Will the real “Albanians” please stand up? Capital Region residents are well aware that this area is a fine place to live, work, and play. As it is though with any place that one eventually chooses to put down roots, one can’t help but notice the peculiarities and peccadillos that sets one place apart from another. As someone who is not native to the Capital Region, I believe it has placed me in an enviable position, (Although I can’t for the life of me think of who would actually envy me over this.) as a semi-interested third party. I can sit back and study the societal comings and goings that distinguishes a given area, and then reach conclusions that perhaps others who are endemic to this area may be inclined to overlook.
This is not to say that Albany and its surrounding regions are the only places that suffer from its own particularities. Every area of any geopolitical significance has behaviors and attitudes that set it apart. However, I have neither the time nor the inclination to take a look at those places, (And if you good people don’t start clicking on those ads that adorn this page, I’m not going to have the time, inclination, or MONEY to put much thought into this region either…just sayin.) my focus is right here, right now, studying the region Alexander Hamilton once called, “North of New York City,” better known as Albany.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but it just seems to me that many of the people who call the Capital Region home aren’t really born and bred, but instead are transplants, or in some cases transients, people brought here due to transfers through their occupations such as those who’ve made their careers at GE, or Global Foundries, where an individual and their family may call the Capital Region home for a few years, but never truly commit to the area. Then, even if they do begin to attempt to put down roots, they are quickly and unceremoniously shipped out to take up work at GE’s sparkling new lightbulb testing facility in Pyongyang. Many others who have settled here are transplanted downstaters who could no longer afford the taxes or deal with the traffic and congestion so prevalent in the New York City metropolitan area.
It’s not that the people born here, or those who choose to move here don’t like the area, but what I don’t see is an over-exuberance of loyalty or sentimentality for the area. Landmarks come and go, Hoffman’s Playland becomes an appendage of Huck Finn’s Warehouse, and nobody bats an eye. L-Ken’s shuts down one day, no longer adorning Central Avenue, and it’s no longer “Closed for the season, reason freezin,'” it’s “Closed forever somebody please take notice!” People are neither excited or saddened, it’s just business as usual. Where’s the sentimentality? Well don’t get all weepy, let’s see if we can figure it out.
I believe that the economy of the Capital Region lends itself to a transient population. For example, while the biggest employer in this area is obviously the state of New York, the second biggest employer in the area is GE or General Electric according to livability.com. Chances are most of the state workers in this area are born and raised here in the Capital Region, but while there are of course some locals who work at GE, many are people who have transferred here from other GE offices and factories, or came to live here due to an opportunity to work for the gigantic corporation.
GE’s footprint here in the Capital Region can’t be overestimated. The city of Schenectady, home to GE is literally nicknamed the “Electric City,” and its fortunes as a small metro area have risen and fallen with the successes or failures of the company started by Thomas Edison, and then “stolen” from him by J.P. Morgan. During World War Two for example, GE employed almost 40,000 employees, (That’s the equivalent of four Rensselaers.) today that number has dropped to roughly 4000. While all factories in the U.S. have cut back dramatically from their peak, this stone-like plummet has dragged the city of Schenectady down like an albatross around its neck. GE has tried to invest in the city in order to bring back some of its splendor along Erie Blvd, and State Street, but a recent deal they made in France has financially hit the company like a punch into J.P. Morgan’s enormous gut, and layoffs have ensued. If you’re looking for a reason why this area has a lot of individuals and families that seem to drift in and out, GE’s hirings and firings have gone a long way in promoting this circumstance.
Obviously we can’t blame all of the transience of this area on one ginormous corporation. (As much as we all would like to.) Instead we have to look at the market itself. While the Capital Region isn’t a tiny market by any sense of the word, it doesn’t constitute any kind of massive metropolitan area either. How does this affect those who live here? Unfortunately it means that while you get a decent number of regional offices here, you don’t have a lot of large companies who make their headquarters in the Capital Region. What this means is that anybody with any measurable amount of ambition will constantly be looking to advance their careers, which means they won’t wish to be stuck in some satellite office unseen by the eyes of the big-shots in management. Instead, they are going to want to get transferred to the company’s headquarters where there is most likely much more opportunity for advancement. Therefore, Albany and its surroundings constitute little more than a pit-stop for many would-be corporate climbers.
However, this is not to say that everybody here is simply passing through, biding their time until they get to be the CEO of Widgets Incorporated, now in 50 great locations. There are numerous inhabitants of this area who were born and raised here, and if they have their way, they will spend eternity in the great Corning Preserve in the sky. Still I can’t help but notice that people don’t wax poetic regarding all that is the Capital Region as much as let’s say people from other regions and areas of the state. For example, last year I wrote a blog about Jamestown, New York, (https://www.albany.com/view-from-the-middle/2018/08/you-cant-spell-chautauqua-without-u-and-u-and-u/) and its surrounding areas as kind of an ode to my wife and her family. The blog did exceptionally well getting several thousand views. (At least that’s good for me.) Jamestown is hardly a major metropolis by any definition of the word. In fact, it’s not exactly a thriving area in general, as the Southern Tier of New York State has struggled to recover economically compared to the rest of the state since 2008. Despite the fact that many of the talented and college educated inhabitants of Jamestown and its surrounding areas have long since departed their hometown in search of greater opportunities and the financial rewards that go with it, you could see based on their comments both here on the Albany.com website, as well on Facebook that there was a surge of warmth, enthusiasm, as well as a genuine sense of real nostalgia regarding their long-since departed hometown.
How do we explain this? I often write about Albany in a similar fashion to the way I wrote about Jamestown, and yet I get very little feedback or commentary from locals waxing poetic about their beloved Capital Region. Why? Why do so many of those who’ve long since left Jamestown in their rearview mirror still have this bond with this small, industrial town in the heart of Western, New York’s snowbelt? Just the mention of Lucille Ball, Jamestown’s most famous export, or Johnny’s, its venerable hot dog stand, Lake Chautauqua, Bemus Point, The Casino, and all of the other landmarks that make Jamestown distinct brought forth such an outpouring of reminiscence, you’d think they’d been exiled from their place of birth. As for Albany and its surrounding areas, meh, not so much.
Albany is in a peculiar situation. It’s the state capital which is good for the economy, but it doesn’t create a lot of local character. There’s really little to no nightlife here as witnessed by the “ghost-town” like appearance on the streets of Albany after around 7pm. It’s a place to work and little else. How about Albany’s surrounding areas? Suburbs unfortunately don’t always leave space for a lot of local character. Most suburban enclaves look pretty similar. The entire nation looks like suburban New Jersey, and suburban areas that dot the Capital Region are no exception to this rule. We typically don’t feel a lot of sentimentality regarding our memories of Walmart or Olive Garden.
Perhaps Albany’s issue is its location? When you are three hours from Montreal, Boston, and New York City, it’s easy to drive off to those locations and enjoy a weekend of fun, leaving little room in your mind for the memories formed here in the Capital Region. The fact that we don’t have a local major league franchise also leaves us lacking in the passion for the local scene that one sees in bigger markets. I raised both of my children here, and I wonder if they will drive through Clifton Park in 20 years and say, “Remember when there were three Starbucks within a one square mile area, and now there’s only two. Wow, talk about missing the good old days.” Nah, probably not.