Troy, Albany and Schenectady

Last week, business travel definitely put a damper on my blogging. While traveling on business gives me a chance to see parts of the country I would not ordinarily see, it mostly involves business. It started daily at 6:30 AM when my alarm went off. I hustled to shower and shave, and then grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel’s breakfast room. In this case, it was the breakfast room in the Fairfield Inn in East Greenbush, New York. There the accommodations are clean but modest, the scrambled eggs taste powdered but coffee, decaf and tea are available twenty-four hours a day in the lobby. Each day ended around 8:30 PM when our bloated bellies staggered back from our evening meal after a day in a conference room, punctuated only by brief breaks and running out for takeout for lunch.

By 8:30 PM I was exhausted and ready for bed, not blogging. Some in our group were party people, anxious for more time together, a night on the town and various activities from karaoke to Frisbee golf. The business week meant scuttling from place to place with a few others in a rental car, long and tedious discussions on various projects under consideration and near the end of the day searching Trip Advisor for good places to eat. It meant a lot of dining out, principally in places serving pub food and locally made beers. It meant morning stops at Starbucks, not for myself, but for my traveling companions. It also meant some technical glitches: my laptop inconveniently died on Monday morning and left me keyboard-less, until a tech at the place we were hanging out gave me a loaner laptop to carry me through the week.

Still, I did get to spend some time in these triple cities: Schenectady, Albany and Troy, about two hundred miles north of New York City. They are clustered within about twenty-five miles of each other. My principle interest was in Schenectady, the city of my birth, which I saw briefly in 2004. After we landed early Sunday afternoon I managed to convince two coworkers to join me for a few hours in Schenectady and Scotia. Schenectady has the dubious privilege of being the city in New York State with the highest crime rate. It did not feel particularly unsafe during our brief visit, but like much of upstate New York it had seen better days as most of its manufacturing had left decades earlier. There were some abandoned houses but there were many houses just somewhat neglected: decks deteriorating and siding or trim in need of repainting if not complete replacement. Still, even in Schenectady there were charming areas. Parkwood Boulevard, where some of my family lived briefly in the early 1950s, retains a fading charm, enhanced by the glorious autumn leaves and cool autumn breezes. Downtown Schenectady, under remodeling back in 2004 during my last visit, was still a work in progress, with its streets torn up, steel plates on the roads and kidney-punching bumps in the road.

The Village of Scotia just across the Mohawk River was of more interest. This was where I spent the first six years of my life. I found it curious that I could still sort of navigate around Scotia without my GPS despite being in kindergarten when I had left. We wandered into Collins Park, where I was hit by a baseball in the bleachers as a child, and where baseball was underway as we visited. Clouds had settled in over Scotia. The geese honked noisily on Collins Lake in the park.

There is still baseball in Collins Park, Scotia NY
There is still baseball in Collins Park, Scotia NY

Our old house on North Holmes Street looked in good shape with an American flag proudly blowing in the breeze on its stoop. The street did not look as sad as it did in 2004, and the sidewalks were fixed as well. Driving north several blocks toward the high school, the houses turned from occasionally shabby to charming. The houses on Broad and Seeley streets felt out of Norman Rockwell. The church and kindergarten I attended on MacArthur Drive got several pictures but raised no particular memories. Much more memorable was Lock 9, a few miles up Mohawk Turnpike by the bridge to Rotterdam, which allows barge traffic to traverse what used to be the Erie Canal. As children it was a frequently weekend destination. We would sit there over the lock and watch the water be raised and lowered and ships went through the lock. Not only did we learn much about hydraulic engineering, but it also gave my poor, hassled mother a couple of hours a week free from the otherwise ceaseless din of children. Today, the lock is private property so I could only take pictures from the road. In the autumn the Mohawk River looked serene, except for the water cascading over a dam under the bridge. Overall, Scotia satisfied my limited nostalgia for the area. It is a pleasant and walkable village where a car is not a necessity and life proceeds at a simpler pace.

Lock 9, on the Mohawk River near Rotterdam, NY

Sunday evening found us in Albany at a brewpub near the capitol. Albany was bigger and with buildings much taller than I expected, but sleepy on a Sunday night. The New York State Capitol itself did not fit the mold of state capitols: no dome but spires, and looking more like a cathedral than a center of government. The whole Capital Hill area looks a bit strange, but strangest of all is The Egg, an egg-shaped building used as a performing arts center on the capital’s mall.

I found it strange that just across the Hudson River from Albany there was so much undeveloped country. To be fair there is the city of Rensselaer, but drive over the Hudson River on I-90 to the highlands of East Greenbush where we stayed and you had undeveloped country with a commanding view of Albany, with both the capitol and The Egg easy to see just a few miles to the west. There are more people than you think, as evidenced by the traffic on Troy Road around eight o’clock in the morning. Our destination for the week was an office in Rensselaer Technology Park a few miles up the road, but in the evenings were usually spent dining in Troy.

Troy is a bifurcated city that can’t decide if it wants to be ugly or grand. The grander parts are in the hills to the east of the city. The more ugly parts are its downtown areas. Troy too is trying to do some urban revival of its downtown with mixed success. Along with the brew pubs there are also bums, as well as excellent dining. I am part Polish, but until last week I had never dined at a Polish restaurant. Muza in downtown Troy offers excellent Polish dining. One of my coworkers said he had the best meal there he had had in many years. If only the road had not been chewed up for repaving and a panhandler was not aggressively pushing for “just seventy five cents” as we wended our way back to our rental cars.

I am confident that I gained weight last week. There was virtually no time for exercise but lots of opportunities for sitting and restaurant dining. I was glad to come home on Friday and glad to leave the powdered eggs at the Fairfield Inn in my rear view mirror as well.

In the city of my birth

I was born at St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady, New York on February 1, 1957. There I spent my infancy and early childhood. When I was about six years old my parents moved our family from Schenectady to Endwell, New York, about 140 miles away. That was 1963, some 41 years ago. It has been that long since I have been in Schenectady. Today I am finally back.

Memories of a six-year-old child are typically poor. Mine are no exception. I did not expect to remember much all these years later. Schenectady, and the Village of Scotia just across the Mohawk River, is mostly alien to me. I expected Schenectady to be more like Binghamton, the city near Endwell where I spent my formative years. But it is not quite as hilly as Binghamton. In many ways it is like the Endicott (near Endwell) and the communities surrounding it. It is an area that has long been in decline.

There are lots of communities like this all over the Northeast and the Midwest. If they haven’t been quite abandoned, they’ve suffered from a lot of benign neglect. Many residents have been forced to move elsewhere in search of work. The industries that powered these cities (General Electric, in Schenectady’s case) have largely left for somewhere else. The results are cities with rows of houses, many of them boarded up or in need of serious repair. Many commercial areas are rife with empty buildings.

Most of these houses have wonderful potential. They are large houses with big front porches. They were designed to allow neighbor to meet neighbor. And they still do this. On some porches we saw whole families pass a pleasant evening. These houses were built before garages became popular. Those that have them have a garage in the back of the property in a building actually separate from the house. It saddens me that these once vibrant neighborhoods have been so neglected while new neighborhoods are created elsewhere. It is such a waste. These houses in Schenectady could be probably be refurbished at a fraction of the cost it would take to put up new houses in new developments. Why can’t Fannie Mae or HUD refurbish these neighborhoods a block at a time? Once refurbished, I believe these houses would draw back a vibrant middle class. Then these cities could become reinvigorated. Instead cities like Schenectady are allowed to rot.

The house where I grew up in Village of Scotia (123 North Holmes Street) is still there. Looking at it with middle aged eyes I can make a vague recollection of the time I spent there. I knew approximately where it was on the block. Our old house is actually in pretty good shape for a house on this block. But the house right next to it is in terrible disrepair, as are many on the block. Yet much of Scotia is still charming and does not suffer from Schenectady’s blight. On a block about 25% of the houses seem to be in disrepair or boarded up. Nonetheless the community still has a fairly solid feel to it. Businesses on Mohawk Avenue seem to be working hard to be trendy. Collins Park along the bank of the Mohawk River looked very inviting. They have a few upscale restaurants. The local cinema still is in business. Even parts of downtown Schenectady look like some form of urban renewal is underway. But walk a few blocks in any direction and neighborhoods become ugly and depressing.

Everything seems so compact in Schenectady and Scotia. Everything is close together. The streets are narrow. The houses are close to each other. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where my family worshipped is but a short walk. I don’t know if my father ever walked to his job at the General Electric plant along the banks of the Mohawk River. It didn’t seem to be very far away. I could jog there in fifteen minutes or less without even breaking a sweat.

This is just a surface impression. We are only here for only one night on our way to Montreal to start a week of vacation in Canada. I would need a week or more to get some idea of the true character of the city. There is little in the way of new development, so I suspect it is much as I left it 41 years ago.

Still, there is something about Scotia that still appeals to me. It appealed to my wife too, who admired the tightly knit neighborhoods. I hope that a renaissance happens to my birth city and cities like it. But there is a lot to fix up. The sidewalks on my old block in Scotia, for example, are crumbling and in pieces. I guess there simply isn’t the tax base to fix them up.

Here’s hoping for some urban renewal.

Homing Instinct

I’ve been planning our trip to Canada in late August. We’ve been meaning to do a Canadian vacation for years. But it seems we always found more desirable vacation destinations (Arizona, Hawaii, Yellowstone) to hit first. Now we are getting around to it.

My daughter Rosie has already been to Montreal with her French class. As a top French student (and someone who professes to want to live in France) it took no arm-twisting to get her to agree. But we will only spend a couple days in French speaking Quebec. The bulk of our vacation will be spent in Ontario. Most of it will be in Toronto, but we will also spend a couple days in Stratford. This city is renown for its season of plays and musicals, many with a Shakespearean bent. As theater sluts it is a natural destination, but Toronto also offers theatrical possibilities.

I am sure I will enjoy visiting Canada. We have traveled across Ontario before on our way to Michigan and have seen Niagara Falls. But perhaps the most interesting part for me will be the way stops coming and going. Because between Virginia and Canada lies New York State. And as someone who spent his formative years in upstate New York, the state still has the call of home.

My family has wholly vacated New York State. At one time there were ten of us living under one roof in Endwell (a town near Binghamton) and now we are all scattered elsewhere. There are not even any old neighbors or friends that I know about still living in my old neighborhood. Nonetheless the lure is powerful. I made an overnight foray to Endwell in 1982 and spent a few hours there in 1995. More recently in 2001 my sister Mary and I spent a couple days there with our children. This was the best of the three experiences for me since I had time to visit old haunts and neighborhoods. Having Mary there was also invaluable since she we could trade memories.

This time I hope to at least spend an evening near Endwell. But I also hope to return to the city of my birth. I haven’t been there since I left it in January 1963. I was born in Schenectady and spent my first six years across the Mohawk River in a modest and overcrowded house in nearby Scotia. I must have had fun growing up there but my memories of the place are scattered and dim. Schenectady will be a place to spend the night en route to Montreal. But hopefully I will at least have a chance to see my old house and elementary school.

Altogether between Scotia (1957-1963) and Endwell (1963-1972) I spent nearly sixteen years living in upstate New York. I moved to the Washington area in 1978 after graduating college, so in reality I’ve spent most of my life here. In many ways I do feel at home here in the Washington area. The climate here is not bad and the growing season starts early and lingers late. I’ve never lived in a place where spring has been so colorful. And yet the lure of my birth state is palpable. It makes no sense but as soon as I cross into New York State a feeling of peace and contentment washes over me. Everything feels right. Everything looks right. I am home.

I often wonder if life makes me an early widower whether I would choose to move back to New York State. I doubt I could arm twist my wife into relocating there. She’s from the Midwest so she would prefer to retire there. For her home is a place where you buy “pop” at the store instead of “soda”, the people are perceived to be uniformly friendly and the land is flat as a pancake.

There are plenty of good reasons I can think of why I should pick other places to retire. Lake effect snow is certainly a compelling reason to hither thee elsewhere; I remember two feet or more of snow in one storm were not uncommon. Temperature is another. While Washington is more benign, New York State gets cold. It’s rare in DC to see a temperature below zero. In New York State it is not all that unusual to wake up to -10 or -20 during the height of winter. And there were other negative aspects of living in the Southern Tier that I had forgotten. The Binghamton area is basically in Appalachia. Its economy was in the toilet when we lived there and it has not improved. Unlike Northern Virginia, which is in a constant state of change (go away for five years and you may not recognize the place), the Triple Cities are stuck in a time warp. Except today the Endicott Johnson shoe factories are closed, and IBM seems to have only a token presence in downtown Endicott. There doesn’t appear to be any substantial industry left. Real estate is dirt cheap. Boarded up, poorly maintained and abandoned houses are plentiful. In addition I’m not too hot on softening my own water. And until I returned during the summer in 2001 I had forgotten about the gnats. The valley is overrun with them. Had I arrived in the spring I would have also recalled the return of black fly season. The Binghamton area also had the reputation of being the second most overcast city in the country right behind Seattle. I guess I wouldn’t have to worry about contracting skin cancer.

No, there is no reason to live there again. Except, of course, the rolling green hills that abound everywhere, the lovely omnipresent maple trees and the intoxicating sound they make in the breeze. There is also the closeness of nature. In Virginia you have to drive to see serious nature. In Endwell if it’s not outside your back door it is at most a mile or two away. It’s hard to separate nostalgia from fact sometimes, but Endwell was to me very much what the Shire was for Tolkien’s hobbits. It still is that way.

I could choose other places to live in New York State that hopefully would have the same appeal but without so many of the detractions of the Southern Tier. But most likely we won’t retire anywhere and we will stay in living here in Northern Virginia. I suspect while I would enjoy the sense of comfort from living in my home state again, it would quickly wear thin. I’d miss the vibrancy of living in the DC area. I’d miss the diversity, the craziness, the many opportunities to enjoy the arts, and even the lack of traffic would eventually feel deeply disturbing. I’m not sure I was born to relax. A lady I know who claims some psychic powers once told me as much.

But perhaps I will be a frequent visitor, and rent a regular summer cottage in my home state. That may be enough.

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