If you search for quotations about the importance and the power of place in our lives, a few ideas recur on a regular basis: among them, that without a sense of place there is no sense of self, and also that every place has character and energy, more or less depending on the way its elements are arranged and the patterns of its use. “The more living patterns there are in a place—a room, a building or a town—the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name,” writes architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander.
We asked Metroland writers to write about their favorite places. One or two or the resulting short essays are whimsical; many are historical; many extol a place’s beauty, natural or manmade. Most contain a sense of being at home, at peace, or in awe, inspired by the place’s warmth, serenity, or mystery. And most are united by the idea that places have value and it is important to create and/or protect good ones.
Troy Public Library
Anyone can open the tall, heavy wooden door to 99 Second St. in Troy, and walk up a few marble stairs to the library. If you have a kid in stroller or use a wheelchair, there is a ramp that funnels you up the side, where you’ll see the Tiffany window of the printing press from the back.
Inside, opposite the circulation desk, there is a big marble stairway. The thing is so haughty I sometimes wonder if readers were supposed to swoop down the staircase like debutantes, bearing stacks of books for librarians to admire.
The marble steps are worn as stones in a streambed, the erosions a collaborative sculpture of 115 years of readers. I’ll forgive the fact that the staircase is a little overblown because the building makes books and ideas feel important.
I’ve been getting books here much of my life. I remember taking the rural bus into Troy when I was 11 years old. (Melrose had a library, but it was in an old chicken coop.) I remember the crushing sense of wonder I felt as I entered the library. I could keep company with so many books. I could meet them here, and take them home!
I remember walking to the back of the library where the stacks began. Up the cast-iron staircase—just writing those words I can hear the sound as I climb that metal—to the glass brick floor. I stood gingerly, trying to convince myself that I wouldn’t fall through the opaque blocks. No one else had, right?
I still get to tour the fiction and nonfiction sections any day I want. Revisit the awe I felt, having the responsibility to choose what I wanted to read. Sometimes, I find–or my kids find–a book that I took out. Holding these books, I have tickets back to whoever I was when I was their age, figuring out who I might be.
The pictures in one book on graphic design whooshed me right back to the year I thought I might be an architect. Take a trip to my library, and you’ll see why I thought I wanted to help people feel something inside a building. That I chose to escort people with words instead of walls is an ad for the power of books, a power that any card-carrying member of a library in the Upper Hudson Library System can enjoy in this very spot.
Albany’s South End
Do you know where Plum Street, Vine Street, St. Ann’s Place, Gansevoort Street, and Bassett Street are? They’re what’s left of Albany’s South End.
Tucked between South Pearl Street and the Hudson River, and slashed into pieces by I-787, the South End looks rather unremarkable today, dominated by low-income housing and newish community and worship centers. But if you bother to look closer, you see the ghostly remnants of what most of downtown Albany probably looked like at one time.
Whenever I’m in the vicinity and have a few minutes to spare, I poke around and try to picture this area, which used to be nicknamed “the Gut,” in its prime. I know that, like most of old Albany, it was a gritty, unrefined place, with breweries and other local industries sharing the neighborhood with very modest row houses, churches, little markets and tough-ass bars. This was the heart of Dan O’Connell’s power base (and home of his gin mill), a rough-and-tumble nabe where sailors in from the Port of Albany would mingle and brawl with the locals.
The parts of the South End not covered in high-rise housing still harbor a little clot of ancient two-story houses, some boarded up. Streets like 4th Avenue, Plum and Vine end abruptly where they collide with I-787, but actually continue beneath it, to meet up with Broadway and the river on the other side. It’s an unfamiliar yet intriguing symphony of rust, weeds, and plywood.
I suppose other people will be tagging beautiful spots, historic places, and little-known hideaways as their favorite places, and so you might wonder why I have a fondness for this derelict, forgotten corner of my city.
Rummaging through these back alleys stokes my imagination, and makes me want to know more about their history, our history. I’m guessing this was always a tight-knit, unpretty, working-class place with crooked politicians and a deep mistrust of people not from the neighborhood. When Albany grew westward and northward, the attitudes born here—the hairy-eyeball mistrust of strangers, the provincial, circle-the-wagons insularity—made the trip as well. Though it’s impolite to point out, remnants of this mindset linger within in Albany proper to this day.
And that’s not a bad thing. Albany is what it is, and the South End—a place I’ve never lived—feels like the forgotten, tarnished heart of a city that’s never felt the need to apologize for itself.
Long Pond in Grafton Lakes State Park, Grafton
A decade ago, my husband and I discovered the serenity of canoeing on Long Pond, the largest of the five natural ponds in this 2,300-acre tract on the Rensselaer Plateau. We were drawn to it by the fact that outboard motors are not allowed on the pond; the very thought of one shattering the stillness here is unimaginable. And that is the quality that I so love about Long Pond—the stillness.
Scientists have begun doing studies of places on Earth in which human sound does not reach, and the number of such places apparently is in decline. In upstate New York, you would expect to have to travel deep into the Adirondacks to reach such silence, but I feel that we have found such a place in Long Pond. This peaceful quality is most pronounced at the northern end of the pond, which is really a small lake, and is more present here than at any of the other lakes in the Capital Region where we have paddled. This is probably because Long Pond has no major road running along the shore, only the narrow interior park road known as the Winter Entrance, but whatever the reason, it strikes us each time we are there.
To experience this quiet place, you have to wait until late afternoon, after the beach a mile down on the southern end has closed for the day, or you need to go there off-season. But if you get there at such a time, the dense forest that pushes up to the shoreline closes off any exterior sound; the trees literally absorb any noise that might otherwise drift up from Route 2, several miles away. We occasionally hear barred owls yelling at each other—sometimes from opposite sides of the pond—but otherwise . . . nothing. The most pronounced quality of this place is silence.
We try to take our canoe to Long Pond for the last paddle of the season every fall. That day usually comes in late October. On one such outing two years ago, we were the only boat on the water in the late afternoon. We paddled very slowly to the center of the pond, hardly speaking, and then just let the canoe drift for a few minutes. The sky was a clear, pure blue. Nothing stirred in the water. We felt completely alone, as though we had claimed this place as our own. Such moments are sometimes described as being under a spell, which will be broken if you move or speak. In this way, we bid farewell to the summer. Each time that we do this, we take great joy in knowing that we will be back in the spring, and that we can once again let ourselves slow down and drift, in silence.
Café Capriccio, Albany
My favorite place? That’s easy. Café Capriccio. It’s much more than a restaurant to me. It’s a refuge. If I didn’t already have a home, and if Jimmy Rua would allow me to live there, it would be home.
I vaguely recall starting to stop by shortly after Capriccio opened in 1982. I was living on Grand Street at the time, so it was my neighborhood joint. The vibe is the thing. A little below street level, with the low ceiling, thick carpets, Italian opera playing, and that luscious smell that hits you when you come through the second door. . . . What is that Capriccio smell? The effect is womblike peace. A place where everything is OK and as it should be. There aren’t many of these places.
It really hit me when I was in law school and became as much of a regular as my budget would allow. I’d never experienced service like this before. The waiters and waitresses were colleagues in the evening’s experience—participants, as stupid as that sounds. Eating at Capriccio was not just great, it was a blast. Billy the Dessert King. I never eat dessert in restaurants. At Capriccio, always. And I always leave the place with that kind of tumescence that accompanies a good vacation.
I moved back into the neighborhood just after law school. I was playing in bar bands then, and while walking my dog Raydog after a gig, usually around 2 or 3 in the morning, as often as not I’d find Billy at the restaurant closing the books. We’d hang in the back booth, drinking, smoking, eating, comparing notes, and Raydog would be flipping out over the smell (what is that smell?) and maybe chilling with a small bowl of red wine. Raydog always dug a good cab.
I was fishing with my Dad on Lake Ontario one morning in the ’80s and scored a decent-sized salmon. Maybe my girlfriend caught it? Whatever. Dad filleted the fish right away, put the fillets on ice, and I drove straight from the dock to Capriccio. I walked in with my cooler, Jimmy came out of the kitchen and said it would be an honor to prepare my fish. We feasted that night. A pal came by the table for a bite and said, with his mouth full, “What the hell? Are you freakin’ Hemingway?”
Well, yeah. I was freakin’ Hemingway for a day. Holding court at Café Capriccio. Memories don’t come sweeter than this.
Kirk Douglas Park, Amsterdam
I enjoy this site mostly when I can be alone to hear the creek. I go there to contemplate the ideal future of an entire area.
The city of Amsterdam calls it Kirk Douglas Park, which overlooks impressive waterfalls in North Chuctanunda Creek. It fills a tiny slice of real estate between the city’s police and fire station, and an exit ramp from Route 67.
The park was dedicated almost 30 years ago to the veteran actor, born Issur Danielovitch in an Amsterdam hospital to Jewish immigrants. He’s now happily in his 90s, and lives in California.
Near the entrance, a plaque secured to a boulder honors Douglas. What grabs your attention, though, is the wavy U.S. flag painted across a long concrete wall. Wide stairs take visitors from the parking lot uphill, toward a pavilion, playground and small lawn. They are greeted by soothing sounds from the Chuctanunda.
A huge factory looms nearby, its façade deteriorating. Many commercial properties in Amsterdam have such obvious physical defects, as they remain basically idle.
Whenever I visit Kirk Douglas Park, the waterfalls mesmerize, but I always leave with the same conclusion: Much like that old factory, this little parcel suffers from serious neglect.
On Easter Sunday, for example, glorious sunshine revealed garbage throughout the park, along with sloppy graffiti sprayed on the gazebo and several rotting wooden benches. The playground equipment looked antiquated and worn. Even worse, numerous bird droppings had tarnished the colorful flag mural.
So I don’t hold it against local families for avoiding Kirk Douglas Park altogether. It’s a rather isolated spot, which is barely spacious enough to throw a Frisbee. And I doubt that the grounds will be spruced up anytime soon. City officials seem to favor Amsterdam’s three largest parks, Riverlink, Shuttleworth and Veterans. Still, this little park has character and charm. I think it deserves a prompt restoration effort.
I listen to the Chuctanunda flow, hoping that every square foot of Kirk Douglas Park will be maintained perfectly, year after year. I also imagine a day when hundreds of local residents can find steady employment inside that decrepit factory in the distance.
Douglas went on to find success in Hollywood. Yet he’s always wanted his native city to thrive as well. Indeed, after countless years of decline in Amsterdam, any fresh start would be ideal.
Lobby, Hart Theatre, the Egg, Albany
I love being in the lobby of the Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre in the Egg. Leaning back against the walls that tilt away from the floor at an unbalancing angle far in excess of the usual 90 degrees, offers an altered sense of place, space and reality. The curving outward pitch evokes in me a childish impulse to run up the wall. I lose my understanding of where I am in terms of the exterior. The inside of the building seems bigger than the outside. It’s the scale and the shape, but it’s also the mystery of it.
For me, the great accomplishment of the building is how it distorts what I expect and what I know. Were the lobby walls at right angles to the floor, the cool concrete surface would loom like a prison. But tipping that same industrial material to its unexpected sloping outward pitch made it warm and inviting.
I know that all manner of specificities were brought to bear in order to make the Egg a reality. Engineers and architects churned out innumerable charts, plans and blueprints. I don’t want the math explained, I don’t want the volumetric curiosities explained, I want to preserve the
mystery of it.
Elsewhere on the premises there are photos displayed showing the structure under construction. I can’t relate those photographs to the feeling of being within the building. Looking at them I feel like a dog watching the world outside a window. Prior to concert events and during intermissions when I take in the unique geometry of the Hart lobby, I’m happy to be that dog.
I like to preserve all the mysteries I can. So often I find myself mildly wondering about some fact, only to find the actual data to be far less satisfying than the wondering in which I’d been engaged. The data killed the wondering.
The relative rarity of the experience is further elevated by the infrequency of my visits—I see maybe two or three shows a year at the Egg. If I worked in that space I fear it would lose its allure (not that there is much work done regularly in that lobby. Just to be clear, attention headhunters: I cannot be coaxed into a job at the snack bar).
Empire State Plaza exit, northbound 787
My recurring nightmare puts me at the wheel of a cramped vehicle on a two-lane road that begins twisting into impossible switchbacks. Suddenly it straightens but sends me up a horribly steep incline. Cars that had been before and behind me no longer are there. Up and up the hillside I maneuver the car, knowing that I’m on some crazy kind of bridge. The grade peaks; I can’t see the descent. I know I won’t survive it. I hope against hope that this is only a dream.
My only real-life encounter with anything resembling this was in a VW bus cresting Filbert Street in San Francisco, where I could not see the section of road that dropped away from the front of the vehicle. But I encounter a curve among the Albany highways on a regular basis that puts the nightmare in mind.
Take 787 north from I-90’s exit 23. After the Port of Albany, keep to the right. You’re going to take exit 3 to the Empire State Plaza. As the exit ramp begins, it forks. The left lane will take you across the river to the train station. Stay right and head for the Plaza.
And there it is. As the U-Haul-truck-topped storage building rises into view, the exit ramp rises and curves, and it’s a pure act of faith that keeps you driving along it. It looks as if it might choose to dump you onto the railyard below. My family traditionally screams as we approach the curve, which is oddly satisfying.
This curve has not gone unheralded. It drew a second unit from the movie Salt, which featured that curve and some of the nearby lamps for Angelina Jolie’s getaway chase.
As you head under the Plaza, you can try out another of my favorite places. Take the left-leaning curve that plunges you under the Plaza again, and turn right at level P1. There you’ll find a sneaky little exit that puts you on a ramp that ends at Madison, facing the Cathedral, not far from the State Museum. It’s one of those shortcuts you can live here for years and not know about.
Prospect Park, Troy
The first time I visited Prospect Park, around 1998, the access road was open to traffic, and on a weekend afternoon the place was noisy with motorcycles and dense with rowdy teenagers and barbecues. I didn’t yet call the Capital Region home; I was visiting from New York City, and I was not at all impressed. It was only a few years later when I lived in Troy and sought out a good place to walk my dog that the park started becoming meaningful to me. By then, the access road was blocked off, and pedestrian visitors could enjoy the incredible 270 degree views of Troy and the Hudson River below without hearing revving engines. (Disclaimer: I became a board member of the Friends of Prospect Park, a volunteer group, and was involved until 2006). There’s a simple grandeur about the sweep of the lawns, the mature trees, and the vista that kept me coming back. Seen from the park’s overlook, the Empire Plaza buildings appear to cede some power to the living ribbon of the river. Problems shrink against the perspective. In the spirit of the place, it seemed to me, was an old promise about public recreation. I even had my wedding there.
The land used to hold private mansions, and in 1903 the city bought it and hired Garnet Baltimore, RPI’s first African-American graduate, as designer. He was named after two important abolitionists; now a section of Eighth Street is named after him. Baltimore wrote: “It is a law of nature, which must not be forgotten, that satisfying beauty springs from fitness or adaptation to purpose, much more surely and directly than from added ornament or the most careful imitation.” During its heyday, Prospect Park sported fountains, a gazebo, a casino, and terraced walkways. Old-timers still talk about the swimming pool, now in disrepair.
Today, Catalpa trees, European beeches, spruce trees, and magnolia, many planted when the park was designed, still grow strong. Tennis and basketball courts, a kids’ fountain, and ample lawns draw visitors, and it’s the coolest place to go when it’s sweltering out. But Prospect Park can just as often feel deserted. Mud collects in tracks left by trucks near the splash pool every summer. The playground area is perenially low on wood chips. As with so much else in American civic life, this
prize of a park needs tending to if it’s going to last another century.
Adirondack wildlife dioramas, New York State Museum
People grow silent as they walk upon the scene. The puma is silent, too and still, as it stops and stares at its prey below it. The mountain cat ignores the snowshoe hare cowering beneath the trunk of a fallen pine, a nearby competitor predator, a dirty-snow-colored Canadian lynx, seemingly dismissed. Shadows play across the rock outcropping the puma balances on as it stares at you. Jays squawk unseen in the trees nearby, and a woodpecker taps out its search for insects in the distance. Still the puma stares down at you.
Twenty feet away, an elk rears in the middle of a mountain pool, its coppery bed adding a reddish tint to the water’s reflection on the yellow leaves overhead. Clear water cascades down through the rocks. The elk’s massive antlers cast a threatening shadow to the forest floor, filling up some of the distance between the elk and the puma. Its forelegs raised in the air, the elk is aware of the mountain cat and is poised for a prodigious life-preserving leap far from the predator. Unfortunately, the elk is poised to leap right into the midst of two advance scouts for a timber-wolf pack 30 feet across from the pool. Hiding in the tall white pines, the tawny-colored wolves will begin their own series of leaps and tumbles as they scramble down from the anorthosite rock, rare elsewhere on Earth but plentiful here, to bring the majestic elk to a wet end.
Thus it was 4,000 years ago in the Adirondack high peaks, and thus it has been at the New York State Museum since 1976; the trio of dioramas placed suggestively in sequence is a peaceful place to meditate and imagine. Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote in his Prelude about “spots of time . . . That . . . retain/A renovating virtue, whence, epressed/By false opinion and contentious thought,/ . . . trivial occupations, . . . our minds/Are nourished and invisibly repaired;/A virtue . . . /That penetrates, enables us to mount,/When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”
This collection of dioramas is such a spot that teases thoughts and connects past, present, and future. Here I remember my young daughters tossing pennies into the elk’s pool, howling with the timber wolf, or straining to touch the puma. Now I can sit as just the birdtrack plays in the background and ponder how the sigils of Houses Lannister, Baratheon, and Stark crept into my fancy or to watch gangs of schoolchildren herded through the ancient scenes of animals no longer viable in New York state due to the shortsightedness of 19th-century robber barons and the politicians enthralled to them. It’s an irony that Albany is full of such “spots of time” that inspire the imagination when they are cramped hard by the Capitol on the north and the governor’s mansion to the south, whose occupants’ lack of foresight and imagination are spectacularly displayed daily.
And still the puma stares.
Oakwood Cemetery, Troy
In my special getaway place, the admission price is free, unless you’re dead. Then you have to pay. It’s only fair, since I’m just passing through and the deceased are there to stay.
It may seem strange, but I like to hang out in cemeteries, especially Oakwood Cemetery. I don’t loiter or lurk. Sometimes I bike or stroll. If I’m feeling ambitious I might even jog. I find Oakwood the perfect place to blow off steam. My invites to visit the cemetery have often been met with raised eyebrows, but the idea of finding recreation in a graveyard is nothing new.
Established in 1848, Oakwood Cemetery was part of a movement aimed at addressing overcrowding of graves in churchyards in addition to giving expanding urban populations an outdoor escape from the toils of industrial life. Oakwood exemplifies everything that the rural cemetery movement set out to do. Part garden, part final resting place, it sprawls over 400 acres of hilly and wooded terrain. It is home to five lakes, multiple waterfalls, and more than 10 miles of winding pathways. I’ve been visiting for over five years, and I still find corners that I haven’t yet explored.
There are a few key landmarks that I make a point to see each time that I am there. After ambling around the lakes, I make my way to the point on the western side of the cemetery that overlooks the Hudson Valley. It truly is an astounding view. Afterward, I continue my way up the ridge to the grave of Samuel Wilson, reputed to be “Uncle Sam,” the American legend and conceptual icon of the War of 1812. While there are many notables buried in Oakwood Cemetery, “Uncle Sam” is the most celebrated.
Nature abounds in Oakwood: Deer, geese, chipmunks and squirrels can be seen regularly, but the manmade structures are worth noting as well. Besides two gatehouses there are two chapels, more than 20 mausoleums, and a crematorium. While it’s impossible to get into most of these buildings, every April a daffodil brunch is served inside the crematorium in a room lined with Tiffany windows. It usually sells out, meaning that I am not that weird, or at the very least, not alone in my fascination with Oakwood.
Wandering through the 60,000 graves is a study in art appreciation, history, and humanity. One could easily dedicate a day to take in the sculptural elements of the monuments and headstones, and reading the names and lifespans of the people buried here is an activity for the curious as well as a gesture of respect. Mothers, fathers, children and leaders—in the end, we are remembered by how we related to others. If we are truly defined by the company we keep, you could do worse than the people at rest in Oakwood Cemetery.
We visited Gen. Philip Schuyler’s home a few years ago. Old Schuyler had been dead for some 200 years, and his house was now merely number 32 Catherine St. in a crowded and neglected neighborhood. The front door was boxed in with a small foyer, an architectural folly that defaced the building’s appearance, and the lawns surrounding the building were reduced so they were now too small for the structure. But it wasn’t always that way.
Schuyler ordered his home constructed at the top of 80 country acres that rolled gently downhill to the old settlement that bordered the Hudson River. The houses along the river were narrow gabled structures, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the edge of the street. Schuyler built his dwelling not like those early Dutch houses, but in English Georgian style. It was a square, brick structure of two stories, the biggest house in the city.
When we passed through the front door, we entered the largest room in the house, a space of harmony and calm. The broad floor extended past the far stairway and reached to the back of the building. The ceiling was high. We were aware of being enveloped by a space of great amplitude that was so beautifully proportioned that we were not overwhelmed. Quite the contrary, we acquired the space. To our left was the room where young Alexander Hamilton married one of the Schuyler daughters, and farther along on the right was the dining room, each room balancing the other.
Unlike the McMansions of today with their pompous two-story front halls and their vague borderless kitchen-dining areas, Schuyler’s house has clearly separate rooms. And the rooms are spacious enough to serve different purposes at different times. The square corner room where Elizabeth Schuyler married Hamilton was used as a barracks for British officers who had surrendered to Colonial troops. Most important, the Schuyler rooms, no matter their changing uses, were designed to fit with each other, something we could feel as we walked from one to the other.
In 1804, Hamilton would dine in a narrow house on State Street and say things that would lead to a duel and his death. But in this house on the bluff overlooking the old city, the interior space gave him, as it gave us two centuries later, a sense of proportion, security and harmony.
Cathedral of All Saints, Albany
Hidden behind the State Education building, past its blandly modern front-entrance façade on South Swan Street, and around the corner on Elk Street, rises the little-seen east end of the Cathedral of All Saints. Modeled on the great 12th-century cathedrals of England, this awe-inspiring vista of weathered sandstone, steeply arched windows, capped towers and elaborate stone tracery always gives me a shivery thrill, as if I’d stepped back in time and at any moment a squire with a hooded falcon on his arm, or an abott carrying enormous leather-bound tomes, is going to step through the massive, iron-hinged doors, heedless of the year or century. This primeval spell continues whenever I step into the cathedral, where the first astonishment is the sight of the Great East Window, all 60 feet of its stained-glass glory transforming light into jewel-toned icongraphy.
The fifth largest cathedral in the nation and the most important Episcopal building of its time, All Saints is also the only known medieval-style cathedral in the Western Hemisphere—meaning that its massive walls and pillars went up stone upon stone, without benefit of steel girders. Its Potsdam sandstone was beautifully embellished with stone carving that was actually done by hand (by English-born master stone carver Louis Hinton), giving it quite a different ambience from the plaster faux-masonry of most Gothic Revival churches. Founder Bishop Doane wrote in the 1880s that he wanted an American cathedral that looked a thousand years old, and he got one.
In the Old World tradition of cathedrals also serving as market places and concert halls, All Saints does not have fixed pews and is relatively austere in its vastness. Being inside a structure so “redolent of the ages,” with its vertiginous stained-glass windows and soaring gothic arches, the feeling of an ancient mystery of faith is almost tangible. And yet, All Saints is also the result of this capital city’s industrialism: The land it’s built on was donated by railroad tycoon Erastus Corning, while its monumental construction was partly funded with $200,000 from steel magnate J. Pierpont Morgan. The 16th-century oak choir stalls were obtained from a dismantled church in Belgium by financier Spencer Trask.
Even uncompleted (people still ask when the 40-feet-high towers are going to be built), All Saints reigns as the landmark of two of my keenest interests: 19th-century New York history and English medievalism. To the left of the nave is a jewel box of a chapel that can be seen as the very heart of the building’s ancient Englishness. Created as the cathedral recovered from the Depression (it almost closed in 1931), the Lady Chapel compels with its intimacy and fanciful, Renaissance-style liturgical artworks, especially the Lady triptych, a stunning rendering of Madonna and Child festooned with gold leaf, fleur-de-lis, and stars, and matched in ornate profusion by a turret-like tabernacle topped with a pelican–a folkloric symbol of the Eucharist, or perhaps it’s a herald of things that return.
Though it stands only a few miles journey from where I was born, whenever I’m in All Saints, my heathenish heart is exalted by reminders of how my ancestors across the ocean had worshipped, created, and gone to market in just such a place.
I spent the 1980s living in Schenectady’s Stockade area and working from an office downtown on Barrett Street. When motivated by warming days and shrinking trousers, I’d take the pleasant walk from home to office and back, and two stops were mandatory: Perreca’s for bread and Garofalo’s for sausage.
As with so many invisible landmarks, my introduction came through a friend who knew the neighborhood. “It’s not just sausage,” he warned me. “It’s a world of sausage.” Indeed it was. It had to be to thrive here for so many years.
In 1904, Venerando and Sam Garofalo opened a little grocery store at a pleasant site on Schenectady’s North Center Street, from which they could look across Erie Boulevard to the city’s Stockade area. A year later, the city put up a concrete railroad embankment. But you don’t visit Garofalo’s for the view. The brothers were shrewd enough to add homemade sausage to their product line, and the family has been dedicated enough to operate the business through what’s now a fourth generation.
Gratification is, of necessity, delayed. This isn’t an eatery. But it’s a temple of meals-to-be. “How much do you need?” I was asked upon making my initial request for some hot Italian. I hesitated. “What are you making? For how many?” I described my intention: sausage and peppers for me and my wife and a couple of friends. “Two pounds?” I suggested. “Two pounds is a lot,” I was told. “But there’s nothing wrong with leftovers, if you have any.”
What makes it worth seeking that precious space is not only the sausage but also the terrific friendliness of all who work there—or who may be just hanging out. Want a recipe? Somebody will come up with one for you. Special request? They roll up their sleeves and get busy.
It’s a tiny market, which itself is a relief from the megastore behemoths. It hangs on to the timeless look of a personal-service establishment. Wood floors, an old-fashioned floor-standing scale, a long deli counter with the day’s sausages on display, a glass-fronted fridge case behind it and colorful shelves of canned goods will have you wondering if you just stepped into a Jack Finney novel. If only they had an espresso machine!
But here’s what really makes this place endure: You’re thinking about dinner. Sausage and pasta aren’t on the mental menu. But you’re not too far and you seek out the shop. Once inside, you won’t be able to think of having anything but sausage and pasta. With no guarantee of leftovers.
Empire State Plaza at night
In many ways, the Empire State Plaza is an aesthetic clusterfuck. It was considered a monument to failures of modernism when it opened: Critic Robert Hughes joked that a swastika or hammer & sickle would look right at home on one of the Plaza’s blandly totalitarian towers.
Time has a way of being kind to “ugly” architecture if it remains functional and isn’t falling apart. Partly, we get used to it. Partly, other buildings follow that are so much worse: The state comptroller’s building on nearby State Street hill, for example. Its massive, lot-filling proportions loom over two streets, thinly adorned with unconvincing traces of 19th-century ornamentation; in contrast, the Plaza’s modernist towers seem logical, purposeful, admirable. I’ve lived within a few minutes’ walk of the Empire State Plaza for most of the last 25 years, and I’ve come to love this unlovable place.
My first walk-through, on a school trip in March 1979, was inauspicious. The art in the concourse was lost on me, but the scale of the Plaza appealed to my rustic yearnings for “the city.” Everything that doesn’t work about the place was in effect: It was cold, rainy, windy and empty, but it made an impression. Fast-forward 10 years; I’m in the neighborhood. This is when I discovered that the Plaza is delightful at night.
The aesthetic failures of the Plaza (like Nelson Rockefeller’s beloved, gaudy marble) fade away as the state workers depart, and the virtues are illuminated, literally, by artificial lights. The bland empty spaces are transformed into something theatrical and mysterious. The towers have greater presence and the sculptures seem more vital. Ronald Blader’s black metal The Cathedral Evening looks like an abstract weapon perched at the northwest corner of the reflecting pool during the day; at night, as you walk under it, it has the mass and gravity of a spiritual portal. Nearby, George Rickey’s soaring, “y”-shaped, abstract, stainless steel Two Lines Oblique is like a dancer, its movable “arms” in motion or at rest depending on the whims of the weather.
And I love the ducks. When it’s dark, you can imagine the reflecting pools are more than a couple of feet deep, and the ducks that often drop in to hang out add character. I grew up on a lake, and the sounds of lapping waves and quacking ducks are imbedded in my memories. It’s odd and a little amusing that a modernist monstrosity would provide the setting for this comforting nostalgia.
Early-morning workouts at Saratoga Race Track
During the early-morning workouts, the Saratoga Race Track is world-class while otherworldly, like you are not in the Capital Region, and as if you’ve time traveled back to a simpler time with simple pleasures. Leave on Labor Day and come back in July and you are hit with the familiar smell of the track mixed with the sound of hooves hitting the track and horses making their distinctive breathing sounds as they do what they were bred to do—run fast. As the sun comes up you can see the breath of horses against the golden sunrise. There are no crowds cheering on the horses, but mostly serious horse people coming out to see their horse in training, or trainers, jockeys, exercise riders and handlers going about their jobs in the early-morning sunlight and mist. It never changes, but something new and exciting can present itself at any moment.You can spot one of the world’s leading jockeys like Julian Leporoux or legendary trainers like Bob Baffert just doing their jobs.
The quiet early-morning hours in the cool fresh air never seem to repeat themselves here. Each morning seems distinctively different than others before. Where else can you walk through the mostly empty facilities of a major sports venue and wander right up to the rail to see these incredible animals up close without obstructions? It is not uncommon to see several bona fide champion horses working out on any given morning, especially on the days preceding major graded stakes races. Future Kentucky Derby runners before they know they are Derby prospects might be working out as 2-year-olds, and you can see both the current and future stars of thoroughbred racing on a daily basis. You can sit in front-row box seats usually reserved for the 1 percent on the big race days during the racing season. Opt in for the buffet breakfast or just sit in the clubhouse and take it all in. It can be beautiful, timeless, zenlike and exhilarating all at the same time.
Lincoln Park, Albany
The first time I ever saw Lincoln Park was in January 1996, a winter of deep snow and temperatures that hovered around zero night after night. I was new to Albany, and doing a story for my then-employer, the Times Union, about people who engaged in winter sports after dark in these crazy conditions.
My guide for this nighttime tour of a snowbound city was the late Jack Madigan, a longtime newspaper photographer of the old-school-cranky, unpredictably helpful and perfectly happy to tool around with me in single-digit conditions. He asked me if I’d ever seen Lincoln Park. I had not, and when we got there, Jack’s hunch proved correct: Dozens of parents, children and older kids were sledding down into the bowl from the slope along the Morton Avenue side. I hadn’t seen so many people sledding since childhood, and the sight was especially magical because of the lights, the depth of the snow and the especially clear night sky.
Five years and several moves later, I came back to Albany for good and rediscovered Lincoln Park. Our home is around the corner from the park; our back windows overlook the sloping lawns on its western side. As much as I love the history, the 19th-century design and the storied old trees of the far grander Washington Park, I have come to appreciate the humbler and slightly more workworn appearance of Lincoln Park. The trees are scrubbier, the design is far more utilitarian, and it doesn’t have the hidden nooks and crannies of Washington Park. But it does have the best view of the city that you can get with your feet on the ground. You’d have to be in the Corning Tower to top the astonishing and unobstructed vista that takes you clear across the river when you stand on the Morton Avenue side of the park.
This is also a park capable of surprising you. A few years ago, while walking along the northern edge of the park close to twilight, I heard a wood thrush calling in the fringe of trees along the sidewalk. Bird enthusiasts often describe the flutelike call of this reclusive creature as one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. The wood thrush is not an urban bird; it nests in forests, and it’s rarely seen. To hear one in this unlikely setting astonished me. I could not see it, but I heard it, and only that one evening. Maybe it did not attract a mate to share this inhospitable city setting, and moved on to search for friendlier nesting territory. I can’t say, but I do always stop along that stretch in the spring and early summer and listen, hoping to once again hear that astonishing, haunting sound.