in Manhattan and the core of Brooklyn, but a truer accounting reveals that downzonings across the outer boroughs pretty much kept pace with core upzonings, with the result that housing production stayed low. The outer-borough upzonings and their constraint on housing supply were, naturally, not random; they were a sop to the homeowning middle class that formed the core of Bloomberg’s support (and that of Rudi Giuliani before him). Homeowners tend to like downzonings for several reasons: 1) They are perceived as keeping prices high by limiting supply 2) bias against renters 3) They protect “neighborhood character.” Of course, in a more progressive planning and policy scheme, the citywide effects of downzoning on housing prices would be considered alongside the wants of local homeowners, but with the Bloomberg administration having identified homeowners as one of its core constituencies, the chances of such logic being taken into consideration were low. 

Nor is the paradigm of entrepreneurial government being beholden to homeowners limited to New York City. Daniel Kay Hertz has exhaustively documented how the Daley and Emanuel administrations in Chicago adopted a similar zoning paradigm to that of Bloomberg’s New York. By “protecting” already-gentrified or homeowning neighborhoods through preventing growth in the number of units, the city inflated housing costs–and appeased homeowner paranoia about the “negative social effects” of density and renters. 

Whether in 1983 Albany, or New York in the past decade, or Chicago in this, the exact mechanisms are different, but the principle remains the same: politicians identify homeowners as their core constituency (or at least one of several), and serve their wants and needs at the expense of the generalized interest of the city, and of communities with less financial and political clout. We associate entrepreneurial, neoliberal government with giveaways to wealthy developers and businesses, and that is absolutely part of the typical model. But we should not miss the ways in which some city governments have chosen to use planning and policy tools to effect another kind of upward transfer of wealth (even if that is an unintended consequence, rather than a driving motivator for policy decisions).

The Albany machine and both the Bloomberg and Emanuel administration cloth(ed) their appeasement of homeowners in language of stability and neighborhood character. And it’s worth remembering that in a vacuum, those are desirable qualities, which is why NIMBYs tend to use them in their rhetoric. But city life and policymaking does not exist in a vacuum. Favoring one group of city residents or stakeholders inevitably has negative effects on everyone else. In Albany, black neighborhoods are still suffering the consequences of the absolute neglect they faced under the machine (to be fair, not a unique story). In contemporary New York and Chicago, the costs of appeasing homeowners are perhaps less immediately apparent, but they are no less real. Refusing to allow growth causes housing prices to shoot through the roof (in New York, across most of the city; in Chicago, in certain neighborhoods). In any case, the effect is to make the city harder to live in for the non-homeowner class. To the political establishment, that’s the cost of doing business. To the city, it can be incredibly damaging.

Albany’s machine may have been perceived as anomalous and backwards at the end of its run, but there were some aspects of its model that looked forwards in sadly unfortunate ways. In many ways, the attachment of the Albany machine to homeowners was a product of midcentury housing policy and ideology, so it is somewhat depressing to see it turning up in political paradigms another 30 years on. The world of urban policy, though, is a very different—and much more hopeful—place in 2014 than it was in 1983. As we move into the future, one where homeownership seems to be on the decline and renting on the rise, it is wise to remember the consequences that selling out to a privileged class can have for cities, and the desperate, self-interested ways in which that paradigm of urban government arose.