We Are Always Running After a Moving Bulldozer

At SPB’s April lasagna dinner at the First Presbyterian Church, SPB welcomed Helen Desfosses, President of the Albany Common Council to speak about Forces for Change in Albany’s Future. Ms Desfosses opened her presentation by noting that “we are always running after a moving bulldozer.” Albany has an incredible archeological and historical heritage. But look at Savannah: almost a thousand homes built before the Civil War have been preserved. People are surprised at the beauty of Albany and at how much is left of our historic heritage. The Mayor has hired an archeologist and established a Task Force to deal with these issues. What are the forces for change and what are the trends? Globalization effects large cities but small cities are like a lot of little villages.

For the first time in decades, the population of Albany has dropped below 100,000 to about 95,000 which is very distressing. An important question is what will happen to the 28% of the City’s population that live below the poverty line.

You may have noticed that there was no debate about city issues during the recent presidential debates. Crime has decreased in America, on the whole, but increased in small cities. Why? Neighborhoods are the backbone of the city but neighborhoods are extraordinarily fragile. It is obvious a neighborhood is changing when there gets to be a lot of litter, when people start parking their cars on the lawns, when trash piles up and there is a lot of noise. These are the first indicators that more profound changes are taking place. It is important to bring a multifaceted approach to deal with code violations and all the other changes for the worse.

What to we have going for us? Civic organizations have a lot of energy and people have good ideas. Albany does not have a master plan, a plan to deal with the city as a whole. The city doesn’t do enough to incorporate the good ideas and the interest and energy of the people. Government cannot do it all. We have looked at other cities, Seattle, Portland, Charlottsville, to learn what is working.

Albany’s population is now more diverse which is good news; since the 1990 census we’ve added 977 Russian immigrants, several hundred Vietnamese and the Hispanic population is the fastest growing segment with the Asian population second in growth. We even have an Islamic Center. In addition to the Polish Community Center and the Italian Community Center, we have the Chinese Community Center and many new businesses, restaurants and the like.

One of the biggest forces for change in Albany is the University. The Governor has called it a “Center of Excellence”. New buildings are going up (in the Pine Bush!). The University is connecting with high schools and community colleges to educate a workforce for the future. Keeping crime down correlates with jobs; a high level of unemployment leads to high levels of street crime which leads to more serious crime. The greatest export of the Capital Region is our young people. We need jobs here now and to train a workforce for the future. Another factor in keeping crime down is in mobilizing people on every block, on every street to be “street eyes,” people who care enough about happens and are active in their communities. You may remember that when Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River in 1609, he called our area “A beautiful and fruitful place.” People can look around today and say, “He was right.”

One of the forces of change is the growing awareness of the importance of the City’s historical heritage and of the Hudson River. We need light rail. We need downtown housing. Many middle class people want to live in the downtown. We need redevelopment of the business district downtown, reinvestment in the downtown. Another force for change is connected to the University in the development of high tech businesses and industries. These are all positives for Albany.

The comment has been made that the city has encouraged sprawl and the University is contributing to that sprawl, that locating businesses and factories outside of the downtown has a negative impact on the City. If people train for and get jobs outside the City they will move to where the jobs are as soon as they have the means to. Cities are great places to live and work in. So how do we bring jobs to the downtown? Can we use the many empty buildings in the downtown to locate new businesses and factories? Surely the City could help to attract reinvestment in the downtown. And we need to tell people what the downtown has to offer: its historic sites, its business and cultural centers, its river, its waterfront.

Printed in the May/June 2001 Newsletter