Insider’s Guide: Albany isn't SmallbanyMar 11, 2014
NYSOM Contributor and Capital Region native, Mark Adam, shows us his strong hometown roots. A common nickname for Albany, the capital of the Empire State, is “Smallbany.” Though New York State is arguably the biggest and baddest in the country, Albany itself is relatively small with 97,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What Albany may lack in size, glitz and glamour when compared to New York City (its big brother to the south), it makes up for in accessibility and intimacy, and holds its own in creating a good time. People from around here often promote Albany for its proximity to other major cities like New York City, Boston and Montreal. If you reverse course and spend a weekend in Albany, you’ll find the many gems worth mining, showing the brilliance of the city's arts, culture and history. Start with its literal access from other regions. Albany International Airport (ALB) is so easy to get in to and out of that I routinely show up a mere hour before my departing flight and coast through baggage and security lines; forget about parking off-premises and having to take a shuttle. With friends in the Washington, D.C.-area, I’ve found $60 flights into BWI because it’s a Southwest hub. Amtrak and Metro-North routes take you on rides to and from New York City along the Hudson River. Drives through the interstate highways take you north (to the Adirondacks), south (to New Jersey and Pennsylvania), east (to Massachusetts) and west (through Central New York, the Southern Tier, the Chautauqua-Allegany region and Western New York). Once you’re in Albany, the sites are easy to find and even easier to get to. Venturing around Albany, one can see the good and bad like any other city. Sure, there are boarded up buildings in depressed neighborhoods, and there seems to be a constant battle between residents and business owners with the “Not in My Backyard” mentality, but drive a little farther and you will find the many bright spots. As the capital of New York State, Albany is home to the capitol building where the legislature meets, argues and enacts laws. The capitol is located at the foot of the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, which is the focal point of Albany’s unique skyline. As with many other projects that happen in Albany, the plaza's construction was a divisive issue. It displaced a residential neighborhood in favor of the current 10 buildings that hold 11,000 employees. Now, the plaza is home to more than just State government: It hosts popular events like the July 4th fireworks display, the CDPHP Workforce Team Challenge 3.5-mile road race that had 9,000 runners in 2013, and offers a free outdoor ice skating rink during the winter. Across Madison Avenue is the New York State Museum with 17 ongoing exhibitions including "The Adirondack Wilderness," "Beneath the City: An Archaeological Perspective of Albany," "Native Peoples of New York," and "The World Trade Center: Rescue Recovery Response." There is also a full-sized carousel made between 1912-1916 that visitors can ride up and down and all around. Admission to the museum is free, and donations are accepted at the door. For the performance-minded person, downtown venues include the 17,500-seat capacity Times Union Center, the Palace Theatre, Capital Repertory Theatre and the Egg, which is the most prominent piece of the Albany skyline. The Times Union Center has booked Justin Timberlake for July 16, 2014 and the Palace had acts varying from Jerry Seinfeld to Joe Bonamassa to Rocky Horror Picture Show this past year. A popular summer attraction is Albany’s Alive at Five concert series at Jennings Landing (formerly Albany Riverfront Park) on the Hudson River bank. Musicians play every Thursday after work while concertgoers sit on the sloped ground facing the amphitheatre stage, with the Hudson River as a backdrop. Performers from recent years include the Refrigerators, Blues Traveler and Eddie Money, and each year there is a hugely popular Country Night. A quick five-minute drive up Madison Avenue brings you to Lark Street, a vibrant area for 20-somethings and beyond, who enjoy food, drink and celebrating with friends. Lark Street hosts many of the exhibition spaces for the city’s 1st Friday art showings and its one-day music and arts festival LarkFEST in September. One block away is Washington Park. Aside from being an oasis of green space and trees that is open to runners, cyclists and sunbathers, it’s home to some of Albany’s most beloved events. In May it’s the site of Albany’s Tulip Festival, which celebrates Albany’s Dutch history with blooming tulips, local and national musicians on two different stages and the crowning of Albany’s Tulip Queen. The city’s gardening staff planted 200,000 spring bulbs last year, said Jason Bonafide, public relations coordinator from Albany’s Office of Special Events. During the summer, the Park Playhouse produces two different plays that are performed for free outside at the Lakehouse in Washington Park. Come Halloween, the Lakehouse is filled with ghosts and goblins for a rocking Halloween party and for the holidays the park is turned into a glowing Christmas display. The Price Chopper Capital Holiday Lights in the Park (Nov. 20, 2014 - Jan. 3, 2015) has more than 138 light displays over a two-mile stretch throughout the park, said Lenny Ricchiuti of the Albany Police Athletic League. While Smallbany might seem like an afterthought in a big state with even bigger things going on, and even though many residents struggle with their own complexes about where they live, it’s a place worth visiting, and better yet, living it up.