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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Destination Albany

Pack your bags, honey, we're going to Albany: Look, I love Albany. I love the town, I love the people, I love the history, I love the politics. And I definitely love the architecture. I'm about as big of an Albany apologist as you will find and a perpetual optimist and promoter of the city. But even I had to laugh at Shawn Stone's and Ann Morrow's articles in Metroland this week, which had two basic points, one reasonable and one ridiculous:

A reasonable point: Albany's city government doesn't do enough to preserve historic sites around town. Writes Stone:

The point seems to be that, despite gains, historic preservation is still a harder sell than it should be—and often not a priority for city leaders or residents. For every triumph, such as the Martin Van Buren buildings at 111 and 113 State St., there’s a Wellington Row seemingly out of reach for restoration, or a historically unique distillery buried under tons of concrete.

Maybe stating that Albany “hates” history isn’t 100 percent fair. But the city sure as hell isn’t in love with it.

I can agree with this. Things tend to get knocked down instead of preserved. Like many cities, Albany spent the past two generations trying to cope with the new reality of automobile transportation and its downsteam progeny, commuters. The 787 interchanges were probably a mistake, and the new comptroller's building is kinda blah. All true.

Maybe we should think more about historical preservation. I could get behind that kind of effort. Giving the city a better sense of its past would definitely be the kind of thing that could do wonders for the atmosphere downtown and in many of the neighborhoods.

A ridiculous point: This lack of preservation deprives Albany of what could be an "economic engine" - heritage tourism. Writes Morrow:
The import of the city's loss of a distinctive visual heritage goes far beyond the ire of history buffs and preservationists, however. It cuts to the heart of the city's vitality. Because really, without its history and architecture, what does Albany have?

As the Albany Visitors Center emphasizes, our historic architecture is a draw, and it could and should be a bigger one. Heritage tourism is a fast-growing, billions-of-dollars-a-year industry. And the cities that have the most appeal are the ones that preserve a sense of historical background rather than just promoting a few isolated attractions. It’s niche marketing for sure, but also an easy way for a beleaguered city to earn extra income: Tourists come, they spend (studies show that heritage tourists spend more money than any other kind of traveler), and they leave. You don’t have to build middle schools and nursing homes for them. And they tend to come on the weekends, utilizing hotels, parking, and other amenities that tend to sit quiet once the business week is over.
Just give me a break. Every time I think Metroland has bounced back into reality, they come out with nonsense like this. Albany floats - broadly speaking - on the state goverment, end of story. That's what it has, in the economic sense. Throw in some tech development, some good colleges, and there you are. Have the editors of Metroland ever been to Bridgeport, CT? Or Allentown, PA? Or Kingston? Those cities have tons of history. Just an overflow of history. But guess what? They are economically depressed, and it's not because they missed the boat and forgot to build a heritage tourism industry.

I mean, please. How many places in the United States can benefit from heritage tourism? I can think of a few: Williamsburg, Gettysburg, Sturbridge, Mystic, various small towns in Vermont, Cooperstown if you count it. It's just not the basis for augmenting a medium-sized city economy. It's not like the Shakers haven't been trying out in Colonie. But they aren't exactly pushing wheelbarrows full of money around the Ann Lee preserve. And even more to the point, what's so great about Williamsburg, VA - it's just a fake town that plays on people's misperceptions about the colonial era and tries to sell them expensive faux junk from the 18th century. There's nothing particularly historic about it. It kinda sucks. And unless you have the "big deal" - like Gettysburg or Cooperstown - you not talking about streets paved in gold.

Morrow tries to compare Albany to Charleston, SC, arguing that Charleston does everything to preserve its history that Albany should be doing, and is thus a great heritage economy. But Charleston has always been a tourist destination. The weather is nice, it's on the coast, and - by the way - the civil war began out in the harbor on an island that the feds pay to maintain as a tourist attraction. It's not a big deal to orient your public policies around maintaining and augmenting that kind of tourist attraction. And Charleston does a great job of it - you can tour plantations, you can walk along faux antebellum era cobblestone roads, and you'll never see more sweetgrass baskets and confederate flags for sale than down at the Old City Market.

The point of all this, of course, is that you can't simply build a tourist town, and you certainly can't build a heritage economy from nothing. And while it's true we don't have nothing, we don't have the tourist attractions around which it makes sense to build a preservation economy. The people who care about Albany, NY are the people who live around Albany, NY. No one flies in from California to check out our city for a week. Maybe they should, but they don't. And fixing up the old buildings and trying to build a heritage economy won't change that. Neither will a convention center. Hell, building casinos wouldn't change it, either.

That's life. We have a lot of history, but we don't have any key pieces of American history. Yeah, I've been to the Martin Van Buren house. Ten times. I've never seen anyone else there at the same time. I've looked at Chester Arthur's grave, I've admired Rocky's errection, I've strolled down the million dollar staircase, and I've walked along the Corning Preserve - all in the same morning and always virtually alone. Our history - Albany's history - is not of interest to the average tourist. Not even close. Even Saratoga battlefield isn't historically "big" enough, and that's way bigger than anything in Albany. I mean, I could imagine a day trip to Albany - if you lived in upstate New York to begin with - but is there enough to see that you'd even consider getting a hotel room?

And this is what just infuriates me about the Metroland article. They take a perfectly reasonable point - that we should do more to preserve the city - and they think they need to make it the be all and end all of economic life in Albany in order to sell the idea. And they have to blast the city government at every opportunity. This is why some people run the city and others daydream about it.

We should preserve historic Albany, but not for the tourists and not for a heritage economy. We should preserve it for ourselves, and because historic preservation is worthwhile in its own right. And yes, that means compromise: downtown will have to have new buildings suited for the modern economy and some historic structures will have to go. But at least it won't be a tacky tourist trap. The last thing we need is to be doing preservation on some bottom-line economic calculation. Not only would no one show up, but that's not preserveration, it's faux history for economic gain. We can't make heritage tourism a focal point of the city. It simply won't work. Would you trade the state government for a historically redeveloped Albany? Of course not.

Albany's history is worth saving, but not because it will save Albany.
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At 9:07 AM , Blogger Albany Eye said:

Good points all. I stand by this post from earlier in the year:


At 3:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Oh, man... I hope Metroland doesn't get all pouty and start publishing random song lyrics for the next few months... that would just be sad.    

At 7:50 AM , Blogger Albany Eye said:

Yeah, that would totally suck.    

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