Category Archives: Economics

America, an Ideal

[Originally published January 17, 2017 on Facebook]

It was quiet and serene at 6:45, as I stood on the stoop this morning, a Meadowbrook Farms milk truck backing up, the tree branches black against a sky that brightened from navy to cyan over a period of ten minutes. I had been reading a biography of Wilson, and I started musing on America and what it means.

“America…is not a piece of the surface of the Earth. America is not merely a body of towns. America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision,” Wilson said while running for Governor of New Jersey–his first attempt at political office.

As I stood on the stoop, a thin, middle-aged man crossed to my side of the street, pulling a wire cart. Last night was garbage night in Albany, and the man bent from one pile to another, retrieving cans. As he passed he looked in my direction and nodded to me, humbly. I nodded back. I return cans, too. I considered that this man was simply more entrepreneurial than me, when it comes to can-collecting.

The buildings I could see were all in good shape, made of stone and brick, leftover from the 1870s and 80s. I thought of the phrase “make America great again” and considered that it is not the apartments and towers or trees or stoops that are or are not “great”–it is the people who live in the structures, and the systems we put in place for the purpose of increasing our “greatness.”

A garbage truck passed, its side reading “Republic Waste.” Republic is the name of the trash company, obviously, but it was also ironic to see “Republic” and “Waste” so close to one another after thinking about Wilson’s statement of America as an ideal, and all the recent talk about making America “great again,” whatever that means.

The One-Way sign on the corner is chipping and bent, like it’s been hit by a hundred garbage trucks over the years, but nobody thinks to replace it. The intersection of the sidewalk is spray-painted with red letters and arrows from a utility company, though the work has been finished for months, because nobody thinks its necessary to compel utility companies to clean up their spray paint (though we have a graffiti Task Force in case someone puts spray paint on a wall). The sidewalk up and down the street sports accumulations of leaves, black plastic bags, and white plastic cup lids, because no one has swept their sidewalk, because even if they did, the leaves would blow back in front of their houses again because their neighbors didn’t sweep, and the street sweeper hasn’t been down my street in 3 weeks (though The City has given out tickets on the cars that didn’t move because the street-sweeper was supposed to have come). The One-Way sign, the utility graffiti, the leaves and trash, the exploitative tickets without compensatory benefit–these are the signifiers of society being not “great.”

“I feel like everything is like a sham–” (I’m paraphrasing my friend Jess) “–like nothing is built to last or…like you go into a building and its new and from far away it looks impressive, but then you look at the moulding and it doesn’t line up, the paint job is bad–its like we all do 90% of the work on stuff and never do the finishing work.” She was talking about the deck that her father built years ago, which looked great, but he never stained it, so now it’s full of splinters. But she was talking about a trend not just in the built landscape, but in the social landscape.

I continue to feel that the biggest problem with our time in history is the alienation of individuals from the rest of society. All of our other problems basically branch from that main issue, because we could solve most of our problems if we recognized our mutual interests within a community, and used our resources productively.

When I think of a time when America was “great,” I think what people are probably referring to is an idealized version of the 1950s, in a small town, if you were caucasian and Christian. The national economy was operating at near full-employment, there was access to credit, new mechanical gadgets were continually appearing to lessen the toils of life, more people had leisure-time than ever before in history, etc. But none of that gets at why the period seems like it must have been “great.”

What’s missing from the dry statistics is a description of the spirit of the times. What we picture are block parties, backyard barbecues, drive-ins, malt-shops, bake sales, baseball games, rotary club meetings, Church picnics, family picnics, weddings at small community venues–things that involve friends and families–wholesome social structures of which individuals identify as members–which through continual meetings continually reinforce the idea that I–as an individual–am part of larger groups, and those groups are part of a larger society–and it is all possible because we live in a republic.

Immediately, many people will point out, “but that spirit of the times was only great if you were caucasian and Christian, etc. For a lot of people it didn’t apply. Therefore it was a myth.” But between the last two sentences is a lapse of logic–it wasn’t a “myth” for the majority–that’s why people who used to be a majority latched onto the phrase “Make America Great Again” during the last election. Instead of declaring that an inclusive, progressive society is impossible, we ought to seek to make the spirit apply to more people, so that there are fewer who are left out. That is America as “an ideal.” It needs to be a hybrid of conservative and progressive principles.

The flaw in the Republican platform of the last election is that it chose a wall–the great symbol of division–as a symbol for how the party plans to bring about the ideal of an inclusive society. That was a great mistake, which reminds of Harry S Truman’s statement at a dinner of the Federal Bar Association in 1950: “We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat.” A republic cannot exist if it is to be composed of cloistered individuals cowering behind symbolic walls, everyone suspicious of one another, cynical about their own government. A republic must be based on citizen’s mutual self-interest and self help. The Party diminishes republicanism by the same proportion as it diminishes mutual self-interest and self-help. By cultivating divisions in society it encourages segments of the population to depend on the government for their elevation over other segments. It is superlatively ironic that the party that calls itself Republican and champions small government stimulates the conversation that erodes both of those things.

Our politics are like a revolving wheel, turning over cyclically. The people are the actual units that revolve, tied to the wheel. We started at the center, generations ago, but the arguments and philosophies have become more extreme, turning the wheel faster, and causing our people to fly outward, so that we feel connected to society no longer by some great gravitational force, but through a little string of geography: we just happen to live here, next to other people, all under the same government–rather than as fellows who are part of the same society.

In April of 2015 I went out on my stoop, and my neighbor, an old man, was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his stoop. I had planned to smoke a cigarette, but instead I went back inside and returned with a broom, and began to sweep the sidewalk in front of my apartment. “Hello,” the old man introduced himself, “I’m Robert. Do you own this building?”

“Oh no, I just moved in here,” I said.

“Oh, well, its nice of you to sweep, then.”

“Well I saw you doing it and figured it looked pleasant enough that I might as well give it a try!”

I think that is the great challenge of our times, which we should not expect politicians to accomplish: how do we get our neighbors to proverbially sweep? Will we go out and join them? Will that encourage other people to pitch in, because they know that if they sweep just then, they won’t have our leaves blow onto their sidewalk, because we’re sweeping, too? And when the sidewalk is clean, will we finally sit there and realize we are all neighbors, and have the same interest, and demand together that the city send the street-sweeper and fix the One-Way sign, and force the utility company to come back and clean up its graffiti? If we could manage that in all the little patches of earth that make up the towns and cities of America, we’d be much closer to our “ideal.”

Musings Comparing Albany with Syracuse, Geneva, New Hope and New Orleans

[Originally posted October 18th, 2016 on Facebook]

I like to compare cities to Albany when I travel, to see what stimulates economic activity in those places, that might work here. In the last year, Katie Carnahan and I have been to New Orleans, LA, New Hope, PA, Cooperstown, Ithaca, Geneva, and Syracuse, NY. Many of these places face similar problems to Albany. Albany and Syracuse might be distinguished by what they lack: a coherent  plan that takes advantage of their physical or cultural assets to draw people to their several business districts.

I know that tourism and nightlife are not the only revenue-generators for a city. But they are an important part of bringing capital from outside into the city in order for that capital to be circulated and concentrated. Tourism and nightlife are perhaps the main factor in providing a place with an identity which is then celebrated by residents and used in local advertising. A vibrant identity leads to more civic activism, cleaner streets, a growing population, therefore innovation, better government, community spirit, lower crime, lower taxes and greater employment through new and thriving small businesses, which are all good things.

We visited New Orleans back in April, after spending a night with my friends Dan and Amy in Picayune, Mississippi. Picayune is a dry town in a backward state. The tumbleweeds blow through the boulevards of a “downtown” that becomes a ghost town after 7:30 pm. Dan pointed out that “you have to try very hard to be optimistic in this place.” In the modern world where a community requires some sort of a tax base, it seems like Picayune cuts off its nose to spite its face by outlawing anything that might draw visitors to it, in the name of morality or old times that never existed or something. New Orleans is the opposite. The place bursts with energy and life–and people spending lots of money to have a good time. If there is one thing that distinguishes New Orleans from other cities in America it is its personal freedom. It is a feeling that the city cultivates: Come Down and Enjoy Yourself. Live music pours from hundreds of bars in the French Quarter alone. People spend $500 to fly to New Orleans, $30 for a taxi from the airport to the city, and $150 a night or more for a hotel, just to be able to carry their cocktail from one bar to another down the street. Thousands of people clog the sidewalks 15 or 16 hours a day, simply because it is enjoyable to feel temporarily unrestricted. Why is it that the French Quarter has bounced back from the physical devastation of Katrina, while cities like Detroit were decimated by the Great Recession? Because there is organic energy in New Orleans which is allowed to grow. In Albany very few people busk on the streets, because pedestrians do not linger on the streets enjoying themselves. Patrons power-walk from bar to bar as quickly as possible, to avoid the mendicants in Albany. In Albany there are very few live bands, because they are disincentivized through a cabaret license fee. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is very little to do in Albany besides go to bars, once you’ve been to the museum and admired the Million Dollar Staircase at the Capitol.  (Don’t try to eat on a sandwich on the steps of the Capitol that face the parks to the east and west, they’re off limits thanks to barricades.) You cannot easily stroll to the riverside like you can in New Orleans, there are no pedestrian streets where artists hang and sell their paintings as in Jackson Square in New Orleans–so the reality is that people go to bars where they talk to people they already know because there is no music and you can’t drink outside. Ultimately, what distinguishes New Orleans from Albany is a difference in “feel” or “atmosphere.” People travel to New Orleans because the place feels inviting–the local businesses thrive as cash flows into the city from all over the nation. Few people travel to Albany to spend their money unless they live within a fifteen minute drive, and even then, the feeling is more like “thank goodness some people I know also showed up at this bar so I can have someone to talk to about how cold the winter is, or is going to be.” A lot of the money circulating in Albany is transferred from one resident to another, rather than flowing from out of the city. Workers in the service industry often joke that the same $20 passes from a customer at one bar to the bartender, who then becomes the customer at the next bar, the same $20 being passed through three hands and back. The downside of New Orleans vis a vis Albany is the high crime rate, for you cannot stray outside of the populated areas at night without risking your life and limb in NOLA–and they have a lot of beggars. Albany seems to have about 1 to 2 beggars or just anti-social weirdos per block in the Lark Street area which bleed down into Center Square. New Orleans has many more, in proportion to the multitudes of out-of-towners with cash. 

New Hope, PA, is worth the drive from Albany (though the opposite is not true, unless you’re doing research at the NYS Archives). It’s rated the highest-valued real estate in Pennsylvania. Unlike New Orleans–but like the rest of the cities in this comparison–New Hope is not massive. It is a small village just across the Delaware River from NJ on what was once a lock on the Delaware Canal. They have a little museum in an old lock-tender’s house. Amazingly to a New Yorker, there are no employees inside the museum. The door is unlocked, and you just let yourself in to look at the exhibits. Behind the museum and the main street of the town is a walking/biking bath through the forest that follows the path of the old canal. So you can either drive to the town and park on the only street, or bike or walk to the town and have lunch. Albany, of course, has nothing like this, because the day- and night-life areas are separated from the river that was the original reason for establishing Albany in the first place. The main street buildings of New Hope emerge from the woods and suddenly there are six or seven restaurants and book stores and antique shops. The restaurants and bars face the main street and sport heat lamps. You feel like you are in an 1800s community because of the trees and pedestrians, yet the businesses are thriving because the place is clean and the establishments are concentrated. At night the businesses have live music. It is PA so you can smoke in the bars, at least outside, for most of the places have bars which begin inside and continue out onto a deck beneath a colorful awning. The “feel” of this town to someone from Upstate New York is like “Wow, it seems like someone decided to orchestrate a cultural identity here, with some sort of an economic plan.” The downside of New Hope is that there is little free parking. Just as Albany might attract more consumers, provide more variety to its residents, and cultivate an identity by liberalizing its laws with regard to drinking and live music at least in certain areas, it could designate another area(s) as pedestrian and bike friendly and cultivate the image of an old community in the style of New Hope–perhaps along the bike trail by the river, if the bridges and railroad didn’t monopolize that area.

Also, New Hope is in PA, which, like the rest of the world, has Uber and other car-sharing services, which Albany doesn’t  (thanks to state-level rather than city-level legislative inaction.) We have a nano-science school to manufacture machines to repair our mitochondria, but we don’t have car-sharing, which the rest of the world has come to expect as a basic service, like indoor plumbing. Instead Albany, like Syracuse, has a reputation for having really really crappy taxis.

So last fall, Katie and I had five days to make a vacation out of. We didn’t want to spend two of those days driving or flying, so we decided to travel somewhere in the northeast within three or four hours of Albany. Our first instinct was to go to Boston, but hotels there were $300 a night. We wanted to see the foliage changing. We decided to go west to the Finger Lakes, to Cooperstown, Ithaca and Geneva.

As we were planning the trip I realized that we chose those cities because they are located in an area with a distinguishable cultural identity–the Finger Lakes region. The name calls to mind rolling hills, waterfalls, hiking trails and wineries. Those images immediately suggest things to do, which are attractive, which are why people go there, which our region lacks. When multiple cities within the same region work together to cultivate a shared identity, it promotes each of the cities,  allows for advertising on economies of scale and multiplies the reputation through word-of-mouth and social media. A person might take a picture of a waterfall and apply the hashtag #Fingerlakes. There is a lost opportunity in the reputation of the Capitol Region. It brings to mind the four Agency Buildings and Empire Plaza, which is about as quaint and welcoming as a security camera mounted above some bars on a ground-level apartment window, and the Capitol itself, which would be harmlessly boring if not for its reputation as the corruption capital of the state. Albany as a city cannot get rid of these state-owned structures and problems, but it could work to vary and to improve that image.

Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, which we skipped. It also has the Otesaga, an old hotel at the southern terminus of Otsego Lake. We stayed at a Best Western and took a taxi to the Otesaga, where we had classic cocktails and danced to a live jazz band on a Wednesday night. I wouldn’t drive out to Cooperstown just do dance to a live jazz band, but I would dance to a live jazz band in Albany, except that nobody dances to jazz here. It’s so rare that if you happen to hear actual live jazz at The Speakeasy or Taste (if that place is even still open, I couldn’t find the website), you sit there and listen like you would to a museum exhibit. Which of course is the opposite of what jazz is supposed to be. It was impossible to get food in Cooperstown after 9 p.m., so Katie and I ended up eating bar mix for dinner. So Cooperstown itself is kind of boring if you don’t want to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the next day we went to Ommegang Brewery, which is worth the trip from Albany. We did the tour and got our flights and fell into a conversation with a woman who knew we were from Albany when she heard us mention Lionheart, which is the last remaining neighborhood bar in the Lark Street area.

From Cooperstown we drove to Ithaca, on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. Ithaca is another city with a pedestrian street which forms their downtown business district and contributes to their identity, even as it makes driving there horrendous. The pedestrian street is made of brick with pretty street lamps and benches. There are clothing and book stores, bagel shops, restaurants, etc. I know that Crossgates Mall has all of that and more out in Guilderland, and Stuyvesant Plaza has it a mile closer, but why doesn’t Center Square have a clothing store, a real bakery, a bookstore? Instead of people flocking to Lark Street as the Greenwhich Village of upstate, people drive for culture from Center Square to visit the City of Hudson, a city which 15 years ago had as many vacant storefronts as Coeymans. We stayed outside the town at spa/hotel that had an event called Ithaca by Starlight–bonfires and outside bars under canvass tents with live music and hot totties. We had a great time except that, like Cooperstown, everything closed early and we went without dinner for the second night in a row.

From there we travelled to Geneva, which is on the northern tip of Seneca Lake. This was our favorite part of the trip. During the day we went to several wineries and breweries, many of which were startups founded within the last year, thanks to a state law that has incentivized the winery and beer brewing business. Downtown Geneva is basically just a few square blocks, but it has the look of Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful Life. As we were walking around, what surprised Katie and I most was that there were no vacant buildings and every facade was painted and in good repair. I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “How is it that this town in the middle of nowhere in the center of the state can have a thriving downtown with great restaurants and fifteen different kinds of bars, and Albany can’t?” It was clean. We went to about five different bars after having a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose name escapes me. We played shuffleboard with two  college professors in their fifties who were partners, and when it started to snow everybody ran outside to see the flecks falling for the first time. The next day we walked around the antique stores downtown–something else missing from Albany (unless you count that place on the corner of Madison and Dove, which I’d love to check out, but after living in Albany for 10 years I’ve never seen it open).

Our trip to the Finger Lakes last year was so cathartic and relaxing that as we drove through farm fields and the sun shined down on silos, I told Katie that I wanted to quit my office job so I could see what else was out there besides the doldrums of legislative work in the Capitol Region. Looking out the window at the green fields, red and yellow leaves, and robin’s egg sky, Katie said “I think you should quit and be a writer.” I’m glad getting out of the city inspired me to do that, but I wish there was more to inspire people here in this city.

This year it was more difficult to travel, because we’ve been moving and setting up our new apartment, I’ve been editing my book about rafting down the Hudson River, and I no longer work at a job that provides a paid vacation. But we wanted to see another city in the middle of upstate. We chose Syracuse because it was close, and it has the Erie Canal Museum, and I’ve been researching for a book about the canal (the enacting legislation for the canal was passed 200 years ago next year, in 1817).

Whereas the other cities in this post were interesting because of ways in which they differ from Albany, and are thereby thriving, Syracuse was striking because of the similarities to Albany. So much so that we took to calling Syracuse the Negative Photographic Image of Albany as we explored. First, like Albany, you travel into the part of Syracuse where there is stuff to do by driving over a series of tangled overpasses which twist past old industrial buildings in various states of disrepair. Nothing suggests urban decay like overpasses, which are designed to let suburbanites drive overtop of the poor people who live on the periphery of a city’s core, without having to look at them. It was five o’clock on a Saturday when we parked in a lot next to Armory Square, which is similar to but more vibrant than Center Square in Albany. We walked overtop of a feeder canal with running water, which would have been cute except for the amount of garbage floating along, which suggested an open sewer. As soon as we approached the bar at the corner of the square, a middle aged man implored us to give him money–so we felt right at home. He reminded me of John, who solicits outside of Mobil and Dana Park in Albany, except this man seemed less schizophrenic. In quick succession we passed a pub without a name, which was empty, then York restaurant which had a raw bar in the window that made my mouth water, then Kitty Hoynes (which is in the running for best Irish Bar outside of Ireland). At the next intersection we laughed, because we were already noticing the similarities between Syracuse and Albany, when ahead of us a big sign on a corner bar read “CSP”. We passed this bar because it was overflowing with football fans. A Syracuse game was on that day and it obviously attracted people to all of the bars. We explored by walking around and just looking. We came across the eponymous armory, which looked similar to The Armory in Albany which, oddly, is also on the perimeter of Center Square. When we took a left we passed an entire block of businesses which were not open.

“I’m surprised that these places aren’t open,” Katie remarked. “It’s 6:00 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.”

We decided that the blocks in this section of town looked exactly like the blocks across from the SUNY Administration Building on Broadway in Downtown Albany. Cut off from any sort of housing, this area is also practically abandoned on a Saturday afternoon, though it is right in the middle of the business district and the historical epicenter of the city. We turned left and saw a big box store across from a closed-up theatre, and immediately felt that we were on North Pearl Street looking across the intersection at the Rite Aid in Albany. We made our way back to Kitty Hoynes and had corned beef fritters and french onion soup.

We wanted to sample other parts of Syracuse, so we looked up the nightlife on TripAdvisor. It said what we expected, that Armory Square was the place to go for any night life. There was another section which is known as the student area. We figured that meant sticky floors and bros, and didn’t feel the need to check it out. But there was an area called the Tipperary district which was supposed to have neighborhood bars, so we decided to drive up there and have a beer before coming back to Armory Square, at which point I’d have had two beers over two hours, which is my limit for driving. To get to the Tipperary area, we had to drive down a street with railroad tracks to one side and warehouses on another, as the night descended. Like Broadway in Albany, this was a disincentive to walking between the two areas of nightlife, because it looked dangerous. We stopped and took our picture with the “green on top” red light, which is the main tourist attraction in the area. TripAdvisor said that Blarney Stone was the bar to go to in Tipperary square. Amazingly, the place had the same vinyl siding as the old Stone Crowe in Albany, and the same atmosphere inside. So we drove back to Armory Square after one beer.

We found a really nice bar called Al’s Wine and Whiskey Lounge, with leather couches and so many varieties of whiskey that they have ladders to reach the dusty bottles on the top shelves.   I had an Old Fashioned; Katie had wine. The decor was beautiful but I can’t say the bartender was particularly friendly. After we left, Katie gave a donation to a homeless man and his six year old daughter who said they had just come up from Greensboro, NC and sang us a verse of Amazing Grace in two-part harmony. We caught a really cool band with a horn section at Funk and Waffles next door and met a nice couple named Chelsea and Paul, who’d met one another playing PokemonGo. We checked out two more bars and we were ready to go back to our hotel. First we got in line to get pizza but there was a line out the door and it looked like it would take a half hour. Katie called a taxi company and they said they were booked for the next three hours. So we jumped into an idling taxi and watched the meter tick up twenty cents about each time that the cab’s wheels made a rotation. It cost us almost $35 to get back to our hotel 12 minutes away before we even tipped the guy. I wished they had a carshare service! We paid $28 to get back to Armory Square the next morning.

The next day we went to the Erie Canal Museum. Katie and I were impressed. We pictured a dinky sort of place with maybe some pictures of mules tied to boats or something. I’d read three books on the canal since August so I was afraid I’d be bored, but the interactive exhibits were fun and educational. You could press a switch on a map to show the various routes of the canal over time, turn a cylinder filled with gel and water to learn about hydrostatic force, and operate a miniature lock. The museum is in the old Syracuse weigh station and the office of the station manager is preserved. They have a canal boat (on land) that you can get inside of and interact with. Upstairs they have exhibits which explain the economic impact of the canal on the development of cities like Syracuse. For example, toll-collection at the weigh station contributed to the construction and development of banks to hold the toll money, which then lent the money to capitalize other businesses, as well as the construction of warehouses, hardware and grocery stores, and grog-houses, all of which provided employment for local people. The young woman who worked at the museum was very pleasant and helpful, and the three of us fell into a conversation about the economic impact of the canal and the construction the overpass bridges in Syracuse. The woman remarked, “You can’t put in a highway without making two neighborhoods, one of which is going to get redlined.” As we left we mused about why historians, of all people, seem most interested in economic programs to create equitable wealth. Katie suggested that it is because historians study what has worked in the past, and contrast it with today, and want to implement what worked and avoid what hasn’t. I realized that that is basically what we do when we travel to other cities, except instead of comparing past cultures to those of today, we look at the physical, legal and cultural conditions of cities, and wonder why the best of those cities aren’t synthesized here, in our home city.