Where Fools Fear to Tread — An Albany Snapshot

I recently took a sort of Grand Tour of the Northeastern United States and Quebec with Una. Before the trip I’d only been in the region once before when I spent a few days in and around Princeton and New York City during Yuletide a few years ago. I returned for the occasion of my sister’s graduation but used the opportunity to explore the surrounding region by train. One of the city’s that we visited was Albany.

Albany, New York postcard

Most of the places we visited we spent a substantial amount of time exploring. Visiting Albany, on the other hand, was a last minute decision. Wanting to visit Vermont we purchased tickets for the Ethan Allen Express to Rutland, Vermont. When the Amtrak board at Penn Station failed to list any Vermont trains, I approached an Amtrak employee and said, “May I ask you a question?” She said nothing but her face grew red and she visibly clenched her jaw so I inquired about the train to Vermont. In an unpleasant tone accompanied by an eye roll she stated, without looking at me, “I don’t know why they’d sell you a ticket to Vermont when no train goes there.” We returned to the ticket counter where a more helpful employee issued us a partial refund and informed us that we could take the Adironack Line to Albany so to Albany we went.

Adirondack Line
Map of the Adirondack Line — image source:
Jersey Pinoy

The US has the largest rail system in the world — more than twice the size of China‘s — but in many parts of the country it travels at a frustratingly slow speed and its ridership pales as a result. 111 years after the invention of high speed rail, New Jersey Transit‘s Northeast Corridor Line is one of the country’s only true high-speed rail lines. A Montreal—New York City high-speed maglev was proposed at least twenty years ago. In 2005, New York Governor George Pataki and Quebec Premier Jean Charest echoed calls for high speed rail but almost a decade later that train has yet to leave the station.

Hudson Athens Lighthouse
Hudson Athens Lighthouse

Amtrak’s Adirondack takes eleven hours to travel chug along 613 kilometers of track which is why we decided to stop somewhere overnight rather than ride all the way to Canada. Luckily, the Hudson Valley isAgent USAtruly beautiful and the three hour trip to Albany includes scenic natural vistas, quaint villages, and charming Hudson River lighthouses among other sites (although the entire three hour experience was made somewhat less pleasant by a group of gossiping co-workers whose mean-spirited, beer-fueled hen party lasted the entire ride).

We arrived in Albany shortly before the sun concluded its journey across the sky with few preconceptions. Albany is mentioned a lot on Orange is the New Blackbut other than that, my main impression was formed by Agent USA, a computer game from 1984 designed to teach users about train travel and geography. In the game, an antagonist known as the Fuzzbomb is infecting the residents of various American cities. Although the 8-bit graphics are simple, one of the lessons the game taught me was that capital cities are often quite small and, aside from their governmental importance, not the most always cosmopolitan of places. Although our time in Albany was short I feel comfortable with my conclusion that New York City rather than the state capital is the more vibrant urban center.

Dunn Memorial HighwayThe Dunn Memorial Bridge pedestrian and bikeway — image source: Di Highway

I proposed to Una that we walk across the Dunn Memorial Bridge to Albany but the walkway looked more like a freeway shoulder than something most humans would feel comfortable walking along. We instead called a hotel and they sent a shuttle which arrived after what seemed like an inordinately long wait. We climbed into the van (the interior of which smelled of noodle soup). As we rode along I-787 we saw some of Albany’s beautiful buildings which I wanted to pay a visit to: Albany City Hall, the Alfred E. Smith Building, the Cathedral of All Saints, the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, the Egg, the New York State Capitol, the New York State Executive Mansion, the Palace Theatre, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, and the SUNY System Administration Building (fka the Delaware & Hudson Railroad Building) among them. However, despite the presence of an attractive attractive downtown I saw few signs of life after dark.

Downtown Albany
Downtown Albany — image source: Capitalize Albany

When I asked our driver if Albany is one of those towns that closes at 5:00 (likesay Oklahoma City — although it should be noted that I haven’t been there since 1999 and maybe it’s a happening scene nowadays) he assured us that downtown Albany is actually quite hopping at night and named a couple of sports bars as supportive proof. Once situated in the hotel I was able to confirm that there were at least two sports bars open but little else, it seemed. It was only just after 10 pm and but it seemed that few restaurants remained open so we ordered food from Mild Wally’s.

Steamed Hams
From the comforts of our hotel room I attempted to research the cuisine of Albany. In 19th century Albany, Sturgeon was so popular that it was often referred to as “Albany Beef” but the fish itself has a much larger range. Also, despite Principal Skinner‘s claim that Albany is known for “steamed hams,” I found no evidence to support that and it seems that there is little truly regional cuisine. In its place I mostly found praise of signature dishes from various restaurants and locally made products (e.g. the Doritos Nachos at The Fountain, the Italian bread baked at Perreca’s, the burritos at Bombers, and the “doughboys” (rather like Hot Pockets, it seems) from Esperanto). From elsewhere in the greater Capital District, the city of Troy produces Freihofer’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, Utica has chicken riggies (rigatoni) and halfmoons (another type of cookie), and it is often (albeit erroneously) claimed that pie à la mode was invented in Cambridge.

Mozzerella sticks and melba sauce
Mozzarella and melba sauce — image source: Albany Eats
There are at least three dishes which can claim to be truly Albanian — although all of them seem like the desperate concoctions of an improbably stoned college student with a half-empty fridge and a miniscule budget. The most famous local culinary creation are mozzarella sticks served with raspberry melba sauce. Runner-ups include the mini dog (seemingly just a small hot dog), apple cider donuts, and the “fish fry” — a long cut of fish served on a hotdog bun and often covered with either tartar sauce or chili.


It is my belief that the best way of seeing a city is by walking its streets and exploring its neighborhoods. Around our hotel in the 12th Ward, however, there seemed to be little but freeways and closed businesses surrounded by vast, empty parking lots. A walk to Albany’s downtown would’ve mean walking ten kilometers round trip and there seemed to be little going on other than sports bars, which I find to be uniquely unpleasant places to drink. I therefore attempted to console myself with online research.

Albany is only the sixth largest city in New York. It was incorporated in 1686 and has a population of about 100,000 Albanians who are roughly 79% white, 13% black, 5% Asian, 2% mixed race, and 5% Latino of any race. Albany Neighborhoods Arbor Hill, Buckingham Pond, Beverwyck, Campus, Center Square,Eagle Hill, Helderberg, Delaware Neighborhood, Dudley Heights, Dunes, Hudson/Park, Melrose, New Albany, Normansville, North Albany, Park South, Pine Hills, Sheridan Hollow, South End, Kenwood,Krank Park, Mansion District, Pastures, Second Avenue, University Heights, Washington Park, West Hill, and Whitehall.

Macaroni fashions
I could find no famous musicians from Albany, although I’m sure that there are some. Although a fictional character, Rennsslaer claims to be the birthplace of Yankee Doodle. Supposedly, whilst quartered at a home there, British Army surgeon Richard Shuckburgh wrote “Yankee Doodle” in 1755, famously mocking the colonists whose notions of foppishness were apparently so unrefined that a mere feather in a hat was enough to warrant referring to the wearer as a Macaroni. Like Hamas’s “Attack! Carry Out Terror Strikes century’s later, “Yankee Doodle” was co-opted by those it attempted to satirize as a patriotic song.

When unable to explore a city on foot or by transit, my second choice is to turn to films. Perhaps the most acclaimed film set in Albany and based upon a book written by Albany native William Kennedy is Ironweed (1983). My favorite Albany-filmed movie, however (even though it plays New York City), would be The Other Guys (2010). Albany was also a film location for The Way We Were (1973), Ghost Story (1981), The Time Machine (2002), and Salt (2010).

William Devane in Alfred Hitchcock's FrenzyWilliam Devane in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Frenzy (1972) — image source: The Hitchcock Zone
Albany is also the birthplace of William Devane — an actor famous for playing President John F. Kennedy several times and the villainous Greg Sumner on Knots Landing.
In the morning, we returned to the train station and journeyed to Quebec. I really do hope to return to Albany to spend more time there someday so if you can make that happen, contact me and let me know. In the meantime…

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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