Walking America: Albany NY
Politicians, Bureaucrats, and Poverty
The most defining feature of the US is its inequality. Walk any city, from New York to Orlando , and you cross streets filled with bespoke shops and people fretting over if their children should spend the summer in Paris or the Hamptons to streets filled with discarded needles and people worrying if their kids are going to be hit by stray bullets.
Albany is no different, but here the poverty and wealth are juxtaposed against a downtown filled with politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists who claim to care about the very inequality they are surrounded by, making it a physical metaphor for the failures of our political class.
My fifteen mile walk begins in Albany’s downtown, which is hemmed in by interstates and chock full of political institutions. There are massive government buildings everywhere, a jarring collection of various styles. All of them cold. Dreary ancient courthouses with harried lawyers, defeated clients, and overzealous police trudging in and out. Box-like more modern buildings surrounded by concrete plazas with nobody in them, except for worn-down bureaucrats quickly smoking. Weird brutal towers that look straight out of a dystopian authoritarian Sci Fi, surrounded by even larger and emptier concrete plazas.
The few green spaces and parks are sparsely used, and then mostly by people on the fringes. Homeless pushing carts, addicts with tiny sling backpacks stamped with non- profit or recovery center logos.
Nobody downtown is happy. Everyone looks defeated.
Adjacent to all of this is a residential neighborhood filled with poverty. It is a mostly black poverty that I have come to know, because it is in every city. There are abandoned homes. There are street memorials of votive candles to the killed. There are piles of garbage. There are street corners of drug dealers doing their drug dealer thing.
“Yo! Yeah you. You need some stuff?”
”Naaaaw. I’m good, thanks though.”
“Damn. Why you in the hood then?”
There is also a lot of decent people doing their best to make the most of life, because that is what really dominates these neighborhoods, that gets lost when all you do is zip through in a car, or all you do is look at crime stats. The run-down home right up against a noisy and smelly expressway, with two tiny kids in bright pink jackets out front playing chase, their mom leaning out the window to shout at them. The old man with a cane pushing the old woman in a wheelchair slowly down the center of the street, headed towards the McDonald’s. The heavily bundled man dancing his way down the street, right through the cluster of kids slinging drugs, while pushing a shopping cart stuffed with junk, including a boom box blasting 70s soul.
This part of Albany goes on for blocks and blocks before giving way to a few miles of suburban strip mall bleh. This one is dominated by auto dealers, but otherwise has the same collection of shopping centers, fast food franchises, and discount chains found all across the US.
I eventually run into a very large (and very hard to enter by foot) University of Albany. Between this, and a rat nest of toll roads, interstates, and expressways, I have to pivot back, this time walking towards the other side of downtown.
I pass through a neighborhood of restored Victorian homes, college professors, and various political signs, including an immense number of BLM signs. This neighborhood is well to do, and almost entirely white.
The last neighborhood I pass through is another “hood.” Another pocket of mostly black poverty adjacent to the downtown complex of government this and government that. Another pocket of homeless people pushing carts, of mothers and kids waiting for buses, another pocket of discarded needles, boarded-up buildings, and overgrown lots. Another pocket of people still doing their best to make the most of life, despite it all.
I have effectively done three quarters of a big counter-clock-wise loop around the bureaucratic center of Albany (Empire Plaza), keeping its four massive USB stick like towers as my focus, and so to complete the circle I head north, under an interstate sheltering parked cars and a camp for the homeless.
I am now in the part of Albany’s downtown not directly dedicated to government buildings, although the government’s stamp is everywhere. There is a sports arena, an appeal to tourism, an empowerment zone. All the major urban renewal fetishes of the last sixty years of governments are on display. Thankfully there isn’t a trolly.
I make my way to Wolff's Biergarten in Albany’s warehouse district. A very relaxing and sweet part of town that is both a nod to Albany’s manufacturing past and its desire to be “up and coming.”
I sit, drink, and think, and I find myself getting more and more angry, despite an upbeat soundtrack of ‘70s pop hits. I know I shouldn’t be so hard on Albany. Every city I have walked so far, and every city in the US, has the same jarring inequality. Most are actually more unequal than Albany. Like New York City, where I lived for twenty years.
Yet in Albany this inequality is literally surrounding the political, legal, and government institutions that claim to be dedicated to creating a fair and just society.
The people who work in these institutions are generally doing well. And when work is over they drive, walk, bike, or buss off to the nicer parts of Albany with restored row homes, and Victorians. Or out to the suburbs to smaller, humbler homes, in well kept neighborhoods, festooned with political stickers and signs. Or maybe they even swing by the Biergarten to talk about Bill X which is gonna address inequality Y. Meanwhile, they pass through blocks filled with a crushing poverty that should make everyone of us angry.
I don’t blame the people who work in these institutions. Not individually. Certainly not the lower-level employees who are just trying to eke out a decent life. Even the majority of high-level government employees (and a few politicians) are really trying their best, putting themselves on the line, all while getting paid less than they could elsewhere to do an often thankless public service.
Still, that while we as a country have gotten so much richer, we have also gotten so much more unequal, is damning. And that everyone one of us in the Front Row (myself included) is at some level a hypocrite when it comes to this inequality, should also be damning. And embarrassing.
I am reminded of that during every walk of mine. Used to passing through all-white wealthy neighborhoods with lots of BLM signs, and then walking through adjacent poor all black neighborhoods where it sure doesn’t feel like black lives matter. At all.
But to so starkly see that inequality and hypocrisy play out during a walk in a place like Albany, where we in the Front row literally write the rules of our immensely unequal society, and yet still claims to be dedicated to the noble goals equality blah blah blah, is even more damning.
And deeply deeply depressing.
No amount of Paul McCartney throwback songs blasting over the Biergartens speakers could change that.
“And what's wrong with that?”
”I'd like to know”
”Cause here I go aaaaaaaaaaagain“
Rough outline of my walk