The first time I visited Albany was the spring before I hoped to attend SUNY Albany. That’s what we called the University at Albany in the late 80s.
I had grown up downstate, which at the time I thought was upstate, in Orange County, and had never been further north than the Pot o’ Gold Campground in the Catskills. My choice, as a returning adult student, to attend school in Albany was based upon three things: proximity to home, the ability to exist without a car and a sense that the city had to be better than Binghamton where my brother had done his undergraduate work.
My friend and I came up on a Sunday in March with the intention of checking out the scene and maybe getting an idea for where I wanted to live. On campus was not an option for me as a 22-year-old with an apartment full of furniture and a dog. We exited the Thruway and headed north on 787, impressed with the proximity of the river and rather awed by our first glimpse of the Empire State Plaza.
This place definitely looked like it had potential.
As we continued north, however, going under the overpass of Route 90, the landscape quickly changed to a whole lot of nothing. Wait – that was it? Where was the rest of the city?
We turned around as soon as we could and somehow, pre-WAZE, found our way to Lark Street and the Beverwyck for a fancy feeling brunch. I recall walking around the neighborhood and the park and deciding this place would do for the next few years, but the plan was to graduate and move on. It was a four-year plan at most.
More than 30 years later, I’m still here. I can’t imagine having selected a better place to have created a life, started a family and pursued a career. My love for Albany is real. But, it hasn’t always been that way.
When I first moved to Albany, I frequently found myself frustrated. Where was there a bakery that offered crumbcake, all buttery and dusted with powdered sugar on Sunday mornings? Why was the bus station so gross that I chose to hitchhike rather than pay for a ticket out of that hellhole? How come the politicians I encountered in the restaurant where I worked had so much free time for socializing?
I looked for graduate programs in New York City, never imagining staying in Albany for long.
I moved to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood three months after graduation and thrived. My life was full. I loved the spontaneity of the city – should I walk west or east when I exited my building? Either way I was bound to take in a feast with my eyes. There was so much to see and absorb. It was rich in a way that Albany could never even aspire to be.
But life – specifically, a good guy – brought me back to Albany a mere year later. I knew that graduate school and working and building a relationship would require a lot of effort and attention, and Albany, if nothing else, was easy.
Housing was inexpensive compared to where I grew up and, of course, Manhattan. Congestion was acceptable, with rush hours and housing density both at reasonable levels. New York City, Boston and Montreal were all within reach by car or train. There was proximity to a half dozen airports and numerous mountain ranges – pick your preferred “high” and go for it.
Speaking of mountains, there are countless diverse outdoor activities within reach – skiing, hiking, biking, running, swimming, boating, kayaking, etc. Albany and the greater Capital Region, really do provide an amazing array of opportunities for getting active while also getting fresh air.
There’s always a way to enjoy the outdoors, and the productions offered in al fresco theaters and performance spaces are another aspect of the region that leave me completely charmed. Music also has a home locally, and I’ve seen some incredible performers roll through the area in too many different venues to remember.
The restaurant scene has grown and evolved over the years. It has been a joy to witness, and even to have played a role in that process. Gone are the days when there was no “ethnic” food beyond Chinese or, for the more indulgent, Indonesian at Yono’s. There really are some fantastic options around the area right now, and summer dining, with our many nearby farms and dairies, provides an opportunity to showcase the bounty of locally grown and produced food items.
Schools and libraries in Albany have benefitted from widespread support, and the facilities have been maintained and often even upgraded over the past 20 years. The work continues, with huge improvements underway at Albany High School, known as “the high” among locals, and the community is hoping that these investments positively impact all of the city’s children.
While I work in a nearby suburban district, my own children attended public school in the city. While the educations they received may not have been the most rigorous academically, they did learn important lessons about life and how to explore it with people who may not have the same experiences or advantages as yourself.
Preparation for a career is something that comes a tad later in my experience and that of my sons. I fully support that, because there are a remarkable number of post-secondary schools, colleges and universities within a 20-mile radius. Go 50 miles, and that number would probably double the options.
Because of the presence of the state government, there are jobs that encompass a full range of qualifications. My middle son just started a new position, and makes what I earned in 1996 with a masters degree, but he has no college experience – or, better yet, debt.
Labor unions and other interest groups maintain local offices and often provide internships and practical experiences for those considering a career in a particular field. There are training academies for law enforcement officers, post-graduate medical, law, and pharmacy programs and state exams frequently administered in local facilities.
In short, you can learn a lot here.
Ultimately, maybe that’s what made me fall in love with Albany the most – this sense that it has provided me an opportunity to learn so many things. When I returned to Albany in 1993 after a year spent in New York City, I knew that my life wouldn’t be as impromptu as it might have been had I remained in the metropolitan area, but it would be consistent and affordable enough so that I could travel. And own a house. And not have to bust my ass working so much that I couldn’t appreciate both of the aforementioned being possible.
Teddy Roosevelt, a son of our state and city, was quoted as saying: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And I think that piece of wisdom sums up the situation perfectly.
Does Albany compare to New York City? No, not for a hot second. But, why should it? Because really, we all know that nothing can. If you’re interested in making the minutes count, Albany isn’t a bad place to be.
Photo of the author, circa 1988, on a trip to the UK. Thankfully, she did not succumb to the draw of life across the pond, and still makes her home in Albany.