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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!

More on heritage tourism

More on Albany as tourist destination: In response to my recent post about why Albany can never be a hotbed of heritage tourism, I got this email from Paul Bray, longtime Albany supporter and co-founder of the Albany Civic Agenda:
FYI, I recognize that you "love" Albany but you are living up to smalbany. There are reasons why Albany metro is unlikely to become a heritage tourism destination, but resources and narratives aren't amongst those reasons. Albany has a wealth of both:

-Native American association and first contacts between Native Americans and Europeans
-Hudson's discovery in 1609 and Dutch settlement
-colonial settlement incl. Albany Plan of Union, three first class historic house museums
-Rev. War
-Beginning of Erie Canal-concept and physically
-significant role in Civil War
-Association with future presidents-Van Buren, Arthur, Roosevelts
-transportation-first passenger rail, first muni airport, etc.
-World class architecture: Capital, Richardson city hall, SUNY Plaza, an acropolis of governmental bldgs., Empire State Plaza, UAlbany campus, the Bar Association bldg on Elk Street, etc.
-first class historic residential districts
-Albany Institute and State museum
-State Street, a truly great street
-Washington Park
-Churches
-assets like Bill Kennedy
-riverfront

and I could go on. In many ways we offer more than Charleston, only Charleston has its act together and we don't.
Well, now we know why so many people call the ACA a bunch of well-intentioned dreamers. I mean, come on Paul. You might get away with that kind of pie-in-the-sky nonsense over at Democray in Albany, but we can't let it slide by over here. Do you really think anything on that list is going to attract tourists to Albany from farther away than, say, Utica? Just reading it over makes me laugh. Washington Park as tourist destination? UAlbany's campus as a model of architecture? And then there's the associations with past presidents. Like I said Monday, I've been to the Van Buren House ten times. It's not a tourist destination and it never will be. And Arthur's grave?. Trust me, you couldn't pay locals to take a trip to the Albany rural cemetary. And Roosevelt does have a nice tourist spot - but it's a mansion down in Hyde Park.

The comparative advantage of Albany as a heritage tourist town is not much. Trust me, no one is going to travel here to check out Lock 7. Rocky's errection is startling, but it's hardly the kind of history we'd be looking to preserve - it's only a monument to Albany heritage if you are talking about the political machine and the greenback slushfund flowing through the state government. And everthing else - the historic churches, state street, the old houses - well that's just niche tourism, anyway.

A few things on the list I can agree with: the capital is a magnificent building that might attract some tourists. The state museum is nice, something most smaller cities don't have. And by virtue of being a rather old city, Albany's history intersects with major pieces of American history. But so does virtually every other city in the northeast. And that's the problem - in order to be a tourist destination, you need to show people why it's great to come to your city and why you can do and see stuff there that you can't find anywhere else. And Nipper and the Egg are not going to make the cut. You need the big bang.

The bottom line is that you cannot produce a heritage tourism industry from the supply side. If there is no natural demand, the odds are incredibly against the artificial creation of such demand. The city could spend $100 million dollars pushing the above list of items, and it wouldn't change the bottom line: we don't have the one big thing that will get tourists here. It's cold half the year, there are no beaches, and there's no grand canyon. And that's why we're different than Charleston - they have Fort Sumter, they have the beaches, and they have that lovely carolina weather. Once you have that kind of natural demand, it's easy to do supply-side type things to enhance your attractiveness as a tourist town. But you'll never create that initial demand artificially. It just doesn't work that way. To say the difference between Albany and Charleston is just that Charleston has its act together and we don't is like saying we could produce as much orange juice as Florida, but we just don't have our act together. It's patently ridiculous.

Now, does this mean that we shouldn't care about Albany's heritage? Of course not. But let's be realistic here. There's a difference between actively preserving Albany's past and trying to sell the city as a heritage tourism town. That's the point I was trying to make on Monday. And in subtle ways, I think it's better not to be shooting for tourism - you don't create faux history like Williamsburg, you don't have to emphasize stuff that is popular over stuff that is actually historically relevent, and you don't have to spend a ton of public money on advertising and public relations. Instead, you can actively preserve things like historic buildings and old churches. The little things that are part of a real history, not a tourists history.

Look, I'm damn proud of Albany's heritage. I love its Dutch past and its Irish influence. I love the old buildings and I love the political history. And I'd love to spend more public money than we currently do to promote that history and preserve it. But it's just crazy to think that we can actually produce a tourism industry here. To argue that we have the "resources and narratives" is to misunderstand what makes a mid-sized city tourist destination popular - the one big thing. And that's what we don't have.

So, yes, scream at the politicos if you want them to spend more money and have more sensitivity toward historic Albany. But get off the soapbox and stop pretending that Albany's history could turn this town into Gettysburg if we just played our cards right. It's hackish idealism and a waste of time.

P.S. - I do wonder what Bray thinks are the reasons "why Albany metro is unlikely to become a heritage tourism destination" if it's not the lack of resources and narratives? My assumption is that he would point to the political system as the problem, just like Metroland did. But that's just a guess...
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At 8:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

It is truly frightening that a man heading an organization promoting Albany feels the NY Bar Association should be a tourist attraction.    



At 7:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Bray forgot to mention the Palais Royale, another Albany institution.    



At 8:26 AM , Blogger democracyinalbany said:

FYI - the Palais has closed.

While I don't agree with your position on this I also don't fully support the other side (although you implied I would). If you've ever been down on the plaza in the summer you will notice foreign tourists. Why do you think they are here? And if they are coming is there the possibility that Albany might be able to increase the number of people who choose to visit? Apparently you don't think so as you are pretty adamant about this. I'm willing to bet that if you can get busloads of people to show up like they currently do you could increase the number of busloads if you wanted to.

I think you are incorrect to say Albany is like every other city in the Northeast if you are referring to the historic buildings that were the focal point of that article.

However, I don't think Albany is going to generate a lot of tourist traffic. Why? The same reasons a convention center will fail. The weather, lack of things to do, 787 on the waterfront, a downtown that is poorly planned and a ghostown after 5:00 PM. There is no reason to hold a convention in Albany unless it is government related. Similarly there is not enough of a draw to become a major tourist destination.

However, Albany is a unique city with amazing historic architecture. I think it is critical that this is preserved because it will make people want to move to the city and live in the city. Troy also has this advantage. So, while I strongly support the preservation of Albany's historic architecture my support is not because i think it will increase tourists but that it will increase tax paying residents. I'm not a state worker. I don't have anything to do with the albany government. I choose to live in Albany because if you can stomach all the bull shit its a beautiful city and it has amazing potential.

This year at Lark Fest the band the Dandy Warhols were the headlining act. While this band has had midlevel success in the states they have done very well in Europe and play there often and have for years. At the end of their well attended set the lead singer said, "I've been all over Europe and the US to all the cities. I walked around this city today and I have to tell you this is one of the best cities I've ever been too" (Not an exact quote but that was the sentiment. And it really didn't seem like the guy was just bullshitting the crowd). Now, he doesn't know about the politics. He probably didn't walk through the south end or West Hill. But I'm quite sure he's seen a hell of a lot more of the world's great cities than Jerry Jennings (or you). Its something to think about.    



At 8:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

UAlbany campus.....oh yeah that really comes to mind when thinking about colleges based on aesthetics. Although most state schools' looks are not comparable to private colleges, if anything, SUNY Oswego has the most beautiful and applicable "tourist attraction" sitting on Lake Ontario.    



At 9:16 AM , Blogger albanian embassy said:

YES!! The key to Albany's future lies in gentrifying our beautiful urban neighborhoods. That requires preserving as much as we can of our architecture. The namby-pambies at DIA will be horrified, but that's our future. Look at Hudson, and now Catskill. Notice how many dumpsters are popping up around town. For those who are interested, drive up North Pearl past the Palace; there are a couple of row-houses being renovated, including one (now painted red with green windows) that was collapsing 12 months ago. That neighborhood is prime for gentrification, walk to work and not too many skels hanging around.    



At 9:30 AM , Blogger democracyinalbany said:

two points

matt says
"You might get away with that kind of pie-in-the-sky nonsense over at Democray in Albany, but we can't let it slide by over here."

I've repeatedly called for sound fiscal policies and analysis for Albany. I don't see you mentioning the impending finacial problems the city has. I do. I also have done plenty of detailed analysis of why the convention center is a bad financial move for Albany. To accuse me of pie in the sky bullshit is just plain misleading. I want my tax dollars spent efficiently in a manner that isn't shortsighted and that will benefit albany in the future. If any is guilty of pie in the sky policies its Jennings and the common council.

Two - Where did you get the idea that I don't think renovating the old buildings in albany is a good idea? I just said we need to do this in the above comment so people will move to Albany and live there and pay taxes. Namby pambies? Nice. Not only do you get my points completely wrong you need to resort to namecalling.

In general, people who choose to restore historic buildings and live in them also enjoy the other historic architecture in the city. We need to preserve as much as we can so more people will move to Albany and fix up homes in areas like Grand Street and Clinton Ave.

I actually was walking up clinton ave this weekend right by the buildings you were talking about. The first few blocks (up to Hawk or so) are all quite nice except for some that are still boarded up or burnt out and sadly not up for sale.    



At 1:36 PM , Blogger albanian embassy said:

I was referring to your cohort, not DIA personally.
When the black ministers endorsed that guy who ran against Jennings, the name escapes me, they decried the rising rents in town. Good! Fewer skels will always be a good thing.    



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