Albany, Counting the Ways

The heart of New York may be in the five boroughs, but its gear box is buried under snow in Albany. Upstater Tobias Seamon reports on the many reasons to love a seedy town of secrets, bosses, and smoke-filled rooms.

Albany, originally called Fort Orange and part of the Dutch holdings under the directorship of old, angry Pieter Stuyvesant. Peg-legged and bellicose, Stuyvesant’s downfall began at Fort Orange, where the ruling patroon (Dutch for ‘I’m the landlord, chump’) openly told Stuyvesant who ran the show upstate. Headquartered at New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, Stuyvesant then marched north in a fury and ordered parts of Fort Orange burnt down, ostensibly to improve the defenses. Believing their defenses were just fine, thank you very much, the upstaters again told Stuyvesant where to go and were upheld in their defiance by courts back in the old world. Stuyvesant was forced to return to what-would-become New York City, brooding all the while on his loss of face. Thus the traditional upstate-downstate rivalry began, and it should be noted that Albany won the first round handily.

Albany, within twenty miles of both Schenectady, where the French and Indians massacred most of the early settlers, and Kinderhook, where Washington Irving spent much time writing tales about a slothful lout named Rip Van Winkle, a timid schoolteacher, and a Headless Horseman. Considering the later, massive lay-offs of G.E. workers in Schenectady, the replacement of farmers with wealthy professor-types in the town of Kinderhook, and the hard feelings regarding all that, the neighborhood really hasn’t changed that much.

Albany, which according to oral history never bothered to dig a deep-water turnaround at its Hudson River port, thus depriving upstate of most heavy shipping and industry. True or not—and asking local historians about concrete evidence regarding Albanian policy decisions will spark open guffaws—somewhere or another, the economic compass turned downstate permanently. Those old Fort Orange rebels might still be rolling in their graves.

Albany, where they declined to use the landscape designs of Frederick Law Olmstead—the genius behind Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Stanford University, etc.—in favor of a local man who had, of course, local connections. Maybe that was just Fate looking out for Mr. Olmstead’s reputation: Washington Park in Albany was built on an Indian burial ground.

Albany, where the notorious riverside red-light district was demolished to make way for a highway interchange. Now, the talk for years has been to sod over the interchange so that the good people of Albany can actually walk down to their river. In the meantime, one bar after another is opened in the far downtown area, very near that old red-light district.

Albany, home of at least five decent-sized colleges plus one very large university. It’s also home to all of the state Assembly people and Senators. The city is practically made of students, politicians, and lobbyists. In short, the town is filled with drunks.

Albany, where despite the late-night boozing, it’s still considered far less than hip. It was rumored that Jack Nicholson refused to spend even one night in town during the filming of Ironweed, the movie based on local author William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Jack probably just couldn’t handle the truth.

Albany, where Governor Nelson Rockefeller had an entire hillside of neighborhoods torn out so that he could build his Empire State Plaza. The Plaza was supposed to remind visitors of ancient, imperial Rome. It turned out more like decrepit, imperial Red Square. The demolished houses were mostly slums and cold-water tenements, but still, should you find any old ironwork, fixtures, or masonry from those places, head immediately for the closest Antiques Roadshow.

Albany, where the remaining blocks of brownstones and brick row houses equal Charleston in their serene, aged dignity and were used as backdrops for the recent filming of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Typically, I missed the shooting, which took place right beneath my bedroom window, because I was out drinking. Also typical, even had I wanted to come home I couldn’t because the film crews had blocked off all the streets. Residents were still being turned away from their own houses past midnight. DreamWorks indeed.

Albany, where the one and only boom occurred during the building of the Plaza in the late 70s. Besides all the jobs (union scale) and contracts, material for more than one timbered back porch and blue stone patio managed to fall off a truck.

Albany, where the monolithic, marble-sided towers and white, egg-shaped center for the arts dominate the skyline and cause passing motorists, speeding along where those bordellos and gambling parlors once existed, to wonder just what the hell is going on up there. If you should ever happen be one of those motorists, don’t worry: us Albanians are usually wondering the same thing.

Albany, where the downstate politicians, mobsters, and bosses have often felt that a bunch of cow-town hicks were trying to screw New York City and whatever good things and/or schemes they had going. That Albany and most of upstate never had any of those good things—money, jobs, nice stuff—in the first place doesn’t get mentioned much.

Albany, where the early ’70s post-modern sculptures dominating the Plaza prove that nothing ages faster or more pathetically than objects once meant to be futuristic.

Albany, where the campus of the state university, also with glaring white towers, open avenues, and sparsely sheltered wind tunnels, was designed as though it sat in the heat of New Mexico and not in an area buried under winter half the year. Architecturally manufacturing a stiff cross-breeze in Albany was a very bad idea.

Albany, which I’ve heard has more state workers (i.e., bureaucratic robots) employed than anywhere except Washington D.C., Beijing, and Moscow. If anyone has an accurate robot headcount, please let me know pronto. Topping Moscow would be the bomb.

Albany, where the truly beautiful Town Hall is hard to find because the whole city looks like town hall.

Albany, where perhaps more than anywhere it’s unwise to fight town hall. It is a long, proud tradition of the Democratic bosses to wield their police force like Mad Dog Coll wielded his tommy gun. Just ask the ghost of Legs Diamond, the bootlegger extraordinaire shot multiple times in the head while hiding at a downtown boarding house, about the Albany police sometime.

Albany, where the politicos fill back rooms with smoke as well as any in Chicago and New York City. Except the machine here has been doing it longer and more successfully. Boss Tweed was good, but Big Dan O’Connell—didn’t care about women, didn’t care about whiskey, just cared about power—was better. Again, ask the ghost of Legs Diamond how good Dan O’Connell was. He didn’t need any lame G-men to rub out pesky gangsters either.

Albany, like an Irish version of the Kremlin, filled with secrets and rumor and obsessive analysis of those rumors. Where the boys at the bar sneer at every history written of the town, saying only with a nudge and a wink, ‘So-and-so barely got half of it right.’ Of course, whatever the other half is supposed to be has been obscured by the blarney of a thousand other know-it-alls, all of whom insist no one else got half of it right either. This means, eventually, that no one got it right, but neither the gravestones nor the back rooms seem to want to speak up and enlighten the issue.

Albany, where the streets aren’t numbered. Rather, most of the streets are named after birds. For blocks and blocks, Eagle, then Dove, then Quail, and so on. One bird after another. If you ever get lost in Albany, try to remember the last bird you passed.

Albany, where the one and only Bohemian thoroughfare is called Lark Street. Should you wish to discuss a local tax law with your state representative, just visit Albany during the legislative session; you can find many of them in bars on Lark Street surrounded by young, attractive aides. One bird after another.

Albany, less than an hour from any of the Berkshire, Catskill, Green, Helderberg, or Adirondack mountain ranges. In other words, we’re at the heart of the northern Appalachian spur. Imagine Tammany Hall set in Deliverance country. Come back soon, y’all.

Albany, where the young and the restless from all those rural areas come to go to college, find jobs, or otherwise blow themselves out on Lark Street. We may not be the Big Easy, but no doubt the House of the Rising Sun keeps an embassy somewhere downtown.

And if the downtown sleaze isn’t enough of a lure, those same young and the restless can also blow themselves out at Crossgates Mall, one of the largest in the United States. A lot of student-loan checks have been devoured in the glossy, perfume-reeking bowels of Crossgates, which was built on an ecologically fragile sand plateau where the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly—named coincidentally by Nabokov—barely ekes out an existence on earth. Just like Nike and Applebee’s.

Albany, unlike L.A. and N.Y.C., where the Mayor recently had the courage to derail a Puritan-sponsored ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. You could argue that county-tax monies on cigarettes had an impact on his decision, but that would be crass. Most of us prefer to believe that anywhere the Mayor goes, he likes to have a good, smoke-filled room.

Albany, which the current Governor dislikes so much that his absence from the Governor’s Mansion has become a running joke. Perhaps he wishes to clear the air from all of the previous Governor’s dinner parties, a main point of his original campaign. Nothing worse than a man who actually enjoys living in the mansion that tax-payers provided for his position. The Governor’s Mansion and the Catholic Cathedral are less than a block from each other, and both are within sight of one of the most violent, impoverished ghettos in the city. So much for the trickle-down effect. No wonder the Governor is never home.

Albany, capitol of New York state, where amazingly it seems impossible that any terrorist would actually consider trying to blow it up. Unless the legislature is in session, religious fanatics don’t notice Albany any more than most people do.

Albany. Meet the new Rome, same as the old Rome. Whether you know it or not, all roads lead to Albany. And if you sometimes forget about us, well, that’s exactly the way the bosses up here like it.


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon